By Rafael Ocasio, coauthor of The Dissidence of Reinaldo Arenas: Queering Literature, Politics, and the Activist Curriculum.
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Content notice: This post deals with the topic of suicide.
“I have always considered it despicable to grovel for your life as if life were a favor. If you cannot live the way you want, there is no point in living.”—Reinaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls, ix
Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990) arrived to the United States by means of the Mariel boatlift on May 5, 1980, and would soon become one of the most vocal counterrevolutionary activists of the Marielito refugees. Headquartered in New York City, Arenas initiated aggressive anti-Castro campaigns that earned him a contentious reputation. He was often labeled as a belligerent contender with a flair for tantrums and crude insults against his opponents.
Though he was an extroverted queer activist, Arenas initially disclosed his AIDS diagnosis to a handful of close friends. In 1987, he wrote to his dear friends Jorge and Margarita Camacho complaining about rare and debilitating physical ailments. His friends must not have been surprised about the bad news. Since 1981, the media had frequently reported about rare cases of pneumonia among homosexual men who were also battling Kaposi’s Sarcoma, an aggressive cancer previously uncommon in young individuals. A “homosexual cancer” was decimating Manhattan’s youthful queer communities; Hell’s Kitchen, Arenas’s impoverished barrio, was not an exception.
In spite of his debilitating condition, Arenas maintained active counterrevolutionary political campaigns while completing his pentagonía novels, or five anguished novels, and his autobiography, Antes que anochezca (1992); Before Night Falls (1993). Boldly told, the posthumously published autobiography was his final and most vociferous documentation of the violations to his human rights as a queer and dissident under the Castro regime. It is also an uncensored queer sexual narrative, fully intended to shock his readers with explicit descriptions of his participation in a vibrant underground homosexual community in Cuba that thrived in spite of rigid homophobic revolutionary regulations.
AIDS precipitated Arenas’s decision to memorialize his life as a sexual outlaw. He disclosed intimate details about his sexual preferences, particularly his fondness for engaging in homosexual sexual acts on public beaches in the outskirts of Havana. These episodes were remembered, however, with an unusual combination of homosexual sexual desire and political activism. Another controversial revelation is his arrest at a public beach in 1973, which led to a charge under a criminal violation for corruption of minors. It was an entrapment, however; at the trial the presumed minors declared themselves to be adults. Arenas was still sentenced to jail, which he partially served in the Morro prison, until 1976. Nonetheless, in the autobiography he offered rather detailed descriptions of his sustained homosexual relations with teenage boys, of consensual legal age, whom Arenas vehemently claimed voluntarily entered into these sexual encounters.
Although Arenas made a handful of references to AIDS in his autobiography, its presence strongly permeates the text, which was written while enduring three years of AIDS-related diseases. He was furiously battling his rather limited access to public medical treatments in New York City: “I was practically dying, but hospitals refused to admit me because I did not have the means to pay” (x). In August 1990, he concluded the autobiography with a short introduction that forecasted his eminent suicide and lamented his failure to even write about AIDS: “Now I see that I am almost coming to the end of this introduction, which is really my end, and I have not said much about AIDS” (xvi). A brief comment berates AIDS as an “alien to human nature,” an observation that made him declare: “Such diabolic perfection makes one ponder the possibility that human beings may have had a hand in its creation” (xvii). The unstoppable outlaw was finally defeated, in his words, by a “perfect illness” (xvii).
AIDS continues to have a startling impact on people of color in the United States. In 2020, Latinx people accounted for 27% of new reported cases, second to 42% of cases among Black people. Latinx individuals still struggle to access proper medical care regardless of sexual orientation or immigration status. Arenas’s fight is certainly not over, as reflected in today’s highly contested sexual politics. His indictment rings true: “Moreover, all the rulers of the world, that reactionary class always in power, and the powerful within any system, must feel grateful to AIDS because a good part of the marginal population, whose only aspiration is to live and who therefore oppose all dogma and political hypocrisy, will be wiped out” (xvii).
Arenas died of suicide on December 7, 1990. His letter of suicide was both his most poignant counterrevolutionary statement and intimate examination of his feelings as an exile: “There is only one person I hold accountable: Fidel Castro. The sufferings of exile, the pain of being banished from my country, the loneliness, and the diseases contracted in exile would have probably never have happened if I had been able to enjoy freedom in my country” (317).
Arenas, Reinaldo. Before Night Falls. Trans. Dolores Koch. New York: Viking, 1993.
“Diagnoses of HIV Infection in the United States and Dependent Areas 2020.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/library/reports/hiv-surveillance/vol-33/index.html
Rafael Ocasio is the Charles A. Dana Spanish Professor at Agnes Scott College and coauthor of The Dissidence of Reinaldo Arenas: Queering Literature, Politics, and the Activist Curriculum.