On Keith Haring, Coney Island, and Queer Culture


Published: November 8, 2007

In October, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) professor of Spanish and comparative literature Arnaldo Cruz-Malave published his third book, “Queer Latino Testimonio, Keith Haring, and Juanito Xtravaganza: Hard Tails”.  This book tells the story of Juan Rivera, a lover of 80s Pop artist Keith Haring, and  participant in the Queer-Latino scene of the 1970s and 80s. Cruz-Malave explores this couple’s tumultuous relationship and the New York cultural scene that served as its backdrop. The Observer caught up with Professor Cruz-Malave to discuss his new work.

THE Observer: What did you find interesting about Juan Rivera’s story?

Arnaldo Cruz-Malave: I found Juan’s story about arriving in New York City’s Times Square as a runaway gay kid from an impoverished New Haven Puerto Rican neighborhood during the late 1970s compelling and poignant.  His story provided a window into what had happened to so many queer kids during a period of brutal disinvestment in Latino and minority neighborhoods.

Juan would eventually become partner of the 1980s Pop icon Keith Haring and hang out with the rich and famous…and that part of his story also seemed to shed so much unconventional, unscripted light on the desiring, conflicted, complicated and downright messy relationship or romance between popular, street culture and high art during the decade of the 1980s, a decade not only of disinvestment but of gentrification as well, in which the up-and-coming celebrity and the nouveau riche danced and partied with the homeless and the destitute.

In addition, Juan’s story seemed interesting as a tale of migration.  Here was the tale of the encounter of two gay kids from different classes and backgrounds who were both forced to migrate from their small-town suburban and impoverished inner-city environments, respectively, to New York during a period of increasing homophobia in American culture.

But what would finally compel me to listen…was his voice and his involved, convoluted manner of storytelling, a manner which would force me to shut up and listen with an intensity that I can only call literary.  So for about 10 years I would do just that—listen and follow the trail of Juan’s voice.

The observer: What was the process of writing the book like?

AC-M:This book was written in fits and starts, because it was a book I wanted, sometimes desperately, to forget, yet I couldn’t let it go.  Juan, for one, wouldn’t let me forget it, but neither would my conscience nor my friends.  It began when Juan Rivera showed up in my apartment in the mid-1990s with a book in his hand he could hardly read—“Keith Haring: the Authorized Biography” by John Gruen—in which his name appeared flattened, reduced, besmirched.

I would listen to his story both with awe and rage and quickly agree that his story had to be heard, first and foremost for Juan’s sake.  And as I began to transcribe his words in search of the story, I kept getting variegated, concatenated tales that would force me to follow Juan’s lead.  And as I transcribed and edited these tales, literally tails or codas, in order to be faithful to Juan’s involved storytelling, questions about the ethics and aesthetics of listening and the representation of Puerto Rican marginality and sexuality in New York City kept imposing themselves.

What if I was feeding some rurient interest, mine as well as others’, for Latino lives under duress?…And worse:  What if a word of mine might inadvertently damage Puerto Ricans’ lives and choices?

So for almost ten years the possibility…that I could say something that would damage or betray, would shut me up…I literally couldn’t say a word.  And I would eventually have to write this other testimonio, the testimony of the process of writing Juan’s testimonio, in order to come out of that silence.

the observer: How does Juan Rivera’s story connect to bigger issues concerning Latino and gay studies?

AC-M: At its most general level, “Queer Latino Testimonio, Keith Haring and Juanito Xtravaganza: Hard Tails” is a book about the messy, complicated, desiring and entangling relationship between Latino street, popular culture and high art, as represented through the real-life romance between Juan Rivera and Keith Haring.

And it is also an AIDS memoir and an unapologetic work of mourning for all those who have disappeared…And it is a celebration of sorts of the small, tenuous, everyday acts of survival of people like Juan, a small tribute to the complexity of their lives.

the observer: What did Juan Rivera tell you about Keith Haring that would explain his star quality?

AC-M: I learned from Juan, whose views of Haring as a person and as an artist were more generous than most, and certainly more generous than mine at the beginning of our conversations, that Haring was a brilliant artist, with a voracious appetite for difference, for otherness, and an insatiable—almost blinding—need to see himself precisely in that different other’s validating eyes.

But I also learned from his relationship with Haring as well as from an analysis of Haring’s art about the perils of such identification with otherness, an identification that could end up supplanting the other, replacing him or her.  Unlike the 1970s gay liberation movement, which imagined itself through the trope of sameness, Haring connected with an older queer avant-garde tradition, the tradition of Genet, Gysin, Burroughs, Charles Ludlam and Jack Smith, artists for whom to be queer meant to desire and appreciate difference:  racial, sexual and class difference.

Thus in listening to Juan’s story and studying Haring’s life and art I also learned that there is great solidarity and affection in the act of pausing, as the great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas would say, before the other’s inscrutable face, in curtailing one’s judgment and one’s desire so that the other can express himself or herself.  I can’t say that I have mastered this art, but Juan’s story put it to the test, and I’m a Capricorn, you know, a goat, I’m stubborn, so I keep trying.

the observer: Why did you decide to use a start-stop style of writing to reflect the various themes of the book?

AC-M: It is an accessible book, though it is a book that is written in many narrative styles, which forces the reader to jumpcut, as it were, from street language to academic, theoretical, and even philosophical, speech; from art criticism to urban history; from personal meditation to historical narrative.

My hope for the book would be that this mixture of styles would be enriching for the reader by forcing him or her to pause before rushing to judgment and reflect, to listen and interpret as an ethical act…My hope would be that the reader would continue these stories, add some more codas or tails to Juan’s and Keith’s and my story.