Few Latino writers have challenged homophobia and machismo as fiercely as Jaime Manrique. The Colombian-born, New York City-based novelist, poet and essayist caused a furor in his homeland with his 1978 novella El Cadáver de Papá. The story’s protagonist, Santiago, who is loosely based on Manrique himself, murders his hated father, a landowner and member of Colombia’s reactionary political elite. Later, disguised in drag, Santiago tries to seduce his drunken, macho father-in-law.
Denounced and acclaimed, El Cadáver became a bestseller in Colombia and made a name for its author. Manrique’s novel Colombian Gold, also written in Spanish and published in English translation in 1983, was a reworking of his succès de scandale and a further elaboration of the themes of patriarchal oppression and political corruption. But it wasn’t until the publication in 1992 of his second novel, Latin Moon in Manhattan, that Manrique made his mark outside Colombia.
Set in a pre-Disneyfied Times Square and in the Colombian immigrant enclave of Jackson Heights, Queens, and full of memorably flamboyant characters, Latin Moon is hilarious, poignant and thoroughly engaging, a Pedro Almodóvar film in the guise of an English-language novel. It is also Manrique’s first completely uncloseted book. Santiago Martinez, the protagonist, is, like his creator, an openly gay Latino writer trying to find his place in the world.
Next came My Night with Federico García Lorca, a book of poems, and the novel Twilight at the Equator. Manrique’s new nonfiction collection, Eminent Maricones, continues his autobiographical explorations but from a different angle. In this short but substantive book, he examines his life in relation to those of the three great, gay Latino writers who inspired him: Manuel Puig, the Argentine novelist whose militant effeminacy made him persona non grata in his homeland; Reinaldo Arenas, the Cuban exile haunted until his death by the persecution he’d endured under Castro’s regime; and Federico García Lorca, the Spanish poet and dramatist murdered by Franco’s Falangists.
The book’s title alludes to Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians; by coupling “maricón” (faggot) with “eminent,” Manrique destigmatizes the pejorative and makes the point that the outcast sexuality of his beloved writers is inextricable from their greatness as men and artists. “Their lives,” he writes, “are a history of the evolution of the homosexual condition in the twentieth century, just as the subjects of Lytton Strachey’s book are a compendium of the imperialism of the Victorian age.”
Though Manrique’s subjects come to bad ends, he never depicts them as exemplars of gay victimhood. They are brilliant, groundbreaking artists who live outsized, even epic, lives. Each is heroic in his own way, and each experiences triumph as well as tragedy. Manrique brings to their stories a novelist’s eye for the telling detail and a poet’s gift for metaphor and condensation. He also offers the unique perspective of a bilingual, bicultural writer shaped by Bogotá and Greenwich Village, the sensibility of a dweller in the cultural interzone that Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldua and others term la frontera. His double vision yields insights into Puig, Arenas and Lorca unavailable to a writer less attuned to the complex interplay of culture and sexuality, as well as that of race and class in Latino and Anglo societies.