- A Queer Friendship
José, me dejaste con la miel en la boca. You left me with honey on my lips. That was an expression my grandmother used when my visits were not long enough.
I met José in 1994 when he spearheaded a Latino/a Representation in the Media conference at Duke University, a who’s who of Latino/a academics, that included Chon Noriega and Ana Lopez. I was booked to perform “Milk of Amnesia” and my sister Ela, a film director, would show the film “Carmelita Tropicana: Your Kunst is Your Waffen.” When I asked José about the performance space, lights and sound, he had a blank look. He’d not thought about tech. I yelled: “I have my period and am angry and I can yell at you because I’m going to a shrink.” Academics mobilize—carry lights, projector, screen—and the performance is a makeshift DIY esthetics befitting a solo about Cuba where people have to “resolver” resolve. And that was the beginning of our queer friendship.
José and I bonded instantly over Cubanidad, exile, humor, dogs, food, art and the queers—maybe not in that order. Our Cubanidad was a shortcut to our mutual understanding, with our shared national and similar familial baggage. We suffered exile el exilio. His was a southern Florida style, mine a northern New York. He could joder, a Spanish verb that means to fuck, tease, and be a pain in the ass. On one of my birthdays he told me my performances were missing something and gave me what would improve them—a rubber chicken. I used that chicken until it disintegrated.
I was one of the lucky queer and people of color artists José wrote about. He was the perfect interlocutor, framing the work and putting it in context. José wrote about choteo, a Cuban brand of irreverent humor in my work associated [End Page 138] with the hoi polloi. He elevated humor, which is often denigrated in the academy, validating the work, making it visible. He was a special academic who cultivated friendships with artists, breaking down barriers between art practice and theory, academic critic and artist, sharing intimacies that he acknowledged helped his critical thinking. But support did not stop with the writing: he attended shows, helped secure teaching and performance gigs, booked you for classes and conferences.
In the first decade of our friendship we saw each other frequently. I partied with him, though less hardy than others. Lady Bully, his beloved bulldog, stayed in my apartment and peed on my sofa. We saw each other at conferences in Montréal and Monterrey, and traveled to Madrid (José’s first European trip) to a literary conference. The Madrid conference was special because it was mostly just the two of us. The moment we landed he insisted on looking for los gays—research. I performed and was the object of José’s lecture; we went to Sevilla and tasted manchego and jamon pata negra. When José went to write in L.A., I spent time with him. I remember we traded sexual dalliances and he told me of Fred Herko, an artist he was writing about while he drove and we listened to The Magnetic Fields and bought clip-ons for the sun for our glasses at Venice Beach.
José both inspired and influenced my work. When I was commissioned to write a comedy for Dixon Place, I heard José on my answering machine’s usual greeting: “Oye chusmita, call me.” Suddenly I had the theme. Chusmita is the diminutive of chusma, a term laden with racial, class, and ethnic connotations meaning excessive, loud, tacky behavior associated with the lower classes. He tells me to work with two inexperienced thespians, Rebecca Sumner Burgos, his student, and Ana Margaret Sanchez, his friend. The result was “Chicas 2000,” a sci-fi satire where Carmelita, a carrier of the chusma gene, gets cloned. Uzi Parnes handily transformed Rebecca and Ana into my nubile blue-wigged clones. And then there was “Single Wet Female.” José, at one of his parties, insisted I work with Marga Gomez. Marga and I knew each other from WOW Café days...