×

Loca

Michael Snyder
23 Snaps

I.

On the morning of September 21, 1968, Salvador Novo awoke in the elegant Mexico City neighborhood of Coyoacán to find his chauffeur scrubbing graffiti off the gray stone wall separating his home from the bougainvillea-draped street that had been renamed in his honor a few months prior. The poet and essayist had gone to bed the night before after a tiring day—a luncheon with a pair of illustrious architects, an impromptu tea with the Indian ambassador—taking off his formal suit, removing his oversize turquoise and onyx rings, and laying his auburn wig to rest like a sleeping animal. By the time he came downstairs in the morning, the driver had erased several epithets scrawled in red oil paint, but one phrase remained, a brilliantly vicious joke: POPULAR ENTRE LA TROPA—popular with the troops.

Three days earlier, in an attempt to stifle escalating student protests, Mexico’s president, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, had ordered a military occupation of the prestigious National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). The following day, at a funeral at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Novo—who was an intimate of the president’s—was cornered by a reporter and asked his opinion of the occupation. As a cronista de la ciudad, or chronicler of the city, a government position of considerable public standing, Novo was an equally reliable source for comment and for provocation. He did not disappoint. “Well, well, that’s the first news, and very good, I’ve heard today,” he answered the reporter, blithe as ever. “Tell me, how did it go?” 

Over the following weeks, Novo became a figure of public scorn. Fellow journalists, writers, and academics were incensed; some stopped speaking to him entirely. Young people at a movie screening interrupted a preambular reel of one of Novo’s poems with hisses, whistling, and projectiles. After the October 2 massacre of peaceful student protesters in Tlatelolco—an event whose death toll remains a matter of speculation half a century later, but that may have claimed more than 300 lives—Novo remained conspicuously silent, continuing to write his gossipy weekly columns with hardly a mention of the horror that had taken place. And though he made several uncharacteristically clumsy attempts to walk back his comments on the UNAM invasion—his new book had come out the same day, he said, and that had been the good news—it was no use. With one remark, Mexico’s first queer provocateur had calcified his image as a stooge for the establishment.

Though only sixty-four in 1968, Novo had been, by his own estimation, an old man for thirty years. Bulky and florid with sad eyes and an aquiline nose, he was no longer the beautiful boy with carefully plucked eyebrows and porcelain skin whose sexual deviancy had scandalized Mexico City in the 1920s. He was no longer the brilliant young poet who attacked the hypocrisy of the untouchable Diego Rivera and composed satirical sonnets electric with vitriol and sex. He was no longer the prowling youth who went to bed with taxi drivers and soldiers in his rooftop apartments. He had indeed been “popular with the troops.” Now he was popular with presidents, actresses, divas, and socialites.

As a young man, long before he became the director of the Academy of Dramatic Arts at the National Institute of Fine Arts, before he became a cronista or won the National Prize for Letters, he wrote essays in the tradition of Montaigne on everything from beds to bread to beards, and composed swooning lyric verse that spoke openly of his longing for male bodies. In the 1925 poem “Naufragio,” or “Shipwreck,” he wrote of “this wave of wind / that tastes of torsos and of naked shoulders /
and of lips and smells of gazes.” In a famous painting by his friend and contemporary Manuel Rodríguez Lozano, he appears in the backseat of a taxi in a dressing gown, a lascivious smirk on his angular face as he scans the darkened streets of Mexico City’s Centro Histórico.

Novo spoke English, French, and German; at eighteen, he became the first person in Mexico to study Freud in depth, his marginalia constituting a minor comic masterpiece of their own. Later, he became Mexico’s first translator and producer of the plays of Eugene O’Neill, Jean Cocteau, and Samuel Beckett. At nineteen, he edited a trade magazine for chauffeurs called El chafirete, filling its pages with pornographic poems disguised as French verse, satirical poems mocking writers from opposing camps of the cultural vanguard, and personal ads for men whom he hoped to fuck (or, more accurately, who he hoped would fuck him). In the Mexico of his youth, recently liberated from dictatorship by a leftist-nationalist coalition of revolutionaries, Novo’s cosmopolitan tastes, his interest in modernism, and his almost pathological irreverence set him at odds with an inward-looking cultural establishment convinced that beauty derived from social utility. “He affirmed his desire to be modern as though responding to a challenge,” wrote Nobel laureate Octavio Paz, many years later. “His project was to overshadow and to irritate. He succeeded.” 

Part Wildean aesthete, part Sadean sexual anarchist, Novo became famous enough in his own lifetime to earn the dubious honor of a popular nickname: Nalgador Sobo, usually translated as something like “butt fondler.” By the end of his life, he was known as an authority on the history of Mexico City dating back to the time of the Aztecs. He gave frequent radio lectures and performed as a commentator on a popular national news show, appearing in flamboyant wigs, heavy makeup, and elaborately embroidered jackets. He received letters from aspiring writers in the provinces seeking advice, and from complete strangers asking his opinions on etymology; these letters were invariably addressed to “Maestro Novo,” and he often wrote back. According to a close friend from his later years, Novo was once photographed leaving the cinema accompanied by the governor of Mexico City and the president of the tremendously powerful Institutional Revolutionary Party; after snapping the photo, the photographer asked Novo to identify the other two gentlemen for the newspaper’s caption. 

Despite his fame in the latter half of his life, Novo is at best a curiosity today, barely read in Mexico and known only vaguely by name, if at all, elsewhere. After his brutal faux pas on that day in 1968, Novo was banished to the fringes of Mexican literary history, where he remains today, a pariah in a global progressive culture that values outrage over outrageousness. Our world, though more open to queerness than ever, has no clear place for a figure as prickly and contradictory as Salvador Novo. An enemy to moralism, and perhaps to the very notion of morality, he forced his way into public consciousness not by disguising his identity but by making himself seen. He opened the country’s collective imagination to the possibility that someone like him could exist, and even triumph, without shame or tragedy. 

His 1972 essay collection, Las locas, el sexo y los burdeles—literally, “crazy women, sex, and brothels,” though he uses las locas here as a common term for gay men, like queens in English—opens with a simple, demonstrable truth: “There have always been locas in Mexico.” There have. But there has never been a loca like Novo.

 

*

 

I had been living in Mexico City for only a few months when my friend Francisco first told me about Novo. At the time we were little more than acquaintances, but he was nonetheless eager to introduce me to the colossal city where he’d grown up. On a warm winter morning, he left his home in Coyoacán, a few blocks from Calle Salvador Novo, picked me up near the Centro Histórico, where I live, and drove me north to the National Museum of the Viceroyalty. We spent the day gawking at the transcendent camp of its baroque chapel and portraits of nuns smirking coyly under crowns of flowers. Queerness seemed to be everywhere in this city I’d just decided to call home, not so much a secret as an indiscreet stage whisper, hidden only to those who chose not to hear it. 

I had moved to Mexico City after nearly five years in Mumbai. When I arrived in India in 2012, homosexuality had been formally illegal since 1861, when the reliably prudish British inserted a clause in the colonial penal code forbidding “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” The Delhi High Court struck the clause down in 2009, but another decision by the Supreme Court, passed down in 2013, reinstated it. (The same court finally ruled the law unconstitutional in 2018.) For the most part, the legal technicalities surrounding gayness had little impact on me—white privilege is, among other things, benefiting from a separate set of rules even as an immigrant in a country where you are part of a minuscule racial minority—but my vulnerability troubled me more with each new story of men lured by sex apps into extortion traps and blackmailed by the police. 

None of this had anything to do with my leaving India or moving to Mexico, yet the sheer scope and diversity of Mexico’s queer worlds seduced me almost immediately upon my arrival, particularly the delicate balance those worlds struck between visibility and subversiveness: less taboo than in India, less corporatized than what I’d come to expect growing up in the eastern US. Queerness was in every shop blasting songs by Mexico’s most famous pop artist, Juan Gabriel, who neither declared nor hid his sexuality. It was in the notoriously dangerous black market of Tepito, where stalls sold poppers and male thongs alongside hard-core straight porn. It pushed up against the sagging ceilings and mildewed walls of abandoned mansions and factories that had been turned over to roving parties like Traición (which means “betrayal”), Por Detroit (a pun on the phrase por detrás, or “from behind”), and Pervert (what it sounds like). It was there, with a frisson of danger, in the Arena Coliseo, when I watched a luchador in a pink tutu stage-beat a team of burly wrestlers, eliciting roars of delight every time he lifted their masks and kissed them on their briefly exposed lips. (I winced as much as I cheered when the tables turned and the three men cornered their flamboyant opponent, aiming their heels at his stomach and face: a sublimation of homoerotic desire suddenly transformed into a dumb show of a hate crime.) And it was, I learned that day with Francisco, all around the Centro Histórico, the grand, shambolic neighborhood where I’d chosen to settle.

As he drove me home, Francisco took me past the Alameda, a colonial park at the western edge of the old city, its tree-lined paths and neoclassical fountains a popular gay cruising ground for most of the past century. Calle República de Cuba and Plaza Garibaldi, both nearby, have been centers of gay life since at least the 1960s, and are today crowded with bars where older men in white tejanos gather for liter bottles of beer and young locas dance perreo until dawn. Just across the Eje Central, one of the arterial avenues cut through the city in the 1970s, we turned down Calle Donceles, lined with pastel houses and mansions clad in volcanic stone the color of dried blood, their ground floors crowded with secondhand bookstores. At the corner of Calle República de Argentina, Francisco pointed out where Novo and his childhood friend Xavier Villaurrutia rented their first shared room, in 1921. This was where Novo first tried marijuana, where the two poets consummated their seductions, and where they hosted orgiastic parties fueled by cocaine—then easily available at pharmacies—that earned them the shared nickname the Ladies of Donceles. As we passed that corner, Francisco told me about La estatua de sal, or Pillar of Salt, Novo’s queer erotic bildungsroman, written in the mid-1940s but not published until 1998. 

Over the next few weeks, I wandered into every bookshop on Donceles, mumbling the title to bespectacled shopkeepers as if I were a teenager asking for condoms at a convenience store. It quickly became clear that none of them had the slightest clue what I was looking for. They knew of Novo—some even had a few of his books on hand, usually a mildewed copy of his deeply mediocre mid-career play La culta dama (The cultured lady)—but nobody had his early volumes of plangent lyric poetry, his polymath essay collections, or Pillar of Salt. As I searched, I began to learn about the forgotten master who’d written it: his relationship to the powers that shaped Mexico’s twentieth century, his refusal to hide his appetites, and, most fascinating of all, his success. Each time I thought I’d found an analogous figure—was he a Mexican Evelyn Waugh, all vicious wit and reactionary conservatism and high-society aspirations? a Latino Truman Capote, with his insouciant genius and provocative effeminacy?—the comparison ended up collapsing under the weight of Novo’s self-conscious singularity. Novo was not, like Waugh, ashamed of his desire, nor was he, like Capote, obsessed with his legacy: he was entirely of his place, but never quite of his time. 

I kept searching. While the culture around me leaned into its anger, its long-latent rage stoked and compounded by indignation and impotence, Novo’s permanent smirk, his absolute rejection of seriousness, and his use of irreverence to speak the unspeakable became only more compelling. When I finally tracked down Pillar of Salt, I found that neither my research nor Francisco’s description had prepared me for the world it depicted. Reading it was like shining a black light into a motel room, laying bare the secret traces of every lurid, defiant act that had preceded me there. 

 

*

 

Pillar of Salt begins with Novo’s birth in the capital, in 1904, and moves briskly through his early childhood: his middle-class family’s move to the arid borderlands of the north in 1911, and their subsequent move to the provincial city of Torreón; his enrollment at a girls’ school, the city’s only private educational institution; and the early development of his penchant for self-transformation: slipping into a favorite gray sweater to admire the way it feminized his young body, and, later in his adolescence, plucking his eyebrows into fine painterly parentheses. 

The Mexican Revolution had begun a year before the Novo family’s move, as factions with diverse political leanings emerged in opposition to the dictator Porfirio Díaz, who for three decades had consolidated power, wealth, and land in the hands of the urban elite. By the time Novo’s family arrived in Torreón, Mexico’s sprawling north had already become a volatile battleground for the pistol-slinging cowboy Pancho Villa, famous equally for his soldierly skill, opposition to tyranny, and indiscriminate brutality. At first, the family settled on the outskirts of town, directly on the route that Villa’s brigades used on their regular raids of the city. But eventually Novo’s uncle, who lived in the city center, convinced them to come live with him as a precaution.

On the day of the move, Villa’s troops caught sight of the family’s effects and turned up at the door, looking, they claimed, for a federal officer. Novo’s uncle and father, a moderately successful merchant, tried to slip out the back of the house; the soldiers, presuming one of them to be the man they had come to execute, gave chase. From the hallway, Novo and his mother heard two gunshots in the street before the soldiers burst back in to ransack the house. Novo’s mother brought him to a neighbor and asked her to watch him because, he recalls, “she was going back to the house where they would probably kill her.” Hours later he learned that his father and mother had both survived; his uncle had not been so lucky. 

That moment, that senseless death, would shape Novo’s complex, reactionary politics for the rest of his life. Even so, it occupies a scant few pages of his memoir, which turns quickly to a picaresque of youthful sexual exploits. We read, even before the murder of Novo’s uncle, of an encounter with a tutor who places his hand in young Salvador’s lap. The boy mentions the incident to his mother and accidentally precipitates the tutor’s dismissal; what registers to a modern reader as a scene of trauma reads to Novo as proof of his own power. We read of his first encounter with a fellow student’s “erect and ruddy penis,” and of him losing his virginity, at thirteen, to a baseball player from the local team—an experience, he writes wryly, that “bore an annoying resemblance to the enemas that I was submitted to when I was ill.” 

The family moved back to the capital in 1917, in the hopes that Salvador would fulfill their bourgeois dream and become a doctor. That year, the assembled revolutionary factions signed modern Mexico’s first constitution, yet Novo makes no mention of that radical document, which banned the clergy from public life, enshrined the right of laborers to organize, and redistributed land holdings consolidated during the dictatorship. Instead, we read about his days playing hooky from the prestigious Mexico City day school where he befriended fellow gay students like Villaurrutia and Carlos Pellicer, both integral parts of his future literary cohort. We watch an adolescent Novo educating himself on the contours of the city, which fit snugly around the form of his desire. “Between school and my house, the seductive, unknown city laid herself out before me,” he writes, “summoning me to traverse her, to feel in her the pleasure of my unlimited freedom.” 

Much of Novo’s work treats sex as a scatological joke, more bodily function than act of transcendence, but Mexico City—imagined as an odalisque sprawled across the ancient lake bed of Tenochtitlán—becomes his partner in his first, perhaps only, successful romantic relationship. He may well have been blissfully unaware at the time of the transformations taking place around him as the city returned to normalcy after years of famine, violence, and lawlessness. But to ignore in retrospect the caesarean scars left on his lover’s body by the delivery of a new nation could be only an act of willful ignorance or a political middle finger. And Novo was not one for self-delusion. 

Though the revolution offered a powerful leftist corrective to a hideously unequal economic system, it was also anti-intellectual, chauvinistic, and deeply machista, pitting the effete cosmopolitanism of urban kleptocrats against the virile masculinity of the long-suffering worker. The political and artistic establishment that followed the revolution insisted on the “correct” political commitments, and the “correct” expression of manhood, as essential to Mexican identity. In his book Salvador Novo: The Marginal in the Center, the journalist Carlos Monsiváis—Novo’s successor as cronista de la ciudad, and also gay, though never as flamboyantly—paraphrases the revolutionary vanguard’s attitude: “The climate of war demands valor. A faggot is an offense to manliness, to Mexico, to the Revolution.” For Novo, revolutionary dogmatism was an offense to freedom. And so, for all its vividness, the city that appears in his memoir bears virtually no trace of the violence and degradation that preceded his arrival there. 

Instead, the Mexico City of Pillar of Salt is gauzy and voluptuous, saturated with sexual possibility, replete with humid corners where shame is refracted back as desire—above all, a place of personal experimentation. Novo writes uproariously about having cotton shoved into his anus after taking an excessively large cock (“positively as big around as a can of salmon”). Later that day, he visits the office of a professor, who asks him for a kiss, only to reject it immediately, nominally as a lesson in propriety; on his way out, the bloodied, shit-stained wad tumbles out of Novo’s pant leg. He writes about his “ardent predilection” for drivers, a holdover from a furtive adolescent encounter with the family chauffeur. He writes with surprising poignancy about aging men seeking love, eccentrics with nicknames like the Virgin of Istanbul and the Bottled Fart, who, though sometimes the butts of jokes, are also imbued with fully realized jealousies and desires, real sorrow and real joy. 

The book has no interest in equality or justice or the morality of the sexual encounters it depicts—even those, like Novo’s barely pubescent early conquests, that fall clearly beyond what modern readers would consider acceptable. It has no social utility beyond the fact that it exists. Though Novo wrote about politics throughout his life, often pseudonymously and always flippantly, he preferred to pay his most earnest attention to “lower” subjects like boxing and lucha libre, and to those men and their world in all its seedy splendor. In The Marginal in the Center, Monsiváis writes: “Novo goes after his sexuality as though it were, so to say, a revolutionary enterprise.” Novo’s revolution—a personal revolution of the body, a revolution in the name of pleasure—
was the one that counted.

 

II.

If Pillar of Salt shocked me with its frank depictions of sex, Novo’s early poems were surprising for entirely different reasons. Both published in 1933, Nuevo amor (New love) and Espejo (Mirror) are extraordinary feats of lyrical grace and naked longing. The final poem in the former, “Elegy,” caught me particularly off guard, its stark depiction of queer alienation a far cry from the slick ribaldry of Pillar of Salt. “We who have hands that do not belong to us,” the poem begins,

Too grotesque for caresses, useless 

for the workshop or the harvest

Long and flaccid like a flower

deprived of seed

Or like a reptile that delivers its

venom

Because it has nothing else to offer.

“He had much talent and much venom, few ideas and no morals,” Octavio Paz wrote in 1987, thirteen years after Novo’s death, with barely disguised homophobic bile. “He didn’t serve any belief or idea; he didn’t write with blood, but rather with shit.” Paz’s insult, as finely honed as Novo’s sharpest barbs, seems cruel in light of works like “Elegy.” But Novo was a reptile: a viper, perhaps, lashing out with poison speed and precision, fulfilling the role that, since Oscar Wilde’s nineteenth-century wit, the straight world has grudgingly granted to a select range of gay men. Snakes use venom in self-defense.

And Novo had powerful foes long before Paz, among them Diego Rivera. A famous womanizer and savvy businessman, Rivera used sex to scandalize conservative Catholic society, too, bedding heiresses and encouraging them to adopt the language and vestments of the proletariat. Despite his loudly proclaimed political engagement, Rivera spent the entire blood-soaked decade of the revolution in Europe, first studying in Spain, then hobnobbing with the Parisian avant-garde of Picasso and Braque. Back in Mexico, he spent much of his career securing his monopoly on large state commissions, generating considerable personal wealth and, not unlike Novo, cultivating his persona. While Rivera painted muscular paeans to the working class, Novo and his cohort—writers, many of them gay, who drew on the abstracted introspection of European modernism and called themselves Los Contemporáneos—asserted a cosmopolitan vision of Mexico, pointedly open to worldly influences, especially those of other queer writers like Wilde, Cocteau, and André Gide. (Mexico’s other literary avant-gardists, Los Estridentistas, positioned themselves as the masculine alternative: “To be a stridentist is to be a man,” they wrote in their second manifesto.) This made them enemies of the new foundational myth of the “Mexican man,” one embodied by Rivera’s bullish masculinity and political righteousness. For the revolutionaries, art without social utility posed a threat to the integrity of the state. To Novo, the idea that art had to serve a purpose outside itself was as offensive, and as tedious, as the idea that all sex should be for reproduction. 

For at least a decade, the revolutionaries and the Contemporáneos made sport of attacking one another. In 1924, the communist party’s magazine, El machete, published a satirical play called Los rorros fascistas (The baby fascists), accompanied by an etching from the great muralist José Clemente Orozco titled Los anales (which can be translated as both “The anals” and “The annals”), equating effeminacy with far-right politics; only Novo appears by name. Shortly after, as part of a spectacular suite of public murals, Rivera depicted Novo on his hands and knees with a worker’s foot on his back. Never one to back down from a fight—much less from an opportunity to irritate and overshadow, to borrow Paz’s phrase—Novo published a satirical epic called La diegada, mocking Rivera’s self-aggrandizing posture as a messiah of the working man, right down to the title, which rendered the painter’s first name in the high-flown diction of Homer’s Iliad.

The playful sparring turned uglier in 1934, when Mexico’s lower house of congress created a committee of public health to eliminate “counterrevolutionaries” from public posts: men who, “with their effeminate acts,” created “an atmosphere of corruption.” The same year, Rivera wrote in a magazine that “‘pure art,’ ‘abstract art,’ is the spoiled child of the capitalist bourgeoisie in power. Because of that, here in Mexico, there’s an incipient group of pseudo-artists and petit-bourgeois writers that, calling themselves pure poets, are… in reality, pure faggots.” 

Unfazed, Novo responded with his Proletarian Poems, another mocking rejoinder to the leftist elite’s professed allegiance to the worker: 

The proletarian poets say: 

PEASANT 

Take the sickle and trace out your 

destiny. 

(They say it in the city, or on the 

radio 

where the farmer can’t hear them.) 

On a cool night in February 2019, I met the poet and critic Luis Felipe Fabre at a refurbished cantina in the toney neighborhood of La Roma. In his own brilliant 2007 vindication of Novo, Fabre reclaimed Paz’s jab as a rallying cry, titling his essay “Escribir con caca”—“To write with shit.” (It was recently translated into English by John Pluecker under the title “Holy Shit.”) “For Rivera, the poor only existed in theory, while Novo was fucking cab drivers and soldiers,” Fabre told me. “Like Whitman,” I suggested. Fabre laughed. “Novo would have looked at Whitman and thought, What is a gay man doing singing to this new country? Novo was seeing the same process in Mexico and wasn’t so sure it was something to celebrate.” Novo didn’t have time for lofty manifestos nor for the notion of transcendence. “Novo never depicted his positions as anything other than survival,” Fabre went on. “For Novo, sexuality was politics.” 

Sleeping with someone is not, of course, the same as caring about their rights. But neither is believing in the abstract rights of an entire class the same as sharing your neighborhood or home or bed with them. In Rivera’s murals, workers appear as faceless masses of bodies, their strong arms and broad shoulders only marginally more human than the smokestacks and foundries they operate. Novo’s proletarian poems breathe and sigh and sweat, speaking in the voices of a laborer, a cadet, a sublieutenant, a soldier—men with erotic interior lives all their own. “That’s how queer people have always transgressed those boundaries to get to know people from all walks of life,” Fabre said. “That smell of iodine from a taxi driver’s hands? Novo had that on his pillow. It’s the democracy of the gay world.” 

Not long after meeting Fabre, I went, as I do most Fridays, to meet friends at my neighborhood cantina in the Centro Histórico, a block from the corner where Novo and Villaurrutia first lived and across the street from the government building where Novo worked from 1931 to 1933—the same one where he appears in Rivera’s murals. The group that gathers there consists largely of gay men: writers, journalists, scholars, the occasional film director or artist wandering through at a regular’s invitation. Like most creative people of our generation, we embrace a leftism that combines the socialism of the revolutionaries with the libertinism of the Contemporáneos. As obvious as this affiliation seems now, until fairly recently a group like ours would have been an insult to any establishment, be it the leftist machismo of the Mexican Revolution or the right-wing moralism of the United States. To align ourselves with the Contemporáneos would have meant turning our backs on the ideals of social justice; to choose the revolutionaries would have meant turning our backs on ourselves.

One of the regulars, Jorge Pedro Uribe Llamas, the most prominent cronista currently living in the Centro, pointed out that Rivera and Novo must have found their way here at the same time at least once. Mexico City in the 1920s was small, and intellectual Mexico City was even smaller. Would the revolutionaries and the Contemporáneos have sat together? Would they have greeted one another at all? Perhaps they would have stuck to their own tables, their own worlds: the locas on one side, elegantly dressed, discussing French poetry and American theater and their recent sexual conquests; the muralists on the other, carefully rumpled and paint-spattered, theorizing a more equal world for a “common man” they had rarely encountered. And if we’d walked into the bar, Jorge Pedro asked, which table would we have chosen? 

 

III.

In June 2019, 170,000 people gathered for Mexico City’s forty-first annual pride march—a number that nods to Mexico City’s first gay scandal: in 1901, police broke up a party of forty-one queer men, half of them in drag. Those who could afford to do so paid the police for their silence; the rest were sentenced to labor camps in the steaming, remote Yucatán Peninsula. (A forty-second man, a son-in-law of Porfirio Diaz, is rumored to have escaped.) Other homosexuals of the era were sent to the notorious Lecumberri penitentiary and isolated in Block J; jota, Spanish for j, would later become one of Mexico’s nastier epithets for gay men. This year’s parade ended in the city’s grand central plaza, the Zócalo, where rainbow banners hung over the facades of government buildings across from the eighteenth-century cathedral. 

For all the strides it has made toward openness and diversity, Mexico is no queer utopia. According to a study by the nonprofit Letra S, ninety-two LGBT people were murdered here in 2018. HIV rates continue to increase disproportionately among gay men. Though same-sex marriage became legal in Mexico City a decade ago, the nominally leftist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, pointedly declines to support nationwide marriage equality. In May, López Obrador declared a National Day against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia, but his focus on traditional values bears more than a passing resemblance to the masculinist ethos of the revolutionaries with whom he has long aligned himself. In speeches, he regularly uses the word fifi—expelling it like a hiss—to implicitly equate effeminacy, cosmopolitanism, and conservatism much the way Rivera and Paz did.

Nonetheless, the mood around the parade and its satellite events was celebratory. Families with small children walked alongside floats that carried firefighters and drag queens. All-night parties fanned out across the city, occupying everything from postcolonial mansions to derelict former detention centers. Crosswalks were repainted with rainbows that would take months to fade into the asphalt. At the opening of a show at the Museo Universitario del Chopo, on gay nightlife from the so-called Dance of the Forty-One to the present, young men in beards and spike heels threaded between gray-haired survivors in silk cravats and trans women of every age, all greeting one another as old friends: the democracy of the gay world.

That night, I met the legendary trans performer Terry Holiday, who materialized on the scene in a sequined gown, a white dahlia like the moon in her black hair. Overwhelmed by camera flashes, we decided to meet a few days later for lunch in the Plaza Garibaldi. Now in her sixties, Holiday made her entrée into the city’s queer nightlife in the early 1970s, shortly after Novo’s death. It was a time of glamorous debauchery and police crackdowns, she recalled; cops would regularly raid popular clubs on the pretense of searching for drugs, toss everyone in jail, and call their families to extort money. She herself was arrested at least five times.

If the situation has improved, she said, it’s because people have been forced into contact with people like her. “The secret is penetration,” she told me. I scanned her face for signs of a pun, but found none. “I was a visible jota, and neighbors who were maybe less comfortable with themselves would see me and say, ‘Well, if she can do it, why not me?’” Novo served in a similar role for her, she explained. “Knowing that before I was even born there was someone in a wig who wore makeup with his hands covered in rings? That was no small thing.” Indeed, Novo used his costume and the rest of his carefully honed persona, which Fordham University professor Viviane Mahieux has described as “a form of literary transvestism,” not to hide but rather to amplify a transgressive self. “For jotas, he wasn’t just a myth or an icon; he was an example, proof that you could be an empowered faggot,” Holiday said. “Novo knew how to surround himself with powerful people, not only for his art but also to win himself the privileges of, well, the privileged.” 

On Holiday’s unpainted lips, the words were admiring: Novo’s insinuation into a world not his own was a model of queer power even in traditionally heterosexual spaces. Coming from a younger person, though, it would almost certainly read as a condemnation. As critic Wesley Morris points out in his 2018 essay “The Morality Wars,” our historical moment has seen a transition from a dynamic in which artists on the transgressive left mischievously push the boundaries of free speech, as Novo did, to one in which “art might not have the privilege of being art for art’s sake anymore. It has to be art for justice’s sake.” 

I asked Holiday what she thought of Novo’s politics, his choice to stand by a government whose soldiers had knowingly fired into a crowd of peaceful protesters. Was this an allegiance to power or a miscalculated provocation, another case of the writer taking wicked delight in puncturing overblown pieties? “I was never political,” she said. “I was in the arts. We all do what we can in our own spaces.” She shrugged, then smiled. “I’ve always been an activist. I just started with myself.” 

Novo’s activism started with himself and ended there, too, but he was not, I would argue, apolitical. His was a politics of pleasure and profligacy, of blasting through taboos and climbing gracefully over the rubble, building a throne out of the debris. He was not just unashamed; he was shameless—and that shamelessness became the basis of his own revolutionary stance. To break the taboo around gay sex, he had to break every other taboo along with it. Freedom, like fucking, is a messy business.

“A lot of people express their queerness now by policing other people’s queerness,” Alberto Bustamante, a DJ and organizer for the queer event Traicíon, had told me a few weeks before I met Holiday. (Bustamante is better known by his stage name, Mexican Jihad.) “The generation forming their identity now would see Novo as a narcissist, a conservative, not on the side of moral authority that queer identity has adopted. But I love the sexual identity of Novo, which is not to give a shit.” 

 

*

 

The sensual satisfaction of transgression—“the pleasure of the insult,” as Fabre calls it in his essay—shimmers throughout Novo’s published prose, while practically singeing the onionskin of his private correspondence. Writing home in English from a 1940 trip to California, Novo complains, in a dazzling comic showpiece, about Los Angeles: “a phony place, full of scattered pieces of painted furniture only they call them homes.” He goes on:

Professional beauties sell celluloid kisses at studio prices—and fourth-rate Mexibitches wash dishes, make 14 dls. a week, hire nightly blackmailers whose very word may land them in jail for six months—or else deprive the girls of their earthly slacks right after kicking ’em and very much instead of fucking ’em… and no sailors, for National Defense against monstrous Hitler takes them away from your eyes, hides them in Hawaiian naval bases, occasionally allows a few of them to wander Sundays in Long Beach.

The rhythm of this passage, composed in Novo’s second language with an easy expertise rivaling Nabokov’s, rattles like gunfire. Read it aloud: feel the texture of “fourth-rate Mexibitches wash dishes” forcing your lips into a drunken slur, and the insinuating hiss of “professional beauties sell celluloid” as it distills and mutates the nursery-rhyme assonance of “Sally sells seashells” into an utterance bordering on the pornographic through the sheer lasciviousness of its diction.

Or take Novo’s 1928 travelogue, Return Ticket (originally titled in English), in which he describes his efforts to dispel the unwanted romantic attentions of a young Australian woman, identified as Ms. Cohen, aboard a ship from San Francisco to Honolulu. Shortly after boarding, Novo confesses to his new friend Rupert “my two great concerns on board: the tall bed in my very full cabin and the Australian señorita and her sociable mother.” The joke has two parts: the first on poor Ms. Cohen, too foolish to realize she’s angling for none other than Nalgador Sobo (even in 1928, readers would have known of his proclivities); the second—subtler, crueler—is on Novo, for being flamboyant enough for the first joke to land, and so feeble as to fear a young woman and her mother. No one is safe from Novo’s mordant humor, least of all himself. 

The Ms. Cohen sequence may well be the funniest in all of Novo’s oeuvre: the acute social observation rivals Proust’s, the winking satisfaction at its author’s own infamy presages Capote, and the nastiness reads like early Waugh. But the humor also leaves unsettling hints of Novo’s indifference to experiences outside his own. Throughout the anecdote he uses the word judío, “Jew,” as its own mean punch line. His gripe about the absence of eye candy in California is clever, but the joke curdles with his flippancy about “monstrous Hitler,” especially in light of his correspondence during the same period with the writer Salvador Borrego, who later became an infamous Nazi sympathizer. It’s easy to enjoy the joke about “nightly blackmailers”—that is, male prostitutes—for its diction and pacing, but the subtext of exploitation and violence is harder to swallow. I laugh, then cringe at my laughter, then cringe at my cringing, each time I read Novo’s comments in response to the invasion of the university in 1968, comments he made above all for the sake of the joke. Was it funny to make light of that day’s horrific events? Did he lose his right to provocation the moment he stepped into a position of power? Does provocation have limits? Should it? Can it?

Fabre bristled at these questions when I posed them toward the end of our interview, several tequilas and a full pack of cigarettes later. “Novo never had real political convictions,” he said with a vigorous shake of the head. “Today we want a degree of ideological clarity from people—and that is not queer. Insisting that people fall into one political camp or another—that’s heterosexuality in its purest form.”

 

*

 

During that 1940 trip to Los Angeles, Novo stopped at a barbershop and, for the first time, caught a glimpse of his bald spot in the mirror. “That vision inflicted a trauma from which I don’t believe I will ever recover,” he wrote to a friend back in Mexico City, terrifically camp and deathly serious. “I am another person, not the one I’ve always known… and I have to make a place for him in the world if I don’t want to find him one in death.” After that sight, he claimed, he no longer felt sexual desire. “I see beauty without coveting it,” he wrote. At thirty-six, the exuberant bloom had already come off the rose, and with it what remained of Novo’s youthful hope for romance and the poetic sublimity it had sustained, however tenuously, in his early career. 

Engineering his own life with the merciless precision of a stage director, Novo spent his early life obsessing over the always-imminent decay of his youth and desirability. “I recall at twelve years old the terror I had, even then, of growing old, of one day becoming repugnant and hateful,” he wrote in Return Ticket, when he was just twenty-three. “Perhaps I already am!” Accordingly, Pillar of Salt, written when Novo was forty-two, is more than just a memoir: it’s an elegy, a mythologized retelling of a sexually rebellious youth long since lost to the past. The book takes its title from the scene in Genesis in which Lot’s wife, fleeing the destruction of Sodom, defies God’s orders and turns to look back at her home, and is transformed instantly into a pillar of salt: memory as an act of both self-realization and self-immolation. With the title’s subtextual reference to the origin story of Novo’s favorite sin, the book is a celebration as well as a burial. 

Yet even in relinquishing the possibility of love, Novo refused to resign himself to tragedy, the only conceivable end for flagrantly, emphatically gay men since the time of Wilde’s imprisonment for “gross indecency.” Around the time he wrote Pillar of Salt, he published his classic love letter to the modern city, Nueva grandeza mexicana, or “New Mexican grandeur”: no longer prowling for secret rites in clandestine corners, Novo refashioned himself as the modern flaneur in a metropolis of grand cafés and bustling streets. Six years later, he bought an abandoned chapel in Coyoacán and opened a cabaret with a private restaurant next door, earning renown as one of the city’s finest hosts and most accomplished gourmands: past his physical prime, he traded what Villaurrutia once described as his “gluttony for human flesh” for the ordinary kind. “He never shares Wilde’s love for lost causes,” writes Carlos Monsiváis. “He aligns himself with the cult of success.” He becomes, as Fabre framed it, “the loca who goes to jail and becomes the lover of the strongest person there.” 

As the years went on, awards and recognitions piled up. Novo became one of Mexico’s foremost scholars of Nahuatl, the indigenous language spoken by the Aztecs and those they’d conquered: his own peculiar form of nationalism. He also became one of Mexico’s best-paid writers; he once bragged that he had charged five hundred pesos (about twenty-five dollars at current values) per syllable for a sonnet written as ad copy for the beer company Modelo. He grew fat, wore heavy makeup, and never appeared without his wig. Formal, correct, and always too much, he dressed as though he was about to take the stage in a production of Victor/Victoria, under layers of drag so densely packed they crushed him into something as hard and tough and shiny as a diamond.

And still, at no point did he use his success to stand by, with, or for younger queer people, to defend their right to a life of their own choosing, to give them a platform from which to publish or speak—a high crime against our contemporary notion of art as a vehicle for justice. By the time of Novo’s death, Mexico’s left had opened to sexual diversity, with writers like José Joaquín Blanco, Luis González de Alba, and Luis Zapata taking up the banner of literary queerness, often in an overtly politicized form more easily recognizable to modern sensibilities. Novo, until the day he died, stood only for himself, making impossible the inevitable, tedious question of how to separate the man from his work. Novo was the work, and that work was both indulgence and defiance, each for its own sake—gluttony of whatever kind and at whatever cost. A queer pursuit if ever there was one.

 

IV.

As we finished lunch and made our way out into Plaza Garibaldi, Terry Holiday lamented the lack of historical sensibility among young people today, their ignorance not only of Novo but also of film icons and pop acts from bygone decades. Their blindness to the past, she suggested, stemmed from an inability to conceive of the future. “For these kids, they imagine that life ends at thirty.” She shrugged on a lightweight jacket. “And I guess I thought the same. I thought I’d retire at fifty, then fifty-five, then sixty—and here I am.” 

Fatalism is part of our queer inheritance, too, passed down from Wilde and Novo through Paris Is Burning and the worst of the AIDS crisis; it’s a disorder we now treat with bottles of Truvada, blue pills stamped with the pharmaceutical brand name Gilead: an Old Testament country, just like Sodom, but this time a place to flee to rather than from. We use the drug successfully as a prophylaxis against the plague of our forebears, but less reliably to treat the internalized belief that we, too, will shine bright and die and leave behind nothing but a flash of light—that we, like Novo, will look back and turn to salt. 

Increasingly, in many parts of the world, queer people are entitled to the emblems of permanence that traditionally mark human lives as worthwhile: we can marry, we can have children; we can, if we choose, live lives that look a lot like those of straight people. Yet Novo would almost certainly have seen such polite assimilation as a capitulation, not an achievement. He spent a lifetime fighting the suite of conservative ideals that we nauseously refer to as “family values”—as though all families were the same, as though only family mattered. He refused to participate in the excavation of a shared Mexican identity as its own kind of familial history, as towering figures like Paz and Juan Rulfo and Carlos Fuentes did throughout the second half of the twentieth century; he built his selfhood piece by piece, on the hedonistic pursuits of sex and food and power. He was no less proud than the revolutionaries were to identify as Mexican, but rather than treat his identity as a historical burden, he saw it as a space for play. His rejection of ideological purity feels to me like a celebration of Mexico’s own glorious impurity, a nation’s emergence in violence and destruction re-read as a transgressive history of mixed languages and bloodlines. 

None of this lends itself to easy mythmaking, much less to the creation of a literary legacy. And it’s true that Novo never produced a definitively great work in his lifetime: his poetry deteriorated; his prose became more prolific, remained graceful and witty and erudite, but never achieved deep insight. Since beginning to read him three years ago, I’ve often wondered if Paz wasn’t correct in his estimation that Novo never wrote a clumsy sentence but rarely wrote a profound one. The more I read, though, the more I see that Novo’s triumph had nothing to do with profundity. The narrative of early work evolving into great late works, of creativity’s value measured only by the sum of its products, frames writing as a kind of childbirth—family values in another guise. 

In the year since I turned thirty, countless people have asked me when I’ll get around to writing a book, in much the same tone they use to ask women my age when they plan to have children. The implication is that for my life to have value, I must produce something that offers the possibility of transcendence, and reading Novo has helped me formulate my answer: maybe never. Novo’s victory wasn’t merely in his sexual conquests and his insistence on making a place for himself in a political and cultural world that wanted nothing to do with people like him: it was also in the promiscuity of his work, its radical dispersion into an endless constellation of poetry and plays and articles and columns. He didn’t channel his energies toward the creation of a totem or a legacy. Instead, he dedicated himself to the creation of an I, a subjective self, then dispersed it freely around the city like a jungle cat marking its territory with scat, like a straight man scattering his seed. 

In doing so, he left us an extraordinary document of his city’s queer world, what he affectionately calls “the fauna of the age”: men living well past the margins of propriety, their lives and exploits assiduously hidden from view. He brought them to light, claimed their experience of the city as equal to the pious official history painted by Rivera over the steps at the Palacio Nacional. He offered an alternative history, one that’s mine if I choose it, an inheritance of gluttony and excess and beauty, of inversion and subversion and ecstatic sin, recounted with an unstifled guttural laugh. His legacy, if he has one, is in the reminder that these are values too. Novo didn’t need an heir because he left his DNA everywhere, whether or not his descendants know his name. 

 

*

 

In April 2019 I was invited to read some of Novo’s poems at a cabaret called El Cisne, or “the swan,” named after the Spanish restaurant that occupied the space in the 1920s and was supposedly frequented by Novo and the other anales. I opened the evening with several of Novo’s uproarious untitled sonnets, published near the end of his career in a limited-edition book called Sátira (Satire) that he circulated among friends. At the intermission, many people from the audience—largely artists and writers and performers, most of them queer—inquired about the poems. Many had heard of Novo, but almost none had read him, much less these particular poems, in which sex, treated with no more reverence than defecation, is the source of his most sublime jokes.

The first poem I read that night begins, in Marguerite Feitlowitz’s translation, “What do I do in your absence?” 

I stare at your picture

trying as best I can for consolation

when I get hot, I introduce a finger

in effigy of the plantain that I pine 

for.

[…] 

Now with a sigh, now with a fart,

praising the illusions of my 

painter’s art,

and the newfound talents of my 

finger.

In the second poem (also, here, in the translation by Feitlowitz), Novo addresses a lover he has not seen since their distant youth. “We’ll find each other very strange / I slim, you fat,” he muses in a melancholic mode, as though shedding his old man’s skin and dipping, if only for a moment, into the sighing elegiac glory of his youth. “Sweetheart, suck in your paunch,” he writes. “I need to remove—my denture.”

These poems, missives from the end of his life, are masterful, though they’re not the sort of work typically in the running for the status of masterpiece. If anything, they read as a joke on masterpieces, a bawdy hijacking of the form favored by Shakespeare and Donne in their odes to the beloved and the divine, the form brought to Mexico by monks, now tainted with the bathroom humor of the limerick. Novo left us no swan song, no magnum opus. Instead he left us poems stained and perfumed, as Paz and Fabre have both said, with shit: poems that reject romance but also shame and propriety and the dreadful restraints of morality. These last sonnets, Fabre writes, “don’t seek acceptance. Neither love. Only pleasure.” That was—it is—revolution enough.

More Reads
Essays

Translating a Person

Alejandro Zambra
Essays

Loca

Michael Snyder
Essays

Under the Weather

Ash Sanders
more