SEPTEMBER 21, 2020
IN AN EPISODE of Triángulo Abierto, a 1990s radio show that hosted conversations about LGBTQ issues in Santiago, Chile, Pedro Lemebel took questions from anonymous callers about his life, his performance art, his writing, and his views on politicians, celebrities, genders, sexuality, the word maricón, and more.
At a certain point during the hour, after being asked several times and in several ways about his gender identity, he started talking about his relationship to names and naming. Though he went widely by Pedro, he also took his mother’s last name in order to reject “la conversión machista que impone el nombre del padre [the chauvinist conversion the father’s name imposes],” and in many of his writings, like “The Million Names of María Chameleon” (translated here by Gwen Harper), he drew attention to names that resist masculine or feminine forms, “a great baroque allegory that en-feathers, en-fests, traverses, disguises, dramatizes or punishes identity via a nickname.” Perhaps that’s why, on the call, he chose to elaborate on the word “loca,” which in one sense can be understood to mean transvestite, but which also colloquially opens up to mean more of an attitude, one that not only plays on the connotations of hysteria but also builds into a stance against assumed connotations, especially those that have been inherited through paternalistic channels:
Y la loca es cómo tú decontruyes el patrón formal, cultural, sociológico, antropológico que te han metido, o sea todo lo que nosotros tenemos es aprehendido, heredado, nos metieron este cuento. La loca decontruye eso, la loca hace el quiebre, hace la fisura, recuestiona, replantea, duda, ironize …
[And “the loca” is how you deconstruct the formal, cultural, sociological, anthropological archetype they’ve handed you, or rather what we have is learned, inherited, they’ve handed you this lie. The loca deconstructs that, the loca makes the break, makes the fissure, re-questions, re-positions, doubts, ironizes …]
When I think about Pedro’s writing, I think about the way it creates openings, makes space for cultural and linguistic nuances, especially local ones, is rigorous in its pleasure-seeking, its pursuit of difference, difficulty, is striking and clarifying in its vision. I’m drawn to all these qualities, not least for how they seem to describe both his writing and how he lived his life. Whether he was performing drag, performing with Las Yeguas del Apocalipsis (The Mares of the Apocalypse, an LGBTQ activist art group he formed with his collaborator Francisco Casas), writing crónicas for newspapers and compiling them into books, participating in mass protests or staging smaller ones (like the one featured below involving Sebastián Piñera, a.k.a. “Don Piñi,” former and current president of Chile), he always insisted that “hablo por mi diferencia … no necesito disfraz [I speak for my difference … I don’t need a costume].”
Pedro wrote at a specific moment when AIDS had just emerged around the world, and though the brutal military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet was finally ending, his community of queer artists, performers, sex workers, anti-fascists, so-called enemies of the state were still very much under attack. He wrote from the position of an artist who was living through a transition to “democracy” that still continued to enact everyday violence against people living in poverty and outside of heteronomativity. Pedro’s crónicas, which often appeared serially as newspaper columns throughout the ’90s, documented and participated in this time, not only reflecting realities left out of mainstream national narratives but also sharing (his verb) “esa voz letrada de la crónica con … lugares donde pongo mi corazón voluntaria y generosamente [that literary crónica voice with the places I put my heart voluntarily and generously].”
The two pieces included here, for the first time in English translation, come from a compilation of Pedro’s crónicas called Háblame de amores, published posthumously by Grupo Planeta in 2017.
And it could have been during the first days of the year, when the Recently Elect was going around appointing officials and replacing public employees left and right. Like changing curtains, they removed the administration quickly from the rummage of papers, staplers, and other ministerial office supplies. Like shaking out the tablecloth, they ejected the cultural ministers, sweeping them out from their desks, making true the film about collective eviction the earlier months had predicted. It was in those days that Don Piñi named mayors in a great formal ceremony at the Fine Art Museum. And all the press and photographers were there sweating fat beads to film the Right in their gala attire. The Right, proud and arrogant, finally poised on the throne. Finally showcasing their ordinary galas and their suits with three-colored ties; the ministers, the secretaries and assistant secretaries, and the recently named mayors were there with blanched shirts for the photograph of the first Rightist siege on democracy.
So much waiting for this moment, eh? said a deputy with gray eyelashes, so many years of long-haired socialists taking the economic model that Augusto started, they should be watching us so happy from the clouds, the blonde kept repeating, drying off his fragrant sweat.
There, in the Fine Arts Museum, with a sun on its forehead, with a dollar in its soul, the triumphant Right showcased its recently debuted acrylic smile. For them, the morning was optimistic, there in Forestal Park with a pearly sun at half-mast. But that morning was indifferent to me, waking up in bed with an Ecuadorian lover after having drunk even the water from the vase the night before. As if with rage we penetrated each other, my lover from Quito and I. As if taking revenge on the bad luck of having a Rightist government, we did ayahuasca the entire night. And that’s how we woke up, damp and numb, holding each other like orphans, but more alive than ever and with a camel’s thirst gripping the first morning kiss.
Beer, my love? I asked him. But if there’s none left, he laughed yawning. Then get up, we’re going to buy some, I said throwing the sheets back. And like that, half-asleep, half-sick, we walked down the park sidewalk heading toward the liquor store. The morning was golden. They had recently watered the grass in the city parks, they’d recently put up barriers on the museum sidewalk so people couldn’t pass by. They’re probably filming another commercial, I said to the boy, but he retorted by pointing toward the gathering of people watching the parade of civil officials and soldiers decked-out like an Easter tree. And like it was nothing, like it was all the same to me, I walked out right in front of them. In reality, I was fuming that they were occupying the sidewalk for their demonstrations. And it was then, it was at that moment he saw me and rushed up to me with his hand outstretched, saying: What a pleasure, Pedro, to have you here. It was Piñerarte, the Secretary of Culture, the soap opera actor, the emergent aristocrat with an ironed suit coming toward me with a fake smile. And me, half-asleep, half-disgusted at such arrogance, I look at him, I size him up, I assess, and without so much as a warning I spit on the ground, exactly one centimeter from his shiny shoe.
This is very ugly, Pedro! the Secretary yelled at me, lifting his hands theatrically. This is very ugly! He reiterated his lines with an exaggerated drama that turned his cheeks red.
The Ecuadorian, within half a block, embraced me, confessing his admiration for my bravado. But it’s going to have its costs, he cautioned taking his hand off my shoulder. He’s the cultural authority and that awkward moment isn’t going to be forgotten, because you offended him and he was only trying to say hi. But he should know my anti-Right position, I answered indignantly. It came from my soul, I couldn’t stop it. But he’ll soon forget it, the petty aristocrats erase memory, it doesn’t suit them, for that reason they’re not resentful, the amnesia sharpens their political power.
And I wasn’t so mistaken, because the next day the Secretary appeared in the newspaper declaring that I was a resentful nostalgic. See, he’s right, I am “tellible de resentido,” I whispered to the Ecuadorian, making swirls on his brown arms.
“The Technicolor Flavor of La Vega”
And just for crossing the river, in front of the church in La Recoleta with its de-shelled yellow cassock. A little further appear the moldy stalls of the kitchens of La Vega. Just for taking this little tour and submersing myself in the jungle of smells that scent the cheap food in this pillar of Santiago. Here you can eat so well for barely any money, memory moves my steps in search of the daily menu when it gets cold and a bluish vapor crawls under the trucks unloading vegetables while the port drizzle begins to fall. A man with a sack on his back climbs the stairs with the agility of a cat. Others come running with loads over their shoulders and tear the puddles apart with their labored sprint. From a cellar the dust cloud dissipates and the rumble of yellow potatoes emerge, peeled because they’re going to be fried or cooked to accompany the blood sausage and the homemade pebre sauce. Along the roadside a small Persian market that over-appraises its urban wares: a huacho meal, a yellow book, a pirated one, a Chinese shirt for the Peruvian woman who buys the seasoning stick for the ají de gallina and the waxy pepper for the cebiche limeño. A frame where the picture of mom used to be. The skeleton for a teardrop chandelier that cries for the absence of its crystals. The industrial gloves for the dry ice that scratches workers’ hands. A scarf for the neck of the little penguin girl leaving so early for school. When will the sun arrive and the first warmth of September, casera? When, my love, when will the flowers make the checkered tablecloth come alive. When the fried fish and its golden crispy skin, with a red wine disguised as tea, god have mercy. A thousand fragrant cries sing in the stalls, offering leg broth for a thousand and beans with noodles for eight hundred. Where can you eat cheaper and more deliciously, in the most expensive country on the continent? Where the rattle of the plates and the echo of the transvestite selling lottery numbers blend together. Today it’s cold, the kitchen menu is selling charquicán scented with fresh oregano. I don’t really know what I’m going to have, because the options are many and tempting. The pantruca dumplings are good today, says the girl working the stall. But I’ve never liked that dish. Poor and fussy, they used to say in my house, as if being poor excluded having good taste. On the other hand, I used to adore tomaticán, the potatoes with boiled wheat, with ground corn, with garbanzo flour. Homemade food with that local flavor of paprika and half-toasted garlic. That same encounter here every mid-afternoon when my steps cross with the bridge. A rustling of hands cutting, chopping, cooking, marinating the red, green, purple salads like they were floral arrangements. Now I’ve made it a habit to have lunch in the company of families that lick the chicken with peas and mashed potatoes off their fingers. It’s so sad to eat alone, it’s like eating yourself. Here food is a party, a technicolor fête of flavors. The palate has emotive memory, that taste of basil in corn travels in its mint- freshness toward the lost home of summer. The local winter, the brasero al rojo, the boiling pot and the sound of the mother saying lunch is served, sit at the table because it’s getting cold. Something of that kind of encounter in the kitchens of La Vega, sometimes I don’t know what to have, and I let myself be seduced by the fragrant options that color the bars. Like returning to a childhood irrecoverably lost, I let myself be tempted by the lovely offer to travel into the past in search of a rainbow called flavor.
Alexis Almeida is the author of I Have Never Been Able to Sing (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018) and the translator of Dalia Rosetti’s Dreams and Nightmares (Les Figues, 2019). She teaches in Bard’s Language and Thinking Program and at the Bard Microcollege at the Brooklyn Public Library. The current guest editor of Folder magazine, she runs 18 Owls Press.