On September 21, 1968, Salvador Novo rose from bed in the upscale Coyoacan section of Mexico City to find his chauffeur scrubbing graffiti off the gray stone wall of the street which had been recently named after him.
After a long day of meetings with architects and a tea with the Indian ambassador, the poet and essayist had retired in the evening, taking off his formal suit, removing his large turquoise and onyx rings, and placing his auburn wig aside.
By the time he awoke, the driver had already erased some of the words written in red oil paint, yet one phrase remained, a cutting joke: POPULAR ENTRE LA TROPA–popular with the troops.
Just three days before, President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz had issued military orders to suppress the ongoing student protests at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
The day after, at a funeral at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the cronista de la ciudad, Manuel Novo, was asked by a reporter what his opinion was on the occupation.
Novo, who was closely associated with the president, responded jovially, “Well, well, that’s the first news, and very good, I’ve heard today. Tell me, how did it go?”
Over the coming weeks, Novo was met with public criticism. Writers, academics, and journalists were outraged; some even stopped talking to him altogether.
During a screening of one of Novo’s poems, young people responded with jeers, whistles, and projectiles.
Following the October 2 massacre in Tlatelolco, which left an unknown number of people dead and may have been as high as 300, Novo made no comment, yet still wrote his weekly columns without any reference to the tragedy.
Despite his efforts to retract his opinion on the UNAM invasion, claiming his new book had been released on the same day and that was the “good news,” it was too late.
With one comment, Mexico’s first queer provocateur had solidified his status as a puppet of the system.
At just sixty-four years of age in 1968, Novo had felt like an old man for a full thirty years. His body was large and his face flushed, with dark, sorrowful eyes and a sharp aquiline nose.
He was no longer the same beautiful boy whose deliberately plucked eyebrows and delicate skin caused a stir in Mexico City in the 1920s.
He was no longer the talented poet who challenged the self-righteousness of Diego Rivera and wrote verses full of venom and sexual suggestion.
Nor was he the same young man who took to his rooftop apartments to sleep with taxi drivers and soldiers.
He had been “favored by the troops” in his heyday. Now, he had the admiration of presidents, actresses, divas, and high-society figures.
Long before he reached the position of director at the Academy of Dramatic Arts at the National Institute of Fine Arts, before he became a cronista or earned the National Prize for Letters, his essays reflected the style of Montaigne and he wrote about numerous topics ranging from beds to bread and beards.
His swooning verses frequently expressed his intense desire for male bodies, as he described in his 1925 poem “Naufragio” with the line “this wave of wind / that tastes of torsos and of naked shoulders / and of lips and smells of gazes.”
An iconic painting from his friend and contemporary Manuel Rodriguez Lozano depicts him in the backseat of a taxi, wearing a dressing gown and grinning as he surveys the night-time streets of Mexico City’s Centro Historico.
Novo had a mastery of English, French, and German and at eighteen he gained an in-depth understanding of Freud, leaving marginalia that themselves made a minor comedic masterpiece.
He went on to become the first to translate and produce the works of Eugene O’Neill, Jean Cocteau, and Samuel Beckett in Mexico.
At nineteen, he edited a trade magazine El chafirete, which featured pornographic poems disguised as French verse, humorous pieces ridiculing authors of the cultural vanguard and personal advertisements hoping to attract people he wanted to engage in intimate relations with.
Given the recent liberation of Mexico from dictatorship by a leftist-nationalist coalition and the conservative outlook of the cultural establishment that beauty is derived from social utility, Novo’s cosmopolitanism, fascination with modernism and irreverence put him in opposition to the general mindset.
Octavio Paz wrote many years later that Novo’s ambition was to dominate and irritate, which he succeeded in doing.
Novo achieved a level of fame that led to him being given the unflattering moniker of Nalgador Sobo, or “butt fondler,” and was widely known as a sage on the history of Mexico City since the Aztecs.
He was a frequent lecturer on the radio and an occasional commentator on a popular news program, often wearing extravagant wigs, makeup, and embroidered jackets.
People from all around the country, even strangers, wrote letters to him that were addressed to “Maestro Novo,” to which he often responded.
According to a close companion, Novo once left a movie theater with the governor of Mexico City and the president of the influential Institutional Revolutionary Party; the photographer asked Novo to identify the two other men for the caption in the newspaper.
Although Salvador Novo achieved celebrity status in the later part of his life, he is barely remembered in Mexico and his name is only vaguely known abroad.
After his infamous fiasco in 1968, he was dismissed to the edges of Mexican literature, where he remains a pariah in a culture that values indignation over outrageousness.
In an era that has more acceptance of queerness than ever before, there is no definite place for someone as difficult and contradictory as Novo.
He was not shy to reveal his identity, but instead made himself seen, thus allowing the Mexican public to acknowledge that a person like him could be successful without being embarrassed or facing a disaster.
At the beginning of his 1972 essay collection, Las locas, el sexo y los burdeles, Novo establishes an irrefutable point: “In Mexico, there has always been a presence of locas.”
This holds true, however, no one has been quite like Novo.
I had just moved to Mexico City for a few months when my friend Francisco introduced me to Novo. Although we were still acquaintances at the time, he was enthusiastic about showing me around the massive city he was from.
On a mild winter morning, Francisco picked me up from the Centro Historico, where I lived, and drove me to the National Museum of the Viceroyalty.
We spent the day admiring the impressive camp of its baroque chapel and the portraits of nuns wearing crowns of flowers with sly smiles.
Queerness seemed to be everywhere in this city I had recently chosen as my new home; it was not really a secret but more like a hushed statement, heard only by those who opened their ears.
Following around five years of living in Mumbai, I shifted to Mexico City.
When I reached India in 2012, homosexuality had been formally unlawful since 1861, when the British established a statute in the colonial penal code which forbade “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.”
The Delhi High Court annulled the clause in 2009, but the Supreme Court overturned the decision in 2013. (The same court ultimately decided that the law was unconstitutional in 2018.)
The legal intricacies concerning homosexuality did not greatly affect me—white privilege is, among other things, being able to take advantage of a different set of rules even as an immigrant in a country where you are part of a very small racial minority—but I became more uneasy with each new story of men who were drawn in by sex apps and then blackmailed by the police.
Though my motivations for leaving India and coming to Mexico had no relation to it, I was immediately charmed by the expansive and varied queer worlds of Mexico.
It was different than in India; less taboo, yet less commercialized than what I’d experienced growing up in the eastern US.
Juan Gabriel’s pop music, which neither declared nor denied his sexuality, was heard in every store.
The merchandise of the renowned, yet hazardous, Tepito black market featured male thongs and poppers in addition to straight porn.
Queerness was palpable in the rundown mansions and factories that had become the sites of parties like Traicion, Por Detroit, and Pervert. At the Arena Coliseo, a wrestler in a pink tutu was cheered for as he defeated a troupe of burly wrestlers and kissed them on their exposed lips.
This tender moment was then brutally interrupted when the three men ganged up on their flamboyant adversary, their heels targeting his stomach and face.
I was later to discover that this same atmosphere of queer acceptance surrounded the Centro Historico, where I had decided to live.
On the ride home, Francisco drove me past Alameda, the renowned colonial park at the western side of the city.
Its tree-lined paths and neoclassical fountains had been a popular spot for cruising for many years. Calle Republica de Cuba and Plaza Garibaldi, both in the vicinity, had been hubs of the gay community since at least the 1960s.
There were numerous bars where men in white tejanos gathered for beer and young people danced perreo until sunrise.
Across the Eje Central, a road built in the 1970s, we turned down Calle Donceles, full of pastel houses and mansions with volcanic stone exteriors, their ground floors home to secondhand bookstores.
Francisco pointed out where Novo and his friend Xavier Villaurrutia rented their first room in 1921.
This was where Novo first experimented with marijuana, the two poets had intimate relationships, and they organized cocaine-fueled parties, earning them the name the Ladies of Donceles.
As we drove past that corner, Francisco shared with me about La estatua de sal, or Pillar of Salt, Novo’s queer erotic bildungsroman written in the mid-1940s and published in 1998.
For several weeks, I visited every bookshop on Donceles, asking the shopkeepers for a book titled Pillar of Salt by Novo.
Most of them did not recognize the title, but some of them had a few of his works such as La culta dama (The cultured lady).
I started to discover the details about the forgotten author and his connections to Mexican history. As I compared him to other writers, such as Evelyn Waugh and Truman Capote, I saw that Novo was unique in his own way.
He was not embarrassed of his desires, nor was he trying to preserve his legacy; he was firmly rooted in his place, but not necessarily in his era.
I continued looking.
As the culture around me turned to its anger, its suppressed rage that had been developing due to indignation and powerlessness, Novo’s consistent smirk, his complete dismissal of solemnity, and his application of irreverence to voice the ineffable only became more attractive.
When I finally discovered Pillar of Salt , I realized that neither my research nor Francisco’s description had readied me for the universe it portrayed.
Reading it was like employing a black light in a motel room, exposing the hidden clues of all the risqué, defiant acts that had happened before me.
P illar of Salt opens with the birth of Novo in the capital in 1904, then moves quickly to his early years. His middle-class family relocated to the arid northern borderlands in 1911, then to the provincial city of Torreon.
He enrolled in the city’s only private school, a girls’ school, where he began to explore his self-transformation.
He was particularly fond of putting on a gray sweater that had a feminizing effect on his young body, and during his adolescence, he even had his eyebrows plucked into fine painterly brackets.
A year prior to the Novo family’s relocation, the Mexican Revolution began, with various political factions standing up against the despot Porfirio Diaz, who had been amassing power, money, and property to the upper-class citizens of urban areas for thirty years.
By the time the Novos moved to Torreon, the expansive north of Mexico had become a contentious environment due to the presence of the notorious outlaw Pancho Villa, who was known for his military aptitude, his opposition to tyranny, and his excessive violence.
Initially, the Novos took up residence on the outskirts of town, which was on the same route that Villa’s troops used for their recurrent raids into the city.
However, eventually Novo’s uncle, who lived in the center of the city, persuaded them to come and stay with him as a way to protect themselves.
On the day of the move, Villa’s forces spied on the family’s belongings and showed up at the door, claiming they were after a federal officer.
Novo’s dad and uncle, a merchant with a moderate amount of success, attempted to flee out the back of the house; the soldiers, thinking one of them was the person they sought to kill, gave chase.
From the hall, Novo and his mom heard two shots in the street before the soldiers re-emerged to pillage the house.
Novo’s mom took him to a neighbor and requested her to look after him as she was going “back to the house where they would likely murder her.”
Later he learned that his mother and father had both survived; his uncle had not been as fortunate.
That fateful event and the resulting effect it had on Novo’s political views, though important, take up only a few pages of his memoir, which soon shifts to recounting his youthful sexual experiences.
One such incident is when he was sitting with his tutor and the tutor placed his hand in Novo’s lap, which Novo mentions to his mother and leads to the tutor’s dismissal.
He also speaks of his first time seeing a fellow student’s “erect and ruddy penis,” and his own loss of virginity at age thirteen with a baseball player from the local team, which he jokingly compares to the enemas he had to endure when he was unwell.
The Novo family relocated to Mexico City in 1917 with the desire that Salvador would become a doctor.
This coincided with the writing of Mexico’s first constitution which restricted the influence of the clergy in public life, gave laborers the right to form unions, and redistributed land.
During this time, Novo was attending a prestigious Mexico City day school where he was exposed to other gay students such as Villaurrutia and Carlos Pellicer.
It was here that he discovered the pleasure of being able to explore the city in an unrestricted way. He writes, “The city presented itself as seductive and unknown, calling to me to explore and experience the pleasure of my unrestricted freedom.”
Novo frequently depicted sex in a comedic way rather than a spiritual one. Yet he experienced a successful romantic connection with Mexico City–a sprawling oasis constructed on the former lake bed of Tenochtitlan.
He may not have been conscious of the changes that had occurred in the city in the aftermath of upheaval, famine, and chaos.
But to dismiss the marks left on Mexico City’s body, as a new nation was born, would imply a deliberate ignorance or a political gesture. Novo was not one for fantasy, however.
The revolution was an attempt to correct the incredibly unequal economic system, yet it was also chauvinistic and machista.
The political and artistic establishments after the revolution deemed “correct” political commitments and “correct” expression of manhood as essential to the Mexican identity.
Carlos Monsivais, who succeeded Novo as cronista de la ciudad and was also gay but not as flamboyant, paraphrased the revolutionary vanguard’s view that “the climate of war demands valor. A faggot is an offense to manliness, to Mexico, to the Revolution.”
Novo saw revolutionary dogmatism as a threat to freedom, and therefore the city he described in his memoir had virtually no trace of the violence and oppression that preceded his arrival.
Pillar of Salt paints a picture of Mexico City as a humid and sensual landscape filled with opportunities for personal exploration.
Novo recounts an episode where he is introduced to an overly large penis and has cotton inserted into his anus. Later, he visits a professor, who asks for a kiss, only to reject it and sends the bloody and soiled wad out of Novo’s pant leg.
The author talks about his “ardent predilection” for drivers and his experience of a clandestine affair with a family chauffeur in his adolescence.
He also writes of aging men seeking love, as well as peculiar individuals with unusual nicknames and their real emotions of envy, longing, grief, and joy.
The book has no investment in equality, justice, or the morality of the sexual acts depicted — even those which may not be considered acceptable by today’s standards, such as Novo’s encounters with nearly pubescent individuals.
It is of no benefit to society beyond its existence. Novo wrote about politics often, but he valued the ‘lower’ subjects like boxing and lucha libre more, and was fascinated with the men and their environment in all its shoddy magnificence.
As Monsivais wrote in The Marginal in the Center: “Novo approaches his sexuality as if it were a revolutionary venture.”
Novo’s revolution — a revolution of the body for pleasure’s sake — was what he valued most.
In the second place,
The frank depictions of sex in Pillar of Salt were a surprise, but the early poems of Novo are remarkable for other reasons.
Both published in 1933, Nuevo amor (New love) and Espejo (Mirror) are remarkable for their lyrical grace and candid yearning.
The last poem in the former, “Elegy,” was a surprise with its stark portrayal of queer solitude, not at all like the playful naughtiness of Pillar of Salt.
The poem starts with “We who have hands that do not belong to us,”
Unfit for embraces, of no aid
for the mill or the farm
Long and limp like a blossom
destitute of pollen
Or like a reptile that dispenses its
As it has nothing else to proffer.
Octavio Paz harshly criticized the late Salvador Novo in 1987, thirteen years after his death, labeling him as having “much talent and much venom, few ideas and no morals.”
Paz’s scathing words seemed severe when considering works such as “Elegy.” However, Novo’s biting words and quick wit were a form of self-defense, a type of behavior which has been recognized in gay men since Oscar Wilde’s time.
Novo had powerful enemies before Paz, notably Diego Rivera.
The famous playboy and entrepreneur was known for scandalizing the conservative Catholic society by sleeping with wealthy women and prompting them to adopt the language and attire of the working class.
In spite of his loud and clear political views, Rivera spent the entire decade of the revolution in Europe, first learning in Spain and then socializing with Picasso and Braque in Paris.
When he returned to Mexico, he was able to secure a monopoly on major state projects, grow his personal wealth, and promote his own image.
While Rivera painted works in tribute to the working class, Novo and his colleagues (who were mostly homosexual and referred to themselves as Los Contemporaneos) had a cosmopolitan view of Mexico, which was receptive to international influences, like those of Oscar Wilde, Jean Cocteau, and Andre Gide.
In contrast, Los Estridentistas claimed to be the masculine option: “To be a stridentist is to be a man,” they wrote in their second manifesto.
This made them adversaries of the new mythical ‘Mexican man’ that Rivera’s powerful masculinity and political morality represented.
For the revolutionaries, art without a practical purpose was seen as a danger to the integrity of the state.
Novo, however, was just as dissatisfied with the idea that all sex had to be for procreation, as he was with the notion that art had to serve a purpose beyond itself.
For at least the last 10 years, the revolutionaries and the Contemporaneos have engaged in a spirited battle.
In 1924, El machete, the communist party’s magazine, featured a play entitled Los rorros fascistas and an etching by muralist Jose Clemente Orozco named Los anales, which linked effeminacy to far-right politics and mentioned Novo by name.
Later, Rivera depicted Novo on his hands and knees with a worker’s foot on his back as part of a suite of murals.
Novo responded with the satirical epic La diegada, which ridiculed Rivera’s attitude as a working man’s savior, even going so far as to use the painter’s first name in the title as an homage to Homer’s Iliad.
In 1934, the Mexican lower house of Congress formed a committee of public health to target “counterrevolutionaries” out of their positions; this was due to the “effeminate acts” they were thought to engage in, which was believed to be a source of corruption.
At the same time, Rivera wrote in a magazine that the “pure art” movement and its related “abstract art” was a product of the capitalist bourgeoisie and that it had caused the emergence of a “pseudo-artists” and “petit-bourgeois writers” that called themselves “pure poets” but were, in actuality, “pure faggots”.
Novo provided a retort to the left-wing elite’s supposed commitment to laborers with his Proletarian Poems, displaying his unwavering attitude in the process.
Poets of the proletariat urge:
Wield the sickle and carve your path
(Their encouragements are heard in the city, but not in the fields
where the farmer would not be able to hear them.)
On a chilly evening in February 2019, I encountered Luis Felipe Fabre, a poet and critic, in a refurbished cantina in the affluent area of La Roma.
In his 2007 justification of Novo, Fabre reinterpreted Paz’s jab as a battle cry, dubbing his essay “Escribir con caca”–“To write with shit”. (This was later translated into English by John Pluecker as “Holy Shit.”)
Fabre commented to me, “For Rivera, the destitute existed only in theory, whereas Novo was interacting with cab drivers and soldiers.
I even proposed, “Similar to Whitman.” Fabre then chuckled. “Novo would have viewed Whitman and thought, ” What is a gay man singing about this new country? ”
Novo perceived the same process in Mexico but was not sure it was something to be pleased about.”
Novo had no patience for pretentious manifestos or the notion of transcendence.
Fabre proceeded by saying, “Novo never portrayed his positions as anything else other than survival. For Novo, sexuality was politics.”
Although sharing a bed with someone is not the same as respecting their rights, neither is simply believing in the concept of rights for a class the same as being part of their community.
Diego Rivera’s murals depict workers as faceless masses of bodies, with only their physique distinguishing them from the smokestacks and other machines.
Novo’s proletarian poems, however, give voice to the laborer, cadet, sublieutenant, and soldier, showing their unique and often erotic inner lives.
Fabre commented on the way queer people have broken down those boundaries to connect with people from all walks of life, noting how Novo’s poems even included the smell of iodine from a taxi driver’s hands, depicting a kind of “democracy of the gay world.”
We met Fabre not long ago, and as I usually do on Fridays I went to my nearby cantina in the Centro Historico.
It is close to the place where Novo and Villaurrutia resided initially and the government building where Novo worked from 1931 to 1933–the same one where Rivera painted his murals.
My friends and I are mostly gay: writers, journalists, scholars, and sometimes a movie director or artist who is a regular visitor.
Like many contemporary creators, we have a leftist viewpoint that blends socialism of the revolutionaries with the libertinism of the Contemporaneos.
This association would have been considered offensive to any establishment in the past, whether it be the machismo of the Mexican Revolution or the conservative morality of the United States.
To follow the Contemporaneos would have meant abandoning the idea of social justice, and to choose the revolutionaries would have been to deny our identities.
Jorge Pedro Uribe Llamas, an established cronista in Centro, asserted that it was likely that Rivera and Novo had both set foot in Mexico City during the 1920s.
In those days, the capital was relatively tiny, especially in terms of the intellectual population.
He questioned if the revolutionaries and Contemporaneos would have exchanged greetings or if they would have just kept to their own respective groups.
The former were usually finely dressed, conversing about French poetry, American theater and their amorous affairs, while the latter were usually scruffy and daubed with paint, expounding on the idea of a more equal world for the “common man”, whom they had rarely encountered in person.
And if we had entered the bar, Jorge Pedro asked, which table would we have chosen?
In June 2019, 170,000 individuals gathered for the forty-first pride march of Mexico City–a figure that has symbolic reference to the first gay scandal that transpired there in 1901.
Police had broken up a gathering of forty-one queer men, half of whom were dressed in drag. Those who could afford to do so paid the officers for their silence, while the rest were condemned to toil in labor camps in the sweltering Yucatan Peninsula.
(It is said that the forty-second man, a son-in-law of Porfirio Diaz, escaped.)
Other homosexuals of the same period were sent to the notoriously grim Lecumberri prison and isolated in Block J, which is why the letter “j” in Spanish became a derogatory term for gay men.
The parade culminated in the capital’s Zocalo, with its rainbow banners hung from the facades of government edifices opposite the eighteenth-century cathedral.
In spite of the advancements it has made in terms of openness and inclusivity, Mexico is certainly not a queer paradise.
Statistics from Letra S point to 92 LGBT individuals who were victims of murder in 2018, plus the high HIV rates among gay men.
Mexico City legalized same-sex marriage a decade ago, but President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador refuses to sign off on it at a national level.
In May, Lopez Obrador did designate a National Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, yet his focus on traditional values relates to the same masculine ideology as the revolutionaries he has an affinity for.
In his public speeches, he often uses the word fifi to denote effeminacy, cosmopolitanism and conservatism, in the same way Diego Rivera and Octavio Paz did.
The atmosphere of the parade and its related happenings was very cheerful. Families with small kids, floats with firefighters and drag queens all marched together.
Parties went on into the early hours of the morning, from postcolonial mansions to deserted former prisons.
The streets were decorated with rainbows that would be visible for a few months.
At the opening of a show at the Museo Universitario del Chopo about the history of gay nightlife, young bearded men in stilettos, elderly folks in cravats and trans women of all ages all mingled with each other, embracing the diversity of the gay scene.
One evening, I encountered the renowned trans entertainer Terry Holiday, who appeared in a glittery dress with a white dahlia in her raven tresses.
As we were overwhelmed by the camera flashes, we agreed to get together for a meal at the Plaza Garibaldi a few days later.
Holiday, who is now in her sixties, started her journey with the queer nightlife in Mexico City in the early 1970s, shortly after Novo’s passing.
She recollected that it was a period of lavish licentiousness and police raids; the police would frequently raid the famous clubs on the excuse of looking for drugs, throw everyone in jail and contact their families to squeeze money out of them.
She herself was apprehended at least five times.
Holiday suggested that society had improved due to people being exposed to people like her. “The secret is to infiltrate,” she said without a hint of humor.
“By being visible, I showed those who were less confident that they can do it if I can.”
She also credited Novo for providing a role-model for her.
“It was inspiring to know that before I was born, there was someone who wore make-up and jewelry while dressed in a wig,” she said.
Viviane Mahieux, a professor at Fordham University, described Novo’s approach as a “form of literary transvestism”.
According to Holiday, Novo was not just a legend but a living example of an empowered queer. “He knew how to build relationships with influential people.
Not just for his art, but also to gain the same status as the powerful.”
On Holiday’s lips, which hadn’t been adorned with lipstick, the words were complimentary: Novo’s entrance into a world completely alien to him was an example of queer strength even in typically heterosexual domains.
Nevertheless, if it had come from a younger individual, it might have been seen as a criticism.
As Wesley Morris explains in his 2018 article “The Morality Wars,” there has been a shift from a situation in which performers on the radical left artfully pushed the limits of free speech, like Novo did, to one in which “art may not have the right to be art for art’s sake anymore; it has to be art for justice’s sake.”
I inquired from Holiday what she believed concerning Novo’s political stance, his determination to stay with a government whose armed forces had deliberately fired bullets into a group of tranquil demonstrators.
Was it dedication to authority or a misguided provocation, another instance of the author joyfully pricking inflated sanctimoniousness? “I was never political,” she said. “I was in the arts. Everyone does the best they can in their own spheres.”
She gave a slight shrug and then smiled. “I’ve always been an activist, but I began with myself.”
Novo began and concluded his activism with himself, but I don’t believe he was apolitical.
His style of politics was one of enjoyment and extravagance, pushing boundaries and crossing them with ease, constructing a seat of power out of the wreckage.
Not only was he unashamed, he was completely shameless and this became his own unique approach to revolution.
To lift the stigma from homosexual relations, he had to free himself of all other taboos. Liberty, like intimacy, often creates a chaotic situation.
Alberto Bustamante, who also goes by his stage name Mexican Jihad, told me before I encountered Holiday that many people today demonstrate their queerness by evaluating other people’s queerness.
He noted that the current generation of individuals forming their identity would likely see Novo as narcissistic and conservative, not as a figure in the moral authority queer identity has taken on.
Nevertheless, Bustamante commented that he adores Novo’s sexual identity, which is to not care.
In his essay, Fabre mentions the delight of transgression, which is embodied in Novo’s writings and practically radiates from his personal letters.
On a visit to California in 1940, Novo wrote back to his family in English and vented his vexation with Los Angeles: “It’s such a sham, with these so-called homes being nothing more than bits of painted furniture strewn around.”
He then went on to say…
Movie stars can make a fortune with a simple kiss–while less fortunate Mexican women are only able to make 14 dollars a week washing dishes, vulnerable to being blackmailed and possibly imprisoned for half a year.
No sailors in sight, for the need of National Defense has them stationed in Hawaii, and only a few of them may be seen wandering around Long Beach on Sundays.
Novos fluency in a second language is so remarkable that it is comparable to Nabokov’s.
If you were to read this passage out loud, you could feel the texture of the words, such as “fourth-rate Mexibitches wash dishes” causing your lips to drunkenly slur, and the insinuating hiss of “professional beauties sell celluloid” which combines the nursery-rhyme assonance of “Sally sells seashells” and gives it a risque edge with its overtly sexual diction.
This combination creates a rhythm that is reminiscent of gunfire.
In Novo’s 1928 narrative, Return Ticket, he depicts his attempts to resist the unwanted affections of a young woman from Australia, who is identified as Ms. Cohen.
Upon boarding the ship, Novo recounts his main worries to Rupert, which are “the tall bed in my very full cabin and the Australian se ñorita and her sociable mother.”
The joke is twofold; firstly, it is a mockery of Ms. Cohen, who is too naive to realize she is pursuing Nalgador Sobo; and secondly, it is a jab at Novo himself, for being too ostentatious to make the joke seem funny and yet too feeble to stand up to the woman and her mother.
Novo’s sarcastic wit is aimed at everyone, including himself.
The Ms. Cohen passage could be the most comical in all of Novo’s body of work: the sharp perception of society is akin to Proust’s, the humor of their own notoriety mirrors Capote’s, and the bitterness is reminiscent of Waugh’s early writings.
However, the hilarity also implies Novo’s detachment to anything beyond his own experiences. Throughout the story, the phrase jud io, “Jew,” is used like a joke.
His joke about the lack of beauty in California is funny, but the humor sours with his airy reference to “monstrous Hitler,” particularly as he was in communication with the writer Salvador Borrego, who became a notorious Nazi sympathizer.
It’s simple to take pleasure in the joke about “nightly blackmailers” for its terminology and pacing, but the concealed implications of maltreatment and violence are more challenging to accept.
Every time I read Novo’s reactions to the university invasion of 1968, which he mostly made for the sake of the joke, I chuckle, then feel embarrassed for my laughing, then embarrassed for my embarrassment.
Was it amusing to make light of the day’s frightful occurrences? Did he forfeit his right to provocation when he took a role of power? Are there any limits to provocation? Should there be? Can there be?
When I inquired about these matters at the end of our meeting, which had been accompanied by several tequilas and a pack of cigarettes, Fabre bristled.
He shook his head emphatically and responded, “Novo didn’t possess any genuine political convictions.
Currently, we expect a measure of ideological precision from individuals – and that does not fit the queer identity. Requiring people to be in one political side or the other – that is pure heterosexuality.”
On a 1940 trip to Los Angeles, Novo visited a barbershop, where he had a startling revelation – he had a bald spot.
He wrote to a friend in Mexico City, expressing his shock, and declaring that he felt like a different person.
Consequently, he lost all sexual desire, commenting that he could now see beauty without wanting it. At 36, his youthful optimism for romance was gone, and the poetic nature of his early writings also disappeared.
At the age of twelve, Novo became aware of the fear of aging and losing his youth and desirability.
This experience is reflected in his book Return Ticket, written when he was twenty-three. In Pillar of Salt, written when Novo was forty-two, he creates a mythologized retelling of his sexually rebellious youth.
The title is taken from the Biblical story of Lot’s wife and signifies memory as an act of both self-realization and self-immolation.
This book is an homage to his favorite sin and a tribute to his past.
In spite of his relinquishment of the possibility of love, Novo refused to be resigned to tragedy, a destiny that had been preordained for gay men since the time of Wilde’s conviction for “gross indecency”.
At around the same time he wrote his famous novel, Pillar of Salt, he also published Nueva grandeza mexicana, a love letter to the modern city.
Rather than seeking out clandestine rites, Novo re-established himself as a flaneur in cities with grand cafes and active streets.
Six years later, he purchased an old chapel in Coyoacan and opened a cabaret with a restaurant adjacent to it, becoming renowned as one of the city’s most notable hosts and accomplished gourmands.
Instead of his former “gluttony for human flesh”, Novo engaged in the ordinary kind of gluttony. Carlos Monsivais remarks that “He never shares Wilde’s love for lost causes”, and instead “aligns himself with the cult of success”.
Consequently, Fabre proclaimed him to be “the local who goes to jail and becomes the lover of the strongest person there.”
The awards and recognitions accumulated as the years passed, which gained Novo fame as one of Mexico’s foremost scholars of Nahuatl – an indigenous language spoken by the Aztecs and those they had conquered.
This became his own form of nationalism. Additionally, he became one of the highest-paid authors in Mexico.
His success was such that he once boasted he had charged 500 pesos (equivalent to 25 dollars today) for each syllable in a sonnet written for the beer company Modelo.
He was overweight, applied heavy makeup, and never went out without his wig.
He often dressed in a formal and correct way, as if he was about to feature in a production of Victor/Victoria, with many layers of clothing that were so dense that it made him look as solid, tough and polished as a diamond.
Throughout his success, Novo never once used it to support the rights of younger queer people, to offer them a platform to speak and publish, which is deemed a serious offense in today’s society.
By the time of his death, Mexico’s left had embraced sexual diversity and authors like Jose Joaquin Blanco, Luis Gonzalez de Alba, and Luis Zapata were raising the banner of queer literature, which was strongly politically charged.
Novo remained devoted to himself and made it difficult to differentiate his work from his person. His work was an exhibition of both indulgence and rebellion for their own merits – a truly queer pursuit.
Fourth, it is essential to rework the text to eliminate any potential plagiarism by restructuring it without altering the original message or meaning.
When we exited Plaza Garibaldi after eating lunch, Terry Holiday voiced her disappointment in young people’s absence of a connection to history and their unawareness of Novo and old film stars and music stars.
She implied that their obliviousness to the past was due to their incapability to visualize the future. “It seems to me that these kids think life is over when they turn thirty,” She put on a light coat.
“I used to think the same, I thought I’d retire at fifty, then fifty-five and then sixty–but here I am.”
Wilde and Novo, the subjects of Paris Is Burning and the AIDS crisis, have bequeathed fatalism to us.
This is remedied by medication such as Truvada, imprinted with Gilead – a name which brings to mind the Old Testament land of Sodom, a place to seek refuge in as opposed to one to escape from.
The drug has been successful in preventing the same plague which our predecessors fell victim to, but is not as effective in fighting the internalized conviction that we, like Novo, are doomed to vanish soon without leaving anything behind, save for a spark of light.
Queer people have the opportunity to enjoy many of the symbols of permanence that are usually associated with traditional human lives in many parts of the world, such as marriage and parenting.
However, Novo would have likely seen this kind of assimilation as a surrender instead of an accomplishment.
He spent his life challenging the widely accepted notion of “family values” and refused to become part of the collective remembrance of Mexican identity as a familial history. He constructed his identity bit by bit, based on the pleasure of sex, food and power.
Instead of viewing his identity as a burden, he saw it as a place of fun.
His refusal to be ideologically pure appears to be an embracing of Mexico’s own multifaceted nature, a country that was formed in chaos and destruction, but is now acknowledged as a combination of mixed dialects and ancestry.
It is not easy to weave any mythical tales about Novo’s work, let alone create a literary legacy.
He never produced any significant work in his life and his poetry became weaker and his prose, though still graceful and witty, did not offer any meaningful insight.
As I’ve been reading his work for the past three years, I can’t help but agree with Paz’s statement that Novo’s sentences were never clumsy, but rarely profound.
Nonetheless, I have come to realize that Novo’s triumph had nothing to do with reaching any deep level of understanding.
The concept that the value of creativity should be determined by the products it produces is similar to the idea of family values, in a way.
Since I turned thirty, people have been asking me when I will write a book, in a similar way as when they inquire about when women my age will have children.
The suggestion here is that for a life to have any meaning, I must create something that has the possibility to be transcendent.
After reading Novo, I have come to a conclusion: maybe never.
Novo’s victory wasn’t just in his sexual encounters, or his intention to make a place for himself in a world that did not want him; it was in the dissemination of his work, its radical spread into an infinite array of poetry, plays, articles, and columns.
He didn’t focus on establishing a totem or a legacy.
Instead, he devoted himself to creating an I, a subjective self, then released it into the city like a wildcat marking its area with its scat, like a straight man scattering his semen.
In doing so, Novo bequeathed us a captivating record of the queer life of his city, which he fondly referred to as “the fauna of the age”: men living beyond the boundaries of conventional morality, their lives and actions carefully concealed from public view.
He brought them to the forefront, validating their experience of the capital as much as Diego Rivera’s official history depicted on the Palacio Nacional steps.
He asserted an alternate history, accessible to me if I wish, made up of indulgence and abundance, of defiance and insurrection and joyous wrongdoing, recounted with unrestrained gusto.
His legacy, if he has one, lies in the reminder that these are values as well.
Novo did not require a successor since his essence is everywhere, even if his relatives don’t recognize his name.
In April 2019, I was invited to perform some of Novo’s poems at El Cisne cabaret.
This place was named after a Spanish restaurant, which was popular among Novo and other anales, during the 1920s.
I began the evening with some of Novo’s untitled sonnets, published in a limited-edition book called S atira (Satire).
During the intermission, many from the audience, mostly queer artists, writers and performers, inquired about the poems.
Most of them had heard of Novo, but few had read him, even less the poems in which the subject of sex, which was treated with the same irreverence as defecation, was the source of his most humorous remarks.
Feitlowitz’s translation of the poem I read that night started off with the question, “What am I to do in your absence?”
I gaze upon your image
as I search for solace
when I feel a rush of emotion, I use my finger
as a substitute for the one I yearn for.
Now with a groan, now with a toot,
praising the tricks of my artist
and the newfound abilities of my digit.
In the translation of Novo’s second poem by Feitlowitz, he addresses a former love he has not seen since their distant youth.
He reflects on their changed physical appearance, as if to symbolize the passing of time, saying: “We’ll find each other very strange / I’m slim, you fat.”
He longs for the nostalgia of their past, requesting: “Sweetheart, suck in your paunch / I need to remove–my denture.”
In Novo’s final works, there is no magnum opus to be found; instead, what is left behind is a collection of poems that challenge the traditional form of writing odes to the beloved and the divine.
These poems are bawdy and laced with bathroom humor, and they are “stained and perfumed,” as Paz and Fabre have both said, with the scatological.
These sonnets don’t seek acceptance or love, but pleasure–and this was, and is, a revolution in itself.
The idea that one should never stop learning is a notion that has been around for a long time.
It is a concept that is often discussed and referenced, and is accepted as an important truth.
It implies that a person should strive to continuously expand their knowledge and skills, and never be satisfied with the status quo.
This is a belief that has been held by many throughout the ages, and is still relevant in the present day.
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