MANY MAY FEEL as though they know Rigoberto González — even if they have not spent any time with him — through his 13 prior volumes of poetry, fiction and memoir, not to mention his book reviews published in the El Paso Times and here in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Even those with a glancing knowledge of his work would gather that González cares deeply about what it means to be a gay Chicano writer in this great but imperfect country of ours.
And it is true that González did eloquently explore much of this terrain in his exquisite 2006 memoir, Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa. There, he offered a self-portrait of the son of migrant farmworkers, whose first language was Spanish, and who became an award-winning writer. In the collection of personal essays and speeches in Red-Inked Retablos, González opens the door wider for his readers and, as Professor Maythee Rojas of Cal State Long Beach observes in her foreword to the book, its publication “signals an important shift in González’s role as a writer.”
Professor Rojas explains that the book “does not set out to prove the merit of his writing [but] is about marrying the poignant characterizations of exclusion and loss that run deep through much of his work with an outspoken advocacy for inclusion and recognition that he believes only literary activism can realize.” She adds that Red-Inked Retablos “stands to date as his most expert meshing of desire, culture, community, and the powerful nature of language.”
In a short introduction, González explains why his book bears the title that it does:
In the Mexican Catholic tradition, retablos are ornamental structures made of carved wood framing an oil painting of a devotional image, usually a patron saint. Mexican and Chicana/o artists have gestured toward these religious altar essentials to construct interpretations that challenge, re-imagine, critique, or pay homage to the public expression of faith and desire, story and memory. These are my versions of retablos, honoring ideals, people, occasions, and books — beloved muses that inspire my blood-ink on the page.
González divides the book into three parts: self-portraits, studies, and speeches — all forms of creative nonfiction, all “simply different shades of red.” In the end, he argues, the primary goal of creative nonfiction is to “inspire contemplation.”
In the first section of the book (titled “Self-Portraits”), González offers five essays, beginning with “The Truman Capote Aria,” a quite funny but also touching essay that recounts how television “was one of our English teachers in the 1980s, the decade we had to adjust to our new home in the United States.” Four different branches of the González family — 19 people in all — lived in a cramped, three-bedroom apartment in Thermal, California. One of the movies González watched on television was the detective spoof, Murder by Death. One particular actor caught his attention: “At thirteen, I didn’t have to think too hard to realize this little man was a maricón, but glamorous somehow, like a pint-sized Liberace.”
He would eventually discover that this “actor” was named Truman Capote. A few days later, Capote died at the Los Angeles home of Johnny Carson’s ex-wife, Joanne. González learned from the reports that Capote was actually a famous author. And so began González’s desire to read what this “maricón” had written beginning with Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In essence, one (now dead) gay man was speaking to this Chicano teenager, as if to say: it is okay to be who you are, and it is also possible to be who you are and become a famous writer.
The other four essays in this section explore González’s experiences growing up gay and Catholic, losing his parents, falling in love/lust, and the pain of writing memoir. Throughout, even when wading through territory rife with tough emotions, he maintains his grace, humor, and powers of wide observation. He describes his world in a way that allows us to see what makes him tick.
The second section, “Studies,” consists of five explorations of other writers, people who have moved and inspired González. In “Andrés Montoya: The Ice Worker Still Sings,” we see the budding writer 13 years ago living what he believed to be a parallel literary life with the poet, Andrés Montoya. González desperately wants to meet him and even envisions them sharing stories and laughs. “Oddly enough,” he writes, “in the few exchanges I had about Montoya with other writers, no one mentioned the most vital piece of information: that he was deceased.” He continues to read Montoya’s poems and comes to the realization that Montoya was not really gone, because his words live on to fill readers’ lives with beauty and pain and understanding.
In the other studies in this section, González shares his insight with respect to the late poet, Ai, who had befriended him and, in fact, championed his work; he celebrates other gay Chicano/a writers; he recounts his Sylvia Plath phase; and he mourns the death of a young and promising poet, Roxana Rivera. These studies let us move deeper into González’s world as he celebrates others, even while he mourns the passing of too many of them.
The book’s third section collects two speeches that constitute pep talks to writers-in-the-making, aimed at those who feel marginalized and ignored because they are gay and/or Latino/a. As you read these pieces, you can imagine him controlling the room with exhortations to be proud and loud. Indeed, he proclaims in one of the speeches: “My name is Rigoberto González, and I am a gay Brown Beret — I’ve got a mouth, an attitude, and many languages. I’ve got much work yet to do and plenty left to say.”
Amen, Rigoberto. Amen.