For thousands in his generation, the Cuban-born Zamora, who died in Miami on Nov. 11, put a human and unforgettable face on the epidemic—a face that could be seen each week on MTV His forum was The Real World, the documentary series in which groups of young men and women become real-life roommates for four months. Video cameras tape their every move, their every argument, and the often rancorous results are then edited in 30-minute segments.
Real World viewers and Zamora's six MTV roommates watched with apprehension, then admiration, as the HIV-positive Zamora, who had moved from Miami to San Francisco for the show, fell in love with AIDS activist Sean Sasser; spent hours in an emergency room when his temperature shot up to 104 degrees; made peace with the one roommate (Rachel) who'd been wary of him; and continued his years-long campaign for education—calmly but forcefully telling high school and college students what life was like with HIV
"It was clear he was amazing," says Real World co-creator and executive producer Jon Murray, who found Zamora's story so powerful that he chose him from among 25,000 applicants for the show's third season. Co-creator Mary-Ellis Bunim adds that the usual Real World hopefuls want to be actors or else just famous. But Zamora wanted more. "Pedro wanted to spread his story," she says.
That story, as Zamora told it, began in 1980 when, at 8, he joined his parents—Hector, who had been a food-warehouse worker, and Zoraida, a housewife—plus two of his seven siblings on the Mariel boat lift out of Cuba. (Four brothers remained behind due to military obligations, and a sister, a Communist official, stayed by choice.) When Zamora was 13, his mother died of cancer. Soon afterward, he realized he was gay and began to cruise bars. At 17, after being tested while donating blood, he learned he was infected with HIV.
After some initial denial—and some explaining to his stunned but supportive father—Zamora turned for comfort to Body Positive, a Miami-based AIDS organization. Through it, he began to lecture and came quickly to the attention of the press. Alex Escarano, a good friend and roommate during this time, says Zamora, an honors student, was messianic about his AIDS work. "He was so frustrated with the ignorance. He always said that if he told a person he had cancer, the person would probably hug him; if he told them AIDS, they'd be scared and walk away. He wanted to reach people."
And he did. In five years, Zamora, who contracted the virus from unprotected sex, spoke publicly hundreds of times. He testified before a congressional subcommittee and attended an international AIDS conference. He even accepted a position on the board of a charitable trust endowed by insurance companies—although he had no insurance himself. (After leaving the show he received Medicaid but could not, due to his AIDS diagnosis, qualify for a private policy.)
As his condition deteriorated, friends and MTV executives rallied to support him, holding benefits, soliciting funds on MTV broadcasts and pushing for the release of his siblings in Cuba. But two months ago, just before a scheduled appearance on CBS's This Morning in New York City, Zamora collapsed. From then on, there was little anyone could do. He was transferred to Mercy Hospital in Miami, where two AIDS-related brain diseases left him unable to see, hear or speak. Still, his doctor, Corklin Steinhart, said he believed Zamora had "the will in him to keep going until his family reunites."
And indeed, during his last weeks, his three brothers in Cuba secured U.S. immigration visas, and the Cuban government granted his sister Maria Elena a leave. Another sister, Mily, was in the room when President Clinton phoned to express his concern. It would be Zamora's last contact with fans. He died less than a month later, just hours after his last episode of The Real World aired.
"I'm very proud of him," says Mily. "He did a lot in his short life. He gave his best, his time, his love."
DON SIDER in Miami
AT THE END, PEDRO ZAMORA WAS TOO ILL TO KNOW that his dream had come true: His family, scattered for 14 years between the U.S. and Cuba, had reunited—if only to say goodbye to the son and brother who had become, at 22, one of America's most outspoken and visible people with AIDS.