“Pedro,” which premiered last night on MTV dramatizes the short, productive life of Pedro Zamora, a third-season cast member of "The Real World" -- the 1994 San Francisco season, known also for the abrasive bike messenger Puck, who was kicked out of the house, in part because of his treatment of Zamora.
As commented about in the LA Times, this was back when "The Real World" still had the air of a social experiment, making roommates of seven strangers "to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real," before it became, for a while anyway, a kind of financed spring break, a chance to live in a cool house and party and be on television.
Born in Cuba and raised mostly in Miami, Zamora -- "the first-ever openly gay, HIV-positive main character on TV," the network says -- was an inspirational figure just for showing up. But he was also an AIDS educator who saw his "Real World" tenure as a kind of platform -- in a time when Ellen DeGeneres was still in the closet and gay characters, let alone HIV-positive gay characters, had yet to become unremarkable participants in the narratives of mainstream television.
Today, he would be dancing on Ellen's show. No, if he were alive, Ellen might be dancing on his show. He had a courage that allowed others to open their own closets. It helped me make AIDS a passion.
Yet "The Real World" made the ring exchange between Zamora and boyfriend Sean Sasser the centerpiece of one of its episodes and made the enlightenment of his cast mates one of the series' main themes as well. It was bold television in its time, and the gesture still resonates.
Pedro, my young friends, was a national hero, a compelling young man, whose life ended too soon. He lived here in South Florida, and we got to meet him, share stories with him, and see his courage. We were there for his funeral on Lincoln Road. I got to speak. Thousands lined the mall. So did Fred Phelps, the ugly Kansas pastor who was protesting gay funerals back even then. Fred is still screaming uselessly outside memorials of slain gay men and US soldiers, decrying homosexuality. Screaming so loud no one pays attention to him anymore, reduced to a useless relic, a vestige of hate.
Pedro is gone, but his passion and voice echoes humanely forever, now on film for posterity.