Herbs of Love

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The virus is winning the war, but you'd never know it to talk to her. She is forthright about her condition, but well aware of the stigma attached to the disease,which is why she does not want herreal name used. A Catholic, she plans to go to Mexico to make offerings at sites where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared.

Her faith defies common sense because that's what faith is. Faith gives strength and answers why. And some people get rich peddling it.

Perla's baby son bangs the bottles of una de gato and shark cartilage hard on the living-room table. "No, sweetheart," she says, taking them away. Like his older half sister, he will have to be tested for the HIV virus at some point. Perla's boyfriend refuses; he says no son of a bitch is going to tell him when he's going to die.

"My children, they keep me going," Perla says. "Maybe that's why I take the una de gato."

Her AIDS has brought them all closer together.
"I feel very good about this," she says, cradling the capsules close to her chest. "They tell me I'm going to live only five years. Nah-ah--that's only people who's ready to give up. I'm not ready to die. I'm ready to fight.

"Some people say that for them ... [the virus] has gone bye-bye," she says, her hand shaping wings fluttering away. "And I'm hoping that happens to me, too.

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Marc Ramirez