This summer has been challenging, first with the Pulse nightclub massacre and more recently with the assaults on men of color and police officers (not to mention attacks in Europe and in the Middle East). This month I wanted to reach out to somebody who might give insight on some of the issues for people of color, especially for those in the Latino community. I interviewed activist and award-winning writer and journalist Miguel Morales. He was a 2012 Lambda Literary Foundation Fellow. He serves on the Latino Writers Collective board of directors and is featured in its anthologies, Primera Página: Poetry from the Latino Heartland (Expanded Edition), and Cuentos del Centro: Stories from the Latino Heartland. Morales is an incredibly talented writer, and I encourage everyone to take some time to check out his work.
- The Pulse massacre was a horrific attack on the LGBT community. Most of those killed were members of the Latino/a community. This attack touched all of us. How has this tragedy affected you, a gay Latino man?
Like almost everyone, I was shocked. As a gay man, I know we are always under a potential threat of violence. As a Latino man, I recognize others are conditioned to see me as a cause of violence and therefore a threat to be subdued. Rarely in my life have these two dangers coalesced. Yet there it was playing out in front of me on TV and on social media. But I still couldn’t reconcile these threats I’ve known almost my entire life with what was happening. The only thing I could do was focus on the names, names that sounded like mine, names I instantly recognized how to pronounce. That’s when it became real for me. Like many, I’m still trying to process this violence and loss, especially in what has turned out to be a violent summer.
- Not even a month after the Pulse shootings, we have had more news reports of black men being killed by police officers. The population is generally not aware that Latino/a people are also victims of police violence. Why are Latino/a people not receiving the same coverage in the press?
Race in the U.S. has always been focused on black and white. Deaths of Latinos are framed in terms of gang violence, drug violence, domestic violence. See where I’m going here? It’s framed in a way that deadly force is not only necessary, it’s the only option in order to contain the violence. Latino social media users have publicized these incidents, but until social media users start expanding their circles to include more voices and until the mainstream media starts to report these incidents, those deaths will remain known only to Latinos and our allies. I just want to add that, I never thought I’d be friends with police officers. But I am. I’m grateful for their friendship and for the work they do to protect lives. I see how these shootings by fellow officers affect them. As worried as I am about the effect this violent summer is having on minorities, I’m also concerned that the violence will envelop my friends whose life’s work truly is to protect and serve.
- What can we do locally to bring Latino/a LGBT people into the conversation regarding the intersections of race/sexuality/gender identity?
Well, intersectionality does not need to be introduced to us. Local LGBTQ Latinx are having these conversations. In fact, we’ve been having them for years. The larger queer community has been focused on other issues and has yet to focus on its own internal racism and sexism. If anything is to come from this horrible summer of violence, it’s that this is the opportunity to have these conversations with other members of the LGBTQ community. It’s not enough to mourn the 49 lives lost in Orlando. Make the effort to be part of the conversations LGBTQ people of color are having by listening to us. Join our efforts. We were part of social movements long before we prompted the Stonewall riots. We can help you, and you can help us.
- How do you think that we can combat racism within the LGBT community so that we can come together in times other than tragedy?
I’m a great believer in the power of story. The more of our individual stories we can share, the more we break down the barriers we place between one another. Some say coming-out stories are outdated, irrelevant in today’s world. But we live in the Midwest – this isn’t San Francisco or New York City where they have long-established resources for whatever kind of queer you identify as. We’ve only got each other. We start at the beginning by sharing our coming-out stories. Then we tell our other queer stories. Soon we are having conversations about our differences while still acknowledging our similarities, the least of which is our queerness.
- What are you currently reading?
Right now I’m reading submissions for the anthology I’m co-editing, Pulse/Pulso. It’s an anthology focusing on the Orlando shootings. I’m struck by the beautiful pieces about queer POC lives and honoring the 49 who died. And for a diversion, I’m plowing through new Star Wars books, one after the other. I haven’t read Star Wars books since I was young. I am impressed at how they’ve begun to acknowledge multiple genders and queer, trans, and gender-fluid characters. Of course, I’m StormPilot all the way.
- What text do you find yourself returning to repeatedly?
I rarely re-read books. Instead I try to recall how I felt while reading a book, the circumstances when I read the book, and then the text itself. Sometimes, I’ll go back and read certain chapters when certain details become fuzzy.
However, I find myself often thinking about Henrik Ibsen’s Enemy of the People and Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street. I know that’s a weird combination, but they are both about characters who are learning to find their voice and push back.
Only now, looking back, do I see how Enemy of the People influenced my time as a member of ACT-UP/KC. I read it in high school, just as the AIDS epidemic was beginning. I didn’t just read it, I absorbed it.
I only read House on Mango Street a few years ago when I joined the Latino Writers Collective and we brought Sandra Cisneros to KC. Like Enemy of the People, it pulled at the core of who I am. I also think it gives me insight to my older sisters and what it might have been like for them growing up.
- You are also an award-winning writer and poet. Where do you find your inspiration?
My inspiration comes from the part of our lives that we try to shift to the background. Whether those are feelings of pain, fear, satisfaction, joy or what have you, I try to take those moments, those experiences and sit in them. I try to expand them to find what is beneath them. Our impulse is to move out of discomfort as soon as possible. That’s a smart impulse when our being is in danger. Yet when we have time and can safely explore those uncomfortable moments and experiences, most of us don’t. They come out in other ways – frustration, fear, anxiety, sarcasm. But if we just take a few moments to sit in those feelings, we can find the truth and the beauty underneath the fear and frustration. That’s what I try to do. I’m inspired by people who say to themselves, “I can’t live one more day like this and if no one is going to do anything about it, I guess it’s up to me.” They have fear, but they walk through it. They find the courage. I’m inspired by loud voices and silent tears. I’m inspired by peoples’ stories — their beautiful, ugly, messy stories.
- What do you find most challenging as a writer?
It’s what happens after I sit in those uncomfortable moments and feelings. After I expand and explore them. It’s the task of putting those thoughts and insights down on the page. It’s an intense process that takes a lot of time and concentration. It’s difficult to do when everything pulls for our attention, social media, traditional media, email, phone calls, work, friends, events where we support causes, events where we become educated about causes, etc. Because we’re connected all the time, it means we are supposed to be accessible all the time. Wanting to be alone, wanting private time for processing and documenting thoughts and feelings isn’t allowed anymore. We’re supposed to process in public online via Facebook posts, Tweets, GIFS, or emojis. Social media is incredible, and I’ve often gone back to a series of posts and tweets to compose a longer, more thoughtful essay or poem. Social media interaction has even sparked new work.
An ensuing challenge is finding ways to connect unique and personal experiences to an audience who doesn’t have that particular experience. For example, I was a child farmworker. That’s not an experience most people I know have had. My challenge is taking those emotions, those dangers, those joys and those frustrations and connecting them to the reader in a way that resonates with them. While my experience might be unique, my thoughts and feelings aren’t. People understand thirst, they understand heat, they understand injustice, they understand tears and laughter, and they understand love.
- Are you working on anything right now?
I’m co-editing an anthology for Orlando called, Pulse/Pulso. It features work by QTPOC writers that honors the lives lost in Orlando and promotes healing. It should be out this fall, with proceeds going to LGBTQ organizations that support the victims’ families and the injured survivors.
In addition, I’m helping plan a few local events that will honor the shooting victims. Those events should happen this fall as well.
Finally, I’m also working on a poetry book of my own that should come out in early 2017.
- OK, one final question. If you could have lunch with any person, living or dead, who would you choose and why?
I know most people would select a great thinker or a religious figure. They’d want someone who can help provide the answer to life’s big questions, and so would I. I also want to taste my mom’s cooking, see her smile, hear her laugh, and dance with her in the kitchen like we used to do when I was little. I’d want to ask her all the questions I never did when I was young and embarrassed by her. I’d want to ask her about cancer, about her mother, about her experiences growing up. How she survived the death of her mother. I’d offer her love and forgiveness and I’d ask for the same.