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Courtesy of Manuel Ramos Otero Archive, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Courtesy of Manuel Ramos Otero Archive, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Transnationalism and Manuel Ramos Otero’s “Traveling Theater” of Return

Angel Rodríguez-Díaz, Tsuchigumo. Courtesy of the artist.

Angel Rodríguez-Díaz, Tsuchigumo. Courtesy of the artist.

In one of his better-known stories, “Descuento,” (The Untelling, or Countdown), significantly written shortly before his death from AIDS, Manuel Ramos Otero describes a painting by his former lover, the Puerto Rican artist Angel Rodríguez-Díaz, which illustrates the cover of his last book of stories, Página en blanco y staccato. Titled Tsuchigumo, after the pejorative Japanese name both for a spider-like, mythical race of ghostly creatures and for abjected, despised renegades, Manuel, dressed in a modernista-styled kimono and brandishing an ominous web-like umbrella against the storm, would seem to emerge from the then-crumbling Hudson River piers. Single-mindedly determined, unruffled, unperturbed, Manuel would seem to summon us here to that “traveling theater,” as he calls it in the story, which is his walk. But where is he headed?—we might ask. We cannot tell, for the painting captures him in errancy, in transition, in “transit,” as Juan G. Gelpí, among others, have characterized his work, almost at the edge of the painting, as if he were about to trespass its frame. Perhaps it is toward us—those of us who are gathered here on the other side of Rodríguez-Díaz’s painting, who are the onlookers of his traveling performance, who are unexpectedly both its target and destination—that he directs his ominously spectral theatrical walk.

We might not be able to tell where he is going, yet everything in the story—its title, “Descuento”; the poem it cites, Puerto Rican poet Víctor Fragoso’s long, mournfully allegorical poem about the devastation of AIDS, “El regreso de las tortugas” (The Sea Turtles’ Return); the reference to the monstrous Japanese apparition of the abjected renegade, the many-faceted, spider-like Tsuchigumo—would seem to suggest that Ramos Otero is returning from a past, an origin, an unresolved, traumatically tangled kernel, that we are indeed in the presence of a haunting, a perhaps vengeful return of the repressed, the sudden apparition of “un espíritu atrasado,” or a restless spirit, as Manuel was wont to say, that seeks redress, resorting thus to one of his most cherished and recurrent metaphors for artistic creation—the artist as an ardent, spiritualist-medium partero or midwife for the voices of the socially abjected others, even or especially the other in himself.

Returns are, as we know, always impossible, as Ian Chambers, among others, has eloquently claimed. But they are also, despite their impossibility, despite the inevitable, inconsolable gap that lies between the exile’s vision and the homeland’s landscape at journey’s end, ordinary, quotidian, even frequent and commonplace in our contemporary transnational world, as the recently deceased Puerto Rican critic Juan Flores, for one, most vigorously affirmed in his lucid The Diaspora Strikes Back: Caribeño Tales of Learning and Turning shortly before his untimely death. Returns are only impossible then if we conceive of them as a return to a prior immutable essence, if we think of them as reconciliation or accommodation to a harmoniously pre-established order, rather than as an inevitable lag, a sorrowfully frustrating deferral or disappointing misfit.

But what if we conceive of them, as in so many of Ramos Otero’s stories and poems, as a challenge, a pushing of boundaries, a settling of accounts, a fiercely unyielding, uncompromisingly mournful demand from the past: “Y si al llegar, Borikén es la misma / que te obligó al exilio, sacrifícala” (And if when you return the island of Puerto Rico or Borikén is the same / as when it forced you into exile, sacrifice her), reads a line from one of his most powerful poems from El libro de la muerte, or Book of Death, a poem dedicated to Kavafis which compares the poet’s return to his aboriginal I-land, as Rubén Ríos Avila would say, with that most archetypal of returns, the return of Ulysses’ now tired but carnally assured and seasoned warriors to the Ithaca of their dreams. “Después que cerráramos las ventanas íbamos a quemar las paredes de palma seca del caney de la emperatriz y dejar la Isla para siempre” (After we closed the windows we were going to burn the dry palm walls of the empress’ caney and leave the Island forever), the author asserts in another of his narrative homecomings to the I-land to bury a friend, the transgendered Corteja de la Vida, or Mistress of Life, in his by turns campily deconstructive and mythologizing “Inventario mitológico del cuento.” Returns then can also be combative, assertive, demand a response from the home country, even a change, as Lina Meruane has most recently and brilliantly postulated for a significant portion of the Latin American literary corpus on AIDS. They can turn that inevitable inconsolable gap that is the returned migrant’s vision into an opportunity for alternative readings, cartographies, and meanings, as Maya Horn has suggested. Like the great Cuban writer José Lezama Lima, who was fond of quoting Nietzsche, Manuel might have said, “He who returns to origins will find instead origins for new beginnings.”

Manuel Ramos Otero, the poet of exile, of eternal displacement, exodus and flight, the sexile who escaped, as he explained, the conservatism and homophobia of his native Borikén, who was always already elsewhere, always already “dislocated,” as Ríos Avila and Jossiana Arroyo have both maintained, in that other island he called “the other island of Puerto Rico,” I would like to suggest, was also a poet of returns: someone who took seriously the exile’s melancholy, even maudlin, homesickness as an opportunity to re-immerse himself in the forced, abject routes of his or her displacement, to disinter them, as it were, in order to create alternative routes and genealogies, voices, logics, rhythms, and meanings. And it is through this valiant and indeed fiercely creative effort to assume and reimagine these colonial and postcolonial routes from the perspectives both of a colonial and queer migrant that Manuel Ramos Otero, we might say, becomes for us in Puerto Rico and New York one of the predecessors of an alternative contestatory transnational literature which, as Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel and Lawrence LaFountain-Stokes, among others, have claimed, will turn, shortly after his death from AIDS in 1990, into the prevailing cutting-edge current in the city’s and the island’s literary and cultural output.

Perhaps there is no clearer example of Ramos Otero’s poetics of return as creative reimagining of the imposed routes of colonial migration than his brilliantly compelling short story, “Vivir del cuento,” astutely translated by Joe Chadwick as “The Scheherazade Complex.” A story about the Puerto Rican migration to Hawaii through the new imperial routes that the Spanish-Cuban-American War of 1898 made possible, “The Scheherazade Complex” is also a collectively-written tale that imaginatively rewrites those imposed routes from the transnational perspectives of a queer Puerto Rican writer exiled in New York, Manuel Ramos Otero; a fellow Puerto Rican writer of the generation of the 1970s who has returned home from New York, the author Magali García Ramis; a New York Puerto Rican historian from the Bronx who has migrated to Hawaii, Norma Carr; and a fictional testimonial character from Manatí, Puerto Rico, Ramos Otero’s birthplace, who as a child was taken to Hawaii to work on its sugar plantations as an indentured servant, Monserrate Alvarez, a character who is writing to these other professional interlocutors from that “other island of Puerto Rico” which is the leper colony off the coast of Maui, in the island of Molokai. Immersing themselves in these global colonial migratory routes, the characters in the story practice an art not unlike Scheherazade’s, the female narrator of The Arabian Nights, who under the threat of death told the despotic king Shahryar her ever-deferring, captivating thousand-and-one tales to prolong her life and the lives of the other women of Persia. Like her art, the feminine diasporic art of Ramos Otero’s story deploys a complex repertory of narrative strategies, digressions, interruptions, flights, and escapes that retard, prolong, and collectively and rhizomatically extend the imposed shared routes of colonial migration, deferring thus, though not transcending, abjection and death, for in the end, for Ramos Otero, there is no postcolonial, liberatory space, no ultimate transcendent home to return to, no roots, as Clifford has warned, only routes, and all writing is but the fading, ephemeral, cinder-like trace, the murderous “staccato” on “the blank page,” that is the collective, dialogical act of storytelling, which is his ominously performative, rhizomatic, theatrical walk. For in the end, for Ramos Otero, all writing is but the mournful residue of an epitaph.

Yet for me the most gripping example of his imaginative rewriting of the routes of colonial abjection is his story “Loca la de la Locura” (Queen of Madness, or Madwoman of Queerness), originally published in Reintegro, the 1980s Puerto Rican journal of arts and culture. In what I consider one of the most beautifully arresting passages of all Puerto Rican and New York Latino literatures, the transvestite cabaret singer, Loca la de la Locura, who has been pining away in her jail of solitude, her “cage of spite,” for murdering her straight-trade lover Nene Lindo (significantly named after one of Ramos Otero’s childhood nicknames), has been set free and prepares to exit the Oso Blanco State Penitentiary, then in the periphery of the City of San Juan. “Vencida pero jamás acorralada” (Defeated but never cornered), as the text reads, inverting thus the normative order of the more conventional saying, “Cornered but never defeated,” to suggest, instead of a teleological advancement toward freedom, the possibility of movement, of multiple, rhizomatic movements, within defeat, La Loca begins the long and intrepid journey that will take her from the abjection of the penitentiary to the marked visibility of the city’s center. Like a slum-dwelling Norma Desmond waiting to receive the sudden flash of recognition and Manuel Ramos Otero’s single-mindedly determined, performative walker in Rodríguez-Díaz’s painting, La Loca advances. But her walk toward the normative center, the visibility of recognition, the flash of freedom is more than a way of following a merely predictable, pre-established route; it is instead an immersion in an in-between, border-effacing, groundless space, “another eviction notice,” as the text reads, the creative deployment of successive and imaginative lines of flight or drift, as Deleuze and Guattari would say, in an intense and mobile Foucauldian game of chess with the vigilant gaze of the jail’s other inmates who, like the ballroom children in Jenny Livingston’s Paris Is Burning, constitute in the story a hostile audience to La Loca’s warlike theater of traveling moves. Turning defeat or “derrota” into derroteros, maritime courses or routes, deploying what Judith Halberstam has called a strange, inventive and resistant “queer art of failure,” La Loca makes her way, or rather ways, with her intricate, ingenious leaps of logic, changes of rhythm, fanciful and aggressive corporeal poses and feats, and simple, plain, and unjustifiable insolence or attitude, moves that leave in their wake, like so much shed skin, the trace of those other provisional imaginative urban cartographies which de Certeau has called “immigrant” or “migrating” cities:

After breakfast they told me, Queen of Madness, the street’s all yours. It hurts to leave behind pieces of skin from this life of mine stuck to the walls of the cell. Another eviction notice. The home where I’ve lived for so many years suddenly disappears ... The first gate opens up. There she goes, Queen of Madness, pure in soul. Yet tougher than a toothless old shark, gums scabbed from chewing so long on the termite-bitten wheels of her troubled destiny. The second gate opens up. The tenants of Oso Blanco jump up like ticks to see Queen of Madness go by for the last time, she who sang them boleros in her cage of spite. The third gate opens up. Don’t get too close, this is no bolero; it’s Queen of Madness dancing to a resentful tango, her corns aching from waiting so long. The fourth gate opens up ... Carcamal y talcualita, decrepit and nonchalant, Queen of Madness is walking out solita, all alone, her memories entrenched in her worm-eaten dentures, anxious amidst loose skin and cuticles, with no double-edged razor to soften the unbearable forests of her underarms or her ham hock legs invaded by varicose veins, worried yet composed, filing wilted thoughts under her rusty bald head, dreaming that she was (still is) fresher than a head of lettuce, unaltered and faithful as a muse wrapped in magnificent chiffons and Gypsy flounces, hot and exotic, without a hint of a frown on her brow, paler than a jailed magnolia. The seventh gate opens up, and the afternoon light blinds Queen of Madness, now pinned to the precipice of her solitude, as my mother would say, may she rest in peace. All the way! (238; my translation)

Today Manuel Ramos Otero has returned to us in his fading photos in the decaying Hudson River piers, in the halting, scratchy recordings of his last interviews, in the long, loose, jagged, staccato-like script of his handwritten postcards and letters in Columbia’s new archive of Manuel Ramos Otero Papers, in his puño y letra. But like the traveling theater of moves that are his novel, short stories, and poems, these ephemeral traces of what was his life and work cannot be easily apprehended, codified, or fixed. Instead, like espíritus atrasados or restless spirits, they call on us, demanding that we offer our body and blood—la buena tinta de nuestra sangre—to assume and extend their lives, and with them, the abject colonial routes where “the other islands” of Puerto Rico and New York, the other collectively rhizomatic tales, the other spectral voices lie in wait for us like a stealthy and unerring assassin coming out of a painting’s frame.

Arnaldo M. Cruz-Malavé is professor of Spanish and comparative literature, and director of the Latin American and Latino Studies Institute at Fordham University in New York. He is the author of Queer Latino Testimonio, Keith Haring, and Juanito Xtravaganza: Hard Tails, a book about art and queer Latino popular culture in the gentrifying New York of the 1980s, El primitivo implorante, a study of nationalism and sexuality in the fiction of the neobaroque author José Lezama Lima, and coeditor, with Martin Manalansan, of Queer Globalization: Citizenship and the Afterlife of Colonialism.

Works Cited

Arroyo, Jossiana. 2005. “Itinerarios de viaje: Las otras islas de Manuel Ramos Otero.” Revista Iberoamericana 71(212) (July-September 2005): 865-85.

De Certeau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Chambers, Ian. 1994. Migrancy, Culture, Identity. London: Routledge.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

Flores, Juan. 2009. The Diaspora Strikes Back: Caribeño Tales of Learning and Turning. London: Routledge.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage.

Gelpí, Juan G. 1993. Literatura y paternalismo en Puerto Rico. Río Piedras: Universidad de Puerto Rico.

Horn, Maya. 2008. “Queer Caribbean Homecomings: The Collaborative Art Exhibits of Nelson Ricart-Guerrero and Christian Vauzalle.” GLQ 14(2-3): 361-81.

LaFountain-Stokes, Lawrence. 2009. Queer Ricans: Cultures and Sexualities in the Diaspora. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota.

Martínez-San Miguel, Yolanda. 2003. Caribe Two Ways: Cultura de la Migración en el Caribe Insular Hispánico. San Juan: Callejón.

Meruane, Lina. 2012. Viajes virales. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Ramos Otero, Manuel. 1987. “Descuento.” Página en blanco y staccato. Madrid: Playor: 89-111.

———. 1979. “Inventario mitológico del cuento.” In El cuento de la mujer del mar, 69–86. Río Piedras: Ediciones Huracán.

———. 1985. “Kavafis.” In El libro de la muerte, 59–60. Maplewood, N.J.: Waterfront, and Río Piedras, Puerto Rico: Editorial Cultural.

———. 1992. “Loca la de la locura.” In Cuentos de buena tinta, 233–40. San Juan: Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña.

———. 1987. “Vivir del cuento.” In Página en blanco y staccato, 49–68. Madrid: Playor.

———. 1989. “The Scheherazade Complex.” Trans. Joe Chadwick. The Portable Lower East Side. 6(1): 131–62.

Ríos Avila, Rubén. 1998. “Caribbean Dislocations: Arenas and Ramos Otero in New York.” In Hispanisms and Homosexualities, eds. Sylvia Molloy and Robert McKee Irwin, 101–19. North Carolina: Duke UP.