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Art's Forgotten

Art's Forgotten


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-Malave 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-Malave in June 2008 at a bilingual reading for Los Otros Cuerpos, the first anthology of queer Puerto Rican writing, organized at the Clemente Soto-Velez 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-Malave 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-Malave: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.

You come across as "the chosen one" to write and organize this testimonial, since you're alive and breathing in the text, you're part of the story. Would you have written this book had you not met Juanito Rivera before he moved to New York City and met Keith Haring? Had I met Juan at any point and had he trusted me enough to confide in me his tale or tales of arriving in New York City at a time when the city and especially its Latino and minority neighborhoods were undergoing a contradictory and brutal process of gentrification, I would have found his story compelling and poignant enough to feel that someone, if not me, should write it down. Juan would eventually meet 1980s pop icon Keith Haring at the Paradise Garage, that legendary underground disco where black and Latino gay youth, vogueing drag queen divas, and homeless kids sweated and swirled with music business insiders and up-and-coming media celebrities, and that part of his story, his relationship with Haring, also seemed compelling to me. It seemed to shed so much unconventional light on the desiring, conflicted, complicated, and downright messy relationship or romance between popular street culture and high art during the 1980s. In addition, Juan's story spoke movingly to me as a migrant, a gay Puerto Rican migrant, for yes, as you say, I am also part of the tale. It was fortuitous to have met Juan before he moved to New York, and that established a bond of trust between us that would allow me to enter his life. But what would truly compel me to listen to Juan's story first and then write it down was his voice, a sort of ethical command in his voice.

You discuss how mid-20th-century TV and cinema perpetuated Puerto Ricans as erotic objects to the mainstream "white" eye. When Keith Haring moved to New York City, he discovered an infinite landscape of dark boys, alongside hip-hop and graffiti -- his admitted obsessions. What do you suspect Juanito possessed (other than his obvious beauty) that compelled Haring to keep him by his side longer than his other lovers, even though he was omitted from the will? It is true that I discuss the sexualization of Puerto Ricans in New York City. But I also point to the traps that responding to that sexualization hold for Puerto Rican and Latino authors who feel the pressure to confront it by presenting themselves as fully scrubbed "decent" "representative" ethnic subjects. It is about the entangled, complicated relationships of desire across race and class that we are all inextricably implicated in. Interestingly enough, in his interviews Juan resists seeing himself as a victim. Instead, he prefers to spin more and more complicated tales that leave some room for maneuver. That said, there is no doubt that Haring had a voracious appetite for difference, for otherness, and an insatiable -- almost blinding -- need to see himself precisely in that different other's validating eyes. This is quite evident in Haring's posthumously published Journals where Juan appears first as one of those special people in whose eyes Haring is able to recognize and see his own difference. But as their relationship develops and Juan becomes more demanding about being more than a mirror for Haring's difference, about being seen, their relationship begins to falter, and Haring will search elsewhere to regain that initial look of recognition across differences that fueled his art.

Haring thrived amidst the gay avant-garde East Village underground 1980s art scene that you chronicle vividly in the book, but he also went on to become a very wealthy, international pop art icon. Had this already happened when Juanito met him? By the time Haring and Juan met in 1986 Haring was internationally famous. He had managed to transform his street, graffiti-inspired, cutting-edge art into both gallery art and media-and-market phenomenon. Especially in Japan, where he was treated with all the fanfare of a rock star, his art would be endlessly copied and commodified. And his Pop Shop in New York and Tokyo, which some have seen as a sign of his capitulation to commerce, may be seen in this light instead as his frustrating attempts to control that increasing commodification. In my book, I am in no way proposing that Haring owes his career to Juan, although Juan was very supportive of him during this crucial period in his life. However it is clear that Haring, like so many other great artists, was not some independent genius whose artistic project existed in his mind as in a kernel from his childhood in Kutztown, Penn., as some have proposed. The brilliance of Haring's art is a testament to his intense dialogue with the popular cultures of New York, and his limitations are as well a reflection of the conflicts and limitations of that long-standing dialogue between high art and popular cultures. For all art, as Haring himself knew, is dialogue, conversation.

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 Sebastian 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 "queerness."

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.

Despite Juanito's being accused of leaching onto Haring's fortune, he helped Haring stretch canvasses, accompanied him around the world, filled in murals, drove, cooked, and took care of him while he was dying. By Juan's and Haring's own accounts in his journals, Juan very actively assisted and supported Haring doing all the things that you mention, from stretching canvasses to filling in murals, from driving to cooking, during the time that they were together from 1986 to briefly before Haring's death in 1990. And in addition Juan has a fascinating personality and is an engaging storyteller, with a haunting voice, as I have tried to capture in his interviews in the book.

So what does Juanito think of the book? He feels very proud about the way his life and stories have been captured. You know, I was compelled to write the book when Juan walked back into my life after almost 20 years from first meeting him in New Haven and handed me a book he could barely read, John Gruen's Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography, where his name appeared besmirched. So I wanted to get his story right, to tell it as a tribute, a small tribute to the creativity and beauty of lives like Juan's, but I also wanted to tell a complex story, not an airbrushed or heroic one. I had read drafts of the book to Juan many times, but I was still very nervous when Juan's friends from the New York ballroom scene and his family from New Haven, his mother, his sisters, and even his little nephews and nieces, showed up to the book's launch at Barnes & Noble last fall. It was a packed house with ballroom children and HIV activists, Latin American and Latino academics, critics, writers, and family. And at the end of the reading, Juan's sister, a pretty and elegant woman, stood up and proceeded to thank me in very eloquent and moving words on behalf of her family. At that moment Juan's face seemed to glow and I felt like I was floating, like a weight had been finally lifted.

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