My Shriekin’ Rican
THE KILLOUGH CHRONICLES
by James Killough
This is sort of a follow-up piece to Tuttle’s last Wednesday because I also happened to watch Dancing With the Stars a few nights ago. It wasn’t a voluntary thing. It’s because I’m in Miami staying with my Puerto Rican ex, Willy, and he likes his TV loud, surround-sound home-theater-system loud, preferably either musical or pugnacious-and-histrionic loud, in the form of telenovelas or the Latin equivalent of Judge Judy, a colorful character in improbably tasteful makeup named Doctora Polo, who even sings her own rather catchy intro jingle to a show called Caso Cerrado in a voice reminiscent of a tranny after a three-day crack binge.
DWTS is a Latino show, make no mistake about it, or part of one. It’s ballroom dancing, after all, which is Latino-esque in style: swaying hips, twirling arms, glittering costumes, feathers-feathers-feathers, and the swooning performativity of romance. What makes it more Anglo is the scathing remarks from the judges and the brutal elimination process, which lacks warmth and compassion, corazon, and therefore it can never be truly Latino.
People don’t always associate Italy, where I was raised, as being a Latin country, but it is, for obvious reasons. When Latin Americans refer to “la patria,” the fatherland, they mean Spain, but it should be Italy if we’re really talking roots, both linguistic and temperamental.
Italians themselves would balk at this ethnographic comparison because they are, well, proud and ceaselessly snobby, and to an Italian who doesn’t speak Spanish—and I didn’t until I was in my thirties and dating Willy—Spanish sounds like some bastardized incomprehensible southern dialect spoken by the much-despised terroni, or the peasants who work the land. And that’s not far from the truth: for centuries, until the Risorgimento that reunified the country, southern Italy was ruled by Spain as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, with the psychopathic Naples as its capital. Once the wealthiest of the Italian kingdoms/regions, it is has remained its poorest since the Risorgimento. Ergo the scorn.
DWTS is just a part of what the Italians would call spettacolo, a variety TV show which includes much more than interludes of dance by the likes of the primi ballerini della RAI, the somewhat god-like First Dancers of RAI Television: very fluffy no-depth interviews, current events, song (mainly ballads), skits and a form of comedy Anglos would find distinctly clownish and unsophisticated, because it is. I’d go so far as to say it is idiotic; as I’ve declared in these pages before, there should be a UN resolution that comedy only be performed in English, in the English-speaking countries.
It’s the same as the difference between Hollywood and Bollywood movies. We prefer our films to be of a specific genre: comedy, drama, action adventure, thriller, musical. There’s no mélange. A Bollywood film will incorporate all of those genres and more into one to give it maximum bang for a rupee. As a result, the majority of Indians, those who have not been weaned on our culture to the extent they want nothing else, find our movies boring and single-minded. I find theirs uniformly crap. So there.
The Latino-Italian variety show is a circus on TV: it aims to give you wows and laughs and tears. And it will go on for a couple of hours, at least. Growing up watching the state-run RAI television, Canzonissima was the number one show absolutely everyone tuned into every week. After it was cancelled in 1975, it evolved into different variety shows, but the gist and format was the same. And Pippo Baudo was always the host.
The current Latino version of Canzonissima, the primo spettacolo of all Latin TV, is Sabado Gigante on Univision, hosted by the ageless Don Francisco, a patriarchal character in a Bill Cosby vein, whose stamina and enthusiasm must amaze even him; he hasn’t aged a minute since I was first introduced to him in the late 90s. Willy watches him faithfully, and even barks out and claps at the screen like a black dowager listening to an evangelical preacher.
Don Francisco packs as much as he can into his show, which seems to run all night, but in fact must be just a couple of hours. It’s not just song and dance and interviews and something resembling “comedy” that would not have been funny on a third-rate Vaudeville stage in Jersey City in the 1920’s, but it also features a sort of Kids Say the Darndest Things segment, in which Don Francisco eggs on a bunch of kids and confuses them slightly so that they mispronounce and lie a little bit about their siblings and generally twist themselves into adorable pretzels, which Willy finds absolutely uproarious. Again, more screaming and clapping at the screen.
Back in the day when I was first subjected to watching this every Saturday, there was a segment called El Break De La Esperanza—The Break of Hope—in which some indigent, dying or otherwise deeply unfortunately soul was given a pot of gold, or a golden opportunity, or a chance for a liver transplant in Switzerland, or reunification with the parent from whom she had been separated in a crowded market in Lima, Peru just before some revolution swept in and the rest of the poor wretch’s story became the Latino version of an Amy Tan epic. If Willy wasn’t sobbing, and I mean blowing his nose and blotting his eyes, then it wasn’t a successful Break De La Esperanza.
I learned my vocabulary mostly from Willy, but thankfully my Spanish was given a bit of a polish by the two or three telenovelas we watched every night, otherwise my argot might be a little fuerte, a little too street strong. Let’s face it, SAT people: Puerto Rican is to pure Castilian Spanish what Ebonics is to Received Pronunciation English. You may be white, but when you open yo’ mouth an’ talk like a Rican in Spanish, you black, honey. And on someone like me that sounds a little strange.
Despite the fact the Puerto Rico is a part of the United States and that they are citizens, true Boriqua Ricans from the island like Willy either don’t speak English at all, or speak it very badly. New Yoricans like Jennifer Lopez are obviously different. I believe it’s some collective act of defiance towards the colonizing power, despite the fact that Puerto Rico’s relationship with the US is the envy of all of the neighboring countries, Venezuela and Cuba included, no matter what their governments say. I like to think that the Boriqua refusal to speak English is a thuggish act of defiance that is charming in a homie sort of way.
Willy’s English is a caricature of a Rican speaking English, like Speedy Gonzalez is for Mexicans, his accent speckled with Spanish and inflected with long-growled vowels. He says “ju” instead of “you.” Etcetera. He has two types of Spanish he employs, a Standard Latin American accent, neutral, to be understood by all, and the slang he uses with his friends, which is nigh incomprehensible.
When I lived in San Juan, where Willy and I met, I rented a beautiful old house on the Calle San Jose smack in the middle of the old quarter, as charming as charming could possibly get without flipping over into cliché. And we threw huge parties, which got bigger as the word got out and people knew there was this open bar in the Old Town where they could start the night out and go from there. And always at the center of this madness was Willy, regaling a group of guests with some anecdote so salacious that they would all be laughing and shaking their heads. I’d be at the other end of the room, way out of earshot, but that inevitable smile and headshake from his audience told me just how well the party was going for him.
One sudden weekend, Hurricanes Georges, a real force-five beast, not a wimp like Irene, blew through town. On Friday I had a job, on Monday I didn’t. Those ten days without running water or power in my mini-palace in Old San Juan were a great adventure: everyone mucking in, bartering for things, ice, beer, weed, whatever we could get our hands on.
Willy and I moved to LA because it was time I stopped fucking around and got back into film. We split up a couple of years later, but like many gay couples, when there isn’t too much mental illness floating around, we’ve remained good friends.
Willy has always been a kidney patient. Even after we broke up, I was in and out of hospitals with him in LA; he was never a moment without kidney stones. It just became part of the relationship, and still is. He lives in Miami now, but a month ago advised me that it was time: his right kidney was failing and had to come out. Seeing as I’m in between projects, I flew in, feeling good about having the opportunity to be with him during such a critical moment. You make so many promises to each other when you’re a couple (“Don’t you worry! I look after you forever and ever and ever, amen! Because I love you, and love you, and…”), which tend to go by the wayside when you split up, so you get a Mother Teresa moment when you have the chance to make good on them.
But when I got to Miami Airport a couple of weeks ago, Willy was anything but the intubated, doped-up nephrectomy patient I was expecting. He was his usual bull of a self, bossing me around, barking at me in the parking structure, off his tits on medicinal marijuana to kill the pain because Vicodin has long since ceased to impress his suffering. He then drove me for a full fat bitch bacon cheeseburger with all of the fattest bitch trimmings at Houstons in North Miami Beach, and ordered Key Lime Pie to go. And I translate: “Goddamned motherfucking wankers want me to stop eating at midnight. So fuck those sons of bitches, I’m eating until then,” punctuated by a loud burp six seconds long.
I won’t translate what he had to say about his nutritionist. Poor thing.
Surgery went well the next day. The best-case scenario happened: they were able to reboot the kidney to a somewhat normal functioning level, no removal. He has stones permanently embedded in the tissue of his kidney, but oh well, he shrugs. Despite the fact kidney pain is the closest a man can come to experiencing childbirth, the blasé attitude doesn’t surprise me because that’s Willy: a big gutsy, gusty Shriekin’ Rican who will wrestle life to its knees and make it scream uncle before he gives it an inch of himself. And for those of us in decent health with a tendency to complain, that is fucking inspiring.