Luis Zapata’s gay Mexican novel demands new translation


Here’s something glossy guides or Mexico City’s cultural stories will likely never tell a doe-eyed visitor: The toilets at the Sanborns chain cafe near the Angel of Independence monument were once the place to be. busiest place in town to find illicit sex.

For generations of men in the second half of the 20th century, long before mobile phones and connection applications, the “Sanborns del gelngel” was legendary. Gay, locked-in men indulged in the thrill of quickies with strangers in the men’s restroom stalls, or later mistook the staff to eternal frustration.

Outside, at the tables, the cafes lasted for hours. The Sanborns chain – owned today by the ultra-rich Carlos slim – became a beacon for a thriving community, allowing gay people to come together at a time when the government was cracking down on social dissidents of all kinds, including LGBTQ people.

It is the kind of illuminating cultural tradition that no one has ever bothered to write in Mexico – until the publication in 1979 of the novel “El vampiro de la colonia Roma” or “The vampire of Colonia Roma”, by Luis Zapata.

At the height of social control under the authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, Zapata’s novel overturned stereotypes of gay Mexican identity through the story of a lone con artist named Adonis García. The narrator enthusiastically navigates the city for sex, sometimes to the Sanborns near the Angel.

Although controversial when published, “El vampiro” quickly became a cult classic. To this day, it is popular with both gay and non-gay readers.

Author Luis Zapata, from January 2004,

(Courtesy of Clary Loisel)

On November 4, Zapata, from the state of Guerrero, died at the age of 69 in the city of Cuernavaca. Although he is hardly known beyond his country’s borders, even among Mexican Americans, the author has played a unique role in changing perceptions of LGBTQ people in the consumable culture of Mexico.

the Secretary of Culture of Mexico, Alejandra Frausto, and the National Institute of Fine Arts and Letters ad Zapata’s death in a statement and promised a public memorial after the COVID-19 pandemic. “With sorrow and affection, we bid farewell to Luis Zapata, pioneer of LGBT + literature in Mexico,” said Frausto.

In a mainstream style of conscience, radically devoid of any punctuation and written in the bitterly accurate urban vernacular of the time, Adonis’ narration seemed to unmask an underworld. The novel came on the fringes of La Onda, a post-magical realistic “wave” of counter-cultural urban art and expression. He showed for the first time in modern Mexican literature a gay figure assuredly inhabiting their sexuality, a notion incompatible with Mexico’s perpetually macho view of itself.

For early readers of “El vampiro”, the narrator’s bold voice was the book’s irresistible catchphrase. Adonis describes the dating and top-to-bottom adventures of the caste-like class system in Mexico, occasionally finding himself invited into the realms of upper-class society. These narrative hopscotches make “El vampiro” a paragon of picaresque form.

“I don’t think anything big ever really happened to me […] as is the case with a lot of people, where something happens that suddenly changes their life, ”Adonis says at the start of the novel, using long spaces to separate his thoughts. “I don’t think I have a destiny […] or if I did, I must have lost it along the way.

The prominent gay writers were born out of the fervor of the 1968 generation, led in large part by the famous urban essayist Carlos Monsiváis, or “Monsi,” as the writer was affectionately called. Monsiváis gained acceptance in the middle classes and on mainstream television by subtly distancing himself from the more seedy aspects of gay life at the time.

Zapata, on the other hand, kissed him. “He created an unforgettable protagonist, an archetype of gay literature,” said Juan Carlos Bautista, poet and friend who published alongside Zapata with the queer press Quimera. Bautista remembers reading the book stealthily for the first time at the age of 17, as he emerged into his own gay identity.

“Luis totally overturned the definition that popular culture had of homosexuals, who were depraved characters, steeped in despair and tragedy,” said Bautista, reached by phone in Xalapa, Veracruz. “Adonis presents himself as proud of his sexuality, and he makes no apologies for existing.”

A 2004 Debolsillo edition of Luis Zapata's novel,

A 2004 Debolsillo edition of Luis Zapata’s novel, “El vampiro de la colonia Roma”.

(Daniel Hernandez / Los Angeles Times)

Although Zapata is virtually unknown north of the border, there is an English translation: in 1981, the old-school San Francisco publisher Gay Sunshine Press produced “Adonis Garcia: A Picaresque Novel,” with the late translator. Canadian Edward A. Lacey. Three copies are currently available in the collection of the Los Angeles Public Library, but a curious reader should beware. Lacey gives Adonis a sort of 70s New York sage sort of voice that just doesn’t work.

“I really appreciate the effort that [Lacey] gave it, under very difficult circumstances, ”said Claire Loisel, translator of the only other Zapata title available in English. “But there is so much slang and so much Mexicanism, so many references to specific areas of Mexico City and Colonia Roma, you have to have a real cultural vision even place the tongue. You have to be almost bicultural to get it.

Professor of Spanish at the University of Montana in Missoula, Loisel translated “The strongest passion,” a less intimidating feat than “El vampiro” because the book is a narrative dialogue. Loisel interviewed Zapata and once took Spanish students to Mexico to meet him.

He also taught the novel as a visiting professor at Guanajuato, in conservative central Mexico, and found that most of his students had read it before. “I’m not sure anyone is gay in this class,” Loisel recalls. “It is in a way an underground canonical work.

The emerging gay metropolis

Back when “El vampiro” first appeared, it was a strange time to be gay in Mexico.

The ruling party slaughtered student protesters in Tlatelolco just before the 1968 Olympics, and the economic and cultural liberalizations of the 1980s were years away. The authorities, with the support of the conservative and often reactionary middle classes in Mexico, have carried out maneuvers to suppress openly homosexual behavior in large cities. The insults of “puto” and “Maricon” were common denigration.

And yet, since the early 1970s, Juan Gabriel, the pop vocal powerhouse and woman icon from Ciudad Juarez, had released a steady string of hit records to adoring audiences on national television.

In truth, Mexico City in the 1970s was already an exuberant and gay metropolis. The cultural engine of television and film studios, along with the vibrant theatrical scene and a complex web of universities and arts institutions, have helped the queer ecosystem to thrive. The Zona Rosa neighborhood, where the Sanborns in question are still located today, was a glittering gay hotspot teeming with clubs, galleries and cafes.

Drag shows and “Miss Mexico” contests were common, according to Guillermo Osorno, author of a non-fiction book about the city’s gay subway, “Tengo que morir todas las noches”(I have to die every night).

Author Luis Zapata and his friend Odette Alonso in 2011.

Author Luis Zapata and his friend Odette Alonso in 2011.

(Courtesy of Odette Alonso)

“It was kind of a parallel to what you see in ‘Paris Is Burning’, transplanted here in Mexico City,” Osorno said, when “the PRI was at the height of its power”.

In 1978, Mexico organized its very first public demonstration of homosexuals: a small group in a march commemorating the Cuban revolution. The first full gay pride march took place a year later, just as “El vampiro de la colonia Roma” hit bookstores. (A “colony” is a neighborhood, and Roma is the Beaux Arts colony in Mexico City, considered arty and cool today).

“The first gay and lesbian organizations emerged around this time, so it was a time of great integration into what we now know as our community,” said Odette Alonso, writer and longtime friend of Zapata in Mexico City. Of the book, she added: “More than anything, I will never forget the thing about the toilets in Sanborns. It’s just remarkable, in its details.

(Alonso noted that the first openly lesbian novel in Mexico, “Amora” by Rosamaría Roffiel, did not arrive until 10 years later.)

The most revealing scenes of “El Vampiro” capture juxtapositions – frolics in the stalls of a chain of cafes with a mannered “Mexican” vibe – that reflect the fundamental tension of gay Mexican life in the period between the hustle and bustle. 1960s and the advent of cell phones. It was somewhere between the outside and the inside, encompassing all the gray areas in between.

Zapata’s groundbreaking novel portrays a culture that has always “found ways to inject itself into the incisions between the public and the private,” Osorno said, making it, ultimately, forward-looking and forward-looking. full of hope.

“He broke that silence,” Bautista said. And now, so many decades later, even as the internet helped facilitate the socialization and connectivity of gay people across borders and borders of the 1970s, his work remains a roadmap for living without fear and shame. . “Despite all its ambivalences,” said Bautista, “‘El vampiro’ remains a model of liberation.”

The only barrier that remains for “El vampiro” is the language. It would take a brave soul to take on the task of re-translating Adonis García’s voice in a way that matches (or challenges) the sensibility of contemporary American English. In today’s literary climate, the translator would also have to settle for a single form of American slang to support the character.

Nobody? Alguien?


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