Sexuality and the Public Sphere
Lawrence M La Fountain-Stokes

"Queer Puerto Rican Translocalities: Music, Origins, and Performativity in Teatro Pregones's El bolero fue mi ruina [The Bolero Was My Downfall]"

The bolero seduces. Wong Kar-Wai knows it well, and thus Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung become desperate, doomed lovers in In The Mood For Love set against a backdrop of classic Latin American boleros sung in a thick, English-accented Spanish by none other than Nat King Cole. A film for the new millennium, in Cantonese and Shanghainese, set in 1960s Hong Kong, with a score in Spanish sung by an African American crooner who has conquered so many hearts. Of course, Wong Kar-Wai had already, in Happy Together, set star-crossed Hong Kong Chinese gay men in Buenos Aires, staring at Foz de Iguaçú from the air with music by the Brazilian Caetano Veloso not in Portuguese but Spanish, gay lovers caught up in the passion of tango, soccer, mate and meat. And this is no coincidence: tango is in many sentimental, erotic ways the Porteño equivalent of the Mexican-Caribbean bolero, of the Portuguese fado, as Iris Zavala has suggested in El bolero: Historia de un amor, of so many other love songs: tango, bolero, danzón, fado, songs of modernity crossed with an intense desire for the impossible, for perfect love, the longing, the painful realization of that just beyond reach; music of an androgynous voice, deep in the case of women, ethereal, near falsetto in the case of men; music of undetermined love objects, of ambiguity, of the you and I, regardless or so very much because of your sex. Bolero, the nostalgic recuperation of a Cuba that no longer is, for José Quiroga in Tropics of Desire: the musical equivalent of that erotic photograph by Benno Thoma that graces the cover of his book. Bolero, the motivator for a queer peregrination across the Caribbean in Luis Rafael Sánchez's La importancia de llamarse Daniel Santos, or, as my friend Ben. Sifuentes Jáuregui has reminded me, the importance of being, or loving, not Ernest, but rather, a bolero singer in our post-Oscar-Wildean times.
I was recently dumped by an artist-turned-poet and confess than in my profoundly depressed state, I found no greater solace than to listen to Paquita la del Barrio, that Mexican institution that sings of squashing men like bugs. Tres veces te engañé, Tres veces te engañé, Tres veces te engañé: la primera por coraje, la segunda por capricho, la tercera por placer. But of course I didn't fool or cheat on him, or at least I don't think I did, but it doesn't really matter. All that seems to count somehow is that she could say all of those things that I felt I couldn't, like: ¿Me estás oyendo, inútil? And that all of a sudden I was back in Monterrey, at the "Shakira" drag cabaret that Jorge Merced had told me about, sitting in a nearly empty room at the Teatro Concert Fréber entranced by a drag queen singing Paquita's songs. So much so that for me, México became about women: not only María Félix, que descanse en paz la Doña, quien murió durante su sueño el día de su octogésimo octavo cumpleaños, Doña Bárbara, la María Bonita de Agustín Lara, la que le causó la pena en el infierno al pobre Jorge Negrete, but also Paquita la del Barrio and Paulina Rubio, La Pau, whom I later saw in Mexico City done by an ugly drag queen on a stage at El Zócalo, in front of the Cathedral and a gigantic tricolor flag, after last year's twenty-third gay pride parade in the capital or distrito federal. Bolero, thus, is about memory: of the body, of place, of space and time. Bolero marks our lives and indexes our experience, creating a referential transcript of love.
Today's presentation isn't meant to be all about me although maybe it really is. I want to talk about Jorge Merced's reinterpretation of Manuel Ramos Otero's murderous transvestite, the bolero singer and an inveterate teller of love tales Loca la de la locura, The Queen of Madness, that is to say, Teatro Pregones's play El bolero fue mi ruina [The Bolero Was my Downfall], first staged in New York City (in the Bronx, to be precise) in 1997. I want to talk about music, transgenderedness and translocality: migration, sexual and erotic play, aural, stereophonic stimulation and desire.
Jorge Merced forms part of a group of contemporary queer Puerto Rican performers that I have affectionately referred to as trans-locas: Freddie Mercado, Eduardo Alegría, Javier Cardona, Arthur Avilés. What are trans-locas? As I have said elsewhere:
There is no doubt that the five performers I mention could not be more different the one from the other; that they perhaps might not be thrilled by this new-found category; that perhaps it is more a critical-interpretive fantasy of mine than a novel lexical item or neologism which truly responds to the particularities of the artists. Nevertheless I find it fascinating to compare the five, in a type of Fernando Ortiz-ean performative drag sancocho-por no decir ajiaco-precisely because of their rather divergent styles.
I would like to suggest that the prefix "trans" be understood as linked to this difference in the context of the translocal and the transgender: to translocal madness, trans-queer space, or perhaps, as the title of Meg Weslin's presentation yesterday on Mariposas en el Andamio [Butterflies on the Scaffold], to the trans in transsexual and transnational: is it the same? I see that which is "trans" not necessarily under the optic of the unstable, or in between, or in the middle of things, but rather as the core of transformation-change, the power or ability to mold, reorganize, construct-and of longitude: the transcontinental, transatlantic, but also transversal (oblique and not direct). This transgeneric transitoriness implies several challenges to dominant notions of Puerto Ricanness which do not incorporate nor accept migration (be it the migrant diasporic community in the US or non-Puerto Rican immigrants in the island, as Yolanda Martínez San Miguel and Jorge Duany have so carefully shown) nor non-normative sexualities that stray beyond straight. I think it can also be associated to the transgression of mediums (or genres) that Francisco José Ramos has identified as part of the "poetics of experimentation" in relation to the artistic production of a number of recent visual artists, including among them Freddie Mercado.
"Loca," in its own right, also suggests or proposes a form of hysterical identity (pathologized at the clinical level, scandalous at the popular one) constitutive of the individual lacking sanity, composure, or ascription to dominant norms: effeminate homosexuals, mad women, rebels for any cause; marginalized categories that in an ironic and playful gesture I would like to resemanticize in the style of the Anglo-American term "queer": "loca" as maricón (faggot) friends calls one another, como Angel Lozada me grita cada vez que me ve, as a sign of complicity and understanding, of being entendidos (those in the know, in the life), and not as a hostile insult, joke or putdown; "loca" as perhaps seen by Deleuze through the filter of the Argentinean Néstor Perlongher, or of Deleuze and Irigaray, as read by Elizabeth Grosz; "loca" as suggested by Erasmus's Elogio de la locura [In Praise of Folly], read as a foundational Latin American text in the spirit of Cervantes's Don Quixote by the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes; "loca," at last, like Gilbert and Gubar's madwoman in the attic, and Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea.
The performative character of this "loca" (mad) condition is reflected in the transvestic game, which occurs with greater ease in the sphere of social interaction but also extends into the theoretical, as in Sarduy's essays on simulation. The five performers (Freddie Mercado, Eduardo Alegría, Javier Cardona, Jorge Merced, Arthur Avilés), in differing ways and at different moments, allude to or incarnate tendencies or auras linked to this sphere. I say "loca" in a loud voice, with a shrill tone, and without wanting to offend anyone except those unwilling to hear and accept; "loca" as the recently deceased Puerto Rican drag queen and Stonewall veteran Sylvia Rivera might have said the words "queen" or "trannie" or "fag," with her unmistakably deep, scratchy, Bronx-inflected voice. Loca, as a celebration of liberty, as Arnaldo Cruz Malavé affirms:
Ungrateful, contemporary Puerto Rican writers have decided to speak not from the space of a stable, "virile," and "mature" identity but from that "patological milieu" of castration and gender-crossing, superfluity and equivocalness that both Pedreira and Marqués display and condemn. If in the latter's texts, Puerto Rico is imagined as a torturously closeted young man endlessly sliding toward the "normality" of heterosexuality and the recovery of a paternal order, in contemporary Puerto Rican writing this ambivalent pato opts instead for his locura and blossoms into a self-conscious drag-queen. (151)
It is this very same movement which I am looking for in the performative corpus I will analyze: literally, of a duck (pato) opting for madness (locura); figuratively, of a faggot in search of queerdom or homosexual bliss.
The critic Lowell Fiet has remarked upon the divided, split but conciliatory condition of Puerto Rican drama in a crucial number of the Cuban theater journal Conjunto published in May of 1997 and dedicated to the "other?" Puerto Rican theater, specifically in his article "El teatro puertorriqueño: puente aéreo entre ambas orillas" [Puerto Rican Theater: Air Bridge Between Both Coasts]. José (Keke) Rosado has, on the other hand, brought attention to the topic of sexual orientation as part of the "liminal" in what he calls the "new" new Puerto Rican dramaturgy, principally as it is manifested on the island in diverse spectacles which range from shows at discos such as those of Willie Rosario at Lazer, the collaborations of Eduardo Alegría and Javier Cardona at the Dharma Center, and the performances of Antonio Pantojas and Markus Kuiland-Nazario (also known as Carmen) at the alternative festival Rompeforma. My own essay is an effort to bring these concerns together, to integrate notions of geography and space to those of sexual and gender orientation. Alberto Sandoval Sánchez is another critic who has documented and analyzed diasporic theater with great care, paying special close attention to matters of gender, race, class, and sexuality, particularly in his book José Can You See? Latinos On and Off Broadway and in his co-edited volume (with Nancy Saporta-Sternbach) Puro Teatro; Sandoval has been concerned with queer U.S. Latino productions but has deliberately chosen not to write about island culture, a critical move that he has explained as having to do with his rejection of the imperative to come home to die of AIDS. Yet how do you bridge this island and mainland queer divide?
In a fascinating case of translocal affinities and identifications, the actor Jorge Merced, firmly entrenched in the Bronx as a key figure of Pregones Theater, offers what at first sight might seem to be a rather island-centered performance: The Bolero Was My Downfall (1997-2002), a work directed by Rosalba Rolón, with a musical script by Desmar Guevarra and set design by Regina García, based on the early 1980s short story "The Queen of Madness" by Manuel Ramos Otero. Pregones Theater is, in fact, an acclaimed company which has been a bastion of Puerto Rican artistic production in New York City (and particularly in the South Bronx) for over 22 years. This one-man play, which has an additional two musicians who interact with the actor on stage, has been shown widely in the United States, Europe, and Latin America-causing a controversy in Mexico last summer, for example-and is centered on the divergent internal monologues and the memoristic reconstructions of an incarcerated transvestite in Puerto Rico, who meditates in her cell at Oso Blanco Prison about why she killed her lover, Nene Lindo [Pretty Baby]. There is no mention in the play of migration to the US or of the Diaspora, although there is a fascinating linguistic usage which indicates the North American presence in Puerto Rico through lexical borrowing and references to foreign products and businesses which define colonial island life.
Merced has explained that the performance came about after he received the original manuscript for the story from José Olmo Olmo, a friend of the deceased author, who in fact lived most of his adult life in a self-imposed exile provoked by the sexual intolerance he perceived on the island; a condition that Manolo Guzmán has suggestively termed sexile, also explored by Frances Negrón Muntaner in her hybrid 1994 film Brincando el charco: Portrait of a Puerto Rican. The recuperation of the transvestite's world, involving cabaret drag queens and bugarrones (manly men who sleep with other men but never assume a gay identity), is a curious juxtaposition to the more common, typical nostalgic recollection of a tropical paradise marked by exuberant nature or, to the contrary, to the angry denunciation of the conditions which cause emigration in the first place. We can interpret this work as a simple incursion in Latin American or more specifically, Puerto Rican matters; however, to see it as a diasporic production implies an alternate relation to the country of origin, one where notably different phenomena and social realities are experienced. This play attracts a varied, enormously faithful audience: both those who like and identify with the nostalgic music (boleros) as well as those for whom the sexual/affective system portrayed is particularly well-known, appealing, or intriguing. It is not uncommon for people to have seen this play more than once over the years. It would thus seem that El bolero has more to do with what theorists such as Juan Flores have identified as early cultural stages of migration cultural production, in which the country of origin is privileged, and as such having more to do with first generation migrants than successive generations; what is most interesting about Pregones Theater is that their repertoire is mostly made up of works closely linked to the new immigrant experience, concretely fixed in New York and the Bronx, and in this sense, this piece is somewhat anomalous. Then again, if with Ruth Glasser, we privilege music as a site for the construction of diasporic Puerto Rican identity, as she does in her book My Music Is My Flag, then perhaps it is not so important whether there is an explicit mention of the condition itself, an overdetermination of sorts, since the very reenactment of the music serves a social function in and of itself.
In The Bolero Was My Downfall, the hirsute, bald, ultramasculine body of the actor becomes first an imprisoned aging man; then, through gestures, makeup and clothes, a feminine Puerto Rican transvestite-an icon of sexualized music-and finally, a cocky, seductive, smartly dressed and soon-to-be-murdered young Latin lover. The actor thus cross-dresses both into masculinity and femininity, as all of these gender presentations are constructed on the grounds of a corporeal enactment which is reminiscent of Judith Butler's theorizations on the performativity of gender. It is also remarkable that this most Puerto Rican of works was produced outside of the island, at a moment when most gay works presented here in official theaters such as the Centro de Bellas Artes are translations and adaptations of North American plays such as Mart Crowley's awfully dated, early 1970s Boys in the Band, the somewhat better La cage aux folles, and even La Señorita Margarita as interpreted by Alex Soto. It is precisely for this reason that I find it more interesting to place Merced in the context of island and diasporic experimental performers, visual artists, and postmodern dancers such as Cardona, Alegría, Mercado and Avilés, rather than comparing him to Edwin Pabellón or even the work of Juan González and Producciones Candilejas. His work is also different from the night club performances of drag queens such as those of Alex Soto, Barbara Herr, Liza Fernanda, Laritza DuMont, or the deceased Lady Catiria, in its representational style (a closed theater), and as part of the repertoire of a professional touring company; distinctions that perhaps could easily and productively be deconstructed. It seems important to mention, furthermore, that Pregones has also had other theater initiatives which directly deal with issues of homosexuality, such as their Augusto Boal-inspired theater forum work on AIDS education and their more recent Asunción play-writing grants (more information available on the web).
In El Bolero, Loca is in prison with her scarce possessions: a small makeup kit and a pink satin album embroidered with lace, where she keeps photos, press clippings about her case, and the braids of her mad and deceased mother. The solitary bed and the empty cell-the narrative space-are bordered by other environments: a stage with sparkling stars, a moon and a golden palm tree between the two musicians who accompany the young and the old Loca and Nene Lindo in their musical remembrances; a profusion of plastic flowers and small white crosses which delineate the cemetery, the space where the play begins and ends.
Jorge Merced's chameleon-like ability to transform himself in front of the audience from an aging convict into a ladies' man and then a glamorous transvestite cabaret performer is quite impressive; his mutations conclude with an androgynous figure clad in black that visits the cemetery. While in Ramos Otero's story we mainly hear the tale through the protagonist's voice, in the staged adaptation we see the myriad transformations of the convict who becomes a multiplicity of characters, bringing numerous memories to life. The experience is reminiscent of the lively imagination of the imprisoned French narrator of Jean Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers. Alarmingly, at times it is the stereotypical figure of the sexist male lover who receives the loudest approval from the audience. However, this does not diminish the evident enthusiasm when Loca performs boleros by Toña La Negra, Lucho Gatica or Myrta Silva; especially when Loca changes into a spectacular silver outfit, crowned by a rumbera-style headwrap and shiny bejeweled maracas, and lures the audience into clapping and singing the chorus along with her: "La vida es un problema" [Life is a problem], "yo sí lo sé."
Ultimately, the protagonist's recovery of her life memories is accompanied by revelations about the causes of the tragic ending of her love affair: fear of aging and of being left alone, having dreamed of eternal youth; envy of the male lover's appearance, and concern that he would leave her if she didn't look good; finally the "macho's" resistance to being penetrated by the supposedly "passive" transvestite. At the climax of the play, the protagonist savagely attacks the air with a knife, tracing the fury of her memories, cleansing her thoughts, revisiting her crime of passion.
This well achieved adaptation of one of Ramos Otero's most notable stories presents a no-holds-barred account of the complexities of male homosexual or transgender love, particularly when it is circumscribed within rigid social norms that hinder the fluidity and evolution of a relationship; it also shows the survival of a "marginal" character. It is firmly placed within the world of the bolero, a space that offers possibilities for masculine sentimentality and hidden tears, and which builds a dramatic stage for unbridled passion and frustrated love, pretty much like the world of Hollywood's classic films or the great films of Mexico's golden era.
Rosalba Rolón's direction underlines the connections between the collective imaginary and popular culture, between how we perceive love based on what we sing about and what we want to listen to; through idealized notions and different levels of affect. El bolero fue mi ruina transits these spaces of desire, grounded in nostalgia, false illusions and reality's terrible violence. In the five years that the play has been presented, countless numbers of spectators have seen it and had widely divergent reactions, from people wanting to walk on stage in the middle of the show to dance and give dollar bill tips to the performer in Colorado; widely enthusiastic receptions among Puerto Rican and Latino immigrants in the Bronx; loving acceptance among non-Spanish speaking audiences in Paris; devotion in Lima, Perú and at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras campus; and indifference and open hostility at a US-university organized performance festival in Monterrey, Mexico. The play has evolved; the gestures have grown richer; the musicians have become more integrated into the dramaturgy, as the different characters have come to life. Loca la de la locura has come full circle. Bolero is the key: the enigmatic moment of a diva's pose, the sad song that keeps us all going.

Lawrence M La Fountain-Stokes
Department of Puerto Rican and Hispanic Caribbean Studies
Rutgers University, New Brunswick (USA)