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This dazzling debut takes the coming-out, coming-of-age narrative and gives it a fresh landscape, namely, the Bronx urban scene, where the street codes are “mixed into the concrete and asphalt that was used to build the neighborhood.”
For Chulito, a sixteen-year-old high school drop-out, Hunts Point is the proverbial oyster, and he, “a Latino, hip hop version of Michelangelo’s David,” its prized pearl. He’s able to charm his way into the good graces of the young women who desire him and the young men who rule the avenues, including a high-stakes drug dealer, Kamikaze, who makes Chulito his most-trusted runner.
As a product of a working class masculinity-conscious environment, Chulito must “be correct with the fellas,” which means cat calling the local girls and “not crossing the pato (faggot) line.” The second mandate proves to be more challenging for Chulito since he has developed a crush on Carlos, a childhood friend who is now in “pato exile.”
The more Chulito’s popularity grows, the more he’s expected to express the values of his community, a pressure that pushes him into depression and anxiety: “He realized that he needed time away from everybody, time away from the noises and opinions on the corner, time away from Kamikaze and the business, time away to figure out what he wanted to do next.” So he attempts to have a “down low” relationship with Carlos, which only unearths new fears.
Carlos introduces Chulito to the gay youth parties inManhattan, where Chulito behaves like a paranoid “closeted thug” reluctant to participate in “gay things, like arranging dates and blowing kisses.” And though they initially have fun stealing glances and whispering words of affection over the phone, eventually Carlos tires of Chulito’s internalized homophobia and calls it quits, forcing Chulito to confront the most drastic decision of his young life: to leave home to live as a homosexual or to stay close to what was familiar and slowly suffocate to death.
Though Chulito’s “queer’s dilemma” might come across as familiar territory to connoisseurs of queer lit, what makes this young man’s journey particularly compelling is that he discovers ultimately that his choices are not as limited as he once believed—a great comfort to young readers who don’t have the choice to escape and reinvent themselves away from their beloved, though troubled, ethnic and/ or working class neighborhoods.
Additionally, Rice-González layers the young man’s narrative with a surprising “cocoon of support,” which strengthens Chulito’s resolve to be who he wants to be. As a fatherless adolescent, Chulito surrounds himself with complex father figures: Brick, a muscle-bound Puerto Rican model who not only left the drug dealer’s life, but who’s able to forge a friendship with a gay man and “still stay ahead of all the homo rumors”; Kamikaze, who protects Chulito, even after he comes out to him; and Julio, an out gay man who runs a travel agency in Hunts Point. Julio’s business becomes a safe space for Carlos and Chulito to seek counsel, and is perhaps the most fitting symbol of Chulito’s path toward fulfillment: he can go anywhere and everywhere, but there’s only one home worth coming back to and fighting for.
Without these wise adult men, Chulito’s role models would have been reduced to the shirtless guys on parole, “indistinguishable dots in the portrait of his neighborhood,” who hustle customers into the auto glass shops, and Puti, the drag queen with a criminal past who will spend “the rest of her life looking out at Hunts Point from her perch, looking frail, unkempt, and sad.”
As a narrative about urban youth, children of Caribbean immigrants, Chulito is in perfect company with two other classics: Abraham Rodríguez’s The Boy Without a Flag, which also involves Puerto Ricans in the Bronx, and Junot Díaz’s Drown. As a queer narrative, however, Chulito stands proudly and confidently on its own. And Chulito’s proclamation (“This is our story. This is where we’re from.”) at the conclusion of this pioneering novel, will resonate with the two communities it is shouting out.
By Charles Rice-González
Paperback, 9781936833030, 275pp.