An excerpt from ‘Crooked Letter I:
Coming Out in the South’ by James Villanueva.
Think of tamales boiling on a stove. The smell of masa turning into blankets for the pork meat inside, all wrapped in cornhusks the color of sunshine. This was the month of October and we weren’t feeling November’s chill just yet, but it was threatening with each day. Outside it was still warm enough for a light jacket, but when the sun set, cool air would roll over the plains and enter our house through every crack in the floors, walls and ceiling. In spite of this, the smell of tamales found no escape. The corn smell seeped into the couch with bright flowers, into the maroon curtains with flower prints, the felt Virgen de Guadalupe portrait, the old yellow lounge chair bought at a garage sale, all of our clothes, and finally our very pores, becoming part of us.
Seven of us lived in the old house. My tío (uncle) and I lived in one bedroom on the far end of the house. There was a bathroom that connected us to my older tío’s bedroom, where we weren’t allowed to go, but when he was gone we would always sneak in to listen to his eight-tracks.
My little brother slept with my grandpa in a twin bed because he always had nightmares. The two slept in my grandma’s room next to her queen-size bed and across from the altar that always had a candle, with a saint glued to the front, burning to chase away any bad spirits that haunted my little brother at night. My little brother and I had lived with our grandparents since birth because our mom had us at an early age and couldn’t take care of us. When she dropped out of high school and moved away with a much older man, my brother and I became our grandparents’ children.
On Sundays, the house was as loud as the mariachi bands my drunken tíos blared from their cars. Not even the loud bass from my tío’s bedroom could mask the sound as Guns N’ Roses screamed “Sweet Child O’ Mine” at a screeching pitch that hurt my 7-year-old ears.
All of my tías (aunts) would sit around the table with cornhusks in their palms, making sure to spread the masa evenly across the tamales' hoods that keep the meat together. They made their own music as they gossiped and made tamales. Two tías would plop a spoonful of the dough onto the husk and smooth it out with a few strokes. Then they would pass it to two more tías who would stuff meat into the center and roll up the husk with the dough and meat inside. My grandma would tie them up with string and place them in a large pot to boil in the kitchen.
Every Sunday in October the whole family gathered to make tamales in preparation for the upcoming holidays. All of my aunts and uncles would bring their children and we were forced to play with them because they were our primos (cousins). The tradition dated back to my great-grandparents, who still did the same thing in a small village outside of Monterrey, Mexico.
My grandparents came from Austin, Texas, starting a new life on a chicken farm outside of Lubbock. They set up a small business selling chicken eggs to the neighbors and other people in the community. To make extra money, my grandpa worked as a farmhand for a cotton farmer. When I was older and told my grandma that I wanted to go to college so I wouldn’t become a slave in the fields, her hand reached out across the space between us and her slap left a red mark on my cheek — a sting I can still feel today.
On this particular Sunday they gathered to plan our trip to Austin to visit a tío who was dying of a strange new disease. Nobody really knew much about it, but everyone had their theories about how he got it: “It was from prison; all those men grouped together, someone must have sneezed on him,” my tía, the one who knew it all, would say. We all believed her because, well, no one else had any other explanations. From what everyone heard on the news and read in the papers, the other way he could have gotten it didn’t make any sense because, well, because my tío was a man of Jesus.
In two weeks we would all take the cars and caravan eight hours south to Austin. The tamales we made on this day weren’t for the holidays, but for the upcoming trip. Until then, they would make a home in the freezer.
Photo: Austin, Texas, in 1999. AP Photo/Harry Cabluck
The trip lasted a lifetime; at least when you’ve only been in the world for seven years it felt that way. We left at midnight in order to arrive in the early morning.
My relatives in Austin had a nice house to meet in. The party was going to take all day to pull together and it was for Tío Jacob, who was dying from the weird disease that now had a name — AIDS. Everyone came out to greet us and give us hugs; there were a few tears because they were happy to see us. We finally made our way inside where my tío Jacob sat on the couch. I was confused because he was a strong man and it didn’t look like he was dying. My grandma told me to go hug him and so I did.
Even though the party wasn’t until the evening, for some reason everyone was in a rush to get the festivities started.
I cleaned up and put on my favorite white button-up shirt. I sat on the porch, rocking back and forth on the porch swing, thinking about ways to explore the yard without getting too dirty. In a tent that was set up for the party by the garage, I could hear two men talking, both related to me in some way or another. At first they talked low about places to put the balloons and then there were angry words. “I don’t understand why we have to throw him this big party, nobody told him to go out and do whatever it is he was doing all those years,” the younger voice said.
“He is your cousin and you will respect him.” It was his dad now, from what I figured out, who spoke back. He was slamming metal folding chairs around with so much force I thought he was going to break one.
“You said so yourself, you said that he was going to pay for what he was doing,” the younger voice sounded like I do when I’m about to start crying.
“Either way, he’s paying for it now and this may be the last birthday he has.”
There was silence after that and nothing could be heard but the swing squeaking as I rocked quietly back and forth. It was all I could do to keep from crying because it was at that moment I knew, I knew even at that young age, it wasn’t just Tío Jacob they were talking about, but someday it could just as easily be me.
The music eventually started and we ate tons of food. There was menudo, sausage, potato salad, beans and the tamales that we brought from Lubbock. A beer bottle was knocked over by some relative’s clumsy feet and so the dancing began. There were about 30 people on the dance floor and around 40 standing, sitting or crouched on a wall. Tío Jacob sat in a corner alone at a table with tamale shells and half-eaten cake. He wasn’t sad being alone and he looked content for that brief moment. Then one of my tías motioned for him to join her on the dance floor, and he got up and was lost in the loud music and stomping boots of the dance floor.
I was not like other boys. Even at 7 years old I could keep up with cumbias. My grandma said I got it from my mom. “She was always the dancer in the family,” she would say. So when everyone else was too drunk to notice, I joined the rest of the crowd, dancing until late into the night. Then, when I was so tired I couldn’t dance anymore, I snuck away inside and fell asleep on my aunt’s giant couch while the music went on outside without me.
Somewhere in the dark night, I woke to Tío Jacob’s deep voice whispering loudly into a phone. He was talking to someone on the other end and at first I thought it was his girlfriend, but I didn’t think he had a girlfriend. It was a guy named Josh. I remembered Josh, slightly; he was a friend of Jacob’s from school. The two grew up together and had always been inseparable.
I wondered for a moment why he wasn’t at the party. Did he know Jacob was sick? I heard Tío Jacob tell Josh he loved him, which made me giggle a little because I had never heard two grown men speak like that. I stuffed my face into my pillow to muffle the small sounds of my giggles. I must have recognized something that night, realized that some of the feelings that had been slowly boiling inside me, my sense that I was different from other boys, maybe that difference was OK.
I watched Tío Jacob hang up the phone, and as he walked, a dark figure in the dark room, he looked down at the brown carpet the entire time. He never noticed my presence. Seeing the way he walked made me sad, because it was the first time I noticed he was sad and he looked very tired. Then my exhaustion won out and moments after the door shut behind him, muffling the music from outside, I fell again into a deep sleep.
The next day while the grown-ups cleaned up the mess from the previous night’s celebration, Tío Jacob took my cousin Danny and me to the mall. It was the biggest mall I had ever seen and Danny and I could barely contain our excitement once we discovered the candy store. We were surrounded by candy and when a man came up to talk to Tío Jacob, Danny and I wandered off and lost ourselves in the land of hard candies and bubble gum. Uncle Jacob gave each of us a plastic bag that looked like the bags used for vegetables at the grocery store, but here we could fill the bags with candy, any kind of candy we wanted. I headed straight toward the cherry sours. Danny, who suddenly did not seem nearly as excited as I was, watched the man talking to our uncle.
“That’s the man,” he said, holding his still empty bag while mine was becoming fuller by the second.
“That’s the man that made Jacob sick.” Danny always called him Jacob, never Tío Jacob like I did.
“He got sneezed on, that’s how he got sick.”
“No, Jacob likes boys, he doesn’t like girls. The way Jacob likes boys is wrong and that is why he is dying.”
I looked at my uncle and he didn’t look like he was threatened by this guy. He didn’t look like this man wanted to kill him. I just assumed it was a conspiracy Danny had made up and so I ignored him and continued to fill my bag with candy. Danny became quiet and didn’t even thank Tío Jacob for the candy.
When we got home, Danny went to his room to eat his candy and I sat in the living room watching television and eating cherry sours. All the grown-ups were scattered around the house.
Outside, I saw Tío Jacob sitting on the swing set. I went over and sat next to him. We sat quietly. I never knew how to start conversations with grown-ups. I was just hoping he would start one with me.
“Who was that man?” I asked. “The one in the candy store?” It must have been all of the candy because suddenly I had a new-found valor.
“He’s a very close friend of mine.”
“What’s his name?”
“Danny told me he made you sick, but that doesn’t make sense.”
“Well, I made myself sick. Sometimes people just get sick.” He said nothing more.
“Are you scared?” I could feel tears starting to cloud my voice.
“No,” he said. “You don’t have to be, either.”
“I am though,” I said. I was ashamed to be crying in front of him.
To my surprise, he laughed. “You know,” he said, “you can cry all you want. It’s perfectly all right for you to feel sad.”
“I don’t want you to feel bad,” I said, heaving, unsuccessfully trying to hold back more tears.
“I don’t,” he reached over and placed a warm hand on my shoulder. “I mean, yeah, I feel sad about leaving early,” he said, casually, as if he were going on vacation. “I just know that I’ve had so much love in my life and I’ve had such a wonderful time that I am all right.”
He got up from the swing and told me we should go inside to start getting ready for dinner.
“You’re just like your mom, never afraid to ask questions,” he said as I wiped away the last of my tears. Then he looked at me with his dark brown eyes and I knew it was a compliment, not an insult. “You’re gonna be all right, kid,” he said as he walked inside. I followed behind.
We left Austin early the next morning and I slept the entire way back.
Photo: Names Project quilt laid out in the Ellipse, just south of the White House, at this point composed of nearly 8,300 panels, each made by hand, honoring the memory of an AIDS victim, Washington, D.C., October 8, 1988. Michael Schwarz/AJC
Two months later Tío Jacob died.
I wore my button-up white shirt to the funeral, the same shirt I wore to his birthday party that now seemed so long ago. All the relatives that were dancing before now looked sad and tired. When the pallbearers went by, the teenager who complained about the party was helping carry the casket. I looked around the small funeral home at all the relatives who had greeted us with hugs when we arrived for the party; now everyone sat with their own families and wiped their eyes with tissues. I sat cuddled into my grandma’s side the entire time. Danny sat with his mom, and to my surprise, he too was crying.
Years later, when news of my coming out spread across the family conversations, Danny would become more and more of a stranger to me. At age 18, when I went away to college, I often thought about that scene around Tío Jacob’s grave and wondered if it had been me in the casket, would I have been missed the same? At the time, though, all I could do was stand there in the cemetery, watching the charade. When the casket was closed, shutting him off from us until heaven, we all lined up with a fistful of dirt. My grandma told me that it was to put on the casket. When it came to my turn to put the dirt on the casket, I felt sad. I felt a knot in my throat and the tears starting to come, but I wiped them away and thought about sour cherries and felt comfort.
Grandma once told me heaven is the place where you get to meet up with everyone you ever loved in your life. The people there are happy and “you will know it’s them by their hugs,” she would say. I always imagined that Tío Jacob’s hug would feel like dancing. It would feel like sunshine and I would feel as happy as a kid in a candy store, remembering every moment on earth but especially the sweet taste of cherry sours.
As we were driving away, I saw a man standing over Tío Jacob’s casket. No other relatives were left; the only people there were from the funeral home. I looked closely to see if I could recognize the man. It was Josh.
As the years went by and I grew older, my aunt’s house in Austin became smaller and smaller. My oldest uncle moved out of our house in Lubbock, taking his eight-tracks with him, and then my other uncle left. My little brother finally learned to sleep alone and the house became empty except on Sundays when everyone would come over and eat tamales. Eventually, instead of spending spring breaks in Austin with my family, I was going to Colorado or New Mexico with my friends. The spring break of my junior year in high school, I went to Longmont, Colo., to go camping. One evening when we decided to take a break from the wilderness, a group of us took a trip to Fort Collins to catch the new “Scream” movie. While waiting in line, I looked over to see a nice young man with dirty blond hair and green eyes, glancing back. I soon learned he was a freshman at Colorado State, liked all of the “Scream” movies as well, and, yes, he too enjoyed sitting around campfires roasting marshmallows, which is where we spent the rest of the night.
Sometime within the lost hours of night and under the Rocky Mountain stars, I had my first kiss with another man. Being in the arms of the young man whose name now escapes me, I knew I was living the life Tío Jacob talked about. The kind of life where, no matter how bad things got, I would still have someone to love and who would love me. Even though it was my first kiss, it wasn’t the first time I knew I was gay; no, there were many firsts. The first time I danced in the Austin humidity in celebration of a life cut short. The first time I let the darkness of my aunt’s living room comfort me while listening in on Tío Jacob’s conversation with his lover. The first time I saw the kind of love Tío Jacob had for Josh. All were first glimpses into a future I once feared. In the Rocky Mountains, far away from all that was familiar, I knew I was all right. The young man and I promised to meet up that summer, and although we never did, I went back to Texas, dreaming the whole way back about my next escape.
Uncle Jacob’s name eventually disappeared from everyone’s lips and then one day he was gone from our minds altogether.
Danny joined the military and I went away to college. Some time during those years, AIDS became less obscure.
Born in 1981 and the first generation to never know a world without AIDS, we were warned every day of our lives of its dangers. Of course, it was no longer a gay cancer; it was now everyone’s fear. Coming out to my family, whose only experience with homosexuals was whispers and stares, the glaring self-righteousness of blame, even as family love held true, was a challenge. But, I found in myself the need to live. So that’s what I did. I lived my life as best I could because in the back of my mind I often wondered if I would live to see the age of 30. I couldn’t help it. It’s what I was taught. Some time in my early 20s, I came to the realization that death has nothing to do with living; they are two separate entities each as different as night and day. To live fully one cannot constantly exist under the heavy hand of death. Love, however, in all its colors, can and most often will fill those voids created by whispers, stares, suspicions and rumors that can sometimes silence people’s lives and even follow them into death.
While in college I would come home for the holidays to the worn-out furniture, to my aging grandmother, and to the familiar smell of corn husks as my aunts worked their choreographed dance of the tamales. During one break I brought home someone I loved. He was a young man who came from a small town like me, whose Sunday afternoons also were filled with mariachi music and Sunday dinners. Everyone welcomed him. The sight of my tías hugging him and my tíos chatting with him made me remember Tío Jacob. “You’re gonna be all right kid,” his soft voice hovered in the air before drifting away into an unknown mist where there is always music playing, people dancing, and we are all greeted with the warm hugs of remembered friends.
This excerpt of “The Crooked Letter I: Coming Out in the South” was published by permission from NewSouth Books.
ABOUT THE STORY
“Crooked Letter I” is a collection of essays by 16 Southern authors writing about what it was like for them to publicly acknowledge their homosexuality while living in the Bible Belt. Despite the similar theme, every story is unique. James Villanueva’s story is told from his point of view as a 7-year-old, listening to relatives disparage his uncle who was dying from AIDS, even as they planned to celebrate him with a party. It was a memory that haunted him when he eventually came out to his family. It is a touching story about how much strength it takes to be true to oneself and the riches to be gained as a result.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
After a brief foray into the corporate world as a marketing director in Austin and then Chicago, James Villanueva has returned to his hometown of 7,000 people to write feature stories for The Slatonite in Slaton, Texas, where he is a staff writer and composition and circulation director. James is a contributing writer for Latino Lubbock Magazine and the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. He has been featured in Campus Pride, Texas Monthly Magazine, and Southwest LGBT Press. James is the author of the novel, “The Sweet Taste of Bread,” and has written various short stories for anthologies.