by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
“It’s a really big deal for authors from one part of the country to speak to another,” said Charles Rice-González at the start of his appearance at the Centro Cultural de la Raza Friday, November 8. The event featured readings by two openly Queer New York authors of Puerto Rican descent — “Nuyorican,” as the current argot goes — and was presented by an organization with the tongue-twisting name “San Diego Multicultural LGBT Literary Foundation.”
Born in Puerto Rico and raised in the Bronx — where his novel Chulito, from which he read at the event, takes place — Rice-González is a writer, long-time community and Queer activist, and executive director of BAAD! (Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance). In addition to the novel, he’s written several plays whose titles reflect his split artistic priorities: What Carlos Feels, Pink Jesus, Los Nutcrackers: A Christmas Carajo, and I Just Love Andy Gibb. He’s the co-editor of From Macho to Mariposa: New Gay Latino Fiction and a board member of the Bronx Council on the Arts and the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture.
Also featured on the program was Emanuel Xavier, of Puerto Rican and Ecuadorian descent, who has also published one novel, Christ-Like, but at the Centro chose instead to read from his self-published books of poetry. Like Rice-González’s, Xavier’s titles reveal both his artistic and sociopolitical agenda: Pier Queen (1997, republished 2011), Americano: Growing Up Gay and Latino in the U.S.A. (2002, republished 2012), “If Jesus Were Gay” and Other Poems (2010), and his most recent publication, Nefarious (2013).
Unlike Rice-González, who gave a short lecture introducing his reading, Xavier let his work speak for itself, though he did say he’s been steadily self-publishing his poems since 1996. Xavier has also produced a CD of his readings, Legendary, and has been featured on two seasons of Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry programs. Xavier created the annual Glam Slam poetry competition, held in New York from 1998 to 2008 but now based in London.
“I’ve always loved to write,” Rice-González said. “I remember writing when I was really young. I was 13 and had a 16-year-old boyfriend — an ‘older man’ — and the first time you fall in love, it’s so urgent your life revolves around it. When we broke up, my heart blew up into a thousand pieces. I started writing a novel when I was 14 and it was about us, though I made it a boy and girl — and made myself the girl.”
Writing about their Queer experiences in heterosexual drag was a common dodge for Queer writers throughout the 20th century — authors as diverse as Tennessee Williams, W. Somerset Maugham and Noël Coward did it — but as Rice-González grew older, he got stronger both as a writer and a person and was able to draw on his youth for inspiration without de-Queering it. “The world existed and the energy was in me to write Chulito,” he said.
The book revolves around two Gay teens in a largely Puerto Rican section of the Bronx, in which there’s a sort of Greek chorus of garage owners crying out “AUTO GLASS!” — competing to attract the attention of passing motorists with cracked or shattered car windows. The central characters are Chulito and Carlos, two boys who grow up together but get separated when Carlos gets a scholarship to go to a mostly white school outside the barrio — and returns with fancy non-ghetto clothes and a white boyfriend. Chulito’s dilemma is over whether to stand with his homophobic, reverse-racist neighbors and harass Carlos or stand by his friend. It’s complicated when Chulito starts to realize he’s not only Gay himself, he’s physically attracted to Carlos.
Rice-González chose to read three portions of Chulito. Two were relatively realistic. The third was a dazzling dream sequence involving a huge circle jerk involving just about every male in Chulito’s neighborhood, that ends in an unforgettably lubricious image.
“I’ve known Emanuel for many years, and it’s wonderful traveling with him,” said Rice-González when he was obliged to introduce Xavier following his own reading. “But Emanuel is also a writer who really broke a lot of barriers for Queer Latinos in the Nuyorican movement when there weren’t many ‘out’ Queer Latinos. Even though he’s younger than I am, he inspired me. I met him once when his first Queer poetry collection came out. He was sitting at a table, reading it. I bought his poetry collection, went home and read it to my partner at the time.” (He rather ruefully admitted that he’s now single.) “It’s so amazing to read work where you’re reflected positively, and that’s part of my admiration and love for Emanuel Xavier.”
Starting with “Runaway,” from his most recent collection Nefarious, Xavier read 10 poems from throughout his career, including the early “Tradiciónes” from Pier Queen, a deliberate mashup of English and Spanish in which the writer says he’s going to defy the “traditions” of machismo and settle on his own identity; “Commonwealth,” a tribute to a recently deceased Nuyorican poet in which Xavier uses Puerto Rico’s in-between “commonwealth” status — neither a U.S. territory nor a full-fledged state — as a metaphor for his own struggles to find his own identity; and “Children of Magdalene” from Americano, a defense of multiculturalism inspired by a protest against his reading at Towson University in Baltimore by Youth for Western Civilization (YWC).
This group, Xavier explained, “basically does not like Gays or people of color, so I was obviously their perfect target.” Though Xavier described YWC as if it were still a going concern, a September 5, 2012 post from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) (http://blog.adl.org/civil-rights/former-youth-for-western-civilization-leader-promotes-white-student-union-at-towson) notes that it “has been relatively inactive as a national organization since its founder, Kevin DeAnna, stepped down as president of the group in February 2012.” According to ADL, the president of the Towson University chapter, Matthew Heimbach, disbanded it in March 2012, reorganized and now heads a White Students’ Union at the school. A photo of Heimbach on the ADL post shows him standing in front of a Confederate flag.
Other poems Xavier read included “El Hair Espray,” “The Thing About My Pussy,” and “Step-Father,” also from Nefarious; the title poems from If Jesus Were Gay and Americano; and an unidentified slice-of-life poem about the barrio which began, “When Mexicans shined the white man’s shoes … ”
The program ended with a short but moving speech by the San Diego Multicultural LGBT Literary Foundation’s executive director, Caleb Rainey, about the importance of Queer literature.
“I grew up in a really conservative town in Colorado,” Rainey recalled. “My dad was a Baptist minister, and I grew up with a daily dose of self-hatred because I was Queer, and really noticeably so. I’ll never forget taking my first women’s studies class. We had an anthology that contained a Gay Latino short story. I can’t tell you the name, or who wrote it, but it was about a little boy whose dad also hated his voice and bullied him, and how he had to survive in that space. It was the first time ever that I had read anything that even approximated that experience for me. That was really a transitional moment in beginning to work on self-love and also recognizing the absolute, critical importance of literature and art in general on our lives. Especially for LGBT kids of color, it’s important that we have these available.”