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Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa


Heartbreaking, poetic, and intensely personal, Butterfly Boy is a unique coming out and coming-of-age story of a first-generation Chicano who trades one life for another, only to discover that history and memory are not exchangeable or forgettable.


Publishers Weekly: This moving memoir of a young Chicano boy's maturing into a self-accepting gay adult is a beautifully executed portrait of the experience of being gay, Chicano, and poor in the United States. A visiting associate professor of English and Latino studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, González writes in a poetic yet straightforward style that heightens the power of his story (mariposa is Spanish for "faggot" as well as butterfly).


Rigoberto González is the author of So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water Until It Breaks, a selection of the National Poetry Series, and of Other Fugitives And Other Strangers. A recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships and of several international artist residencies, he has also written two children's picture books, a literary biography, and an award-winning novel, Crossing Vines: A Novel (Chicana & Chicano Visions of the Americas, V. 2). He is on the Advisory Circle of Con Tinta -- a coalition of Chicano/Latino activist writers. He lives in New York City.


When I phoned Mr. González at his home in New York, he had just returned, the day before, from a west coast tour to promote Butterfly Boy. In a couple of months he will head out again to promote his new poetry collection, Other Fugitives And Other Strangers. "In what ways are the lives of migratory people romanticized by the rest of American culture?"

"People like the idea; they think that it's sexy or romantic. For them, movement means progress, volition, or activity. But, sometimes movement is repetition. Movement is lack of stability and the inability to make long-term commitments.

"I like moving around, but there's also a lot of loneliness attached to it. You're always leaving people behind. You're always leaving places behind. You meet somebody and understand that this is all the exchange and interaction you are going to have, and then you move on.

"Still, you carry your emotional and personal baggage with you. That's why the big discovery in the book for me was about my father. You can try to reinvent yourself, but in the end you slip back to old habits."

"Is your father still living?"

"No. My father passed away a couple of months ago. The book was an attempt to recognize and come to understand what happened between us, but it's also a kind of love letter. Through language, I'm trying to understand who he is and who I am and why we don't get along. The sad thing now is that there's no longer a conversation. It's all in memory, and it's all mental.

"Many of us have problems with our families. We can all identify with parent-child conflict, and we're all looking for solutions. The other common denominator is that no matter how difficult the relationship is, we do love each other. It is love. We wish it was a different, more positive kind of love, but we just can't help it."

"It has been said that, in order to move from poverty to the middle class, one must give up, for a time, relationships for achievement. Was that true for you?"

"Absolutely. I learned that very early. In order to achieve a kind of economic stability, my family had to be unstable. It wasn't because we loved it or we were fulfilling a dream to be migrant people. It was economic necessity."

Throughout González's childhood, his family moved between their home in Zacapu, Mexico, and work in Southern California, living in Thermal and Indio.

"That became my paradigm as I moved forward with my own life and identity. The educated person has to leave home in order to go to college. The trip from camp in Indio to college in Riverside was only 70 miles, but it was a world away. All of a sudden, I was being exposed to other people and other ways of thinking. The more I absorbed this new knowledge, the more I realized how different I was becoming from my own family. Although you never forget where you come from, you realize that you now occupy other spaces."

"What does your family make of your success these days?"

"It's funny because there are only a very few people in my family that can actually read English. My brother is one of them. In his own way, he's been very proud. I discovered when I went home one day that he had a scrapbook of all the stuff I was sending him. I was touched by that. We didn't put it into words, but the action said everything."

"What most surprised you about college life?"

"For all of us, every single thing was such a learning experience, and we had to learn immediately. What got me through was that there were so many people in the same boat. One of the things I remember was having to open up a bank account. There were five of us whose parents had never had a bank account. We had no idea what to do, so we all went to the bank together.

"The other thing was the diversity of the college campus and the expectations there. We were learning to be adults and learning to be students and learning to be Americans in this institution that demanded so much.

"Many of us didn't make it and went back home. Every year, in the fall, there was a sea of brown faces on campus, and by the spring it had dwindled down. The expectations, the level of writing and the level of knowledge were very different. The pulp mysteries I had read in high school just didn't do me any good when I took a course in 19th-century British Literature.

"I remember going into the bookstores to buy books for classes I wasn't even taking, because I knew there was something that I was missing. Actually, I had done this once before. When I first arrived in this country, I was ten years old. All of my friends had this knowledge about music that I didn't have. I remember thinking that if I was going to keep up, I had to learn. I asked questions, and I would go to friends' houses and listen to music. I learned to say, 'Oh, that's my favorite song too.'

"Migration from Mexico to the U.S. was a good training ground for the second migration from home to college. The one thing that I learned from my family was to adapt. We adapted to all kinds of environments, no matter what."

"Your memoir recalls some painful and some painfully intimate details. Did you find those details difficult to relive?"

"There are still some passages that I cannot read out loud because I'll begin to cry. But I had to be completely honest. I didn't want to romanticize my journey. One of my critics said that it was a cheerless story because I didn't continue the narrative to the point of me becoming a happy gay man. I've got news. I'm not completely happy. I'm not bad, but I wouldn't say that I've reached a state of bliss. I wanted to acknowledge that the family wasn't perfect and that I had issues and was flawed."

"One of the things that you speak frankly about is having been in a physically abusive relationship with an older man. How do readers respond to that?"

"Friends who knew me then didn't quite understand how devastating the relationship was. Some read it and tell me they never want to see me in that position again. Others feel guilty, because they feel like they weren't there for me while it was happening, and they feel strange that they didn't understand the severity of the relationship.

"The other reaction from people who don't know me is that they are curious. They wonder how I could write that and control the language when it was packed with such emotion. Theirs is more of a technical question.

"The new book of poetry is a companion to Butterfly Boy. It's all about abusive relationships between men. I take turns writing in the voice of the abuser and of the abused. I wanted to bring attention to these devastating relationships in the queer community.

"When I was looking for a support group, back in 2001 when my relationships were failing because I still hadn't worked things out with this old abusive relationship, I was only able to find three in the whole country. There was one in Seattle, one in Tucson, and one in New York City. I remember going to the one in Seattle, and it was for the entire Northwest."

"Why do you think so little support exists?"

"Part of it has to do with the shame, but also, I think, the pressure we get from the queer community to show only positive representations of ourselves. When I started reading these poems aloud, a gay man in the audience said to me, 'How dare you write these poems! Here we are fighting to represent our community as healthy, and you're telling the world that we are not.'

"I'm showing how complex we are and that we have problems like everybody else. That's how heterosexuals started dealing with physical abuse. People started coming forward and talking about it. If nobody had talked about it, the problem would be worse than it is now. We have laws and resources for women because they stepped forward and said there was a problem. We need to do the same thing in the queer community. We are all susceptible to this kind of negative dynamic. Not all gay people, of course, but it does exist in our community.

"Butterfly Boy is written from a queer perspective, but my whole life is not all queerness. The book is about ethnicity. It's about cultural issues. It's about queer issues. It's all of me, and that's what I wanted to represent -- the complexity. It'll be a challenge to the queer community to see race. It'll be a challenge to the Latino community to see queerness. There are other writers out there navigating these issues as well. It's not like we choose one day this and another day that, we are all of these things all of the time."

University of Wisconsin Press, 2006, 222 pages, $24.95

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