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I was born and raised in the Bronx in the 1970s and 1980s. My childhood was, in many ways, a classic Nuyorican postcard snapshot—quenepas, Fania, abuelos, familia, but that comfort and familiarity swiftly drifted away as I came to accept profound truths about myself in my later adolescence.
In 1988 I left for the West Coast, spending most of that time in Portland, Oregon, and some in Southern California and Rosarito Beach, Baja Norte México. Those experiences were very crucial fuels for my curiosity and creative drive and were inspiring beyond words. They’re still with me and I feel their impact every day.
I came out in Portland in 1992 at the age of 21 to a fellow young man I had feelings for. We began dating and were together for two-and-a-half years. And from there I continued to date men and never stopped. It’s who I am and what feels right. Coming out was a spiritual relief more than anything else.
During those same years something unfortunate happened: I drifted away from my family, from my roots. I felt I couldn’t be openly gay and a good Latino son, grandson or nephew. So time marched along, taking my grandparents and then others, who I’d grown up with most of my childhood and teens, to the great beyond, before I could face them with my truths.
I was so ashamed and fearful of their rejection—sensing that they probably knew about me by then—that I just let them slip away. I didn’t know what else to do, especially after my father disowned me when I came out to him. This misunderstanding and psychological abuse of LGBT people, la ignorancia campesina, and my fear of cold banishment was a direct result of that.
So I made underground music and gay culture my home(s). Those subcultures (there were still subcultures in pre-911 America!) taught me many amazing lessons as a burgeoning artist; I met unforgettable people and learned about things that hadn’t been available to me before. I learned about other possibilities, human, spiritual and artistic expansions.
I felt that the LGBT community was more accepting of me as a gay Latino than the Latino community was back then. At first, that was the case. That was, so long as I wasn’t too “Latino”, either (I’m so light-skinned that people often forgot). I realized this while talking to a Mexican kid in a gay bar one day in Portland. He spoke no English and Spanish was our best option.
People I even knew came up to me afterward and said, “Speak English.”
When I moved back to New York in 2006, the strangest thing happened: I was able to navigate through my original culture as an openly gay man with little or no complication. It was a sense of profound relief, since “latinidad” was the first thing I knew. Although I enjoyed learning about so many other things during my “exploration” years, nothing was more sacred to me than my roots.
Post-911 gentrified New York City had changed. A class of privileged children from all over the United States (and the world) flooded low-rent neighborhoods and raised the standard of living (which they’re happy to tell you). They also spurred rent increases that many natives couldn’t afford, causing an exodus of New Yorkers who’ve been replaced by young professionals with high credit scores (something they don’t love to admit as much).
Combined with the over-policing of everyday civilian life (you’re being watched/filmed in supermarkets, schools, banks, department stores, pet shops) and dizzying waves of social conservatism (no smoking, no dancing, no fun), the city I grew up in more realistically exists only in memory. And this gentrification also impacts the LGBT scene.
After hearing a couple of “salty” remarks about Puerto Ricans at one popular Brooklyn gay bar, I started going to a “mixed” lounge/bar that offered more interesting music (house/reggae/salsa) instead. It’s also very popular with straight Latino men. And guess what? I’ve gotten to know a lot of them. They know I’m gay and have better things to worry about. A circle for me was completed.
My intention here isn’t to slap the hand of the gay culture that molded me as a young artist and writer and thinker, but to demonstrate that LGBT communities are microcosms of the nations in which they exist. They inherit everything around them, the good, the bad, the humor, the popular culture, liberalism, racism—everything.
I never thought I’d see the day when it was acceptable to insult Puerto Ricans and other working class folks at a “hip” gay bar, but saw it. I never thought I’d see the day when I could mingle with straight Latino guys who’ve rethought the homophonic values they were taught were right, but I have. So you can have the droning gay bar hipster music. Give me a cold beer and classic New York salsa any day.
I’m home. This is New York, coño.
Charlie Vázquez is the Bronx-born author of the novels Buzz and Israel and Contraband, and the bilingual poetry collection Meditations/Meditaciones: Bronx/Salsa. He has edited and co-edited two anthologies of new Latino literature: The Best of PANIC! and From Macho to Mariposa: New Gay Latino Fiction. He can be contacted at: firekingpress AT yahoo.com