Art's Forgotten Widow

When legendary queer artist Keith Haring died, he left behind his longtime partner Juanito (Xtravaganza) Rivera, cutting him out of his will and leaving him to obscurity.



When the
internationally famous pop artist Keith Haring died of
AIDS-related complications in 1990, he left behind a
complicated legacy of collaborative work with street
artists, graffiti-inspired murals, world-renowned
homoerotic icons that straddle the line between art
and commerce, and a multimillion-dollar foundation that
would promote his work. He also left his partner of
his later years, Juan Rivera, with whom he lived until
shortly before his death, out of his will. Rivera had
arrived in New York from a poor inner-city Connecticut
neighborhood toward the end of the 1970s as a runaway.
After Haring’s death, Rivera would return to a
small apartment in Spanish Harlem, where he now lives,
struggling to survive and keep his HIV status in check.

In his most
recent book, Queer Latino Testimonio, Keith Haring,
and Juanito Xtravaganza: Hard Tails
(Palgrave 2007),
Fordham University professor Arnaldo Cruz-Malavé
revisits their relationship as a metaphor for the
turbulent and complex 1980s. Hard Tails is a
mold-breaking testimonial of the life and times of
Juanito (Xtravaganza) Rivera.

I first met
Professor Cruz-Malavé in June 2008 at a bilingual
reading for Los Otros Cuerpos, the first
anthology of queer Puerto Rican writing, organized at
the Clemente Soto-Vélez Cultural Center in
Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and was awed by the
power of his word. When I read Hard Tails, I
was entranced by its revolutionary character,
organization, and ability to capture what I had so
vividly witnessed as a Cuban–Puerto Rican kid growing
up in the Bronx: the evolution of hip-hop from an
inner-city, war-zone cultural expression to a global
force. I sat down with Cruz-Malavé at a Colombian
restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens, where he lives with
his spouse, dancer Greg de Silva. Over hearty bowls of
Colombian sancocho we discussed his exceptional
Hard Tails the joys and dilemmas of Juanito
(Xtravaganza) Rivera in an unorthodox yet
fascinating format. Could Juanito’s story have
been written as a traditional biography, or would
that have been too limiting?
Arnaldo Cruz-Malavé:Hard Tails is a book that grew organically out
of my relationship with Juan Rivera, the Juanito
Xtravanganza of the title, though I reflected long and
hard about the book’s structure and think now
that it is one of its most important accomplishments. I
could have written it as a biography, as some
publishers wanted me to do, but it would have
flattened out the book’s dialogic character -- that
is, not only the dialogue between Juan and me, or
between Juan’s and Keith Haring’s lives,
but also the dialogue among the multiple voices and
genres contained in the book.

Hard Tails is a sort of queer testimonio, the
well-known Latin American testimonial novel or memoir, which
became so popular and almost canonical in American
colleges throughout the 1990s, or a queering of
testimonio as a genre. In conventional testimonio, you
know, the author or “editor” erases the traces
of the multiple interviews with a socially
marginalized character that produced the text in order to
give the impression that one is, as it were, seamlessly
peering into a life and world one would never have
access to by reducing all dialogue to a first-person
account. With Hard Tails I wanted to do the
opposite. I wanted the reader to be self-consciously
aware of the text’s production, to engage with it, to
stop and listen before rushing to judgment, to
interpret and reconstruct, not merely as an
experimental flourish but as an ethical act, as a way of
giving back. 

Tags: Books