MARCH 27, 2020
WHEN I WAS around four or five, my family relocated from the New York metropolitan area to the sprawling suburban megalopolis enveloping the southeastern corner of Florida. I don’t remember much of my early life in the Northeast, but I never shook a preference for the dense urban landscapes of my early years, even as I grew to appreciate the sand dunes and swamps that define the Sunshine State. Like many young queers of my generation, I rarely felt completely at ease in my surroundings. A palpable sense that I differed in some abstract way from those around me was ever present. So was a longing to return “home.” These feelings governed nearly every interaction I had. Thus, to a large extent, they shaped who I am today. As an adult, I realize that queers (or reluctant Floridians) don’t hold a monopoly on feelings of alienation. (Who does feel completely at ease anywhere?) Still, being queer in south Florida was an inflection point for my early feelings of otherness and as such saturates the narratives of my youth.
People come by their ambivalence toward Florida in all sorts of ways. For me, it started with the absence of skyscrapers and rowhouses and grew into a discomfort with a culture that saw queerness as a thing that was maybe tolerated in Key West but unlikely to score you any points elsewhere in the state. Florida was the only place where I had a community, but that community felt dependent on hiding an essential part of my identity. When I first heard about Juliana Delgado Lopera’s debut novel, Fiebre Tropical, I was ecstatic. Someone, it seemed, had experienced the same thing I had and wrote a novel about it, and did it in the captivating, riotously funny, code-switching, foul-mouthed voice of Francisca, a queer Latinx youth hating on the “stubborn bitch” of a Miami heat that continually reminds her not only that she’s no longer in her home town of Bogotá, but also that “this hell is inescapable.” It me, I thought, but no. What Lopera pulls from that heat in an inimitable voice is a bold, stylistic, and deeply moving examination of generational sadness, deferred desire, and the budding seeds of personal revolution that is entirely their own.
It was never Francisca’s choice to leave Bogotá for the United States. A typical moody teen who prefers The Cure T-shirts to dresses and the Colombian rain to Florida’s miserable heat, she longs to return to her native land, even as she increasingly comes to understand that, were such a return possible, the home she knew has ceased to exist. Such realizations are still in the offing when her mother, Myriam, following a contentious divorce from Francisca’s father, relocates Francisca, her sister, and their grandmother, Alma, a.k.a. “La Tata,” to “los Mayamis” in pursuit of her own idiosyncratic version of the American Dream, one that centers on a posthumous baptism for the son Myriam lost before Francisca was born. Baptisms require a church, in this case the Iglesia Cristiana Jesucristo Redentor, a born-again congregation that comes to define the family’s new social life in Florida. Francisca’s goth affect, penchant for purloined cigarettes, and general sarcasm make church life an uneasy fit. Nevertheless, she’s conscripted into Myriam’s baptism project, despite deep reservations that have little to do with spirituality. “May I remind you, querido reader,” Francisca narrates, “that [my brother’s] death was the beginning of my life. That his birth would have meant Yours Truly would not have materialized.” A dutiful daughter, Francisca plays her role, but as her mother’s American Dream approaches its apotheosis, Francisca awakens to a nightmare. Her place in the family feels secure only as much as it lines up with a spirituality that she does not inhabit and an ambition for social climbing she does not share. Hiding in the bathroom after the baptism, Francisca fantasizes about calling her father, who she knows won’t answer, or her friends back in Colombia, who she knows have moved on. “I sat on the toilet, phone in my hand for twenty, thirty, sixty minutes,” she reflects, “until I understood there was no one outside Miami, nobody who would come for me. As Mami said, Esta es our new vida, Francisca. Look around, this is your home now.”
Miami may be inescapable, but that doesn’t mean that all hope is lost. Francisca soon finds herself drawn to Carmen, a rising star in the congregation’s youth brigade and the daughter of the Iglesia Cristiana Jesucristo Redentor’s husband-and-wife pastor tag team. Carmen welcomes the attention, taking Francisca on as a project. She is determined to save the “pela’a’s” soul and guide her to accepting Jesus. (“Pelado/a” is Colombian slang that in this context roughly translates to affectionately calling a peer “kid.”) Francisca is ambivalent. On the one hand, she clocks the congregation’s performative holiness as a kind of rank social climbing, in which the holiest tend to be the most beautiful and those who control the most gossip. Yet, she also recognizes the earnestness of faith on display when, for example, the other girls in the church put on Christian music and rehearse dance moves. “They were dead serious about their dance, their love for Jesus,” Francisca notes. “They knew this to be true, you could see it in their faces. I had none of this. What were they feeling that I couldn’t feel?” It’s not long before her nascent sexuality and longing for community — which, in this context, is inseparable from embracing God — intersect with Carmen’s recruitment efforts. Francisca gives up her resistance and welcomes Jesus into her heart chiefly because it means proximity to Carmen, but also out of an earnest, youthful longing to adapt to her new reality and be accepted by the community in which she finds herself embedded. However, neither her conversion nor her romantic desire is without complications. Her closeness with Carmen makes her a target for the other church girls at the same time that it threatens to alienate the few non-Christian young people in her life. When Carmen unexpectedly returns to South America following a minor erotic moment, Francisca grows despondent.
Her newfound faith does little to ease Francisca’s romantic suffering. However, she soon discovers that her heartache does situate her within the long tradition of female pain “stacked inside [her] bones” and stretching back generations. For women in Francisca’s family, “tristeza wasn’t yours, it was part of the larger collective Female Sadness jar to which we all contributed.” What she feels is a longing borne out of an unbridgeable gap between desire and reality. Francisca’s desire for Carmen is incompatible with Carmen’s desire for a godly life, at least as that life is narrowly defined in the Iglesia Cristiana Jesucristo Redentor. A collision between communal ideology and personal desire is one unlikely to break in Francisca’s favor. She’s savvy enough to understand this and attempts, once again, to modulate her behavior to meet expectations, even going so far as dating a boy in the church while also carrying on an extended flirtation with a girl she meets at the community pool. In referencing the collective female sadness that has accompanied Francisca’s family for generations, Lopera suggests that reconciling personal ambition with communal duty may be impossible. Myriam, we learn, similarly suffered for her ambition as a teenager in Colombia attempting to elevate her social station. Her desire drove her to concoct a doomed jewelry-reselling Ponzi scheme among her peers, one that led her down a decidedly destructive path of substance abuse that Francisca intimates her mother has never really abandoned. La Tata’s contribution was a direct result of refusing suitors, a decision that led to, among other things, the cruel starving of a horse that Lopera depicts in an extended flashback as a kind of cautionary tale for those wishing to break with convention: independence comes with collateral damage. That same flashback indicates that La Tata may also have struggled with same-sex desire, one she repressed for the sake of familial harmony. Myriam turned to God and cleaned up her life. La Tata, likewise, finally accepted a suitor and embraced the church. In Francisca’s case, the logic is more circular than linear — she embraced religion because of her desire for Carmen despite the obvious conflict between those sexual feelings and church doctrine — but the operative narrative remains: female sadness is the result of sublimated desire that replicates across generations, often within the context of a faith tradition.
In one of the novel’s most telling passages, we see how the community embraces a woman who has gotten electrolysis on her sideburns:
Apparently sideburns on girls are a no-no for God, especially if you want to marry the lead singer dude by the stupid name of Art, which she did, or if you want to join the inner church circle, which she did. The Pastores paid for the laser with church money and made a point of telling the entire congregation how they supported this dream. Art now loves her! Look at their pure love! Of course this was an obvious church expense since the girl now would be climbing the ranks with that smooth face. […] We all wanted a piece of her transformation.
While Francisca recognizes the secular, social climbing underpinnings at work within the congregation, she still counts herself among those who longed for “a higher, more perfected female version” of herself. It’s a typically hilarious passage for Francisca, who delights in reading the various members of her community for filth, but it’s also a haunting presage of Carmen’s return to Miami near the end of the novel with straightened hair, smoother skin, and, perhaps, a boob job. “I didn’t recognize her,” Francisca laments as she wonders how she can “zip Carmen out of that costume” and reclaim the girl she had known a short while earlier. But, of course, going back is impossible, just as returning to Bogotá is impossible. By this point, Francisca has learned that lesson. The only thing left for her to decide is if she’s going to make the same choices as her mother and grandmother, if she’s going to sublimate her desires and continue contributing to the family tristeza tradition, or if she’s going to seize upon the promise of her new home and strike a path for herself.
Lopera avoids the easy answer here, and her ending suggests that Francisca is bound to make more than a few false starts before finding a path that works for her, but throughout Fiebre Tropical I was struck by the confidence her narrator possessed. Francisca may struggle with how to act and how open to be with her church community, but she never doubts who she is. She’s also admirably adaptable, picking up and discarding surface-level identities as needed. I found myself envious. I was never as flexible as Francisca. I also didn’t truly accept my sexuality until college, something Lopera’s protagonist seems not to struggle at all with. Francisca’s community adheres to strict rules of behavior, to be sure, but it’s also capable of turning a blind eye when doing so proves convenient, suggesting that Francisca’s place is secure so long as she chooses to play the game. She’s fortunate in that way. Lucky, too, to have experienced love and been embraced by a community with deep roots and long memories. It’s something she’ll be able to draw on in the years to come, even if she one day manages to leave.
I recently found myself back in south Florida visiting family. I’d forgotten how beautiful the landscape is. From my cousin’s balcony in Miami, I watched a pod of dolphins hunting in the intracoastal waterway at sunset. Plumes of water erupted from their blowholes while pelicans glided overhead one final time before roosting for the night. It was the kind of cinematic scene that reads as shorthand for paradise. Nobody made too much out of it, though. A comment or two over drinks before heading in to dinner was all it merited. This kind of thing happens every day in Miami. It’s easy to forget that when you live elsewhere and instead become fixated on the state’s unnerving politics, the disconcerting rising tides, or the latest embarrassing caper of yet another “Florida Man,” but it’s important to remember that it’s not all bad. Good things can take root, too. When I returned from visiting family, somebody asked me if I’d enjoyed my trip and if I missed living in Florida. For the first time, I had to pause to think about my answer.
Dan López is the author of The Show House, named a Best Book of 2016 by the Chicago Review of Books, and the short story collection, Part the Hawser, Limn the Sea, a Lambda Literary Award finalist. You can visit his website at danlopezauthor.com.