At weeklong roundtable, renowned authors discuss their work
On Sunday, October 26, an international gathering of Latino artists, convened at New York University’s King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center, wrapped up several whirlwind days of conferences, lectures, readings, and festivities.
On Saturday, four gay authors, men whose work has been published mainly in Spanish, met to discuss the challenges they have faced as Latino intellectuals in the United States.
Carlos A. Rodriguez Matos is a professor of Spanish at New Jersey’s Seton Hall University. Rodriguez has edited an anthology of essays entitled “Poesída,” a combination of the Spanish terms for poetry, poesía, and the Spanish acronym for AIDS, SIDA. Published in 1995, the book is an examination of the disease from both a poetic and political perspective.
Rodriguez wasted no time in striking a political note.
“The Republican Party wants to own AIDS because it is a good investment for them and the pharmaceutical companies,” he said.
Along with Steve Legler, his partner of 27 years, Rodriguez hopes to adopt a son. The two men have long served as foster parents for a variety of children in need of care.
Rodriguez expressed concern with the seeming complacency with which political leaders as well as gay men view the AIDS crisis. While it is important, Rodriguez said, that the Bush administration and world leaders fund AIDS treatment services in the developing world, particularly Africa and Asia where HIV infection rates are rampantly rising, it is equally important to remember that the disease still wreaks a tragic toll in the United States.
“After the intensity of the past two decades, and all the people who have died, people are exhausted, I guess,” he said.
Rodriguez questioned why the media has allowed the issue of AIDS to take a back seat.
“AIDS doesn’t exist in America any more. You don’t see any more movies like ‘Philadelphia,’” said Rodriguez referring to the 1993 blockbuster film starring Tom Hanks.
Moises Agosto, like Rodriguez, a native of Puerto Rico, is HIV-positive.
“However, that is not only what I am,” he said.
Agosto said that part of the seeming invisibility of AIDS is the advent of protease inhibitors, “transforming AIDS into a global epidemic versus a personal tragedy.”
That shift in perspective, said Agosto, forces him to rethink of his identity as an artist.
“How can I deconstruct my image as an HIV-positive writer into that of a novelist?” he asked.
As well as living as out gay men, the group also spoke of having to acculturate themselves as Latinos in a society where racism and phobia about foreign languages can present impediments to professional and artistic development.
Angel Lozado, a former Jesuit seminarian, is the author of “Biografía de un pato,” or “Biography of a Duck.” The Spanish word for duck, pato, is considered a homophobic epithet, and Lozado’s use of it in his title is suggestive of Larry Kramer’s 1978 novel, “Faggots.” In Lozado’s book, a gay boy transforms and begins to live as a duck while society scrambles to reinterpret what it means to communicate with a person who embodies “otherness,” in this case, homosexuality.
“I have read anthologies on September 11 that don’t contain the voice of a single Latino or incorporate Latino writer,” Lozado said. “Do the publishers of these books think that Latinos don’t read or write?”
Perhaps more indicative of his struggle as a Latino writer living in the United States is what Lozado described as the nearly impossible feat of getting his written words published.
“What is my role?” he asked rhetorically. “If you say within American society as a whole, I say I have no role, because I have no means of publishing or participating. It as if you have to become an activist, before you are a novelist.”
Alfredo Villaneuva has never shied from activism. A poet, Villaneuva recently retired as a professor of English from Hostos Community College in the Bronx after a teaching tenure that lasted 32 years. HIV-positive for 17 years, Villaneuva lives in Chelsea, a predominantly gay neighborhood and has a firebrand perspective on the struggles of Latino men who move to New York City to escape oppression in their native lands only to find their consciousness subverted by a white-dominated gay elite who seem to value young Latino men’s bodies, but not their brains.
Villaneuva, a contributor to “Poesída,” derided the “fetishistic” role white gay men place on Latino go-go boys and hustlers as a means of paying lip service to inclusiveness and gay freedom while jealously excluding newcomers of a different race.
As a professor, Villaneuva rebelled against academic stereotyping.
“If you’re gay, do queer studies. If you’re black, do African American studies,” he said parroting the most common stereotypes. “But for heaven’s sake, if you’re Latino and gay, leave the other areas to us.”
Villaneuva sees Latin American literature as playing a vital role for gay American readers.
“Homo-social relationships are at the core of Latin American literature,” he said. “This is something the canon has refused to accept, but the truth is inevitable.”