“Now more than ever, my words conjure your silence”
(dedication to John Anthes, from El libro de la muerte)
In a text from Invitación al polvo, La nada de nuestros nunca cuerpos, Manuel Ramos Otero writes: “The elderly women of Mondoñedo bring ears of corn to the little Galician girl, over which falangist flies flutter, flies who never heard a cuplé by Sara Montiel.” The villagers were from San Martiño, in the area of Castro Caldelas in Ourense, a misty verdant mountainous province, underdeveloped, landlocked, poverty-stricken. And the gift was not corn, but rather, freshly churned butter. And the little girl was me, a hypersensitive, overprotected and spoiled ten-year-old, born and raised in New York City’s Upper West Side, on her first trip to her parents’ homeland. I was a girly doll, dressed in a pink frilly embroidered dress, white patent-leather mary-janes with delicate lace socks, my braids adorned by white satin ribbons, ears pierced by tiny gold earrings, wrist encircled by a charm bracelet, neck by a necklace from which hung a pendant depicting Nuestra Señora de los Milagros. There I was, at the door of the paternal stone hut, looking at the old toothless villager, with the aquiline nose and wrinkles marked and blackened by the millennial earth and soil. I suppose I was as strange to her as she was to me. There she was, looking at the butter over which flitted the fascist flies, butter which had little to do with Breakstone.
Galicia was an important link between Manuel and me. Towards the end of the ‘80s, when he knew he was dying, the memory of his mother as a young woman obsessed him, whose beauty was now barely visible in the face of an elderly woman, confined to her bed, a victim of Alzheimer’s. Manuel would tell me that I was the living image of the young Carmen Ana Otero, whose youthful loveliness had been engendered generations past in Galicia, birthplace of the Oteros, birthplace of my parents. When Manuel left on his final voyage to Puerto Rico, his women friends were faced with an apartment full of memories, among which I discovered a photograph of a woman who was my mirror, Carmen Ana at 33, my exact age at the time.
My childhood memory had become his, just as so many of his had become mine. When he read that poem to me (which in fact holds so many references to the women who were caring for him) in the hospital room at Beth Israel, I was moved that he had given me a space in his complex literary imagination. Undoubtedly, Manuel had occupied an immense space in the melancholy territory of my life, but upon his death in October of 1990, I was so spent, so traumatized by the last three months of his hospitalization and deterioration that I became paralyzed with grief. I took the mementos from our friendship—his old mauve cashmere sweater, the wooden pilón, the tiny delicate espresso cups and saucers, the collection of blue glass bottles, the silver dove brooch, the letters and postcards, the decapitated gold cherub—and deposited them in a fragrant wooden Moroccan chest which I locked…my way of burying, of erasing the devastation of his illness and death. I opened it in the summer of 1994, upon defending my dissertation and dissolving the problematic relationship I had been in for ten miserable years. Only then was I able to remember, to consolidate the dispersed fragments of my shattered psyche, to reflect upon the very singular friendship between this extraordinary man and me.
When I finished my course work and exams at Princeton in the mid 80’s, I returned to NYC to work on my dissertation. The competitiveness of my peers and the sadism of the professors had left me emotionally exhausted and intellectually insecure. I went to see the renowned poetry scholar Jose Olivio Jiménez for guidance, and he invited me to audit a course on Modernismo, my thesis topic, at the CUNY Grad Center, which soon became my intellectual home.
I will never forget the first time I walked into Jose Olivio’s classroom. The only empty seat was next to one of the most striking men I had ever seen, who looked as if had just stepped out of an El Greco canvas. He exuded gravitas, purely and simply stated—a dark somber face, black hair and eyebrows, hypnotic eyes and and long limbs that the small seat could not contain. He was smoking a Benson and Hedges menthol 100, and his dark hands, with their long, tapered fingers moved to an idiosyncratic and graceful choreography reminiscent of a tropical Marcel Marceau. He looked at me introduced himself; he was Manuel Ramos Otero, a brilliant and charismatic Puerto Rican poet. His face and gaze told me he had seen it and done it all. He was a Puerto Rican New Yorker, citizen of the world, and had been praised as the next Borges.
After a few weeks, it was clear that we were kindred spirits, connected in so many different areas of experience. We shared a love for the French Decadent poets, for Modernismo and for García Lorca. Perhaps Manuel’s most important gift to me was that he taught me to dream in Spanish, to love my mother tongue which I had discarded in favor of English as a child, to love my language in all its modalities, from the Spanglish of the Barrio, to the Puerto Rican Spanish of la Isla , to the Spanish of Renaissance poetry. His own baroque and polyphonic use of the language started to free me from the professional restrictions of academic Spanish and a personal context in which I felt pressured to conform to some rigid and purist idea of what the language was. Manuel’s connection to U.S. culture and his appreciation of English was fundamental in the recovery of my “American-ness” which I had left behind to explore my Hispanic-ness, in an endless vacillation between two languages and cultures. He loved and understood Diana Ross and Walt Whitman as well as Cervantes and Neruda. He was also instrumental in my understanding of who I truly was: a hybrid, a mix, of various components of Hispanic/Latino/US cultures.
This Manuel I initially met eventually would suffer the inevitable physical and emotional transformations of HIV. In addition to the memories of the never-ending parties and conversations, I also delved into other memories, those of the last months before his death. Manuel’s contagious brilliance and vitality was ever present, even in these terrible moments. The suffering, anguished and ill Manuel was just as compelling as the healthy Manuel, and his consciousness of his impending demise intensified his already larger-than-life, absorbing personality. He would demand my presence at all times, which was impossible because I was managing the bureaucratic aspect of his hospital stay such as finances and insurance. I was also trying to finish an interminably agonizing dissertation. He would often call me and say, “Fuck that thesis. I am going to die soon and you will have no one to talk to. THEN you can finish it, so come to me right now”.
He made me and his other women friends suffer by telling us what he saw as the truths of our lives. As Edmund White has written: “Unhappy women! How many of them I’ve known. Sniffling or drinking with big reproachful eyes, silent or complaining, violent or depressed—a whole tribe of unhappy women have always surrounded me.” Manuel forced us to confront our realities which we neither desired to nor were ready to face. But he would also read to us, the poems from IAP. At times, in his moments of dementia, he would make us roar with laughter. His dementia was an intensified manifestation of his creativity, imagination and theatricality which manifested itself in detailed, byzantine, and surprisingly coherent stories, which upon hearing them sounded extremely real. He was viviendo del cuento, with great aplomb and desperation. Manuel became convinced that his caring marvelous doctor was involved in an elaborate cocaine ring, and that the nurses would come in at night and hide many kilos in his room. He would call me in those terrible predawn hours and beg me to report them to the police. His desperation, his insistence, were starting to convince me that perhaps it was all too real, for he seduced me with his stories into sharing his imaginary world.
There were other moments which moved me deeply…among them the night that he insisted we sit down and make a list of the items he was to bequeath to his chosen family of women, which reproduced his childhood and adolescence. I started crying and he chided me for my infantile reaction. “Just write down what I tell you and stop the tonterías and lloriqueos. I do not have much time left to waste on your infantile emotional reactions.” He indicated that we were to share the books, music and personal objects, that the carved Puerto Rican saints would go to his sisters, the typewriter to a friend who didn’t seem to be making much progress on her thesis. He then reached into his bag and said, “This is for you.” It was this Mexican silver dove brooch that had belonged to his mother…He said, “It was mami’s, it is now yours, because you look just like her.” He placed it in my hands, squeezed them feebly, pressing the object into my palm, with those frail hands that had often held me forcefully twirling me around dancing to the sounds of Maelo and Cortijo, hands that spun me as if I were a dancer made of feathers and clouds. The gift was of course symbolic, an emblematic gesture representing, crystallizing, the notion of chosen family, for we were siblings of sorts, chosen companions in darkness and light.
The void left by Manuel’s absence was overwhelming, and it was only years later, on one of my first trips to Puerto Rico, that I was able to fill that void by visiting his home town, Manatí. There I was, in the land that saw his birth and death, Manuel, caballero de provincias, in his white linen suit, Manuel, salsero, plenero, rumbero, teller of tall tales. I remember his story of his drag persona, Miss Condominium, of his being followed by homophobes and threatened with death. My partner and I strolled around the town, visited the old marketplace (now a cultural center), the church of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria, the fountain adorned by bronze manatis. We happened upon a sign for a fonda called el Nuevo Sabrosón, name which could have been invented by Manuel himself. We arrived at the old cemetery, in search of the statue he embraces on the cover of IAP. I found her and embraced her, touched her, felt him. All this might sound excessively sentimental, but I needed to trace his footsteps in his town, to see what he had seen…the colors, the ocean, the sky.
We finally arrived at Mar Chiquita on this grey overcast day, where his ashes had been scattered. Melancholy. I had El libro de la muerte with me and I walked to the edge of the sea and read the poem Kavafis, “your heart has always been azure like the sea…” I contemplated the sea, then suddenly I spontaneously executed a gesture, a secret ritual which I cannot reveal, a ritual marking life and death. The gesture was immediately followed by a black cloudburst, then by lightning and heavy rain. When I returned to the car, my partner said, “that thunder was Manuel chiding you for your silliness.” Perhaps it was true…
Manuel had invited me to go to Puerto Rico with him so many times, so many times I said no due to depression, my thesis, my crumbling relationship. I had to wait many years to finally travel to his mythical island home. Just as LGBTQ peoples who are exiles from their communities and families of origins have had to invent new families, chosen families, some of us who live in the borderlands of cultural identities also invent places that are our chosen homes. When I finally traveled to Puerto Rico, many years later, twelve years after Manuel’s death in fact, I knew where I was going. I knew I was returning to a culture that had adopted me. To a place that was familiar to me, through my friends’ memories, which had become mine, where the cadences of the language, where the pastels of Old San Juan, and yes, the palm trees completed my triangulated geography of identity…Galicia, New York City, and Puerto Rico.