A Butterfly Beats Its Wings
By Aaron Hicklin
Illustration by Tino Rodriguez
Rigoberto González has not forgotten his grandfather’s threats to throw him out on the street or -- why not? -- put him out of his misery by dashing a rock against his head. “He just thought I was useless, that I was crazy,” recalls the poet–memoirist, who was briefly institutionalized as a 12-year-old. “How could a crazy person work? How could a crazy person make money?”
The specter of González’s grandfather haunts Autobiography of My Hungers, a slim volume of candid vignettes that illuminate an artist’s blossoming against a backdrop of brutal poverty and emotional tumult. There are other ghosts, too, including González’s alcoholic father and his harassed mother, whose death at 31 from an aneurism was the catalyst for the shattered family’s return to his hated grandfather’s home (at one point, González lived there with 18 members of his extended family -- with three bedrooms between them). It was there that González, the only one who could read and write, found refuge in books. He recalls reading Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint by the light of the kitchen and being made aware of other avenues in life, alternate realities to the dismal prospect his grandfather represented.
“The English language was my power and my doorway to a lot of opportunities: into individuality, into uniqueness, into intelligence,” says González, whose 2006 memoir, Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa, received an American Book Award. Literature was also the key to unlocking the mysteries of his sexuality, in particular an encounter with Truman Capote on a late-night TV screening of the comedy–thriller Murder by Death, starring the author as the effete host of a dinner party at which the world’s greatest detectives gather to resolve a murder.
“I remember thinking, That’s a homosexual; that’s a gay man!” says González. “I just fell in love with this funny little man.” But it was only after he started reading Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s -- and co-opting its arch dialogue as his own -- that he understood the power of reinvention. In a lovely essay, “The Truman Capote Aria,” collected in Red-Inked Retablos, González writes of discovering the beauty of metamorphosis from Lula Mae from Tulip, Texas, who reinvents herself in New York as Holly Golightly and “left her past behind like a house too ugly to go back to, or even admit she had once lived in at all.”
For González, who made his own way to New York in 1998, metamorphosis is a potent symbol -- butterflies in paper, plastic, and ceramic decorate the walls of his small apartment in Queens, a reference to the way he has reclaimed the popular Spanish slur for gay men (“mariposa”) as a metaphor for his own transformation. Inevitably, as he grew into his new self, he grew distant from his old. “The more educated I became and the more bookish I became, the less I was able to connect with my family, who didn’t understand books and didn’t read or write,” he says. When his father remarried, González and his younger brother were left to the care of their grandparents: “It took me about 30 years to come to terms with forgiving my father, because he abandoned me when I was 13.”
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