January 27, 2010

Manuel Ramos Otero--a neglected queer writer

I wrote the following article for Gay City News, New York City's largest queer weekly:

“I couldn’t stand the repressive atmosphere of Puerto Rico,” the gay writer Manuel Ramos Otero once told an interviewer in explaining his decision to move from the island. “I had realized that New York was a city where I could live without feeling persecuted all the time. In Puerto Rico, I felt too much persecution because of the openness of my sexuality.”

Manuel_Ramos_Otero Ramos Otero (1948-1990, photo left), considered one of the most significant modern writers in Puerto Rico’s rich century and a half literary history, put his homosexuality at the center of his poetry and fiction. Yet his name is virtually unknown to students of modern gay literature because so little of it has been translated.

Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, a self-described “gay Puerto Rican scholar, writer, and activist” who teaches Latina/o Studies at the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan, performs a service by rescuing Ramos Otero from this undeserved obscurity in his new book, “Queer Ricans: Cultures and Sexualities in the Disapora.” He devotes nearly a third of his book to Ramos Otero.

La Fountain-Stokes writes that Ramos Otero’s work is even “overlooked in Latin America because of the peripheral status of Puerto Rico, marginalized in the United States because of the author’s racialized, subaltern, or colonial Puerto Ricanness and Spanish-language use; belittled in the Caribbean because of the author’s homosexuality and exile up north; and looked upon with suspicion everywhere because of his openly militant gay liberationist and feminist politics.”

In one cycle of poems entitled “Epitafios” (“Epitaphs”), included in Ramos Otero’s 1985 collection “El libro de la muerte” (“The Book of Death”), the self-exiled island poet has verses dedicated to such gay literary icons as Federico Garcia Lorca, Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, Constantine Cavafy, and, above all, the great Spanish poet Luis Cernada, whom La Fountain-Stokes identifies as “one of Ramos Otero’s most important literary precursors” and makes central to his analysis of the Puerto Rican’s work.

Cernada, who took his inspiration from another queer icon, André Gide, was part of Spain’s so-called “Generation of ’27” of writers and artists, which included Lorca, who emerged prominently in the mid to late 1920s; in fact, it was in ’27 that Cernada published his bold collection “Los Placeres Prohibidos” (“Forbidden Pleasures”), a surrealist exploration of same-sex desire. One of his gay-themed poems was cited by Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in his 2005 speech to the Spanish Parliament on the day it legalized gay marriage, undoubtedy the most remarkable speech in favor of full equality for those with same-sex hearts ever delivered by a head of government anywhere. Cernada chose exile from Franco’s fascist dictatorship after the assassination of Lorca and took himself to France, Scotland, and California before finally settling in Mexico.

Ramos Otero moved to New York City to flee Puerto Rican homophobia the year before Stonewall, living there until his death from AIDS in 1990. He taught at Rutgers, York College, and Lehman College and founded a small (and short-lived) publishing house, El libro viaje (The Book Trip), which published his only and “highly experimental” novel, the 1976 “La novelabingo” (“The Bingo Novel”).

In an essay on Cernada, Ramos Otero wrote that “his poetic vocation always occurs in the margin and comes from the margin, from the border between the truths that feed his desire from an existence stuck in tradition.” Ramos Otero’s fiction is also located in the margins of society. His mid-’70s short story “Historia ejemplar del esclavo y el senor” (“Exemplary Story of the Slave and the Master”), about gay sado-masochism, created one of “the most notorious scandals in Puerto Rican literary history,” according to La Fountain-Stokes.

To further illustrate the marginality at the heart of Ramos Otero’s work, La Fountain-Stokes provides lengthy synopses and analyses of his short stories, many of them semi-autobiographical and frequently located at the edges of New York’s gay sub-culture, a world of drugs, hustlers, prostitution, and the dark sexual playgrounds that were the rotting piers of the Greenwich Village-Chelsea waterfront in the ’70s and ’80s.

Another of La Fountain-Stokes’ major subjects, the lesbian poet, scholar, and human rights activist Luz Maria Umpierre, like Ramos Otero also migrated to New York while in her 20s, in 1974. She has said, “Like the majority of Puerto Rican gay and lesbian writers in the USA, I left because of persecution — even from the police — for my sexual preference.” But she did not come out in print until relatively late, in her “dramatic” 1987 fourth poetry collection, “The Margarita Poems.” Before that, she concentrated her work on community poverty and the working class, and the condition of women in general.

Some of La Fountain-Stokes’ readings of Umpierre’s poetry are rather contestable. Her poem “Maria Christina,” he writes, “seems an authorial self-projection of Umpierre,” and regarding the line “I do fix all leaks in my faucets,” he says that this “phrase can be seen as an oblique allusion to masturbation, yet Umpierre has stated that it is not a sexual metaphor but rather a reference to women’s technical mastery and skills.” Well, surely she should know better, shouldn’t she?

The filmmakers Rose Troche (“Go Fish,” “Bedrooms and Hallways,” “The Safety of Objects”) and Frances Negron-Muntaner (“Brincado el charco: Portrait of a Puerto Rican”) and the cartoonist, writer, and performance artist Erika Lopez (whose fiction includes “Lap Dancing for Mommy” and “Hoochie Mama: The Other White Meat/La otra carne blanca”) get lumped together in one chapter as “three diasporic Puerto Rican queer women artists who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s.”

And the book also looks briefly at the work of two other performance artists — Arthur Aviles, a former lover of the noted choreographer Bill T. Jones and a member of his dance troop, who was hailed by the New York Times in 2003 as “one of the great modern dancers of the last 15 years” and went on to found his own avant-garde Arthur Aviles Typical Theater, which stages “dance-plays” at its home in the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance; and Elizabeth Marrero, whose one-woman shows have “a variety of characters in a style reminiscent of John Leguizamo’s early work, but with a butch Puerto Rican lesbian twist.”

I was looking forward to reading “Queer Ricans,” but was greatly disappointed. This book is essentially La Fountain-Stokes’ PhD thesis, and has all the faults of the worst of the genre — it is larded with arcane academic buzzwords and concepts; filled with name-dropping of the work of obscure scholars designed to display the graduate student’s erudition but whose content goes unexplained; and has many prolix sentences and paragraphs so embarrassingly bad in their construction as to make one weep for the dead trees sacrificed to this book’s publication. Although he is the author of a recently published book of short stories, “Uñas pintadas de azul/Blue Fingernails” (Bilingual Press, 2009), in “Queer Ricans” he displays little grasp of narrative and his prose is often quite heavy slogging indeed.

Nor can the book be taken as a survey of all that is best in what one critic has called “Diasporican” queer culture. For example, mentioned only in passing are such major queer Puerto Rican writers as Edwin Sanchez, arguably the most important gay Puerto Rican playwright currently working in the American theater (his “Clean” won the American Theater Critics’ 1995 award for Best New Play); the bisexual playwright Miguel Piñero (1946-1988), whose life was portrayed in Cuban-American director Leon Ichaso’s 2001 Hollywood film “Piñero” with Benjamin Bratt in the title role; or the bisexual poet and anthologist Miguel Algarin (b. 1941), founder of the renowned Nuyorican Poets Café, where he still serves as executive producer, and whose acclaimed 1997 collection of poems, “Love is Hard Work,” chronicles his living with HIV. Aldo Alvarez, the short-story writer who edits the well-regarded online queer fiction magazine Blithe House Quarterly (blithe.com/), is mentioned only in an obscure footnote.

Finally, the horrific November 2009 murder in Puerto Rico of the 19-year college student and gay activist Jorge Steven López Mercado, who was beheaded, castrated, and burned in a hate crime, shows that the violent homophobia that drove so many queer writers from the island is still much too rampant, although La Fountain-Stokes’ book is seriously blind to this fact. But what has changed in Puerto Rico is the existence of a large and vibrant LGBT movement that responded to young López Mercado’s assassination with an enormous demonstration in San Juan that drew tens of thousands of participants. Curiously for a self-described “activist,” La Fountain-Stokes in his book shunts aside the crucial role of Puerto Rican queer activism both there and here in creating the public space and audience for the cultural productions he chronicles.

For further exploration of good Puerto Rican queer writing, anyone lucky enough to read Spanish would do well to obtain a copy of the first-ever Puerto Rican LGBT anthology, “Los Otros Cuerpos: Antologia de Tematica Gay, Lesbica y Queer Desde Puerto Rico y Su Diaspora,” edited by David Caleb Acevedo (Editorial Tiempo Nuevo, 2007). It is still in print but unfortunately not sold by Amazon, so it must be ordered from bookstores in Puerto Rico like Liberia Isla (http://libreriaisla.com/mm5/merchant.mvc). It includes work by Ramos Otero, Moises Agosto, Rubén Ríos Ávila, Luz María Umpierre, and Nemir Matos-Cintrón.

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