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.

BY Charlie Vazquez

January 16 2009 1:00 AM ET

 Arnaldo Cruz Malavex x390 (publicity) |

The theme of the queer individual’s migration to
reinvent his identity resurfaces throughout the text. I
left New York City in 1988 for the West Coast for
this exact rite of passage. You, Keith, and
Juanito all left your places of birth and youth to come
to New York City, to move in directions that your
respective origins could not offer or even
tolerate. Can you elaborate some more on this?
That is to me a very moving and personal aspect
of the book. But, you know, there isn’t a
single story of gay self-fashioning through migration,
as it is supposed. Not all queers migrate from small towns
to end up in an enlightened gay village, Castro, or
Chelsea. Queer migrations are also intersected by
class, race, and ethnic belonging. My book, as I said
before, is, among other things, about the intersection of
three queer migrations, realized with different expectations
and under different degrees of duress: Haring’s
from a small-town, middle-class environment in
Pennsylvania Dutch country; Juan’s from a poor
working-class inner-city immigrant neighborhood in New
Haven, Conn.; and mine from a small agricultural town
undergoing modernization in Puerto Rico’s
interior, a town with the improbably gay name of San
Sebastián del Pepino -- oh yes, St. Sebastian of
the Cucumber. That we could intersect at all, despite
our differences, seems stunning and very moving to me,
not so much a reflection of our shared commonality as of the
utopias that can still be summoned by the sign of

Part of the reason you wanted to write the book, as
you explain in the introduction, was to give a voice to
Juanito Rivera, who was cut out of Haring’s
estate. Would there have been a book to write had
he not been cheated?
Yes. Although the book is clear and forthright
about Juan’s claim, it is also more than that.
It is a book, as I’ve said, about the complicated,
entangled, desiring, messy relationship between Latino
street culture and high art; a history of New
York’s Latino neighborhoods during a period of
devastating state disinvestment and gentrification, the
1980s; and a meditation on the art of listening and
the ethical limits of representing queer Latino lives.
It is also an AIDS memoir and an unapologetic work of
mourning for all those who have disappeared, or were made to
disappear, in order to create the more mainstream,
contemporary New York we all inhabit. It is a
celebration of sorts of the small, tenuous, everyday
acts of survival of people like Juan, a small tribute to the
complexity and beauty of their lives. 

Tags: Books