Written with exquisite sensitivity and wit, this memoir by one of Mexico’s foremost men of letters describes coming of age during the violence of the Mexican Revolution and “living dangerously” as an openly homosexual man in a brutally machista society.
Series: Texas Pan American Literature in Translation Series, This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts
Salvador Novo (1904–1974) was a provocative and prolific cultural presence in Mexico City through much of the twentieth century. With his friend and fellow poet Xavier Villaurrutia, he cofounded Ulises and Contemporáneos, landmark avant-garde journals of the late 1920s and 1930s. At once “outsider” and “insider,” Novo held high posts at the Ministries of Culture and Public Education and wrote volumes about Mexican history, politics, literature, and culture. The author of numerous collections of poems, including XX poemas, Nuevo amor, Espejo, Dueño mío, and Poesía 1915–1955, Novo is also considered one of the finest, most original prose stylists of his generation.
Pillar of Salt is Novo’s incomparable memoir of growing up during and after the Mexican Revolution; shuttling north to escape the Zapatistas, only to see his uncle murdered at home by the troops of Pancho Villa; and his initiations into literature and love with colorful, poignant, complicated men of usually mutually exclusive social classes. Pillar of Salt portrays the codes, intrigues, and dynamics of what, decades later, would be called “a gay ghetto.” But in Novo’s Mexico City, there was no name for this parallel universe, as full of fear as it was canny and vibrant. Novo’s memoir plumbs the intricate subtleties of this world with startling frankness, sensitivity, and potential for hilarity. Also included in this volume are nineteen erotic sonnets, one of which was long thought to have been lost.
- The Sidelong World: Where Confession and Proclamation Are Compounded, by Carlos Monsiváis
- Pillar of Salt by Salvador Novo
- “This flower of fourteen petals”: Salvador Novo and the Sonnet, by Marguerite Feitlowitz
- Index of Names
The Sidelong World
(Where Confession and Proclamation Are Compounded)
To Silvia Molloy and Daniel Balderston
Having discovered the sidelong world of those who understood each other with a look . . .
—Salvador Novo, Pillar of Salt
"You know, you know what I want"
In 1945, Salvador Novo (1904–1974) concludes the hundred-and-some pages of his secret autobiography, Pillar of Salt, whose title is animated by a double symbolism: the backward look as the most costly of disobediences (curiosity), and citizenship in abhorrent Sodom. Recall the episode (Genesis 19): the inhabitants of the cities of the plain lay siege to two angels sent by Jehovah. Upon seeing such harassment, the Lord decides on the city's destruction, and warns Lot: "Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed." The rain of fire and brimstone destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, and all the inhabitants and the fruits of the earth. "But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt."
In his memoirs, Novo is the novelist who will not be held back this time by the urgencies of journalism, he is the re-creator of a most unusual provincial childhood, and he is the forty-year-old gay man trying to impart the highest degree of materiality—that of writing—to the fundamental experience of his life, which is being homosexual. About this last there can be no doubt. If anything defines Novo before the age of sixty, it is his sustained challenge [to convention], his inability to be fake. He has "wagered his heart" on exhibitionism, and imposed himself thanks in part to his qualities: intelligence, abundantly evident talent, irony, self-confidence, industry, and a self-fashioned kind of heroism. From a very young age, he garners both acclaim and denigration, and feeds them both at very high cost. The method by which he "sidesteps our customs" (to quote Jorge Cuesta) is an irritant to machismo and anti-intellectualism, and through his resistance, Novo gets a significant paid advance on freedom, not only in terms of sexual preference but also in appearance. In an environment defined by barbarism, how does he survive his own mannerisms; his habit of wearing makeup; sweet, soft voice; plucked eyebrows; and, later, the colossal rings and variety of wigs? (Questioned on the subject of his toupee, Novo replies: "Wearing the toupee is the toupee.")
Before he gained undeniable recognition, nothing so stimulated Novo as his condition of exile from respectability. In an interview with Emmanuel Carballo (in Diecinueve protagonistas de la literature mexicana [Nineteen Protagonists of Mexican Literature]), he is very clear [in his reference to a prominent homosexual literary figure]:
. . . "Jaime [Torres Bodet] hasn't had a life, from the time he was young he has had a biography."
"I, on the contrary, have had a life. The biography of a man like me would do injury to 'respectable customs.'"
Much of Novo's work and behavior revolves around his sexual transgression: the poems of a desolated outcast, the autobiographical transvestitism of Romance de Angelillo y Adela, the epigrams, the poems in which he abominates his own body and exalts in self-directed sarcasm, Pillar of Salt, the brief theatrical piece El tercer Fausto [The Third Faust], the cultivation of a provocative dandyism, the exaltation of the pose in the very niche of an identity never to be forsaken. Without beating about the bush, in Novo homosexuality is the primordial impulse, stimulant, and sign of his identity.
In 1945, Novo is already well beyond the period described in Pillar of Salt. He has published fundamental books (Ensayos [Essays, several volumes], XX Poemas , Return Ticket [original title of Novo's account of his trip to Hawaii, 1928], Espejo [Mirror; poems, 1933], Nuevo amor [New Love; poems, 1933]), is one of the great journalistic innovators, has survived the campaign of attacks and ridicule of the 1930s, and has renounced any and all love relationships. While the period [of the mid-1940s] withholds its maximum respect and even excessively censures him, the moral lynching he suffers typically takes the form of rumors and jokes, and Novo also has an admiring circle, earns significantly more money, and, perhaps because of this, attenuates the belligerence he once lavished on his sonnets and satiric verses. So, then, why write Pillar of Salt? Why be the only one in this whole long period to unveil his strictly forbidden private life? Of course, the text was not intended for immediate release, nor in 1945 could such a licentious publisher be found, although Novo had already published, in 1936, El tercer Fausto and, in 1944, Dueño mío [My Lord and Master], the collection of four love sonnets. What is evident is the urgency to record on paper that which was ferociously hidden or blurred or unnameable, to demonstrate the audacity that gives meaning to his existence. I remember in 1965, in the homes of both Emmanuel Carballo and Don Rafael Giménez Siles, Maese Novo reading an excerpt from Pillar of Salt, the publication of which he was unsure of. Let me note Novo's elation at the astonishment he caused.
"That isn't spoken of in my house!"
How to explain that nineteenth-century Mexico had no laws or regulations pertaining to sexual minorities, no articles, books, literary characters, or even caricaturized representations of gay people? In Europe and the United States the situation was very different. We are informed by Jeffrey Weeks in Sexuality and Its Discontents that, between 1898 and 1908, close to a thousand books on homosexuality were published in Europe. And in Europe and North America, between 1880 and the First World War, free love, abortion, masturbation, homosexuality, prostitution, obscenity, and sex education were topics for discussion, at least among enlightened minorities. In the very Catholic nation of Mexico, however, the only one of those subjects mentioned, to instructive and sermonizing ends, is prostitution. (There are more references to masturbation in the catechisms of the eighteenth century than in all of the nineteenth.)
Occult logic: that which has no name does not exist, and this sordid nothing is filtered, with great contempt, in conversation. If during the viceroyalty sodomites were condemned to burn at the stake because they "had transmuted the natural order," in the nineteenth century they are never alluded to in writing, in accordance with the proven tactic: the less detail about sin lets innocence shine more brightly. If there is no illuminating scandal, there is no category for suspicion. If the abomination is inconceivable, who can foster suspicion? Consider the youthful episode that Guillermo Prieto refers to in Memorias de mis tiempos [Memories of My Times; 1923]. In this ardent text, nineteen-year-old Prieto criticizes the president of the Republic, Anastasio Bustamante,5 who soon afterward called him in:
"So what's new, man?" he says, "What's going on?"
"I come at the request of Your Excellency."
"Let's see, my friend . . ." (after examining me for a good moment). "Do you really believe me to be that ruler who is cruel and negligent of public instruction?"
I kept silent; but I was wary . . .
In the conversation that follows, Prieto tells Bustamante about his amorous triumphs and defeats, which they enjoy like two high school boys sharing provocative secrets.
"So," he said, "do you still consider me that Minotaur the newspapers go on about?"
And without waiting for an answer, he shouted, "López! López!" (López came).
This López, his intimate assistant, was a huge, lean black man with kinky hair.
"Put a bed in my room for the gentleman, obey him, and make it known you'll obey him because he is like my son" (I listened astonished).
From adversary to room mate in a single day. Prieto and his nineteenth-century readers find it very normal that all of a sudden, and for no other reason than that he is brilliant and ingenuous, a very young man moves in to the presidential bedroom. The attitude is irreproachable, because no one would think of any other interpretation, nor would it make sense to suggest one. Freudian suspicions were a long way off, and not until the mid-twentieth century would homosexuality in Mexico be considered—or wish to be considered—from a scientific perspective. Until then, Mexico was constructing its national selfhood, implanting norms that combined Catholic traditions with a new and ample catalogue of civic virtues. Society considered a predilection for one's own sex as so remote and abject that there was no need to stress the contrast with the psychological and corporeal virtues of virility. Therefore the heinous sin so completely contradicts the "essence" of Mexicans (and of human beings) that it is left to oral culture to punish "faggots," those monopolists of affronts against masculinity.
The first public acknowledgment of these moral transgressors happens in 1901, with the police scandal of the Dance of the Forty-one. However incredible it may seem, before that there had only been fleeting and joking mentions of "repugnant little youths." In England, the trials of Oscar Wilde (1895) suddenly bring to light the networks of "wayward" youths and their meeting places, and frame the pathetic, timid, and magnificent defense of "the love that dare not say its name"; in Mexico, as soon as the roundup of the Forty-one in the capital signals a break with the prohibitions of traditionalism, of that "hatred that dare not write the name of the hated," a number, 41, became for nearly a century, a joke. Despite the resonances of the event, very little is known about the actual dance: on November 20, 1901, on Calle de la Paz, the police interrupt a dance being held by homosexuals, transvestites, and descendants of the notable families of the porfiriato. Instantly, the roundup acquires a legendary profile: the majority of the detainees are sent to Yucatán to do forced labor, and, according to the never-refuted popular rumor, one of those present, who was immediately let go, is Ignacio de la Torre, Porfirio Díaz's son-in-law. Some flee over the rooftops, others buy their freedom, and the rest sweep the streets on their way to the railroad station. In a series of prints, José Guadalupe Posada establishes the popular image of the event, imagined as a fiesta of "phenomena," of gentlemen clumsily cross-dressed, with mustaches and sideburns, mixing it up with low-class homosexuals in a merry dance toward scandal. "Here we see the nancy boys / Such pretty little fancy boys" is the title of one of the prints, and an accompanying verse gives a festive account of "the great singular dance":
half of them disguised
as sweet young women,
dancing with abandon.
The other half in suits
dipping and twirling
the flaming little faggots.
In 1902 come the arrests of two homosexuals, "Lady Mustaches" and "He of the Two Carnations," who are both sent to forced labor. That year, the Moriones sisters, theater producers, celebrate the one-hundredth performance of Perrín and Palacios's zarzuela Enseñanza libre, with the "roles reversed," actors playing actresses and vice versa, something common in Mexico since the middle of the nineteenth century, according to Luis Reyes de la Maza in his Circo, maroma y teatro (1810–1910) [Circus, Acrobatics, and Theater]. But machismo is also a cultural invention, and journalists, very aware of the custom of "reversed roles," cry out in surprise, calling the production "repugnant," and denigrating the producers, "who are already rehearsing a zarzuela with Mexican actors called The Forty-one."
Public scandal is the only way to accept that homosexuals exist. The Señoras Moriones defend themselves: the one-hundredth performances of comedies have always been celebrated in this manner, without any protest, and in fact they are not working on a zarzuela with that "infamous" title. (From then on and until very recently in popular culture, the gay is a transvestite and there is only one species of homosexual: the effeminate.) In an unusual book, Los cuarenta y uno: Novela crítico-social [The Forty-one: A Social Criticism Novel] (1906), the author, Eduardo A. Castrejón, took the usual tack of preaching against homosexuality as "a grave insult to Nature," and describes an abominable evening:
The degenerate hearts of those young aristocrat prostitutes palpitated in that immense bacchanal.
The boundless happiness at having female clothing on their bodies, the womanly postures, the carnivalesque voices, the lavatory–dressing room all made for a chamber of the fantastic; the many perfumes, the embraces, the loud and feverish kisses, represented the degrading images of Sodom and Gomorrah, of the orgiastic feasts of Tiberius, of Commodius and Caligula, where the explosive fire of savage passion devoured the flesh, consuming it in the desires for the most unbridled prostitution.
For Castrejón there is no doubt: these are "inflamed, shameful, loathsome youths in terms of the future and for all generations, [they are] the dregs of society, the dereliction of honorable masculinity that adores women for their specifically female attributes of beauty." In the novel, Ignacio de la Torre is [represented by] Don Pedro Marruecos, the center of that perverted society, and the only one who escapes from the party, whose igneous moment amazes Castrejón:
Meanwhile, enthusiasm was building in the room. Phosphorescent eyes, lewd eyes, languid eyes; undulating prosthetic hips, with all the grace of their irreproachable curves; powdered faces, plastered with makeup; wigs marvelously adorned with combs encrusted with gold and the finest jewels; calves chiseled with tight cotton wrappings, looking genuinely, unmuscularly slender; enormous, prominent prosthetic breasts straining to escape their prison; grotesque expressions and fake voices; the combination of it all rendered the orgy rather macabre and fantastic.
Then comes the fall, the shame, the crowd watching with pleasure as the Forty-one leave for the Yucatán for an infernal life of forced labor.
How laughable it was to see the grotesque picture of the fashionable Forty-one, raising a shovel and striking with the pickax, sweating, squalid, and most of the time crying their eyes out.
The soldiers taunted them without respite every day, with pretend voices:
"And where are you going in your lovely party dress?"
"Darling, don't work so hard, it'll ruin your figure!"
"Are you suffocating, my lovely? Then use your fan!"
One of the soldiers' songs becomes popular when a newspaper in the capital published it:
Look at me, here I go, boy,
fitted out for the Yucatán
I'm part of a convoy
dancing jigs and cancan.
After the episode of the Forty-one, secrecy concerning the subject is maintained. There are no reports on the meeting places or habits of those who were arrested, and their identities, though not disclosed, are intuited (thinking of themselves in the context of a certain tradition, they accept that that tradition totally condemns them, and they consider themselves monstrous beings, aberrations of Nature). In spite of all this, the main barrier begins to crumble—that of the silence in writing. Rob Buffington, in "Los jotos: Contested Visions of Homosexuality in Modern Mexico" (in Sex and Sexuality in Latin America, edited by Daniel Balderston and Donna J. Guy, New York University Press, 1997), calls attention to Los criminales en México (Tipografía El Fénix, 1904) by Carlos Roumagnac, criminalist, journalist, and man of letters during the time of Porfirio Díaz. Roumagnac describes his research at the Belén prison and at the new Federal Penitentiary in the capital. The director of the prison tries to isolate all "known pederasts," in order to put an end to the "bloody fights" among jealous inmates, and in response, those who had been singled out parade before the other prisoners "without shame or shyness, but rather, ostentatiously displaying their feminine voices and mannerisms."
"Wilde is destined to be popular among us"
Elsewhere, Wilde's trials are already being mentioned. Finally, in 1913, in the Revista de Revistas [Review of Reviews], the writer Julio Torri analyzes the proceedings (the text is included in El diálogo de los libros [Dialogue of the Books] (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1980). Torri is ahead of his time, opposing those who "crudely pursue any idea or line of thought of a scientific or artistic nature that runs contrary to the stability of the family and the State," and he ridicules the French committee urging the mutilation of Wilde's tomb in the Parisian cemetery of Père-Lachaise:
No one is surprised at the savage persecution of everything Wilde represents; a disgraceful army beyond number has sworn war to the death against a writer, a poet, and to the degree that it concerns them, because his life was not totally edifying in the way that would suit the most ignorant and contemptible members of any Anglican congregation.
In 1913 it was highly unusual to defend Wilde, and even more surprising was the mockery of charges against him, arising from the "flock of mediocre, philistine, and semicultured people." Torri concludes:
The day is not far off when we will turn our face to Wilde with a generous smile, and it will seem to us that the terrible catastrophe of his life has the prestige of martyrdom. His mania to épater and his waywardness will make us smile in the same way we smile at Wordsworth's petulance, De Quincey's attitude, Lamb's affinity for gin with water . . .
Torri is consistent. In the October 1, 1916, issue of Revista de Revistas, he praises Wilde profusely:
The dandyism of our young men of letters wearing flowery "boutonnieres" as well as the caballeras [feminine gentlemen] of floating curls is a more than eloquent indication. Wilde is destined to be popular among us. His influence will attenuate the habitual narrowness of our judgment, lighten our heavy spirit, and renew the stuffy, unbreathable atmosphere in which our intellectuals languidly bloom.
Wilde, the culture's oxygen. In the years of armed struggle, Torri's humanism is truly exceptional.
"As though we were rubbish /
and the whirlwind swept us away"
What explains the emergence in the decade of the twenties of a small sector of artists and writers who, without any warning, live their sexual option more or less "in the open"? Or, put another way, what provokes the visibility of gays, that partial but very effective confrontation of the taboo? This appearance of the moral underground can be explained by cultural factors (the circulation of Freud's ideas, the end of the country's informational isolation, changes in international literature, etc.), but above all by the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution, the other name for a group of phenomena ranging from anticlericalism and secularism to the battles and factions, to the vital explosion in the capital of the Republic.
In Mexico, the nineteenth century fomented—predictably and jubilantly—hypocrisy, ignorance, sexual phobia, the ubiquitous and exhausting moralist preachings that all came together in a kind of civilizing pact. (Consider the hundreds of Catechisms that vaunt the generosity of the Counter-Reformation.) It falls to the Revolution to give the fatal blow to such a structure of guilt-inducing silences, along with the masses who are forcefully mobilizing and señoritas who, at least for a few hours, are losing their virginity. Cities taken over by the Revolution, massive migrations, legions of children without fathers, and waves of prostitutes make the realities of desire impossible to hide. One way of putting it is that the Revolution, with its temporary demolition of modesty, somehow "sexualizes" the country, making it possible for these corporeal realities to rise to the surface in comic theaters; makes fun of the arch-dignified silences around carnality; calls attention to the "social conquest" in the mixing of high-ranking officers with prostitutes; gives notice that single mothers (who usually emigrate from small villages) are the new national institution. Above all, the Revolution weakens the absolute sway of moral prohibitions. This "sexualizing" of Mexico, while to a degree that today we consider conservative, disrupts tyrannical notions. Finally, "if I am to be killed tomorrow, let me just sin right now."
The Revolution is also, and most especially, social energy, the vigor that infuses exploits on the symbolic fields of battle. If Don Porfirio—emblem of the immovable—has fallen, why not rhymed poetry, academic painting, the naturalistic novel, a society that is closed and punitive? With the collapse of the dictatorship, with the enthronement for a few years of relative morality (the imminence of death quickly modifies customs), a new sensibility filters in that while still very much in debt to an earlier age, is already capable of committing numerous "sacrileges" that don't ultimately quite rise to the name. This is why, among the consequences of the Revolution, we can also find the certainty among very ample sectors of the population that the suppression of intimacy is outrageous and pointless, that there is little reason to panic at What Will They Say, that it is absurd to renounce desire in favor of "Respectability" with all its anxieties. In a single decade the semifeudal notions of Decency that were harbored in villages and resided in cities are pulverized. And the Revolution also, by eliminating a great number of conventions, which we could group under the rubric "I don't want to know myself what I do at night," gives fluidity to secularization. Machista prohibitions and reactions remain in place, but there is already a questioning of the anachronism of the system that polices consciences and instills feelings of guilt. The process is by no means universal, but in the capital its vigor consolidates spaces of tolerance. Pretensions of supreme decency persist, but they are more and more the result of a social pact and not of immovable convictions. Prejudice moves elsewhere.
In its version of the caudillo temperament, nationalist art and literature, and the theory of [national] singularity, the Mexican Revolution never excessively anchors itself in the ideal of the New Man, which in the Soviet Revolution leads to concentration camps, and in the Cuban Revolution to forced labor for homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and "antisocials." In Mexico, the calls for a New Man are highly declamatory, transferring to the civil arena an idealization of the military: bravery (no longer suicidal), daring, faith in the People, untainted masculinity, contempt for weakness or softness. The Olympus of Strong Men is transmuted into a national, nationalist, and industrial myth: "all macho all the time," with resonances that even today are so costly and tragic. This play with patriarchy is, of course, stage setting that tries to mask a society devastated by alcoholism, domestic violence, lethal street fighting, misogynist abuse, rape as "every man's droit du seigneur." The Mexican Revolution's cult of machismo has among its consequences—while not the most primary, it is not the least injurious—the gloating persecution of difference and the unanimous forgetting of the human rights of gays. Not a single protest is raised against the wicked imprisonment of "faggots," whose only crime is their sexual preference; no one worries about the savage crimes committed against—rather than by—homosexuals. What would be the point? Homosexuals are not human, let alone compatriots (in that "lofty" version of what constitutes humanity).
For those living the Revolution, the war takes on the imperatives of worship, among them, the singular, redundant version of virility. And so when that quintessential revolutionary Emiliano Zapata learns about the homosexuality of Manuel Palafox, his ideologue and redactor of numerous documents, he is so infuriated that it is only through the power of political argument that he is obliged to pardon Palafox. (After the death by firing squad of Otilio Montaño, another internal liquidation would have been disastrous for Zapatism.) But in urban areas, reactions are not so extreme. In his Memorias (published by Editorial Grijalbo, 1982), Gonzalo N. Santos, arbiter of the revolutionary picaresque, recounts a typical incident: President Emilio Portes Gil is complaining to the parliamentarians of the lower houses that the Treasury isn't giving him money. The argument goes like this: "Fine, but the president of the Republic has an enormous budget and discretionary funds, in addition to his salary." The president of the Republic responds: "The entire budget was slashed by that faggot bastard Montes de Oca" (Luis, Secretary to the Treasury). Santos, then in the lower house, continues:
This Montes de Oca was a kid, almost a dwarf, and indeed a famous faggot, and when in Chambers he would raise objections to our budgets, we would turn to the influential Chicho (diminutive of Narciso, because Big Narciso was our nickname for Representative Ezequiel Padilla, who became Minister of Foreign Affairs during General Ávila Camacho's presidency . . . but I must clarify that Ezequiel Padilla was never a faggot, only in love with his own presence, and the other so-called Chicho or Narciso Two, as we also called him, was more full of himself than Padilla; drove a very elegant, convertible; wore gloves; and paraded himself every day along Avenida Madero, the Zócalo, and Cinco de Mayo, where everyone strolled in those days). So we would recur to Montes de Oca, which is to say, at this representative who was said to be the Minister of the Treasury's lover. "Go see your girlfriend and if he doesn't sign our budget, I'll yank out your teeth." He would laugh and tell me, "Don't worry, boss," and would invariably return with the Chamber's budget, signed by Montes de Oca.
The eccentric Luis Montes de Oca, a Colonial art collector, is the object of general scorn, including that of the president of the Republic, for comitting crimes against the species. And if a man whose high position guarantees him significant privileges can be subjected to public ridicule, what can be expected for those effeminate men with high voices, men who were discreet but did not go unnoticed, prisoners and those who had been blackmailed by the police, men who fled their villages in order to save their lives?
"Effeminates" of the poorer classes—simply because of their appearance—were subjected to serial humiliations, stripped of all recognizable humanity, and only then allowed to survive. These are the men who are jailed for "moral failings and violations of respectable customs" (the most typical are the ones sent to the special "J" section of the Palacio de Lecumberri prison); they are the faggots [los jotos] on display at the San Marcos Fair in Aguascalientes; they are the effeminate boys in the Tehuantepec Isthmus raised by their families as women (called berdaches in Zapotec). In the capital, homosexuals with resources, talent, ingenuity, audacity, money, and social relationships get the concession of a "moral dispensation," which, without totally isolating them, never offers full integration, not even in the case of the most highly respected Carlos Pellicer, whose sexuality, while never obvious, was always known. And though the law does not prohibit consensual homosexuality among adults, society exacts a high price for the transgression.
In no period is it easy to transgress the ultimate prohibitions of myth and custom, even if it is legal and legitimate, but in the era of undefeated machismo, the payment for the sin is death (physical and social). According to rigid classifications, until recently there were only two types of homosexuals in Mexico: the faggot of sandwich stands and bordellos, and the society fairy. The rest are fleeting shadows, who, while lacking a pigeonhole, are surrounded by malevolent rumor or always treated with condescension and diminutives ("Juanito/Robertito"), underscoring the enduring infantilizing of those outside of the maturity of marriage. Few escape harassment. The artist Chucho Reyes Ferreira is expelled from Guadalajara as one of many "deviants" of the time, and forced to sweep the streets on the way to the train that will remove him from the city as crowds watch and cheer; the Colima police pursue the artist Alfonso Michel as a vicious delinquent; two homosexuals from Guadalajara's "High Society," Guillermo Hermosillo and Gabriel Orendáin—Guille and Gaby—are made the subjects of a silly cheer that could still be heard at sporting events in the 1950s:
Here's to Guillé, here's to Gabe
Here's to "Oh Yes . . . Honey!"What a babe!
Go [Team name]
Ohhh God . . . What a babe . . .
A notable case is that of the extraordinary painter Alfonso Michel, very well documented by Jorge Chávez Carrillo (Alfonso Michel: Mito, leyenda [Myth, Legend], Universidad de Colima, 1993). Until the 1950s, chain gangs known as cuerdas (groups of prisoners sent to the penal colony at Islas Marías, among whom were homosexuals rounded up by chance) were frequent. In 1932, it is decided that a cuerda will be rounded up in Manzanillo, and Michel, also called Chopín, is in danger:
La Gallina [The Hen] recognized the "messenger" standing in the door. "Marentes sent me." El Feo [The Ugly One] grabs him: "What's going on?"
"At six the cuerda will arrive, the train is on time . . . so you know, it is up to you." He received a peso in exchange for the news and went on his way to alert others and collect for the warning. El Feo ran to find Alfonso but didn't find him, in the brothel or anywhere else.
El Feo went to find Severo. "Find Chopín and grab him by the balls and hide him . . ." Chopín spent the night at Audiencia beach, led at gunpoint to a solitary and isolated dwelling by Severo Lezama, a thug for hire who owed El Feo his life . . .
In the evening, the soldiers from the garrison in the square and the sailors stationed in the port where the maneuvers would take place all mobilized to reassure the population during the embarkation of the convicts, criminals, and thieves who were sentenced to prison on the Islas Marías.
The announcement was made that faggots would be imprisoned and exiled as a social prophylaxis, and added to the chain gang, so that it would be said that the government was moral, and also because blackmail, hiding and helping suspects to flee, could be exchanged for large sums of money or jewels. Jorge Michel was in Colima, with business at the State Government Palace; right there a messenger stopped him with the threatening news. Chopín was in no danger in Colima provided that he pay for the warning.
At the Manzanillo port, a police squad surrounded the Pedregosa area in search of "Pola Negri." The secret police happened upon the Garrobo [male] iguana who was the puto's ["the whore" Negri's] lover; amidst orders and shouts and insults to their mothers, they attacked. One of the secret policemen bent over, wounded by the Garrobo's dagger. In the struggle, they riddled him with bullets, [and] "Pola Negri," tied up, howled like a wounded beast. The bordello's doorman, Don Blas, was found dead the next morning of natural causes, stiff with fright. This roundup completed the quota. That night, the handcuffed homosexuals onboard kept a vigil until dawn, hoping for a miracle. The naval ship raised anchor. They say that "Pola Negri" died on the high seas.
Severo Lezama delivered Chopín at seven in the morning, frightened but safe and sound. La Gallina gave him tea to calm his panic and lunch to help him sleep.
"Those of dubious psychological condition"
In the twenties and thirties, those of a certain cultural tendency, the group that takes its name from the magazine Contemporáneos (Novo, [Xavier] Villaurrutia, Jaime Torres Bodet, Jorge Cuesta, Bernardo Ortiz de Montellano, Gilberto Owen, José Gorostiza, Enrique González Rojo) are ultimately marginal because even though they work in the official bureaucracy, the culture that is important to them comes as a surprise to the country, and because they constitute a circle with broad critical judgment on the subject of behaviors. Only some of them are homosexuals, but defamation admits no exceptions. The part for the whole, and "hurrah!" for the opportunity to destroy enemies with such vulnerable flanks. Even Alfonso Reyes upon his return to Mexico is astonished and confides to his friend Antonio G. Solalinde (August 25, 1924): "I always believe that the young are right. There is a great deal of faggotry [mariconería] among them, a new sickness here, and that distances me from many of them and causes me to suffer, as I am not as skeptical and indifferent as I had thought myself to be." The new sickness12 is disturbing enough to cause organized exasperation. Recall what the estridentista poet Manuel Maples Arce said in his memoirs (Soberana juventud [Sovereign Youth], 1967):
On one occasion we met in the Green Room at the Chamber of Deputies to discuss the problem of homosexuals in theater, art, and literature. Although there were disapproving statements, the devil put his finger in and they [the homosexuals present] remained more self-satisfied than ever, while people wondered aloud why they were allowed to move about so freely, when in the time of Porfirio Díaz they had been made to sweep the streets, as happened to those who made the number 41 so famous that it was popularized in a print by Posada. Public morality does not depend on a [single] group; it is, as [José] Ortega y Gasset would say, the style of a society, and if that [society] should accept that each individual make his own judgments with the ease of flying a kite, then there is no possibility of dignifying [those judgments and that society].
Their preponderance was due to a mafia mindset. At times they truly persecuted those who resisted joining their attempts to establish intellectual hegemony or who refused to enter into that scheme. It was the period of unrelenting publicity for Proust and Gide, whose works provided a home for faggots with all their dramas, and for the cynicism of pederasts.
In order to escape all responsibility, they adopted a position of neutrality that allowed them to survive above all the ideological conflicts that have beset the Mexican nation. They were never on the right or on the left . . . They held to an aesthetic that absolved them of commitment and put them on the margin of any responsible obligation.
In the shadow of protectors who wanted to be seen as intellectual Maecenas, they published, with the nation's money, an anthology in which the favored ones wrote their panegyrics, singing each other's praises.
The law of least resistance. Those who were excluded from or not sufficiently praised in the Antología de la poesía mexicana [moderna] [Anthology of Modern Mexican Poetry] (1928), a group effort under the direction of Jorge Cuesta, disqualify their critics for "moral" reasons. Once again, a macho strategy comes into play, which, under the pretext offered by "the little weirdos" [los raritos], praises its own poetic work, its revolutionary nature, its commitment, its independence from protectors, and its unblemished virility. Basically, Maples Arce's protest is a great act of self-praise based on disdain for "the faggots' mafia." Why were all these deviants treating a poet as great as Maples like dirt?
The campaign against homosexuals is very intense. Orozco caricaturizes them (Los Anales); and in the murals Diego Rivera made for the Ministry of Public Education, he mocks cultural Maecenas Antonieta Rivas Mercado with a depiction of an energetic revolutionary woman handing her a broom with which Rivas is to sweep from the palette of a lifeless painter the vestiges of the abominable symbolism of white roses and a 1928 issue of Contemporáneos. With a desolate expression, Rivas Mercado watches a male revolutionary worker tripping a male poet who has the ears of an ass. Years later, in his painting The Forty-one, Antonio Ruiz el Corzo selects his elitist scoundrels: Novo, Villaurrutia, [painters] Roberto Montenegro and Lupe Marín, as well as Antonieta Rivas Mercado.
The moral lynching has vast cultural and literary resonances. At that time, the criticism of homosexuals as a sexual category belongs without a doubt a social construct that depends, in great measure, on conceding only a negligible space to women. According to the guardians of the Norm, a homosexual voluntarily degrades himself by resembling women, and the machista condemnation is both the public and private expression against such debasement. The joto [faggot] threatens the continuation of the species and of fundamental values, and this insult becomes extreme when it can be seen, where before its invisibility had rendered it nonexistent. How is it possible that a deviant so deserving of scorn should not be imprisoned or annihilated, and can't they all simply be sent to gather dust down in the catacombs or be shipped as slave labor to the Valle Nacional? Persecution, disguised as loyalty to tradition, intensifies. In 1925, Jiménez Rueda complains about the "feminization of literature," and it's necessary to remind him of the existence of Mariano Azuela's The Underdogs (Los de abajo) in order to dissuade him of his lamentations for lost virility. In 1930, the revolutionary painters of the ¡30-30! group demand the resignation of various government officials, including those who are "dubious":
And we are against homosexuality, an imitation of today's French bourgeoisie, and between them—who now are favored—and us tireless fighters, there exists the chasm of our honesty, which will not be sold for a position. The government must not maintain in its ministries those of dubious psychological condition.
Complaint leads to direct action. A Committee for Public Health is established in the Chamber of Deputies to "purge the government of counterrevolutionaries," and on October 31, 1934, a group of intellectuals (José Rubén Romero, Mauricio Magdaleno, Rafael F. Muñoz, Mariano Silva y Aceves, Renato Leduc, Juan O'Gorman, Xavier Icaza, Francisco L. Urquizo, Emilio Abreu Gómez, Humberto Tejero, Jesús Silva Herzog, Héctor Pérez Martínez, and Julio Jiménez Rueda) asks this Committee that if it is trying to purify public administration,
it should make its agreements extensively known among the individuals of dubious morality who hold official positions and those who, through their effeminate behaviors, in addition to constituting a punishable example, create an atmosphere of corruption that reaches such an extreme that it impedes the implantation of virile virtues in young men [. . .] If the presence of the fanatic, of the reactionary, is being combated in public offices, then the presence of the hermaphrodite incapable of identifying with the workers engaged in social reform must also be combated.
The guardians of this nationalism (among them, novelists of the Mexican Revolution, poets, painters, and government officials) want to eliminate such agents of weakness from the fabric of the nation in a single "Night of the Long Knives" waged on behalf of the budget and respectability. Cultural nationalism is the implacable enemy that, with its theory of racial virtue, provides a "theoretical foundation" to its active intolerance of that which is "other." This is why the subject of homosexuality, even though it covers one aspect of Contemporáneos but does not reach the level of a literary criterion, serves the opposite function of capturing certain manifestations of social psychology. Orthodoxy converts the heterodox into a favorite target, but among those harassed, the effort to skirt the norm produces novel aesthetic practices and expressions in the search for authenticity.
"All on top of each other"
It is better to marry than to burn, affirms Saint Paul the Apostle. But already in the decade of the twenties, especially in Mexico City, a significant number of homosexuals accentuate their behavior: it is better to sacrifice prestige than to repress desire, it is better to emblematize the "betrayal of one's sex," defaming along the way the National Essence, than to renounce instinct. And in the bohemian bourgeoisie, at the start of the institutional phase of the Revolution, there were those who assumed their sexual dissidence with all possible discretion and tranquillity. They are politicians (Luis Montes de Oca, Treasury Secretary under Plutarco Elías Calles, and Genaro Estrada, Foreign Relations Secretary), writers (Salvador Novo, Xavier Villaurrutia, Carlos Pellicer, Elías Nandino), painters (Roberto Montenegro, Manuel Rodríguez Lozano, Abraham Ángel, Alfonso Michel, Chucho Reyes Ferreira, Agustín Lazo, Enrique Asúnsulo), film producers (Felipe Subervielle, Agustín J. Fink), theater people and actors (the most famous, and one who emigrated, Ramón Novarro), singers (José Mojica), popular composers (Gabriel Ruiz, Pepe Guízar).
On the evidence of this movement, which is encouraged by the growing number of secular environments, we see taking shape, even if only on the margins, the universe of different [that is to say, homosexual] desire, or deseo distinto. God has not died, but He no longer has time to keep track of everything, and also, on a more earthly plane, Mexico's cultural isolation and absolute dependence on a single civilizing model (that of France) come to an end. In addition, violence has granted an opening to such a range of attitudes that, among those most anxious for Progress, one more doesn't so much matter. To use an expression of the time: "If God already knows, let men know too." And if liberated women, atheists, priest-bashers, communists, proselytizers for free love all let themselves be seen, why not—in spite of everything—gays? (Lesbians go unperceived, and it would be some time before they and bisexuals could be situated, or granted their place. The most common is the existence of men whose masculinity was said to have "slipped" or lapsed.) Heretics circulate in a territory of minimal tolerance—though in comparative terms, even the still revolutionary capital could be considered "maximally" tolerant-.though of course they are made to pay with a quota of marginalization, aggressions, teasing, gossip, jokes. Withal, the "traitors to Nature" do not desist from their behavior, making it more or less patent, so that what before had been sexually unthinkable is no longer so, and this, together with the possibility of creating scandal, results in a de facto liberation.
Those who form the cultural vanguard are pressured to break with the isolation that has characterized Mexico since independence, for an urgent catching-up with what is happening in the metropoli of the world, to bring to the country (especially to the capital) the experiences of modernity. In order to cast off the double oppression of traditionalism and chauvinism, outdated prejudices and canons need to be destroyed, rhymed poetry must be renounced, painting must be conscious of Picasso, and gays, most especially, must assume André Gide's dictum: "Live Dangerously!" which is to say, live in a way that challenges social narrow-mindedness. The poet Xavier Villaurrutia shares the credo of his generation with a journalist named Ortega at the Revista de Revistas (April 10, 1932):
It is Gide's morality that interests us, that interests me. Humane, profound, brave, it helps one live. Become who you are, said Nietzsche. Live as who you are, André Gide seems to be saying.
You know, our familiarity with the moral oeuvre of Gide arises from the coincidence that we too are part of a moment characterized by a new spirit, so his work resonates for us as a confrontation with moral hypocrisy. Before Gide, it seemed absurd to talk about oneself, to show oneself as one is.
To show oneself as one is. To make literary counsel into a program for the edification of the dissident personality. The power of the poetic (and living dangerously is poetic action, according to Gide's followers) the coming out of a handful is both existential and is akin to the existential and cultural power of a handful of men coming out.
"A Proust Who Lives in Mexico!"
Among the heretics, no one is more openly scandalous than Salvador Novo, or more utilized by the promoters of the Virile Fatherland, both for his powers of provocation and as an opportunity to finger notable dissidents as part of their heterosexual blockade.
But if the harassment and demonization are inclement, the degree to which Novo employs them creates the legend that will become both his via crucis and his glory. For him, provocation becomes an instrument of mental health. Everything shows this to be so—his relations with truckers, wrestlers, and bus drivers, and chauffeurs, with workers, with soldiers, and this, leaving nothing to doubt, balances obviousness with bravery. Here is how he is seen during those years: Manuel Rodríguez Lozano paints him in a taxi, wearing a dressing gown, while swirling all around him his pick-up city becomes phantasmagorical. Tina Modotti portrays him as haughty, disdainful; and Manuel Álvarez Bravo captures him in his magnificent arrogance, daring the viewer to reject him. In June of 1938, Rotofoto, headed by José Pagés Llergo, publishes a series of photos of Novo, Montenegro, and the singer José Mojica in a swimming pool. The teasing is unrelenting: "Novo the grandiose ivory poet."
To "proper" society, Novo and his friends are monstrous, scandals in full bloom, narcissists incapable of contemplation, parasites threatening nationalist integrity just when Mexico had acquired a new consciousness of itself. Novo and his like are monsters who consider themselves saints, owing to the decline, in the large cities, of physical lynchings. And the unexpected visibility of some gays is taken as a declaration of war, for reasons that are abundantly clear: the invisible is, happily, unintelligible, and that which allows itself to be seen on some level obliges understanding.
To situate the extent of this challenge, we must consult the (very scant) written testimony of his contemporaries. One of them, a poet and physician, recounts a number of episodes to Enrique Aguilar in his very interesting Elías Nandino, una vida no velada [Elías Nandino, an Unveiled Life] (Editorial Grijalbo, 1986):
Whenever we got together or went on an outing, there was always someone who feared Novo's mannerisms, fearing especially that on the street we would be judged on the basis of his gestures, behaviors, or style of dress. But on top of all this, in the normal course of things, Salvador's cynicism was funny, because he knew how to express his ideas with charm; so much so that even those he was offending would laugh.
One afternoon we arranged to meet at Montenegro's studio, and once there, we decided to go see a play featuring Chela Padilla. We all got into a bus—Pepe and Celestino Gorostiza, Jorge Cuesta, Gilberto Owen, Agustín Lazo, Roberto Rivera, Xavier [Villaurrutia], Salvador, and I don't remember who else. We took up practically half the bus. When we arrived at the corner where we were to get off, Salvador stood up—retouched his makeup, which was very unusual—rang the bell, and shouted: "Here we are, faggots!" No one moved, so then he turned and shouted again: "Heeeeere!" And he pointed to each one of us: "you, you, you . . ." We rapidly got out, like a herd, and once we were on the street, all we could do was laugh.
Novo is exemplary in a number of ways: he is a writer who is always associated with provocation and he is a provocateur who triumphs postmortem because time catches up to his work and attitudes; he is a gay man who lends a supremely talented image to his predilection, and is, without seeking martyrdom, a staunch admirer of Oscar Wilde, without a doubt his model for radical postures; he is a practitioner of the "effeminate," and the emphasis he places on this satisfies the expectations of moral voyeurism; he is a strategist of desire, and, once his youth has passed, extols the power of the purse, which then gets translated into amorous frustration:
The law of demand and supply
that taught me the wherefores and why
delivers love that's easy to buy.
And yet, there are times, when
the dark veils of my dead hope
are rent with melancholy weeping.
And people need to mind their own business . . .
The Homosexual of Mexico—although the term did not exist, nor the intention to incarnate the concept—becomes the mirror of the most reproachable affectation; Novo accepts to a degree the defeat and keeps translating it into an idiom of effrontery, a maneuver that utilizes the infamous in order to mock being famous. For Novo, humor, particularly savage and obscene insolent humor, distances him from the bitterness of reality, and helps him mature psychologically with a rapidity that protects him from "the illusions of the years of youth." From his perspective, to be gay means that one must deny amorous reciprocity, and so his erotic poetry is jocular and semipornographic. In his case, romanticism means not forgiving oneself for anything; it means becoming cynical in order to protect the deepest zones of one's sensibility, and mixing the pleasure of offending others with insults against oneself.
Why not write just to see if perhaps
there comes a sonnet worth more than a dime;
Why not write just to kill time, to cross paths
along the way with an obligatory rhyme.
For I was a writer, and it can't be denied
I was lean as a greyhound bitch;
my jowls have grown fat as my buttocks,
my flesh is fat, my talent bollocks.
What can we do! We must get rich
others should mind their own business
why shouldn't we sell our own hides.
A writer of brilliance, a poet who merits ovation,
from the times of Mister Madero
the very idea is masturbation.
In fourteen lines, Novo dissolves his personal drama with the sharpest irony in a way that implies the abandonment of poetry, the apparent loss of the literary vocation in favor of economic fortune (that impregnable fortress against gossip), the celebration of bought pleasure, the glories of this world made carnivalesque. In this way, satire, enacted against the ideal image of the author, to some degree compensates for "the loss of the kingdom that existed for me." But this is written after a terrible battle, with vast psychological repercussions, against a society that demands hypocrisy and silence.
What would it cost you to say you adore me?
What would it cost me to believe the story,
now we are parted, that you love me?
What would it cost you to kiss me in a letter?
The hours I think of you are indelible
and the charms of my policeman untellable.
The tactic, which is very clear, responds to a culture crowned by camp, the technique and cult of gay extravagance that finds aesthetic value and humor in the unexpected, in excess, in the baroque of popular culture, and in the cult of the pose. On the subject of amorous passion, gay self-derision establishes the prudent distance that assuages the vexations of rejection. If anything can quickly cauterize injury, it is cleverness directed against oneself; moreover, by what other means, in such a macho society, can one erase the psychological tattoos produced by terms of disgrace: faggot, whore, deviant, fairy, bitch, loca (madwoman), little woman, invert, "Tag! You're it!" In the mechanisms of the ghetto, common to all harassed minorities, vituperation directed at oneself and one's fellows mediates the exterminating thread of macho epithets. "What they are saying to me, I've already said to myself, but with elegance, irony, and a meanness you could never even imagine." In The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture (Hyperion, New York, 1997), Daniel Harris describes the process in the United States:
Homosexuals were drawn to the image of the bitch in part because of her wicked tongue, her ability to achieve through conversation, through her verbal acuity, her snappy comebacks, the control over others that gay men were often unable to achieve in their own lives. The fantasy of the vicious vagina dentada, always quick on her feet, always ready to demolish her opponent with a stunning rejoinder, is the fantasy of a powerless minority that asserts itself through language, not physical violence. . . . withering irony . . . became the deadliest weapon of all in the arsenal of the pre-Stonewall homosexual . . .
The construction of the homosexual from the outside demands self-hatred, unhappiness as destiny, fatal abandonment of hope. But the project to survive turns inevitably to the self-skinning that—with or without paradox—makes one stronger. Denied the compensations of the circle of Distinguished Couples, disparaged by the anti-intellectual, patriarchal essence of society, Novo mocks himself and, with complementary vigor, mocks the values of those who reject him:
If I had time, I would write
my memoirs: volumes of minutiae,
portraits of enlightened men,
wise and valiant politicians.
A Proust who lives in Mexico! In these
pages I would paint the wordless idylls—
delicious and forbidden—
of a chauffeur, a robber, a policeman.
It cannot be, so cautious-
ly does my double life define
a single place for every single item.
Let upright men rule my days,
and let me hope in the clamorous night
for the renewing thirst of a policeman.
In his satiric dimension, Novo debunks "good taste" in terms that are all but absolute, perhaps out of his desire to provoke, but more surely because "sordid" expression neutralizes that which expels him from respectable customs. Even if the rhythm of the poetry is subtle, the sudden malevolence frustrates the serenity:
So go. According to the Civil Code,
nothing more is owed; between us, no
accidental family was ever sowed.
Time must help me pardon you.
With thoughts of you—these don't come often—
A certain hollow can't help but soften.
Of those inhabiting the margins, society has exacted a kind of perverse obedience to self-destruction as a norm ("Act as you must, we can't stop that, but don't enjoy it . . ." would be the message); and society expects pathetic behaviors from deviants. As late as 1969, in Mart Crowley's play The Boys in the Band, one of the characters declares: "Show me a happy homosexual, and I'll show you a gay corpse." The extraordinary English author E.M. Forster writes Maurice in 1913, but only publishes it in 1971, posthumously, thereby imposing [on the work] the conventions of the times, among those the impossibility of a happy ending for moral dissidents. The most that perverts can aspire to, according to the implicit and explicit message, is a tragic sense of oneself, an ennobling of a sorry life with the luxury of sacrifice. Tumultuous death expiates sin, and in a metaphor with meaning for multitudes, the corroded face of Dorian Gray surrenders everlasting youth to a portrait of duty before God and family. The gay man who does not achieve redemptive death is subjected to the trials of individual and collective self-hatred, to which he is condemned by verbal or literary abuse. Here is how Novo describes a friend (Xavier Villaurrutia):
This little actress, so fine and small
our very favorite Lilliput
whose ass accommodates one and all,
do we exaggerate to call him slut?
In commenting on satire in Mexican literature, Octavio Paz calls Novo a master of the genre. "He had a great deal of talent and a great deal of venom, few ideas and no morality. Weighted with deadly adjectives and light on scruples, he attacked the weak and adulated the powerful: he served no belief or idea, wrote not with blood but with shit. His best epigrams are those that, in a moment of piercing cynicism and lucidity, he wrote against himself. That saves him" (in México en la obra de Octavio Paz III: Generaciones y semblanzas). I do not recognize Novo in this portrayal. In his satirical work he does not attack the weak, since, from the time of his conflicts with Diego Rivera, none of the individuals he insults is exactly weak, nor does he adulate those who are powerful. Rather, he laughs at them. (His articles are another thing.) As for not serving ideas or beliefs, the intention of most of his satiric verses, written between the 1920s and 1940s, is to defend against the macho blockade, and survival in a macho country is a very understandable idea and morality. He writes La Diegada, the verses against Diego Rivera, after the profane portrait of the Contemporáneos group on a wall of the Ministry of Public Education, and that same logic (responding to harassment with verbal mastery, the only weapon) impels many of his poems. Let me give one example. In México por dentro y por fuera [Mexico from Inside and Outside] (Editorial Claridad, 1934), Bolivian journalist Tristán Marof attacks the Contemporáneos in the chapter called "Effeminate Literati":
In Mexico the traveler or observer is surprised from the first moment by the literary abuse of the word "joto." One would think it some kind of sacred name. The charm quickly evaporates, however, for the literary gentlemen called "jotos" are sad and deviant bureaucrats who work in the lower echelons of government administration [. . .] They have no imagination. Salvador Novo is the author of a book that is boring, pretentious, and intended for certain lesbian women . . .
After this, the response of the one alluded to may be excremental, but it is not an attack on the weak:
To a Marof
So you slithered out of which cunt
in your so-called family,
oozing past chancres, sores, and lesions?
Your sire? The possibilities are legion,
and for your name, it's still an open hunt.
To protect himself, Novo has only his irony, which he uses with full force. If the oppressed are feared, the oppression diminishes. There is an abundance of evidence that for a very long time, life for gays in the ghetto is sordid, with a sordidness born of the isolation of having nothing left to lose, or the terror of being suddenly pulled out of the closet. Paz, perhaps without taking into account the atrocious circumstances of the times, synopsizes the attitude of Novo, Pellicer, and Villaurrutia: "They were honest with themselves and confronted intolerance with integrity and even humor. However, in their writings one does not find the moral independence or intellectual coherence of a Gide or the rebellion of a Cernuda."
No, one does not, but rebellion is still palpable in the refusal not to hide, and this in spaces much more asphyxiating than those of Paris in the time of Corydon and If It Die . . . or even those of Madrid in the 1930s; and there is, in the case of Novo, the insolence with which he distributes "secret" poems and publishes Dueño mío and The Third Faust, a short play in French. And as for moral independence, that of Pellicer and Villaurrutia is undeniable; as, to a certain point in time, is that of Novo. In a sense, what Bernard Shaw wrote about the author of De Profundis after its first publication in 1905 could also be applied to the prebourgeois Novo, the Novo of the defiant pose, of New Love [Nuevo amor] and the writing of Pillar of Salt:
Our present morality is a repugnant error, and as Wilde could have said, "vulgar." It is not even ethical. Wilde's greatness is based on one fact: our morality could not deceive him, nor could the moralists of his time break or dishonor him.
Until the end, he was true to his pose, because it was an honest pose. For that same reason it was greatly bothersome to him that English morality was also a pose, but without even the pretext of being an honest pose.
The truth of his true love
Novo's amorous poetry corresponds to that moment in Spanish poetry when the "confessional" tone becomes a strategy for making political that which until then had been disqualified for its "immorality." In Spain's Generation of '27, we see this in the works of Luis Cernuda, Federico García Lorca, Vicente Aleixandre, Emilio Prados. Cernuda writes:
If a man could say what he loves,
If a man could raise his love to heaven
Like a cloud in the light;
If like walls whose collapse
Reveals the truth rising from the rubble,
He could make his body crumble, leaving only the truth of
The truth of his very self,
Which is not glory, fortune, or ambition,
But amorous desire
I would be the one who imagined:
The one who with his tongue, his eyes, and his hands
Proclaims before men a truth unknown
The truth of his true love.
(From "If a man could say")
To proclaim "the truth of one's true love," writers turn to various forms: Villaurrutia in "L.A. Nocturne: The Angels" ["Nocturno de los ángeles"], for example, employs the international gay symbol of the sailor, so present in Cocteau and Genet; Novo opts to enjoy his marginality; and Pellicer affiliates with melancholy clarity:
I know from the svelte and so naked night
that our two bodies were one.
I know from our silence before the darkness
of others, to mute this love that is different.
In New Love (1933), Novo's sexual dissidence is expressed in particular details, urgencies, desolations, encoded languages, and even whiffs of the pathetic, false as well as true: confession raised to the level of long-awaited revelation. Highly self-conscious in his work, Novo enumerates the elements of his poetry: "Circumstance, humor, and desolation." To such an accounting, which is essentially correct, should be added a few more items: we must mention malevolence (which offers no forgiveness to the possible innocence of his readers), experimentation, and the analogous execution that avoids a heartrending or expiatory tone.
In New Love, Novo's literary character fades out and with it vanity, a taste for paradox, frivolity, and irony as the face that hides the mask. Exhibiting oneself is an excruciating enterprise, softened or disguised by rhetoric in the fullest sense. Confronting his amorous condition, Novo attempts to capture it through a process in which lucidity transcends the iniquity of lived experience: "All we have left is the brief light of consciousness / and to lie down by the side of books." See the definitive poem "Elegy":
We who have hands that are fit for no one
repellent to caress, useless for the workroom or the hoe
long and flaccid like a flower deprived of seed,
like a snake that delivers its poison,
having nothing else to offer . . .
We who have the guilty embittered gaze
through which the eyes of frustrated Death look out toward
the world . . .
We who have rolled through the ages like a rock
dislodged from Genesis . . .
"Elegy" must be understood in light of the risks and troubles of the homosexual condition, and the accent of New Love synthesizes the desperation, the love that is the consciousness of love's impossibility, the transfiguration of disaster: "I entrust to the poem the pain of losing you" or "You, I myself, dry as a broken breeze." The marginal condition is a failure already inscribed, the epic of that which has failed to happen, the never-ending sadness of happy days that were never lived.
The least important question is whether this corresponds, or not, to biographical reality. Novo complies with one of the demands of the period: given that amorous relationships between "abnormals" are inadmissible, he who carries out literary treatment of sexual or moral marginality requires the poetic landscapes of solitude and bitterness. In making manifest his wretched spirit, Novo expresses in the poems that which he represses socially: his emotionality and his eroticism. In this he is not alone. Even Pellicer, in a strange moment in his poetry, speaks as one who has been expelled from any paradise:
For those who have spent their life watching for What
and who without looking at the rags of their own solitude
have been gladdened when others have been glad;
for those who have wept with the innocence of the desert
that does not know it illuminates the skeletons of
for those who have screamed from the highest peaks of
in a solitude so solitary it's unbearable to see,
I gather my voice as though it were the last thirsty sip of my life
to tell them of the horrible beauty that fate has sent me.
Pellicer plumbs the depths of a desolation without limit:
I do not know what crimes course through my blood and pervert my fate, why my destiny holds such depths of desperation . . .
A precursor of this confessional poetry, the Colombian Porfirio Barba Jacob (1881–1941), who also used the names Miguel Ángel Osorio, Main Ximénez, and Ricardo Arenales, and who long resided in Mexico, to some degree also coincides with Novo and Pellicer. Always excessive, a venal journalist, a poet of ardent lyrics, Barba Jacob considers himself the perfect outsider, so implacably opposed to any positive image of himself that he does not hesitate in going to the extremes of political abjection, of sordidness, of ostentatiously displaying the most condemned "vice" of his time (marijuana). Barba Jacob considers himself essentially a poeta maldito, or "damned poet": "My plan is to shock the bourgeoisie . . . I spread my happy word, my delight in joking, my homosexuality, my doubts, my drunkenness." Everything in order to support the dark legend that, in isolating him, provides the protection due an eccentric and grants the exaltation of his marginality, and is all the more painful for being moral rather than economic:
Those of you who have not borne in your heart the
burial mound of a god
nor on your hands the blood of a murder;
Those of you who do not comprehend the horror of
consciousness before the Universe;
who do not feel the worm of cowardice
constantly gnawing at the roots of your being,
who merit neither ultimate horror
nor ultimate shame . . .
Those of you who have not shuddered in horror and fear,
as though between two hard bars, in the iron embrace
of an evil passion,
while the soul burns with raging brilliance,
vessel of opprobrium and lamp of universal sacrifice,
You cannot comprehend the painful meaning
of this word: A MAN!
(From "A Man")
"Oh body, for shame."
At forty, defeated by the rules of the deterministic game, Novo considers himself old, and there are numerous proofs of this:
—Were you thinking you would write?
—Well, if every
night I could write a sonnet . . .
—Say that Destiny
is your handicap. That gelded and bootless
you turn in vain to look back.
That the mirror proves you are done for;
shows skin that was once caressed,
sagging around a body that is grotesque.
That everything is over. That the dreamed-
of happiness . . . That in a moment you hadn't dared hope for,
you hope for . . .
—Then I am well and truly reamed.
In 1951, in the play The Young Man II [El joven II], the youth is surprised by the wretched maturity into which he has entered: "How you disgust me! With your flabby muscles, drowning in fat, with your bald head sunk in pillows, full of dead numbers and dead words." The reason for the despair: he is no longer an object of desire. According to the beliefs then in vogue, the loss of one's attractiveness marks the beginning of one's posthumous trajectory. Like Baudelaire, the gays of the time could have exclaimed: "Oh Lord, give me the strength and courage to contemplate my body without chagrin!" Thus Novo, in New Love, written when he was twenty-nine, fulfills himself erotically with the nostalgia that flows into the mythologizing of all he once had. If the most relevant aspect of the other love27 ("the evidence of the crime," Novo would say) is its always chimerical character, these poems describe the abyss of one who sees the end of his corporeal eligibility. Without the advantages of marriage and descendants, the poetic personage accepts the compensation (the aesthetic of isolation), and the loss of that ultimate consolation: self-deception:
I must drown it in these tears.
Eyes without hope see plainly:
that life bears lovely fruit,
then turn to the mirror
only to see that the smile lies,
the body is gauche and ungainly.
Heterosexuals of Novo's generation do not have these problems. How could they confront them, when the patriarchy denies women the right to exercise their taste, their faculties for rejecting "[bodies] that [are] gauche and ungainly"? Novo, like every gay man of those years, accepts the Faustian bargain: you will have a few years for your hallucinatory immersion in promiscuity, and then you will deliver your soul to sudden old age, with all the uncertain prospects inherent in the deal. The trade-off seems unjust, but what else is there?
Pillar of salt
I emphasize the obvious: the challenge of Pillar of Salt must be located in its own moment, not from a boastful postmodernity informed by Stonewall, ACT-UP, and Queer Studies; or by Genet, Derek Jarman, Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Reinaldo Arenas, among many others; or by Savage Nights, Philadelphia, and the jubilant ending of In and Out, the film by Frank Oz. In 1945, to write (with the obvious intention of eventual publication) a memoir of different lust is an act of enormous bravery. Novo knows, with an abundance of detail, that he is the object of scorn and mockery, and for this reason I believe that he settles in to his triumphalist version of homosexual mobility and fixedness, of the compensations and castigations that overtake those who interrupt their ascent and turn, arrogantly, to watch the punishment of the cities of the plain. For reasons very worthy of consideration (to stir up scorn is to incur multiple risks), it is clear that public confession, before a wide horizon of known and unknown readers, assumes among other things the risk of absolute psychic nakedness. The project of the book is abandoned, and in doing so, Novo very possibly renounced his most vivid and personal prose.
At the beginning, Pillar of Salt is the account of an extraordinarily precocious child in Mexico City, who remembers the Justo Sierra (Minisher of Education), and a little houseboy with whom he has "that first and perhaps definitive experience." The child's upbringing is, one might say, chaste. In Jiménez, Chihuahua, where the family moves, he is schooled at home, and the professor decides to caress him:
. . . and he placed his hand on my fly. With great delicacy, he asked, What do you call this? Anus, I told him, because that was the name my mother had taught me for penis. Since he didn't seem to agree with that alteration in anatomical nomenclature, that night I tried to verify it with my mother, referring to my tutor's lesson. It is quite possible that this discrepancy provoked his dismissal.
The account, a small gem of comic literature, equivalent perhaps to the description in Return Ticket of a spinster's attempted seduction of Novo, is, like everything in Pillar of Salt, in the service of sexual obsession. Already in Torreón, in the days of the Revolution, Novo witnesses the assault of the villistas [Pancho Villa's troops], which culminates in the murder of his uncle Francisco; he watches the courtship of the servant Epifania; he studies in a school for girls; he organizes transvestite play in the attic of his friend Napoleón, who proudly announces to Novo's mother: "Salvador and I are the two effeminates of Torreón"; . . . and he accepts the initiatory rite. In a brief little play, Novo has the role of the rich boy:
. . . [even with] the applause, the full auditorium-.the only thing that made me vibrate, and the only thing that has remained indelibly engraved in my memory, is the furtive instant when Jorge called me into the dressing room where he was making himself up to look like an old man for his recitation of his "Recollections of a Veteran," and taking my head between his two hands, pressed his moist lips against my own.
That secret, which was at the same time a revelation vaguely expected, filled me with an intimate happiness. It was the triumph of my beauty, the realization of my wish to have a boyfriend like the girls at the Model School, the possibility of penetrating the mystery of the empty room to which the unknown man had carried Epifania. I waited, heart pounding, for the next step this boy would take—this boy whose presence I inexplicably hadn't noticed all year, and whose dark slanting eyes, smooth white skin, and red mouth now owned my sweet secret. While he seemed older to me, he could not logically have been more than three or four years past my own twelve.
Novo's double fascination becomes transparent: the evocation of himself, with his ability to recapture experiences of delight, and the presentiment of horror on the part of his readers, who merely by casting an eye on his pages become his accomplices. They learn how a pubescent homosexual is initiated in Torreón, Mexico, and, in return, cannot then claim innocence on the subject:
The morning we finished our exams, the school emptied out. . . . When [Jorge] verified that no one was there, he appeared in the doorway and called my name. It was everything I'd hoped for. With great caution, trembling with emotion, I went to him.
Without saying a word, he pulled me to him, squeezed me hard, and pressed his mouth to mine in a long, wet kiss, his tongue penetrating all my senses, its sweetness flowing through my entire body leaving me with an acrid taste of tobacco. Without letting go of me, he lifted his hand to his fly and extracted an erect, reddened penis that he tried to put in my hands. Horrified, I pushed it away. I had never seen anything like it, so enormous, so veined. Seizing my mouth again with his, Jorge wrapped his hand around his penis, from which I saw spurt some thick gray drops that hit the floor. Only then did he let me go and, with the rag used to clean the blackboards, carefully wiped from the floor what he had wrung from his enormous worm.
The bildungsroman, the novel that charts the progress from youth to maturity, finds its form in this case through the extraordinary nerve of an essentially autobiographical writer who takes pleasure in showing that which he considers normal because it is inevitable, but which others will judge highly pornographic.
After the basically mechanical sexual initiation, the move to Mexico City, and the discovery, while studying at the San Ildefonso high school, of the city, of literature, and of cinema:
The nobility, strength, and courage of the heroes worked in me, germinating an adoration of their mythology, and little by little, I discovered with astonishment that I was in love with one of those heroes. . . . I was humiliated, not by the thought of being abnormal; not by the fact of feeling for this man a desire and a passion that I was incapable of condemning, of considering as culpable; but rather by the fact that my feeling was without a doubt so singular, made me so unique, so strange in the world, that if my hero were to know of it, he would probably feel nothing but contempt for me, would humiliate me, hit me instead of kissing me.
In the selection of memories, the determinative criterion is what will scandalize the confessor or psychoanalyst in every reader. Thus, the flamboyance of his makeup, (". . . to apply . . . all the creams and all the powders in her overflowing cabinets, and to polish my nails with her beautiful ivory implements, and to arrive at school full of vanity . . ."); thus, the imitations of Italian divas; thus, the warning "that my sin was less singular than I had believed"; thus, his acquaintance with the eccentric beings of the sidelong world.
Where everyone ends up in the same place, because inclinations are a geographic boundary
In Pillar of Salt, a basic theme is the entry into the homosexual ghetto, entry into the milieu. As in no other of Novo's texts, this is the subject that gives him the impetus and opportunity to display his great descriptive talent, which, in a few lines, gives literary density to his notable or archetypal characters. With Novo, and thanks to the system of "sexual concessions" among the characters, the ghetto imparts its secrets, its manias for preciosity, its acuity for nicknames (the cruel tag that time makes indelible), its infinite network of factions and friendships, its internal solidarity devastated by the logic of a minority without pride that believes itself to be the cause rather than the object of persecution. The gay ghetto of the 1920s: that "incredible, dispersed, nocturnal, embarrassing, and brazen realm," populated by those marked by the sensation of only being recognized by their appetites, the constant surround of mockery and self-mockery. According to histories of sexuality, there are rules in these circles, and the same ones are found in very different countries; among them: fleeing the norm means giving up happiness and an amorous life; "bitching" (the exchange of mutual insults) is the incessant reminder of the measure of scorn from those outside [the ghetto]; "verbal transvestism" is obligatory because the closest identity for the "weirdos" is feminine, and the result of contagion; relationships among gays do not work (". . . for in his judgment, one sullied oneself by sleeping with those of one's own sex"); an exclusive relationship is clearly inferior to promiscuity.
There is no such thing as the sudden appearance of the gay universe in Mexico City. It was already all there—in the catacombs known by those who knew and that existed with rigorous nocturnal discipline; the perpetual lying in wait for conquests; the frustrations and groaning stories of forced exiles and family scenes that exploded in words to the effect of "Get out!"; with beings living a double life, acting happy and audacious in the ghetto but dull and starched at their jobs. What Pillar of Salt exhibits is the rhythm of social dreams: for heterosexual heaven to exist, it requires the detailed construction of homosexual hell, a hell which consists of their searches, scorn, and social harassment:
Having discovered the sidelong world of those who understood one another with a look, I was finding those looks just by walking down the street: Avenida Madero, where, in the evenings, people went for a leisurely stroll. There, always guarding the door to El Globo, with his cane, his gaiters, his silk jacket, his gaze behind his pince-nez casual but alert, his waxed gray mustaches, was Señor Aristi, called The Ass that Squeezes; through the connecting door to El Globo one went up to the office of licenciado Solórzano—who, according to Ricardo, sang opera arias (Ninon, Ninon, que fait-tu de la vie), and who was called Tamales because he made his conquests by inviting youths to an early supper of "a few little tamales and a beer." Along this strip would come Mother Meza, on the hunt for human goods and clients, who never slept with the merchandise he procured for his buyers, the refined survivors of Don Porfirio Díaz's regime.
The image of the whole is one of enormous desolation. A world ruled by the hunt and by commerce, by hope, self-loathing, and the jeering derision of one's fellows is one that adjusts itself—whether or not it wants to—to the most negative versions of heterosexual life. However, at the same time it encourages a sense of humor and imaginative flight. Novo lacks explicit solidarity with the human landscape he describes, but his bravery is the highest form of solidarity that was possible at the time. Sarcasm, satire, lyric desolation, ingenuity, and social brilliance are forms or methods to give voice to those who at the time are considered unworthy of using language.
The profound friendships: Xavier Villaurrutia, Delfino Ramírez. The entry into the literary world. The conquest of the city and the deployment of his powers of seduction. If there is one unavoidable conclusion: a life lived with passion, and that hurts no one, justifies itself; and Pillar of Salt, irresistible to read, is Salvador Novo's message to Salvador Novo: if what you lived was inevitable and enjoyable, you have no cause for regret. Novo writes to be read one day, and to be read, in the moment of writing, by himself. For this reason, Pillar of Salt is no mere provocation, first and foremost it is the exercise of rights denied. And for this reason, what was once "unspeakable vulgarity" reappears as a brave testimony to the change in customs and to the exceptional being who, with no explicit program, accelerated social changes and created a magnificent literature wherein our diversity is enriched.
“And if "translators translate context," as Edith Grossman asserts, then what we encounter when we read Pillar of Salt is a supreme translation not only of language but also of culture, politics, sexuality, and boyhood.