Living La Vida ‘Loca’

Living La Vida ‘Loca’

Few Latino writers have challenged homophobia and machismo as fiercely as Jaime Manrique.


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.

Eminent Maricones begins with the story “Legs: A Memoir of Childhood and Adolescence.” Manrique was born out of wedlock in 1949 to a mixed-race woman from the countryside and a white member of the Colombian oligarchy whose distinguished and ancient surname can be traced back to the Holy Roman Empire. His father gave young Jaime and his sister the Manrique name and some degree of material security but never affection. Even the financial support became unreliable once the senior Manrique abandoned Jaime’s mother to take up with a younger woman.

The story of Jaime, his sister and their mother reads like a particularly outrageous telenovela. The three experience numerous reversals of fortune, shuttling among wealth, middle-class comfort and poverty, depending on the Manrique patriarch’s fickle support and the wiles of Jaime’s resourceful mother. During their sojourn in Bogotá, she becomes a prostitute and barely escapes being killed when gunmen shoot up a hacienda where she’d been tricking with military officers.

Young Jaime is unhappy in Bogotá, a “chilly, rainy, somber” city that “seemed to be in perpetual mourning.” But there he falls in love with literature. A young woman named Elisa reads to him and his sister from the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and The Arabian Nights. Thanks to the woman he calls “our Scheherezade,” his life changes. He now knows that there is “a life beyond the physical life, a life of the mind, where the most wondrous things could take place. I was freed from the tyranny of the logic of the world, which didn’t have much room for magic.”

And as a Bogotá schoolboy he also discovers the joy of being a sex symbol. “My mother invited friends over and asked me to parade around the bedroom in my underwear, showing off my legs. My mother would say, ‘Doesn’t he have legs like Miss Universe?'”

In many Latin American countries beauty pageants inspire a devotion akin to religious fervor. But Colombians, Manrique informs us, “were obsessed with legs” to the point of holding pageants that celebrated only women’s gams. “The contestants paraded with hoods covering their faces and trunks to make sure that the judges would not be distracted by other attributes,” he reports. Foreshadowing his later scandalizing of Colombian society through literary transgression, the adolescent Manrique imagines entering one of those fetishistic competitions and “then revealing my gender when I was crowned.”

Upon his family’s return to Barranquilla, Jaime’s birthplace, their finances improve somewhat as Papa becomes more generous. Jaime reads voraciously, becomes a cinéaste and has his first sexual encounters, first with a schoolboy friend and then with one of his uncles. But his erotic awakening does not inspire celebration–quite the opposite.

“Guilt ran my life from my adolescence on,” he recalls. “Guilt and secrecy.” He begins to write, but because of his torment over his sexuality he does not know “how to write about my deepest feelings without risking persecution.” Writing “became a terrible struggle to express and censor at the same time.”

But a perceptive and sympathetic teacher exposes him to André Gide’s gay-themed work, making him feel less isolated. He also becomes a devotee of the nadaistas, Colombia’s “version of the French existentialists.” He writes a nadaista play, which is performed at a local arts school. Manrique’s memory is hazy about the plot, but his description of his theatrical debut is priceless. The play, In Whose Hands?, was “an existential drama about an atheist who tries to find meaning in the universe. Each scene closed with a song by The Beatles and the main characters dancing to the song.” During the performance, “whenever an actor would lose his place in the script, I’d run backstage and play a Beatles song and we’d dance for a while. The public cheered wildly.”

Not long afterward, his mother decides to move with Jaime and his sister to Lakeland, Florida, which to the well-read young Colombian evokes the setting of To Kill a Mockingbird. He witnesses fights between black and white students the day he begins classes in a newly integrated school–it is 1967–and he is unprepared for “the horror of that moment.”

He quickly understands the difference between a creole society like Colombia’s and a racially segregated one: “I knew right away I had arrived in a society where racial conflict was a matter of life and death, not a submerged issue, the way it was in Colombia, where blacks were invisible and voiceless,” he says. Of partial African ancestry himself, Manrique identifies with the blacks and “instinctively” seeks their company.

He masters written and spoken English and begins to write poetry in his new language. Then, in the Tampa public library, he makes a discovery he likens to finding “a glorious treasure, the El Dorado I had searched for as a child”: books in Spanish, by leading authors such as Vargas Llosa, García Márquez, Donoso and, most important, one whose title “spoke to me instantaneously in a secret code”–Manuel Puig’s Betrayed by Rita Hayworth.

We leave the young Jaime, somewhat reluctantly because the story of his early years is so captivating, to be introduced to Puig, “the writer as diva.” And in just twenty pages, Manrique etches a vivid, multifaceted portrait of an author he calls “one of the most effeminate men I’ve ever known.”

The two met in 1977 when Manrique was a student in Puig’s writing workshop at Columbia University. “If I hadn’t been obsessively drawn to Puig’s novels I might have been totally repelled by him,” Manrique admits.

He notes that in Colombian society, there was “only one kind of homosexual–la loca.” (This term for an effeminate gay man literally means “crazy woman.”) Manrique had cultivated a butch style, complete with Che Guevara beard, black leather jacket, jeans and boots. “Puig, with his heightened drag queen mannerisms, aroused my worst fears,” he says. “He represented everything in my adolescence I dreaded I would become.” For one thing, Puig “always referred to himself as ‘this woman,'” a practice typical of many gay men whose identity was formed in preliberation days.

But as Manrique became friendly with Puig, his opinion changed. Manrique intriguingly observes that Puig’s ideas about homosexuality were both “more old-fashioned–and more radical–than mine.” Puig would have sex only with masculine men who assumed the “active” role and did not regard themselves as homosexual. But the Argentine, whose militant queeniness had seemed so regressive and off-putting to Manrique, actually “had a liberating influence…freeing me from my robotic butch ideas and making me more relaxed about my sexuality.”

Puig’s life wasn’t all camp hijinks. In exile from military-ruled Argentina, he visited Colombia in the late seventies, after the publication of what would become his most famous novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman. Although he was at the time one of Latin America’s most admired writers, second in popularity only to García Márquez, Colombian intellectuals could not forgive him for writing such a gay book as Spider Woman. They shunned him, Manrique says, not wanting to be seen in public “with a well-known loca.”

Puig’s career went into a decline for some years, until the success of Hector Babenco’s 1985 film of Kiss of the Spider Woman restored his reputation and made him rich. The most mysterious and ultimately unresolved chapter of his story, however, was his death in 1990. Although it was reported that he had died in a Cuernavaca clinic of a heart attack following gall bladder surgery, Manrique suspected that the real cause was AIDS. He goes to Mexico, where he meets two young gay men who, like Jaime, had been among those Puig christened his “daughters.” One vehemently denies that AIDS killed his “mommy,” but Manrique is not convinced. When he visits the dismal, run-down clinic where Puig died he feels that “Manuel had chosen this place because he was trying to hide something.” He decides to leave Mexico with no definitive answer, feeling that since Puig had been so secretive during his final days he should respect his friend’s wish for privacy.

No camp humor leavens the story of Reinaldo Arenas, the exiled Cuban novelist and memoirist who came to the United States in the 1980 Mariel boatlift. In Cuba he suffered what Manrique calls “a lifetime of persecution and misery.” An experimental, nonconformist writer and a known homosexual, Arenas had been arrested and jailed, his books banned. (Castro’s police destroyed a manuscript of his more than once, which he reconstructed and published in the United States as the novel Farewell to the Sea.) While imprisoned, he witnessed suicides, rapes, murders and torture.

The “sadness as deep as the sea” that Manrique says characterized Arenas was evident to me when I interviewed the Cuban in 1983 for a gay magazine. After the interview he, another Cuban exile friend of his and I went for a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. Arenas seemed to enjoy the clear, sunny day, the magnificent view, his newfound freedom. But something troubled him. What was this strange new disease that was killing gay men? he asked me. I told him what little I–any of us–knew in those days. How ironic, he sadly remarked, to arrive in New York City, where he had expected to finally experience sexual freedom, just as a sexually transmitted plague was beginning to devastate the gay population.

Arenas, dying from AIDS, committed suicide in 1990 when he was 47. During the decade he lived in New York he reveled in sex–Manrique describes his appetites as “voracious”–and had considerable literary success, publishing novels and poetry and winning prestigious fellowships. (He didn’t make much money from his work, however, and lived and died in a shabby Times Square apartment.) He and Manrique had become friends, drawn together by their shared status as gay Latino writers and their disenchantment with Castro. However, Manrique also reports that Arenas’s “all-consuming hatred of Castro–and of García Márquez for supporting the Cuban Revolution–combined with the searing intensity of his passions, terrified me. He could be nurturing, but there was…a truly Dostoyevskian side to his nature.”

If Arenas’s rage at Castro never abated, his earlier, rosy view of America did. Along with HIV, he contracted a deep disillusionment with his new homeland, where “the worship of money” was “as bad as the worst in Cuba.” To him, New York had become another “island-jail…a bigger jail with more distractions, but a jail nonetheless.”

Manrique of course had no chance to meet García Lorca, but he was hardly unfamiliar with the Andalusian poet. Like many a Latino schoolboy, he had been required to read Lorca’s Gypsy Ballads, but he and other “avant-garde youngsters” he knew in Colombia found the famous poems “unmodern, silly, corny.” “Federico García Lorca,” he says, “was everything we wanted to rebel against as writers.” Yet as an adult, he found himself rediscovering Lorca’s work. And in it he found something familiar and disturbing: gay self-hatred, or, as it’s more commonly known, internalized homophobia.

In “Ode to Walt Whitman,” from the 1928 collection The Poet in New York, Lorca excoriates “pansies,” whom he bizarrely describes as “murderers of doves” and “women’s slaves.” Manrique could relate to this lacerating gay homophobia–he also had suffered from it when he was young. But by the early nineties he had put it behind him. And having overcome his own horror of effeminate, “obvious” queers to become comfortable with his sexuality, he arrived at a more nuanced interpretation of Lorca. Manrique presents Lorca’s life as an extended struggle to come out–“to escape the narrow-mindedness of an entire culture” as a gay man and artist. Lorca’s “process of liberation was long, arduous, and painful,” Manrique observes, but by the violent end of his brief life, he had attained self-acceptance and creative fulfillment.

Manrique’s gay-centric readings of Lorca’s work, rather than being reductionist, expand our understanding of him and his art. “Double Poem of Lake Eden,” inspired by the poet’s idyll in Vermont with his American lover Phillip Cummings, “displays a tension between the man Lorca really is and the man he has to be in the eyes of society.” The avant-garde (and rarely performed) play The Public is “the most daring and openly homosexual play he ever wrote.” Its themes include “entrapment behind masks…that many Latino homosexuals have been forced to wear in private and in public.”

In the six years after he wrote The Public, Lorca produced his best-known plays: Yerma, Blood Wedding and The House of Bernarda Alba, the last being a “relentless attack on the Spanish institutions–church, military, family–that thwarted the liberation of the individual.” Lorca’s public persona became more gay and more politically radical, enraging the Spanish right. One conservative publication denounced him as a loca.

During this time he also composed the homoerotic Sonnets of Dark Love, eleven poems that would not be published until the early eighties, when Franco had been dead for more than five years. In the sonnets Lorca “finally managed to write as a homosexual man with powerful sexual desires,” Manrique observes.

Lorca was killed by a Falangist firing squad in 1936, one year after he completed Sonnets. “They killed Lorca when he was no longer running away from himself as a homosexual, when he had reached his peak as an artist and as a man,” Manrique writes. “Like Puig, like Arenas, Lorca died in tragic circumstances yet fully realized.”

The penultimate chapter of Eminent Maricones, “The Other Jaime Manrique: A Dead Soul,” describes the author’s brief and unsettling relationship with another gay Colombian immigrant to New York who shared both his first name and patronym. Before they meet, Manrique the author imagines the other as his doppelgänger: “my relative, my coeval, my gay brother, the one who had grown up with all the advantages of money and social position. The real thing. The one I wished I had been.”

He is disappointed when he meets his imagined double, who turns out to be a mother-fixated bore and bigot full of racial and class prejudices. He also is evidently ill with AIDS, although when Manrique broaches the subject of HIV, his namesake clams up. Manrique cannot bear being in the presence of his bitter, disagreeable compatriot, this “dead soul,” and breaks off contact with him. He later receives a phone call from the man’s ex-lover, who tells him that the “other” Jaime Manrique has died. Of AIDS?, the writer inquires. The ex-lover says only, “I don’t know…. He was a private person.”

The story is sad and disquieting but also slight compared with the meatier chapters that precede it. It does segue neatly into the final section, in which Manrique explains why he hasn’t ended up lonely, bitter and defeated as well: because of the three writers whose example helped him “to find dignity in being a maricón.”

The slur, Manrique notes, is used “to dismiss a gay man as an incomplete and worthless kind of person.” But Puig, Arenas and Lorca, “by virtue of the lives they led, the nature of their achievements and the substantial contributions they made to altering and expanding the consciousness of our culture, seem to me to be just the opposite of what a maricón is supposed to be…and do.”

These writers “opened the path for all the Latin homosexuals who have followed in their footsteps. And they did it…by standing in defiance of two of the great evils of our century: intransigent Marxism-Leninism and totalitarian fascism.”

The status of gay people in Latin America today is equivocal, a mix of harsh repression and budding tolerance. In Argentina, the land that drove out Manuel Puig, the government has granted retirement benefits to gay and lesbian couples, police abuse of homosexuals is being curbed and a new gay television show has become a national sensation. Patria Jiminez became the first openly gay legislator in any Latin American country when she was elected to the Mexican congress as a representative of the leftist Revolutionary Democratic Party. In Colombia, where Jaime Manrique lived in fear and secrecy, there are now laws banning antigay discrimination in employment and housing, and consensual gay sex is no longer criminalized. Even fiercely homophobic Cuba has become somewhat less so.

Manrique welcomes these advances, but in a recent interview, he pointed out to me that gay people still are routinely harassed and even killed in Latin America. “Bars are raided, people are assaulted while walking in the street and are blackmailed by the police.” He says that in Colombia things are particularly bad for the most marginal queers–transvestites, hustlers, homeless youths–who are killed with impunity by right-wing death squads linked to the military. “Laws are important in themselves, and also because they do eventually change attitudes,” says Manrique. “But the culture hasn’t caught up yet with the legislation.”

What would it take to foment a cultural revolution that would liberate not only eminent maricones (and lesbianas) but also the average and least-assimilable Latino homosexuals? Manrique’s book makes a compelling case that truth-telling about the conditions that foster oppression is an indispensable first step.

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