Growing up in a traditional Latino Catholic family is indisputably difficult for a gay young man. Being HIV-positive is like adding insult to injury.
At least that's how it felt for Denver's designer extraordinaire Mondo Guerra, who will be back on "Project Runway" later this year as one of 13 contestants in the reality show's All Stars edition.
"It goes back to the respect and the morals of the Catholic religion. With my family, it scared me. It really scared me. I was afraid to talk about it because of rejection," said Guerra, who grew up in Arvada. The fifth-generation Mexican-American said he feels very connected to his roots, which influence his work, even though he doesn't speak Spanish.
"It was hard enough to come out as a gay man when I was 18 years old. When this happened, it felt like me becoming HIV-positive is the result of being gay, and that's how my family is going to look at it, and that is scary because I felt like they could disown me," he said.
And so for 10 long years, Guerra said nothing. And then, in an instant, he revealed his well-guarded secret to the world during one of the challenges he faced as a contestant in the show's eighth season, in which Guerra did not win top fashion designer, but was the runner-up. Told to use a personal moment as inspiration, Guerra designed a pair of pants emblazoned with plus signs.
Asked for an explanation by one of the judges, he divulged: "These plus signs are actually positive signs. I've been HIV-positive for 10 years."
Later, Guerra would say he had no plans of revealing his secret on the show, but that it was "his time" and an opportunity to talk about it.
"I didn't think about the repercussions until a couple of days later when I was still on the show and it scared me coming back and having to talk to my parents about it," he said.
"But it had to happen, and I did [talk to them] before the episode aired, and they responded with a lot of
Mike Barnhart, owner of Denver's Beauty Bar, which hosted packed viewing parties throughout season 8 with Guerra as the guest of honor, vividly remembers the day that particular episode aired.
"It was a pretty powerful moment. There were probably three to 400 hundred people here that night, and a lot of them were in tears," he said.
"[Guerra's] mom and dad and aunts and uncles and cousins and everyone was here."
Proof of the unwavering support Guerra said he has received from his tight-knit Latino family, which he now can't believe he ever doubted.
"They responded with a lot of admiration for the stand that I took not only as their son but as a possible role model for other people," said Guerra, who has found a way to pay it forward by getting involved in HIV/AIDS advocacy.
To that end, Guerra has launched a national HIV education campaign called Living Positive by Design. The idea behind it is to encourage people who are HIV-positive to be proactive, take ownership of their disease, work with their doctors to maintain it and prevent it from taking over their lives, their aspirations.
Something Guerra had to learn the hard way.
"For such a long time, I was so depressed and so alone that it really ate at me, and it really took away everything that I love in my life. And a lot of it was my creativity. It was killing me so much artistically because I had allowed it to," said the Denver School of the Arts graduate.
"When I was very sick and hit rock bottom at the hospital over Christmas, with a T-cell count of 14 (normal is between 500 to 1,500), I knew that I couldn't allow this to take away all my dreams like I had been for the past eight years."
It was a defining moment for Guerra and one he didn't take lightly. First on his list: setting goals again.
Eventually, he would audition and win a spot as a contestant on "Project Runway," quickly becoming the audience's favorite thanks to his unique designs and gregarious personality.
"He is just a great person, a great character and very confident speaking to people," said Barnhart, who has known Guerra for 14 years through the dance music community.
Hitting rock bottom, then, doesn't seem to have been in vain. Now Guerra feels he has a whole new purpose in life.
"I think that now I've been put on this earth, not only to create and do artistic work, but also to talk about this," he said. "Seeing what I could achieve after I let go of this, I think that's very inspirational. I think some people need that encouragement whether it be as silly as seeing somebody on a reality show."