Listening Speaks (I)

An Introduction

by | May 18, 2008

Some ten years ago I was living in the Washington Heights area of New York City, in what local Dominican New Yorkers refer to affectionately as Quisqueya Heights, when I received a call from someone I’d known nearly twenty years earlier. It was Juan Rivera, whom I’d known from my years as an undergraduate at Yale. I belonged then to a student organization, significantly named after a Puerto Rican independence rallying call, ¡Despierta Boricua!, had an insurrectional afro, and political ideals to match; and as part of our community outreach, we’d go into the New Haven Puerto Rican neighborhood to tutor students at the local high school.

It was a community of recent immigrants from the rural interior of the Island, where I too had come from, and we, unbelievably the first class of “mainland” Puerto Rican students on the Yale campus, would often go there to attend political meetings, patronize cultural events, and search for good Puerto Rican music and food. To get there we’d have to cross the highway and the train tracks, which divided New Haven’s expensive downtown shopping area from its poor inner-city neighborhoods, for the Puerto Rican community was literally on the other side of the tracks. We’d cross the highway, the train tracks, and walk up Congress Ave., or as it was both derisively and affectionately known to locals then, The Congo.

On the other side of The Congo, was the Puerto Rican neighborhood, The Hill, an isolated tangle of streets, a town in itself, strewn with Catholic and Pentecostal churches, where entire extended families lived in dilapidated Victorians facing each other, attentive to el qué dirán, to each other’s every word and gaze. A town not unlike the town where I’d been raised in, in the heartland of Puerto Rico’s volcanic rock interior, and where I’d migrated from four years earlier to New York—that incredibly and gaily named San Sebastián del Pepino—oh, yes, Saint Sebastian…of the Cucumber.

I must have seen Juan then while tutoring at the local high school or serving as a counselor for the Puerto Rican Youth Services program of the local antipoverty agency, Junta. I must have seen Juan at some community festival, or on the stoops of this agency just hanging out. And he must have caught my eye, like so many of the handsome boys and girls who were initiating an identity then, as first-generation state-side Puerto Ricans with stridently beautiful afros, tropical polyester printed shirts, and prominently displayed Puerto Rican flags—on their butts.

But it was surely at the town’s gay bar, the not unsuggestively named The Neuter Rooster, where we must have first met. For I too was initiating an identity then not only as a state-side Puerto Rican but as gay. And it was in these New Haven bars where I took my first steps. It was there where we, the Puerto Rican and black gay students at Yale, would often go after marathon meetings in which we’d strategize about building the most powerful third world student movement on the East Coast. And it was there where we’d continue planning for the Revolution in another key and under the glare of a different light—the disco ball.

And though we were Yale students, and as such privileged, we’d often have to devise the most elaborate plans to elude the racial quotas being enforced in the gay clubs then. We’d match the lightest skin of us to the darkest and try to enter in couples that way. But still every so often we’d be wandering outside the club perplexed at the failure of our flawlessly designed plan. Any rational racist would have approved, we thought. Once inside, however, we’d take over the dance floor with our expansive moves, and we’d dance salsa to disco and the reverse. Once inside, a sort of family, one of those extended Puerto Rican families that crisscross social classes and races, in which the stuck-up society lady shares uncomfortably the same lineage with the unemployed and the single mom, began to form on the basis of shared space, furious and elegant turning, deep dish, and desiring sweaty bodies.

Nearly twenty years later I was a professor at Fordham, a Jesuit University in New York, specializing in Latin American and U.S. Latino literatures, on the board of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies of C.U.N.Y.’s Graduate Center, and writing my first essays on Puerto Rican and Latin/o American queerness, when I received Juan’s call. I’d heard in the intervening years that Juan had been living in New York, gone through a series of odd jobs, been the lover of a famous artist, hung out with the rich and famous, traveled around the world. But now on the other side of the phone, he sounded distressed. He had developed AIDS and had recently come out of the hospital, and was looking for a way to make a living, to rebuild his life, looking for some direction, some way out, when he’d run into an old friend of mine from New Haven who’d given him my phone.

He also had a story to tell: something urgent to communicate—he’d been wronged, he knew it, and was looking for some vindication, to set the record straight. He visited me and he handed me a book, Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography by John Gruen, which he could barely read, where his name appeared—besmirched. After all, I was a Yale graduate, a university professor…I should know.

I listened to Juan’s irresistibly tangled tale with no small measure of awe and rage, and quickly agreed that his story had to be heard. It had to be heard in its own right, first and foremost for Juan’s sake. But it also resonated with so many of the issues queer studies was grappling with then, as it attempted to move toward its intersection with ethnic, racial, and gender studies, as it placed, so to speak, the margins of lesbian and gay identity at the center of a queer studies agenda. And it spoke similarly to questions that were beginning to be raised then in Latin/o American and Puerto Rican studies, as these fields moved from the analysis of national formations to an exploration of the nation’s migrant borders. And it shed light on the vexed relations between popular and high culture and on discussions of consumerism and the appropriation of resistant vernacular forms that so preoccupied American cultural studies throughout the 1990s.

Juan had been lover and partner to the famous American 1980s pop artist Keith Haring during some of the most frenetically productive years of his career, from 1986 to shortly before his death in February of 1990. They had met at the Paradise Garage, the legendary underground disco where black and Latino gay youth, vogueing drag queen divas, straight-identified “banjee” boys, and homeless and thrownaway kids stomped, sweated, and swirled with music business insiders and up-and-coming media celebrities, and Haring, then at the peak of his rapidly internationalizing career, had been instantly smitten by his looks…

Spring 2008Volume VII, Number 3

Arnaldo Cruz-Malavé is an Associate Visiting Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard University this spring. Associate Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature and Associate Director of the Latin American and Latino Studies Institute at Fordham University in New York, his most recent book is Queer Latino Testimonio, Keith Haring, and Juanito Xtravaganza: Hard Tails (Palgrave 2007), a book about the relationship between high art and Latino popular culture in the gentrifying New York of the 1980s, from which this essay is excerpted. He is also author of a study on the intersections of nationalism and sexuality in the prose fiction of the Cuban author, José Lezama Lima, El primitivo implorante, and coeditor of Queer Globalization: Citizenship and the Afterlife of Colonialism (New York UP 2002).

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