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Lo Que Se Ve No Se Pregunta
Queerness and Latinidad

Juan Gabriel
Foto: Viva Iquique (www.vivaiquique.com) / via Wikimedia, CC BY 2.0

The Latin American history of queerness spans generations of famous representatives: Juan Gabriel, Frida Kahlo and Chavela Vargas. Liliana Macias uses the example of these dazzling personalities to shed light on the complex connections between queerness and Latinidad.

For 45 years, Mexican singer and songwriter Juan Gabriel enamored audiences across the world with his beautiful voice, gut wrenching lyrics, and glamorously flamboyant performances. It was those performances that garnered him the title of “El Divo de Juarez” or the diva of Juarez, a city in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico.

From the start of his career up until he died in 2016, Juanga, as he was called colloquially by his fans, skirted speculations of his possible homosexuality. During an interview in 2002, as he was relentlessly pressed about his sexuality by a reporter, Juanga delivered a quintessential response that underscored the generational complexities of the intersections of queerness and Latinidad: „Lo que se ve no se pregunta“ (“You do not question the obvious.”)

The theory in the flesh

The ambiguity of the response, which neither denies nor confirms his sexuality, alludes to the ways in which queer Latinx folks navigate their identity. An identity that is defined by what Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga called a theory in the flesh in their text This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. They explain:

A theory in the flesh means one where the physical realities of our lives – our skin color, the land or concrete we grew up on, our sexual longings – all fuse to create a politic born out of necessity.

From his flamboyance to his coquettish queer gestures, Juan Gabriel was unapologetic about who he was. His career spanned 45 years, a catalogue of almost two thousand songs, and hundreds of performances to adoring audiences.

Juan Gabriel was beloved by million of fans of all sexualities; even the most ardent of machos were brought to tears by his beautiful songs.

Generations of queer stories

The love that Latinx audiences had for Juan Gabriel was not an anomaly in time but rather it followed a queer trajectory in history. One of Mexico’s most beloved and recognized artist Frida Kahlo was unapologetic about her queerness. Kahlo’s female lovers spanned from the famous American artist Georgia O'keeffe to the talented performer Josephine Baker. During her lifetime, Kahlo was beloved internationally by many having the opportunity to showcase her art across the world.

Frida Kahlo and Chavela Vargas

Frida Kahlo Foto: Guillermo Kalho, Sotheby's, Wikimedia, Public Domain Another of Kahlo’s lover who was equally as talented, though at times self destructive, was the vocally gifted singer Chavela Vargas. Chavela Vargas was born in Costa Rica but when asked what her nationality was she would proudly say Mexican. She asserted this even on her deathbed when she said Me voy con Mexico en el corazon (I leave with Mexico in my heart.) Her love for Mexico was not uncorresponded, during her career as an artist the Mexican public opened their arms to her and embraced her.

With poncho and guitar: Chavela Vargas conquers a male domain

At the age of seventeen, Vargas left Costa Rica and moved to Mexico where she donned mens clothing, began to drink heavily, and performed Mexican rancheras like no other musician could. Rancheras are a type of Mexican song known for being melancholic gut wrenching songs about betrayal love and loss traditionally performed by men. An often inebriated Chavela, wearing a poncho and armed with her guitar, would perform somber ranchera songs rendering the audience speechless and leaving them in tears.

Hollywood affairs and the crash

Soon Chavela was drinking with the father of Mexican rancheras Jose Alfredo Jimenez whose company help propel her career even further. During that period, Chavela had several female lovers and often bragged of enamoring famous Hollywood actresses that vacationed in Mexico. Eventually, Chavela’s alcoholism and anger management issues caught up to her and she disappeared from the limelight for almost thirty years.

Comeback with happy ending and obligation

Chavela Vargas Foto: Raúl Serrano, Wikimedia/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0 In 1991, Chavela reemerged from her hiatus sober and ready to perform once more. Enamored by her music, famed Spanish director Pedro Almodovar help promote her music and made it so that at the age of 83 Chavela performed at the infamous Carnegie Hall. Also at the age of 83, Chavela officially came out as a lesbian. In her biography, she stated about being lesbian: „Nunca he estado con un señor, nací así, no lo presumo, tampoco lo pregono, pero no lo niego.“ (“I've never been with a man, I was born that way, I do not presume it, I do not preach it, but I do not deny it.”)

This recognition of her queerness came to no surprise to many for like Juan Gabriel; Chavela lived her life honoring who she was.

Juan Gabriel, Frida Kahlo, and Chavela Vargas are but a few examples of a queer Latinx history that spans across borders and centuries. Each living their own theory in the flesh while we young queer folk, in reverence, continue to stoke the fire of their, which is now our, resistance. Some days we thrive and other times we survive.