Eminent Maricones: Arenas, Lorca, Puig, and Meby Jaime Manrique
For the first time, in riveting and eloquent detail, Jaime Manrique describes the final days of his mentors, Manuel Puig and Reinaldo Arenas, both of whom died in tragic circumstances due to AIDS. Manrique also reveals Federico Garcia Lorca's struggle with homophobia and that poet's relationship with an American boyfriend. See more details below
For the first time, in riveting and eloquent detail, Jaime Manrique describes the final days of his mentors, Manuel Puig and Reinaldo Arenas, both of whom died in tragic circumstances due to AIDS. Manrique also reveals Federico Garcia Lorca's struggle with homophobia and that poet's relationship with an American boyfriend.
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A Memoir of Childhood
This is my first memory: I'm taking a shower with one of my young aunts and I'm reaching for her pubis. She giggles and swirls around me. I'm standing on my own, but I don't talk yet. The bathroom where we're showering is the only place in our house I vaguely remember. The white-washed walls are damp, streaked with lichen growing around the edges of the cement floor. The house is in the town of Ciénaga, which means swamp. I know we lived in that house for the first two years of my life because of surviving telegrams sent to our house on Nuevo Callejón for my first two birthdays.
Before I was born, my parents kept a house on the outskirts of the Colombian village of Río Frío, on one of my father's banana plantations.
I don't know how my parents met. Because of a surviving telegram to my mother in Barranquilla, dated November 15,1944, I know that Soledad Ardila and Gustavo Manrique met sometime toward the end of 1944: "Received your telegram. Without you I can't live. Let me know when you're ready to return. Kisses. Gustavo." And, in a letter to my mother of October 11, 1945, my father writes: "You don't know how much I'm thinking of you as we approach the anniversary of the day on which I was so fortunate to meet you."
It seems that my parents met in Barranquilla, where my mother had gone "to sew" (my grandmother told me this when I was forty). My father was a married man and lived with his wife and children in the Caribbean port ofSanta Marta. My mother's story is shrouded in mystery. Apparently, she was married to a man by the name of Leal. I conclude this because of a number of telegrams my father sent to my mother when she visited her father's home in El Banco in 1945. The telegrams are addressed to Soledad Ardila de Leal. I remember too seeing, among my mother's papers during my childhood and adolescence, a picture of a little boy in his coffin. This child, it seems, was conceived in that marriage.
Just about everything I know about my parents before I was born I've learned from fifty-six telegrams and thirty-six letters my father sent to my mother from November 15, 1944, to November 16, 1951, and from The Story of Our Baby (my baby book), in which many of the main events of the first six years of my life were recorded. In my childhood my mother would often remind my sister and me that these letters represented proof that we were our father's childrenbecause he refused to acknowledge us legally as his offspring. I grew up thinking of these letters as a weapon, precious documents that would eventually entitle me to my rightful share of my father's estate. The letters proved unnecessary in that regard, because my father (as he had always promised) acknowledged us as his children in his last will and testament.
I was at my mother's house for Christmas 1989, rummaging through my bedroom closet one night, when my father's correspondence to my mother, along with my baby book, fell into my hands. I couldn't quite believe my eyes: that spring a fire had raged throughout my mother's house, destroying most of my books and almost all my early manuscripts and correspondence. And yet these documents had survived untouched. That night I read the letters for the first time in many years, and they unsettled me in a way I could not have foreseen. Reading the letters, I heard my father's voice as he was at the time he wrote thema man in his midforties, a man deeply in love. Because I had hardly known my father, the letters revealed him to me in a surprising way: they were so passionate and eloquent that I realized I was a writer because of him.
To me, these extant documents were an omen. My mother had saved them for almost five decades; they had traveled from Colombia to the States; they had survived a fire. Now I understood that she treasured them as much for being proof of her children's legitimacy as for their being great love letters to her. My father's passion for my mother was so searing that I was overcome with sensual languor just reading these documents. I was almost as old as my father was when he wrote them, and these letters made me sad. I had never loved anyone so intensely, nor had anyone loved me with such an ardent display of passion and for such a long period of time. I felt as though the man who had written them half a century ago was more alive than I felt reading them.
My father was born in Ibagué, a small Andean town in the interior of Colombia, on November 15, 1901. My paternal grandparents were Antonio Manrique Arango and María Eusebia Alvarez Uribe. In Colombian society those names are as blue chip as you can get. I've been told by my mother that my paternal grandfather was a general in the Colombian army. My father enlisted and served on the island of San Andrés in the Caribbean, where he attained the rank of sergeant. I've seen a couple of pictures of my father around this time looking dapper in a white suit and straw hat. He's movie-star handsome, slender, manly, a beautifully bred studthe picture of a winner.
My father was in his midtwenties when he moved to the mainland, specifically, the Atlantic coast of Colombia. Here he must have met Josefina Danies Bermudes, an heiress and member of one of the most prominent families in Santa Marta, the oldest Spanish city in South America. They were married on April 21, 1932.
Besides his good looks, my father's main asset was his ancient and distinguished name, which goes all the way back to the time of the Holy Roman Empire. The first famous Manriques appear in Spain in the fifteenth century. They are poets as well as warriors. Jorge Manrique, one of the most influential poets in Spanish literature, wrote Couplets on the Death of My Father circa 1476. Manrique, a captain, died in 1479 of wounds sustained in battle and was survived by his wife and several children, one of them male. The last historical reference to this male heir is in 1515, and he apparently died without children. However, Jorge Manrique was one of many children. His father, Don Rodrigo, the famous warrior who in 1474 won military jurisdiction over Castile, freeing it from the Moors, had married three times. The vicereine of New Spain, María Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga (patron of the Mexican nun Sor Juana Inés de La Cruz), and Viceroy Alvaro Manrique y Zuñiga, seventh viceroy of New Spain, were descended from these Manriques. The viceroy arrived in the New World in 1585. He was an eccentric man who traveled with his coffin, in which he slept. My father's family descends from these Manriques. Several Manriques of note lived during Colombia's colonial period-their portraits hang in many libraries and museums of Bogotá. In the nineteenth century, the Manrique family in Colombia produced a few writers and journalists.
This is one of the few memories I have of my father in my childhood: I am in my parents' bedroom; my father is in bed, wearing aquamarine cotton pajamas. I am holding my nanny's hand and my father asks me to repeat after him: "I am Jaime Manrique Ardila Alvarez Arango Uribe Benítez Salázar Santamaría, a blue blood!"
My maternal grandparentsthe Ardilaswere peasants of mixed white, Indian, and African blood. My grandfather, José Ardila Puerta, and my grandmother, Serafina Ardila, were first cousins. José Ardila Puerta, my grandfather, told me his story one December afternoon in 1972 when we were visiting Barranco de Loba, the river hamlet where my grandparents were born. He was an only child who grew up with his mother (he did not mention his father). They were poor. Still in his teens, my grandfather decided to emigrate to Cuba to make his fortune. He journeyed down river to the port of Barranquilla, then a departure point for Havana. To earn money for his passage, my grandfather built a raft and cut wood in the swamps surrounding the city. Eventually, he bought a ticket, but the night before he was to leave he got drunk and missed his boat.
My grandfather decided to return home. Again he earned money chopping wood and used his savings to buy goods to barter in the towns and settlements along the banks of the Magdalena River. Buying and reselling, he eventually made his way back up river to Barranco de Loba. The trip was a success after all: he didn't make it to Cuba, but he made enough money to buy his first cow and his first plot of land, La Esperanza. He became affluent.
Now a man of means, he started his first family with Serafina Ardila, my grandmother. They didn't get married because she was not his equal. Whereas he had "traveled," could read and write, and was moreno (a light-skinned black), my grandmother was illiterate and of pure African descent. Their first child was my mother, Soledad, born in 1919. My uncle José Antonio was born in 1922.
Several years later, my grandfather began his second family with Berta Feria. She was light-skinned enough to pass for white, and she had attended convent school.
My grandmother Serafina (Mamá Fina) is still alive and is almost a hundred years old. After my grandfather deserted her, she bore children by several men. Her children are my aunts and uncles, but because they are poor, uneducated, and black, and because Colombia is a racist and classist society, when I was growing up I wasn't encouraged to acknowledge them as my relatives. In fact, I was ashamed of them.
With my step-grandmother, Papá José had ten children. All went to school, some graduated from college, and a few have been successful in the world. They were the uncles and aunts my mother encouraged me to acknowledge; they were the only family I ever knew. Until a few days before he died, my grandfather remained a Mason and rejected Catholicism.
My grandfather and my father were the same age. At my birth they were in their late forties and they resembled each other: portly men who carried themselves with great dignity, almost majesty. My mother has a photograph of my grandfather as a young man in a suit and hat that bears a strong resemblance to a picture of my father dressed up as a dandythe peasant impersonating the aristocrat.
This is my second memory: I set fire to an empty plot of land across from our house, and then I hid in our backyard, behind some yucca plants. At that time we were living in a house in El Porvenir, a fashionable upper-middle-class suburb of Barranquilla. I must have been about five years old.
My next memory is of being expelled from Colegio Americano. I am in the principal's office with my mother, a classmate, and his mother. The boy accuses me of asking him to show me his penis in the bathroom. I don't deny the accusation, although it's hard for me to believe that I've done anything wrong.
I was six when my parents separated. Between the time of my first memory (taking a shower with my aunt), and my second and third memories, I remember nothing. The lacunae of these years I've been able to fill sketchily from the entries in my baby book, which notes such incidents as my first smile (when I was four days oldit was for my father). It also notes that by two and a half months I would break out in laughter. I know when I was baptized, who attended the ceremony, what presents I received and from whom. A sarcastic person, a sort of evil fairy godmother, has added (with a different pen): "From the Duke of Kent, who attended the party, he received a golden eslabón [a word that means both gold chain and highly poisonous snake] and from Princess Margaret, a 35 carats diamond." I know too about the first time I went out of the house; who took me to church for the first time; and about a trip in May 1950 to Santa Marta. Anastasia, my mother's goddaughter, accompanied my mother and me. From Santa Marta we went to visit the banana plantation in Río Frío, where we spent fifteen days. I was bathed in the icy waters of the river and caught a bad cold, after which dark spots appeared on my body.
My history of asthma begins after this trip. It became so severe in my childhood that I had to spend long periods by the seashore.
My first Christmas is recorded in the baby book, as well as the many presents I received and how I looked in the different outfits that friends and relatives gave me. Then there are no more entries until I'm five. This is what my aunt Aura has written: "On his fifth birthday, there was no birthday celebration because he had just arrived in Ciénaga, Magdalena, and he didn't yet have any little friends."
I do remember, as I write this, a trip by boat to Ciénaga and how my dog, Bobby Capó, jumped into the river in the night and disappeared. I'm aware that perhaps the dog did not jump off the boat but was thrown into the dark waters.
There is an entry for my sixth year. I had a birthday party, an event I remember vaguely, and my baby book contains a photograph of me, looking unhappy and surrounded by a group of beautifully dressed children. I remember that I cried a lot. The last entry in my baby book is for my seventh birthday: "On June 16, 1956, he was seven years old. That day there was no party because his younger brother was ill."
It occurs to me that I don't remember the births of my sister or brother, that I have no memories of my sister (three years younger than I) until I was seven. As I'm writing this, another memory resurfaces. We were living in our house in El Porvenir. My mother is having an abortion at home: I remember torrents of blood, that the fetuses are twins or triplets, and that someone (a woman) remarks it is a good thing my mother has aborted because they are girls.
I was born in Barranquilla on June 16, 1949. The following day, my father wrote to my mother from Río Frío: "I salute you and hope you're doing well and are happy with our sprout. You can't imagine how happy the news makes me and I wish I could be with you as I write this, but unfortunately I'm prevented from joining you by the many great commitments that keep me away from being next to you as is my desire.... I despair of seeing you as soon as possible, but until Tuesday I won't be able to enjoy that pleasure.... Be patient and remember I'm telling you the truth and that I love you very much."
Then, just three months after my birth, on September 11, he complains in a letter about how much money she spends; he even threatens to leave her because he cannot afford to keep her. On October 12, as is the custom among middle-class Colombian families, ads were taken in two newspapers announcing that Jaime Manrique Ardila, son of Gustavo Manrique and his wife Soledad Ardila de Manrique, had been baptized in Barranquilla. From then on the tone of his correspondence changes. Whereas in most letters of the previous five years he had addressed her as "My darling little black one," in a letter written eight days after my christening he addresses her formally, "Dear Soledad: I hadn't written earlier because I haven't had a free minute. You have no idea of the great scandal in Santa Marta and Ciénaga because of the thoughtlessness of the items in La Prensa and in El Siglo." (The former was a Santa Marta newspaper and the latter the most important conservative newspaper published in Bogotá. My father was a lifelong member of the Conservative Party, and this is the newspaper that he and his friends read.)
He continues: "The effect has been worse than an atomic bombit has been that unpleasant for me these past few days. It is impossible to tell you in detail what happened. Today I was in town to pick up a shipment of lime that Quiñones sent me, and I found some furniture that arrived to be picked up by José Ardila [my grandfather's name as well as the name of three of my uncles]. You can't imagine how surprised I was when I was told by the real estate agents in Ciénaga that they would not rent me the house, for any amount of money, because they know it is not going to be occupied by my family. I think that it would be impossible for me at this moment to carry out this project. We have to let the hard feelings calm down. I don't know who was the imbecile who thought of publishing such an item, but there was no need for it. This happens to you for not consulting things with me. Tomorrow, from Río Frío, I'll write in greater details. My wish is that Jaime and all the others in the house are fine. In the meantime, I send you hugs and kisses."
The following days he writes, "Darling little black one: As I told you in the note I sent yesterday, I want to explain to you, as much as I'm able to, all the upsets and troubles brought about by the items in La Prensa and El Siglo. As soon as I reached the airport, I received news of what had happened in Santa Marta. That night, my wife came looking for me and, very politely, asked for an explanation. I told her I was truly sorry, and that it was neither your fault nor mine. But I couldn't make her understand this. I went to Santa Marta that night and there I found six letters from the Directors of the Banks and people I do business with. They all wanted to know if it was true that I had married in Barranquilla, and, if that was the case, they asked me to settle all my pending business with them right away. My wife's family made long faces at me, as if they wanted to eat me up; and in the streets, some friends asked whether it was true and others stopped saying hello to me. Everyone stared at me as if I were a weird animal. Three days later, I received letters from my relatives in Bogotá regarding this matter, and my children were appalled and very ashamed about the publication of these items. For me, these have been the worst days of my life. So much so that I wanted to go hide some place where I would never be heard of again. In Ciénaga, all the people who know me behaved in the same manner, and Toño Riascos, from whom I had rented the house and to whom I had paid the first month's rent, sent a letter returning the check for the amount I had paid him and said that there was no amount of money, or attenuating circumstances, under which he would rent me the house.
"Because of all these reasons, I think it would be convenient to let some time go by, and, until everything simmers down, we have to wait.
"I can't begin to comprehend why anyone would do such a thing to me, because I don't have any enemies. I mean, I do harm to no one. I don't believe, either, that this was your idea. I don't think you are that vain or clumsy; but at any rate, we have been the only victims. Let me know if you've found out anything about the inquiries you were going to make at La Prensa, because it would be worthwhile to unmask my enemies, or at least to know who they are.
"Due to everything that's happened, we have to take precautions for the future and not trust anyone. I don't want you to worry anymore because the thunderstorm seems to be abating. Also, don't think I blame you in any way or that I will change toward you. All we have to do is to be a little more intelligent so we can erase all these bad impressions."
In retrospect, it seems to me that my birth meant different things to my parents. To my mother it was legitimation: she was no longer just another mistress of the banana baron but the mother of a Manrique. To my father my birth seems to have meant the end of the carefree days of the great romance of his life.
My father's letters to my mother end in 1951, when we are in Medellín, where we had gone seeking a better climate for my chronic asthma. I can't help thinking that my father couldn't have been too pleased with a son who was an invalid and who, from early on, brought scandal upon his illustrious name.
The circumstances of my parents' separation are unclear to me. This much I know for sure: my father left my mother for an airline attendant who was thirty-two years his junior.
I don't remember the birth of my brother Antonio José. He was a swarthy, hairy baby born with a heart murmur. I nicknamed him Popeye because of his overdeveloped upper arms. I heard my father denied Antonio José was his child (I suspect my mother was unfaithful to my father with Antonio Serge, a man who several years later became her lover). I also heard that my little brother's heart murmur was caused by my father's advanced age. (My father was fifty-five when Antonio José was born.) It's likely I disliked Antonio José because I blamed him for my parents' separation.
I did not miss my father; he had seldom been around anyway. But the circumstances surrounding the separation were distressing. I overheard my mother tell a friend that my father's new mistress had threatened her at church, with a gun, when my mother was pregnant with Antonio José. This incident was mentioned as another potential cause of his heart murmur.
Seeing our home dismantled, and my mother's retainers disbanded, was alarming. I also understood I was no longer a rich boy. My father gave my mother the house we lived in, another house he had bought for my baby sister, and a banana plantation.
We moved out of our house in El Porvenir. My mother may have just wanted a change of scene, or she may have been advised to move by Señora Petra, the fortune-teller who was my mother's adviser. Our new home was situated in the middle-class neighborhood of Bellavista. In that house my mother received Patiño, a boyfriend. That was where my voyeurism began: I'd watch my mother and Patiño make love, and I'd become eroticized.
I was enrolled at Colegio Hebreo Unión, a Jewish school that did not care that my parents were not married to each other. I learned Hebrew before I knew how to read in Spanish, and I became a consummate practitioner of Israeli dances. My first memories of happiness are linked to that school. Most students were the children of European Jews who had arrived in Barranquilla during World War II or shortly after it ended. My best friend was a Swedish boy named Stick Luster. He was ash blond, spindly. His family had moved to Barranquilla because his father was an engineer for the phone company.
Stick was my first love. We'd skip school and go into the thick bush behind his house to build traps for rabbits and birds. One day I went to visit him, and his mother came to the door and told me I couldn't see Stick anymore because I was a bad influence. My heart was broken for the first time.
My little brother died when he was six months old. My sister and I were visiting friends of my mother's one Saturday afternoon when he died. My aunt Aura came to fetch us. She took us out on the terrace and asked us to sit on the cool tiles of the floor. Then, very seriously, she told us our little brother had gone to heaven.
The other major event of that period was learning to read in Spanish. I remember the exact moment when it happened: I was riding the school bus at noon, and I was poring over the "Tarzan" comic strip in the Sunday newspaper. For a couple of years I'd had followed the adventures of Tarzan in the comic strip by interpreting the colorful tableaux. Suddenly, I understood the words. I sat there quietly, shaking, as if caught in a long tremor that shook the world, noiselessly, steadily. I couldn't turn to the boy sitting next to me to explain what was happening. It was as if I already understood that the deepest feelings we have are impossible to communicate and ultimately meaningless to others. I felt as Balboa must have felt when he first glimpsed the Pacific: an unknown vastness opened in front of my eyes, and I grasped that my life would be forever richer, that great treasures lay in front of me, that I would never be the same, that I had found for myself something that represented a new life that would be there for me as long as I lived.
The bus stopped. I bolted from it and ran into my house screaming, "I can read! I can read!" Up until that point I had relied on my aunt Aura to read to me and to entertain me by telling me the folk tales of the Atlantic coast of Colombia. No other happiness I've experienced since can quite compare with the exhilaration and joy I felt as I sat in that bus and finally could read in Spanish.
We moved to Bogotá in 1956. The dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla was about to be overthrown. Gabriel García Márquez has talked about how moving from the Atlantic coast, where he was born, to study in the village of Zipaquirá, high in the Andes in the savannah of Bogotá, was a move from a world of light to one of shadows.
Bogotá back then was still a small colonial city, not the amorphous metropolis it is today. It was all those things García Márquez hated: chilly, rainy, somber, inhabited by people dressed in heavy black coats who seemed to be in perpetual mourning. But the city's melancholy suited me: Bogotá's remoteness, its gray misty mornings, its dense evening fog, its pluvious climate, and, above all, its emerald cordilleras, which gleamed on the rare occasions the sun came out and the ivory sunlight of the high Andes hit them. For a morbid child like me, there was no better place to be. The city was mysterious, close to the heritage of its pre-Columbian past. I loved the weeping willows lining the boulevards, the sensual jewel-like orchids growing in the parks, the groves of silvery aromatic eucalyptus, and the tall pines where prismatic hummingbirds nested.
The three of usmy mother, sister, and Itook a room in Lafayette, a boardinghouse in downtown Bogotá. My uncle Chelo, an engineering student, lived there. He was involved in the student uprisings that led to the overthrow of the dictator. Lafayette was on Carrera Séptima, and from its second floor windows I saw the army firing atand woundingdemonstrators. One afternoon my uncle had to hurriedly climb a high wall and jump down onto the patio of the church adjoining Lafayette to escape the police. One story affected me: spectators at a bullfight were massacred in the bullring because they had booed the dictator's daughter. The dictator ordered the doors of the bullring closed and kept people locked up for days. Many young people were shot in full view.
From Lafayette I have the first strong memories of my sister. One dayit was Good Fridaywe were playing with other children. My sister put her head through a broken window, and a sliver of glass stuck under her chin. She bled profusely and was rushed to the hospital, where she received stitches. That day at mass the priest had said that everything we did wounded the flesh of Christ. When we walked, we were walking on the flesh of Christ, the rough soles of our shoes scrapping his living flesh. When we sat on a chair, we sat on his flesh; when we cut a piece of food, we were cutting the flesh of Christ.
A new danceel merecumbéwas the rage. It was invented by Pacho Galán whose orchestra was staying at Lafayette. I became friends with their lead singer, a beautiful and glamorous young woman from the Atlantic coast.
My mother had a friend in Bogotá, Goyita, whose daughter, Fanny, was married to an older man who had a son, Guillermito, my age. We would visit them for elevenses, which consisted of hot chocolate, white cheese, stuffed figs, guava sweets, and assorted pastries. Guillermito and I became friends. Our favorite pastime was freestyle wrestling.
Mother sold the banana plantation and one of the houses my father had left her. She invested most of the money in cattle and gave it to my grandfather to manage for her. With the rest of the money she bought two boardinghouses in Teusaquillo, a neighborhood of faux Tudor houses. We lived in the larger house, where we had two rooms and a balcony on the third floor. One room was used as a living room where mother received friends and she sewed; the other room served as a bedroom for the three of us. Then my cousin Jorge came to study in Bogotá from El Banco, and there were four of us.
Through Fanny's recommendation I was enrolled at Washington School. The principal, Dr. Cifuentes, made a big fuss about me because of my father's name and because of my big ears. He said my ears were a sign of great intelligence and that I was destined to be president of Colombia, despite my illegitimacy.
Colombia has something of a tradition of illegitimate children who become prominent in society. The principal sent his car and driver to pick me up for school. Among the children who rode with me were the offspring of the minister of foreign affairs. Their father, Julio César Turbay Ayala, became president of Colombia in the 1970s. The other two children were the son and daughter of a senator from the State of Tolima, heirs to an important newspaper.
My love of literature was awakened at this time. A young woman named Elisa came to work at Mother's boardinghouse. She took a liking to my sister and me. Elisa was athletic, almost tomboyish. She had long hair she wore in a braid, shapely muscular legs, and alert caressing eyes. At night Elisa (who had dropped out of high school because her parents needed her to go to work) came up to our bedroom to tell us stories from the Arabian Nights. She also told us many of the fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. She'd put us to sleep with these stories. Elisa was a masterful storyteller, and all day long I looked forward to the moment she'd become our Scheherezade. When I closed my eyes after the lights were out for the night, my mind would be afire in the dark. I couldn't wait to grow up so I could read all those books. I began to feel intensely alive. I knew there was a life beyond the physical life, a life of the mind, where the most wondrous things could take place. I was freed from the tyranny of the logic of the world, which didn't have much room for magic.
I became a bed wetter. When my mother returned from work late at night and found I had wet the bed, she'd send me downstairs to sleep with Elisa in the servants' quarters. I remember going down the stairs, late on those frigid nights, crying and dragging my soaked stinky blankets.
My asthma disappeared while we lived in Bogotá, to be replaced by other ailments. I became allergic to certain foods and would get painful rashes and swellings all over my body. A couple of times I came down with pneumonia.
Mother's establishment was home to two kinds of residents: university students and foreignersItalians and Spaniards. An Italian named Bercelli became Mother's lover. I found Bercelli attractive. When he and my mother went into his bedroom to make love, I'd go out on the street and stand under his window, imagining them making love. He was married, but his family was still in Italy. Later, after his family arrived in Bogotá and he moved away from our boardinghouse, he'd bring his young daughter to visit us, while he made love to my mother in the adjoining room. The girl did not speak Spanish, and it was awkward to be with her, knowing what we did about our parents.
Many afternoons on the way home from school I'd fantasize that I'd find my father at home waiting for me. The fantasy was that he had come to take me away to live with his family and raise me as one of his legitimate children. That he never called to inquire about us was a source of pain.
I attended religious instruction to get ready for my first communion. The day before I received communion for the first time I found my mother in our small sitting room, at her sewing machine. As the priest had instructed us, I begged her to forgive me for the many times I had upset her and disobeyed her. I broke down and my mother embraced me. Warmly, she said that she forgave me. This is the first memory I have of my mother hugging me. I was nine.
The boardinghouses kept losing money. Frequently, Mother called my grandfather to ask him to sell some cattle for her. Many boarders skipped in the middle of the night without paying their bills. Others were too poor to pay, and Mother could not bring herself to kick them out.
Almost forty, my mother was still a beautiful woman. She became a high-class prostitute. One night she took me to the whorehouse where she worked and introduced me to a drunken American who spoke to me in English and gave me a stick of chewing gum. I felt humiliated.
The period known in Colombian history as la violencia was still going on. Hundreds of thousands of peasants had died in an undeclared civil war between Liberals and Conservatives. There were mass killings in the countryside just outside Bogotá. Mother would sometimes go away for weekends with military men who had haciendas in tierra caliente south of the savannah of Bogotá. They went there to hunt wild game and to party. Mother must have told me the name of the town or hacienda where she was going that weekend. Sunday night I was in bed listening to the radio when the news came on and the announcer said that bandoleros had entered the hacienda where Mother was staying and they had killed everyone there. What I didn't know was that Mother had left the hacienda shortly before the killings took place.
In addition to listening to Elisa's stories at night, I acquired two significant passions at that time: I fell in love with horses and betting at the racetrack; the other passion was one that would lastthe movies.
Many students at Washington School were the children of the horse trainers at Bogotá's hippodrome. I became an avid follower of the races and a gambler. Many Sunday afternoons I'd go to the racetrack with my mother to bet. I often won. I may have inherited this combination of a love of animals and betting from my father, a well-known gallero, or breeder of fighting cocks. His gallos de pelea were famous throughout the Caribbean.
But the love of the movies turned out to be stronger and more lasting. On Sunday mornings I went to teatro Palermo to the kiddie showsmostly Tarzan movies and the comedies of Abbott and Costello. Soon I started skipping school to attend the matinees by myself. I became friendly with many of the doormen of the movie theaters in Bogotá, and they'd let me go in alone. The film that affected me the most was The African Queen. Throughout my childhood I had recurring nightmares in which I saw Humphrey Bogart's body covered with leeches.
For my eighth birthday a friend presented me with a book, The Adventures of Dick Turpin, a latter-day Robin Hood. This was the first book I read from beginning to end, and from then on my hunger for books was matched only by my love of the cinema.
Despite encouragement from the principal of Washington School, I was a poor student and often got into fights with other boys. All academic subjects except history bored me. In the second grade we learned about the pre-Columbian cultures around the savannah of Bogotá. I got excellent marks in history because the stories of the Zaque and Zipa chiefs of the Chibchas, and the temples they built to the sun and the moon, and the ceremony in which El Dorado washed his gold-covered body in the lagoon of Guatavita, were tales that inflamed my imagination and made me delirious.
I had great legs. My mother invited friends over and asked me to parade around the bedroom in my underwear, showing off my legs. My mother would say, "Doesn't he have legs like Miss Universe?" and one of her friends would add something like, "If I had legs like that, I'd consider myself the luckiest woman in the world." The women cooed their agreement as they sipped coffee and nibbled on almojábanas, a Colombian bread I loved, and pastries. I sashayed around the bedroom, sometimes climbing on the bed to give them a better view of my gams, until the women ran out of words of praise.
Colombians were obsessed with legs. When they praised a woman's beauty, the first asset they mentioned was her legs. These discussions took place even in school. One day our music teacher told us (with great seriousness) that he felt sorry for Liz Taylor because, despite her beautiful face and tiny waist, she had no legs to speak of. He sighed, empathizing with Liz's misfortune, yet another of her tragedies! On the other hand, he added, brightening, Sophia Loren had an asymmetrical face but what legs!
In Bogotá, despite the cool climate, the boys wore short pants to school, British style. I was fully conscious of the beauty of my legs, though boys never commented on them. It was always the women who'd look at me enviously, wishing they had legs like mine to entrap and enslave their men.
There were beauty contests just for legs. The contestants paraded with hoods covering their faces and trunks to make sure that judges would not be distracted by other attributes. I would cut out the pictures of the queens of the legs, tape them on a full-length mirror, and compare their legs with mine. I thought of one day entering one of these pageants and then revealing my gender when I was crowned.
Boys stopped wearing short pants in adolescence. Meantime, I made the best possible use of my legs. I was a tall boy with long legs. Running was a popular sport in Bogotá. Because of asthma my legs were no use to me for long-distance running. But I excelled as a sprinter. I'd imagine myself a horse (a Thoroughbred with great legs) and pushed myself so hard that I won most short races I entered. My legs were also good for hiking the steep mountains right above our home. I'd climb all the way to the top and then descend on the other side to explore pristine mossy woods with crystalline rills.
I was determined to find El Dorado. I wanted to learn as much as I could about it, so one day I went to the National Museum by myselfan advantage of having strong legs was that I began to explore the city alone when I was eight. Our history teacher had mentioned the museum one day in class. It was a dark, drafty, and gloomy place made of huge cold stones. On the first floor I found a display of mummified Chibchas, their translucent skins wrapped tight around their desiccated crouching bodies, the eye sockets vacant, yellowish hair still growing on their heads, long brown teeth showing. I fled the museum, staring at the ground, unwilling to gaze at the world with eyes that now were accomplices in the terrible mystery of death. I held onto a pine tree and threw up. The mummies started haunting my dreams.
The search to find the legendary treasure of El Dorado led me to spend whole days hiking the mountains with my cousin, friends, and, occasionally, my sister. We'd climb all the way to the top of the steep and slippery mountains looking for gold. The orangy soil of the mountains looked like gold to me, and we always returned to the city loaded with rocks we hoped were made of gold. One late afternoon I became lost in a violent hailstorm and got soaked in the icy rain. I caught pneumonia and nearly died. I was in bed for weeks, hallucinating about the treasures of El Dorado.
At the base of the mountain nearest our house was Javeriana University, a Jesuit school. Often, in the late afternoon my sister, my cousin, and I would enter the morgue of the school of medicine by sliding down a slope of gravel behind the building. We'd play hide-and-seek in the morgue, hiding under the sheets that covered the mutilated corpses or in the iceboxes where many cadavers were stored.
One day Elisa informed us that her family's financial situation had improved and that she would be able to return to school to become a pharmacist. We hugged and cried. I don't remember ever crying as much. We had become so attached to her that on her days off we'd go with her to visit her parents. She would rent bicycles for us, and we'd spend the afternoons cycling. The pain I felt after she left was the sharpest and most shattering emotion I had known since Stick Luster's mother had forbidden him to see me again. The two people I had loved the most as a child were taken away from me abruptly. This left me with the dread that all my loved ones would sooner or later be taken from me in cruel ways. For many years afterward I dreamed of running into Elisa. In my teens, when I knew I'd become a writer, I realized that Elisa had fired up my mind, prodding my imagination to want to create its own stories.
Elisa was replaced by another maid, Dioselina. Now it seems clear to me that these women gave me whatever mothering I got as a boy. At first I disliked Dioselina. But soon I grew attached to her too. Dioselina, who was overweight, was not a lover of books, but she shared my passion for the movies. On her days off we'd go see movies in second-run theaters so we could go twice in the same day. We'd go to wrestling matches together. Many freezing nights we sat in the cheapest seats high up in the bullfighting arena where the matches were held. I grew to love Dioselina. I felt sorry for her because her only sister had died the year before she came to work for us in a fire at Tía, a popular convenience store in Colombia.
After I had my first communion, I attended mass regularly on my own. In the late 1950s Bogotá was, like Colombian society at large, medieval in its thinking. The religion teacher told us that if we died during the week without going to mass (and she would warn us that we could be squashed by a bus or truck as we crossed the streets), we would burn forever in hellsuffering the most excruciating pain imaginable. Whenever I did not make it to mass on Sunday, I experienced an insane terror whenever I had to leave the house to go anywhere.
I was growing up a wild child. My sister was a poor student, and she was constantly punished at school. I had to go get her after class to bring her home. Around Christmas time a friend and I were caught stealing toys in a department store. A store detective took us upstairs and threatened that he would announce to the customers that he had caught two thieves. He assured us that if he surrendered us to the crowds below, they would tear us apart. I knew this had happened on several occasions.
I must have been desperately trying to catch Mother's attention. I stopped eating solid foods and lost a great deal of weight. The less I ate, the less appetite I had. Friends of my mother's (the Galeanos) came to Bogotá to seek treatment for their mother, who had cancer. They stayed in our pensión. One night at dinner one of them noticed that I wasn't eating. Then she became alarmed at how skinny I looked. When they questioned me, I told them it was weeks since I had eaten any solid food. My "hunger strike" came to an end.
Several medical students boarded with us. They paid me roughly the equivalent of a quarter to let them hypnotize me for their school experiments. I was pinched with needles and burned with matches. I was wide awake throughout but pretended to be hypnotized so I could save money to go to the movies. One day one of them gave me a human heart to bite. Fully conscious, I bit into it.
This is another memory I have of those years: one of my younger uncles masturbated in front of me in an attic of the house and asked me to give him a blow job. Revolted and horrified, I wondered: Is it obvious I am a maricón?
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