By: Adrián Emmanuel Hernández-Acosta
As Sister Carmen, the prophetess, used to say, “Child, even rats and cockroaches scurry across altars. Asegúrate que lo santo lo lleves por dentro.” She would punctuate every nugget of wisdom with a loud clap, lightning fast, as if needing to hide some treasure between her bony hands. These were the wise words that came to mind after reading a scene in La Patografía by Angel Lozada. The scene goes something like this:
Kneeled before the altar, in fervent prayer, Luisín se tira un pedo. Interceding on behalf of his family, on behalf of the people of Puerto Rico—may they be spared from any tsunami ordained as judgment for their sins—el pato (1) releases a small and silent little fart. Nothing too deadly. This time, however, aquel peíto suavecito y silencioso ushers a large hot egg, which worms its way down his baggy trousers. Trembling, Luisín snatches the defecated egg and slams it shut within his zipper-encased Bible. Ni la llema ni la clara se escaparon de las Sagradas Escrituras. The scramble remained smashed within. He enjoyed the rest of the church service. La gloria de Dios se derramó. When Luisín got home, though, he opened that Bible. All the pages were yoked. Anointed with that defecated gooeyness, the gold-lined pages with the words of Jesus in red ink had begun to dry, glued and brittle. The whole thing was a mess.
La Patografía is written by a gay Puerto Rican santero. It features a complete set of four gospels, a genesis, and a bloody apocalypse; it is dedicated to the Afro-diasporic orishas, Oyá and Eleguá. The 300-page “bible” bears witness to the birth, life, and death of one Angel Rosado Mangual (aka Luisín), who despite suppressing same-sex desire, physically turns into a green-feathered duck. As fowl, Luisín is subsequently raped with a bottle of Malta, bled to death, roasted, and eaten by the Puerto Rican people.
I thought of Sister Carmen after reading this because in the old woman’s words lay the analysis. To be fair, her words were a comforting response to my grandmother who, having moved from the warmth and comfort of 1970’s Puerto Rico to a cold village on the outskirts of New York City, now sat in a rat infested apartment with her girls. Abuelo and she had been called to do the Lord’s work. No heat, bad plumbing, and plenty of cockroaches. What I emphasize here, however, is that instead of averting the gaze with immediate repulsion, the prophetess would have us lean into the mess. Truth be told: Luisín’s “little accident” isn’t all that different from what happens to us on a daily basis. In fact, it’s not different at all. Many of us lay our shit at the foot of our altars. What Luisín does is remind us of this truth: What is holy and what is unholy come from the same body—that is, a praying defecating body.
This is an important reminder, especially for those of us who feel like we have to choose between our shit and our altars, our bodily pleasures and our religious communities, our past and what we aspire to be. And often times, we feel like this is a struggle between our sexuality and our race, because we see a rainbow flag draped over that white mainline church down the street, and here we are having our demons exorcised by los hermanitos de la iglesia pentecostal alabaré en el monte de Sion with holy oil Juan 3:16. But Luisín reminds us that our stigmatized bodies, our blackened bodies have their own way of being in the midst of it all. We have been written in the likeness of Scripture, but we are mounted by the orishas. We are rejected by both mirror and bed, but our flesh is, nonetheless, the life of our people. When a duck is sacrificed to Yemayá, its esophagus is cut out and blown upon to remove curses (2). The same throat that quacks is the same one that carries blessing in its breath.
Recently, a young gay Puerto Rican Pentecostal reached out to me on Facebook in order to discuss “homosexuality and the Bible.” After sharing similar stories of growing up “in the church,” we began to reckon with the very busy spirit world in which both of us had once lived immersed and which, for some reason, had not quite forgotten about us. Adonis (3), who actually turned out to be quite knowledgeable due to some prior informal research, and I went back and forth, arguing over the historical accuracy of interpretations of biblical texts. But every now and then, one of us would circle back to an irrefutable claim: “But we saw what we saw and we felt what we felt.” The resources available could help us discuss texts, but offered little in the way of what our bodies could recognize at a moment’s notice. The spirit world was always spoken of as folklore, as ideological apparatus, or as psychosis. But Adonis and I—we had spoken in tongues.
A very important person in Luisín’s life came to mind: his uncle, Lázaro. A sickly man, Lázaro’s gospel in La Patografía is composed of two running columns of text, whose respective content at times converge and diverge, collide or intersect. One of those columns is barely readable. It’s as if Lázaro has chewed up the entire column, grinding every word down to sounds and citations that recur with no apparent sense. Words in his gospel are like the open and infected sores on Lázaro’s back: festering language, undecipherable markings that depict a hieroglyphics of the flesh (4). In our on-going discussion, Adonis and I keep coming back to these markings on our bodies, hieroglyphics that only spirits and others mounted by them can recognize.
It is no coincidence that Oyá, Eleguá, and Babalú Ayé as Lázaro accompany Luisín on his life passage. These Afro-diasporic orishas have been accompanying voyagers under extreme duress since the first human cargo ships left the shores of West and Central Africa. Luisín’s stigmatized body, his blackened being bears markings that these powers read from generation to generation. His aunt is a santera; his grandmother, a devout Christian. But these markings do not just chart denominational divisions or faith traditions, nor are they mere cultural leftovers from long lost African slaves on Caribbean plantations (5). These markings inscribe an entire complex of Afro-diasporic being, one through which spirits travel across space and time, a sensorium that activates when our vision becomes sonar.
To gay Puerto Ricans who have spoke in tongues and wonder if they’ll ever stop hearing voice, I say: you are not alone out here, suspended between a clearly articulated argument on “homosexuality and the Bible” and an active spirit world, feeling you were “like this” as far back as you can remember. Indeed, we were “born this way,” but it was our birth into that complex of Afro-diasporic being, into that sensorium that was first arranged when shackled bodies prayed rotting side by side. Shit at the foot of altars. “Lo santo lo llevas por dentro.” The wisdom of Sister Carmen’s words does not dwell in the metaphor of some intangible private faith. The wisdom of the prophetess’s words lies in the literal relocation of santo onto our very material bodies. It is with them that we have, like Luisín, learned how to pray defecating, grinding words into sounds that activate blackened being. May we not forget how to speak in tongues lest the spirits forget to read these markings on our bodies. We are suspended over these waters together.
1. Throughout the Hispanic Caribbean, “pato” (“duck” in Spanish) and “pájaro” (“bird” in Spanish) circulate as pejorative epithets for men who sleep with men, especially effeminate men.
2. See the ethnographic work of Aisha Beliso-De-Jesús, especially “Yemaya’s Duck: Irony, Ambivalence, and the Effeminate Male Subject in Cuban Santería.”
3. To protect his identity, I have used “Adonis” as a pseudonym.
4. See the literary work of Hortense Spillers and Alexander Weheliye on “the hieroglyphics of the flesh,” especially “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” and Habeas Viscus: Biopolitics, Racializing Assemblages, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human.
5. See Masked Africanisms: Puerto Rican Pentecostalism by Samuel Cruz.
Adrián Emmanuel Hernández-Acosta is a doctoral student at Harvard University, focusing on Caribbean religions and literatures. The son of a Pentecostal Sunday school teacher, he thinks often of pedagogy, having significant experience in nontraditional educational spaces such as hospital chaplaincy and adult education, providing social services for populations on parole and probation.