Chulito, An interview with Charles Rice-Gonzalez

Photo Credit: Marisol Diaz

Charles Rice-Gonzalez is a Puerto Rican descendant/Bronx based author, community activist and award winning playwright. His work has been published in The Pitkin Review, LOS OSTROS CUERPOS – the first anthology Puerto Rican queer work, BEST GAY STORIES 2008 and in THE BEST OF PANIC!: ENVIVO FROM THE EAST VILLAGE. Rice-Gonzalez received a BA from Adelphi University and an MFA from Goddard University.  He co-founded the Bronx Academy of Art and Dance (BAAD!), which empowers women, Latinos, people of color and the LGBT community. His debut novel CHULITO is a coming of age, hip-hop love story told through the experiences of a young Latino growing up gay in the Bronx. In this e-interview with PrideIndex he talks about his book, coming out and his ongoing quest to bring culture to the Bronx.

PRIDEINDEX: What is your earliest memory of being a writer?

CHARLES RICE-GONZALEZ: I remember having my heart broken. I had a boyfriend, secretly of course, when I was thirteen and it lasted about six months and in that time I turned fourteen. He was in high school and would say things like, “I want to quit school, get a job and get an apartment for us.” So sweet, right? Who would even rent an apartment to two teenagers and what the hell I was thinking? Was I going to announce to my family that I was moving out at fourteen? In any case, when he announced that he had to “get serious” so he couldn’t be with me anymore, I felt an intense pain in my chest and stomach. It wouldn’t go away. For days, I pretended to have a stomach virus. So I started writing a novel. I think I just said it was a story, but it was a really long one about a young girl who falls in love and has her heart broken. I was too afraid to write about two boys in love. Good thing I got over that fear.

PI: “CHULITO” is a coming-out story, why did you choose this subject matter for your first book?

CRG: This story felt the most urgent for me. Part of my coming out experience was reading books. I was lucky in a way that it was the late 1980s and there were a decent amount of books out there by Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, Felice Picano, Andrew Tobias, Rita Mae Brown, David Leavitt, Jane Rule, Christopher Bram, Stephen McCauley and many others. They were also all white. Shortly thereafter I discovered James Earl Hardy and E. Lynn Harris, but I hadn’t come across any narratives by Latino writers until I read Jaime Manrique in the 1990s and even later Emanuel Xavier but still no Latino coming out stories. So “CHULITO” and the characters in this book were tapping on my shoulder saying, “Tell our story.” Also, there is a writer named Chris Abani who said in a lecture once, “Write books that matter.” So it mattered very much for me to write this book and I have been happy with the responses I’ve been getting.

PI: I’ve read somewhere that you came out to fulfill a New Year’s Resolution what was that like what did your friends and family say?

CRG: First, it wasn’t this giant declaration to the world. It was a personal decision to stop dating girls and to embrace myself as a gay man. I was searching and exploring my desires and I was lucky that I lived in NYC where there was a vibrant community of gay people, albeit AIDS was on the rise, but this was one of the gay capitals of the country. So the process was slow. Coming out to myself and then to friends who I thought were gay and then to some close straight friends. It wasn’t until I felt that I had a supportive network of friends (and had saved some money in the bank in case I got kicked out) that family came into play.

PI: It’s been over 20 years since you came out; do you believe it’s just as difficult or that it’s a gotten a little easier for young Latinos to come out?

CRG: In some ways it’s easier because of the increased visibility of gay people in general, but there is still not a lot of visibility of gay Latinos. Wilson Cruz has done a lot for visibility, but there aren’t lots of out gay Latino celebrities. There are some of us writers and playwrights, folks in fashion, but politics is lacking, A-list movie stars, and forget about sports stars. Thank goodness Ricky Martin finally came out, but his reluctance speaks to more than just money. It also speaks of identity and culture. How do we Latinos perceive gayness? What does it mean to be macho, a man and be gay, too? That is one of the trouble spots.

PI: What other projects are you currently working on?

CRG:I do an annual play called Los Nutcrackers: A Christmas Carajo about a gay, Latino couple who go on a trip reviewing their lives one Christmas Eve; I’ve written some essays that will be in anthologies, once called Who’s Yer Daddy? Where I write about how inspired I’ve been by Jaime Manrique and Love, Christopher Street where I am writing about 1986, the year I came out. I will also have my play I Just Love Andy Gibb published in an anthology about queer Black, Latino performance. I’m also working on some short stories and I will be working on a new draft of my novel Hunts Point, a follow up of sorts to “CHULITO.” It will be from the point of view of Carlos, Chulito’s love interest and at this point takes place three years after the summer of love between the two young men after Carlos has graduated from college. Plus there is all the BAAD! stuff that keeps me super busy and a play called Pink Jesus that I wrote in 1996 that I want to re-imagine. I have some long term projects, too. Like I want to write a book that is part memoir, part essay about queer activism in the Bronx in the 1990s.

PI: Why did you co-found the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance (BAAD!)?

CRG: I didn’t start out wanting to co-found a performing arts space. BAAD! began as a way to support the work of the celebrated choreographer Arthur Aviles, who at the time was my lover and partner. Together we set out to create a space to support the creation of his dance theatre works. It quickly grew to BAAD! and became a space that could support both our art and the art of people in our circle and that circle kept expanding. So, it evolved into a space that presents works that are challenging and empowering to women, Latinos and people of color and the LGBT community.

PI: Do you think you have full filled your “quest to bring culture to the Bronx?”

CRG: It’s an ongoing quest, but yes we have made space in the Bronx for culture, specifically queer culture from a Latino/people of color perspective. And with the book and other works I hope to also export that art and culture.

PI: Talk about your playwright experience and where did you find the inspiration for each play?

CRG: There are so many different inspirations, but in general, I am inspired by the Bronx and by its people. There are so many stories in this borough, but when I look at my work I see that I write a lot about love, that my characters are usually trying to figure some things out about life in relationship to who they are and that they are all, at this point, set in the Bronx. The main plays are Los Nutcrackers: A Christmas Carajo which was originally inspired by a failed relationship, Pink Jesus which is a kitchen sink drama about a 30-something-year-old coming out to his Latino family (I don’t remember what inspired that one) and I Just Love Andy Gibb which looks at the role race plays in desire. That one was inspired by my own experience as a kid and being so into white teen idols. It was so amazing to be so marketed to and how all that information influenced the way I viewed the world and myself.

PI: Will there be a stage version of “CHULITO?”

CRG: I don’t have one in the works although it’s been suggested. I think “CHULITO” would work better as a movie, so if anybody has any leads or advice, get in touch. Folks can Google me.

PI: What advice would you offer aspiring writers?

CRG: I would say read a lot of books, good and bad ones, because you can learn a lot from both. Write as much as possible, because just like working out a muscle, the more you do it, the stronger it becomes. Connect with other writers and other people who will support you as a writer. Build a community around your art. Read Poets and Writers magazine and connect to Marcela Landres, an editorial consultant who has been instrumental in me getting from “aspiring” to “published’ writer.

Join Charles Rice-Gonzalez for Bronx Stories on Friday December 9 at the Bronx Museum located at 1040 Grand concourse at 165th Street Bronx, NY. This is a free event begins at 6:30PM-9:00PM call 718-681-6000