‘Red-Inked Retablos’ by Rigoberto González
Author: Miguel M. Morales
July 14, 2013
In Red-Inked Retablos (University of Arizona Press), author Rigoberto González recalls speaking to a literature class where a young man approached him with a question. The student asked González, if growing up gay in the Latino community was so difficult, why he continues to go back to it. González quickly responded, “Because I love my people.”
Not only does Red-Inked Retablos elegantly articulate that message for those of us inhabiting the nexus of coherent and seemingly disparate communities, it articulates that message for our supporters outside of that nexus.
González brings the concept of retablos, handcrafted works of devotional art, into literature. Using the red ink of pain, passion, and activism, he fashions meditations separated into collections, “Self-Portrait,” “Studies,” and “Speeches.” While these collections stand alone, they easily flow back and forth across time and memory offering insight into the other collections.
González presents his most delicate and illuminating retablos in the first and, thankfully, largest section, “Self Portraits.” We get an intimate look at González’s life and, by extension, catch glimpses into the lives of queer Chicanos.
These retablos lead the reader along González’s path from his mariposa stirrings in childhood to his emergence as the monarch of mariposa lit we know him as today.
He writes about the obligation of the memoir, particularly the mariposa memoir, “… whether we like it or not the act of writing and the act of remembering is a political gesture; whether or not we call it political activism, we are performing it.”
González pushes back against the desire to write from revisionist memory. In “Orphans in the Terrorist World,” he recounts his sexual (and near sexual) encounters on the anniversaries of his mother’s death. In doing so, he shows us a larger picture of how we strive for connections, long lasting and temporary, and how sometimes unexpected lessons come even in compromising positions. Could he have conveyed a similar message without revealing these encounters? Probably. But he creates retablos featuring complex and flawed human subjects.
González’s second collection of retablos, “studies”, examines influential poets like Andres Montoya, Ai, Thomas James, and his beloved jotoranos — his queer Chicano forbearers.
While professional and amateur scholars will find González’s “studies” enlightening, remedial scholars (like me) must stand on our intellectual tippy toes in order to try to catch glimpses into this world. Don’t misunderstand me, González’s studies are neither haughty academic narratives nor tedious textbook summaries. He balances the information presented by infusing examples of how these selected authors influenced his career as a writer – and his life. In doing so, González nudges the reader to do the same with the writers we cherish.
González’s third retablo, “speeches,” includes his speech “To the Writer, To the Activist, To the Citizen” which some have called the Latino Writer’s Manifesto. González delivered this directive at the 2003 National Latino Writers Conference. In it, he responds to the attack on Latinos in Arizona. He calls for new writers to learn their history and respect for the veteran writers. He calls for veterans writers to keep the doors open and to mentor new writers. It’s a speech that moves me to tears every time I read it and it’s how I was introduced to González.
In addition to paying homage to his literary antepasados (ancestors) and beloved jotoranos, González introduces new voices of Mariposa Lit who benefitted from the visible and institutional leadership of organizations like Lambda Literary Foundation.
González has not only created the primer for gay Chicano writers, he’s created a guide for new and experienced writers. They can be as textbook examples of creative nonfiction and by sharing the complex relationship with his father, González shows us how to write of our own complex relationships. They can be used as guides for academic writing and by sharing his papers on established influential poets, González shows us how to examine and write about our own academic and cultural influences. They can provide insight on how to compose a speech and by sharing these landmark speeches, González teaches us that part of being a writer is giving voice and delivering the word.
Rigoberto González’s Red-Inked Retablos delivers the word, and the word is that he loves his people.
By Rigoberto González
University of Arizona Press
Hardcover, 9780816521357, 168 pp.