Last Thursday, Lifetime aired the series final for the 8th season of “Project Runway”, prompting us to look back on a segment the popular reality TV show aired earlier in the season. The show is no longer the cultural sensation it once was, but its treatment of Mondo Guerra this season was a reminder of reality TV’s more boundary pushing early days.
In case you’re not familiar with the show, clothing designers compete for $100,000 to start out their own fashion line, a runway show at New York Fashion Week and a spread in “Elle” magazine. The contestants run through a series of 24- to 72-hour competitions to see who can make the best clothes–all restricted by time, materials and theme. And this season, Mexican-American Guerra, 32, stole the show with some revolutionary honesty.
In episode 10, “There’s a pattern there,” contestants had to design a fabric from start to finish–complete with an original pattern or print based on a profound moment or time in their lives. Guerra created the winning fabric and design that week, but his win was about more than the contest. The inspiration for his design revealed a much deeper story about Guerra, and illustrated the complexities of growing up as a Mexican-American gay man. He the competition to come out to the world–and his family–about being HIV positive. (Watch the segment in the video; article continues below.)
Initially, Guerra had reservations about revealing his inspiration, and it wasn’t until the very last moment, when his final product was being judged, that he revealed the symbolism in his fabric. “The plus signs in the pant are positive signs and I’ve been HIV positive for 10 years. When I saw these pictures of my family it brought back a lot of emotion. So I wanted to pull from the past, but I also wanted to give something back of who I am now and that I’ve been so scared of and hiding from,” Guerra explained to the judges and national TV audience.
Guerra’s story is a continuation of what we saw 16 years ago on MTV’s “The Real World San Francisco,” when Pedro Zamora introduced the nation to the idea of a man living with HIV and not dying of AIDS. “I’m a person living with AIDS and I’ll be living with AIDS until I take my last breath,” Zamora often said. Guerra introduced the nation to a healthy, Mexican-American man living with HIV for 10 years.
Guerra was raised Catholic in Denver, Colo. He came out to his mom at age 17 and she asked him to keep it a secret. His parents had always pushed him into traditional gender roles. When he expressed interest in playing the piano, they objected. They wanted him to play baseball instead. It wasn’t until Guerra agreed to play baseball that he also got piano lessons. He grew up in a home that emphasized traditional dreams–home runs and touchdowns followed by a wife and children.
Guerra was diagnosed with HIV when he was 22. “This has been so hard to keep a secret from my parents, because I feel guilt and I feel shame,” he explains in the episode. “I feel like if they knew, I don’t know if they’d know how to deal with it and I’ve just realized that I can’t live that way anymore. I can’t hide anything because I am such a better person than just being a coward.” As he declares after revealing his HIV-positive status, “I feel free.”