Salsa y La Naturaleza: How a Willie Colón Song Taught Me About Queerness and Love

It doesn’t matter that I didn’t think my dad loved me as a kid.

Every time we exhale, the shit parents do to us holds less weight. Past 48 hours memories blur, fade, blow into the mist. At least that’s what they say, that’s what should happen, right?

But those memories bruise ribs.

They do not disappear.
They squeeze through cracks in bone and become marrow.
They fade into the bloodstream and are absorbed in our movements.

No se puede corregir a la naturaleza / you can’t change one’s nature

It’s true though. I asked Grandma about it — his lack of love.
“Grandma, I don’t want to go home. Dad doesn’t love me. Can’t I just stay with you?”
She opened her arms to me. In a past life, one before me, she’d divorce his father.
Religious. Aggressive. Military man. His father. She’d had enough then too.

La Naturaleza

Grandma confronted my Dad, her son.

Love is vital.

I was terrified Dad would smell the snitch on me but still, I asked. I was five. I prayed he would still love me. Had to love me. Maybe I was missing something.

Grandma wanted to prove that I was worried for no reason. Of course, he loved me.

Her curved banister, carpeted, rose petal pink, served as a hiding spot. It’s the focal point of this memory, this blip of a narrative. I hid there as my father’s mother questioned him about not loving me. This man, who gave no hugs, sang in a Christian band, and worked for a Latino-owned company like it was the 1950s, my father — the wait-til-your-father-gets-home type of father — my grandma asked him why her first-born grandchild didn’t feel loved.

I sat on the top step, nose-running, heart exploding into break beats.

He stood at the bottom of the stairs. I experienced a life after death moment, still very much alive. We were at a standoff with Grandma in the middle, all these questions festering between us. We shared no common language. Not physical. Not with words. Non-existent.

“You know your father loves you. Stop. This. Right. Now.”
My mother’s voice is the only voice I remember in this moment.
Denial. Assured denial. Aggravated Denial. Denial.

We are doing the best we can. No one cares.


No se puede corregir a la naturaleza / you can’t change one’s nature
Simón tú hijo, El Gran Varón /Simón, your son, The Great Man

It’s 1989 and Willie Colón releases “El Gran Varon.” I’m seven years old. Sitting in the backseat of our white minivan. Small enough to feel vulnerable to the rapture. Small enough to understand some words in Spanish. Aware enough to know that there is a difference between English and Spanish.

Dad only listens to Christian music or Salsa. His favorite is Salsa. Always too fast, always too many sharp notes on the trumpet. It didn’t sound like the television to me. But this song, “El Gran Varon,” pressed stillness into my Pentecostal, child-anxiety.

Dad told Grandma he loved me.
Dad told me that if I kept crying, he’d give me something to cry about.

He’s doing the best he can.

En la sala de un hospital        
De una extraño enfermedad murio Simón
Es el verano de noventa y tres
Al enfermo de la cama diez, nadie lloro

In a hospital room? That’s where Simón died? Why didn’t anyone cry? How could no one cry? I cried in the backseat of our white minivan. Seven. My broken Spanglish got me only so far in deciphering this song, far enough to ache for Simón.

digitalversion

Illustrations by Miyuki Baker

Willie Colón’s voice was my grandma dressed in her widow’s black counting novenas. It was End of Days empty, calling out for redemption. He sang like that time I asked my Grandma if my Dad loved me, like that time I got spanked for asking such an obvious question.

My answer for him, the answer I’ve created for us, was and still is, I’m not really sure how to love you, yet.

I was afraid to ask my Dad why Simón died alone. Patience just wasn’t a thing he could do. He had no time for ‘are we there yets’ or never ending rounds of ‘but why, Dad?’

I didn’t want him to see me crying and then decide to give me more reasons. There are always real reasons to cry, right? The song hurt and that pain made me brave for just a split second, so I asked.

Nadie lloro / Nobody cried

My father looked to his right, made eye-contact with my mother. They shared permission? Sadness? I feared getting it — you know, that front-seat backhand.

But Dad spoke to me in this delicate voice, the voice reserved for real life shit, the shit you have to tell kids even though you know it will stomp them, you know it will push them closer to adulthood, to death, to belief in the finite.

That voice.

He said, “Muñeca, Simón died of AIDS. His family didn’t love him anymore.”

Inconsolable in the backseat, I cried into my coloring book.

I knew about AIDS. AIDS killed my cousin José. We’d just buried him. AIDS made my Grandma and Titis knit squares for the quilt they carried while marching at the White House with all the other Grandmas and Titis.

We didn’t talk about that song again for awhile. But like my Dad and I didn’t really talk anyway, so the silence was just miles passing under our feet.

Still, he never skipped past the song when it came on in the car or in the kitchen on Saturday mornings while my Mom cleaned the house. Over the years it found space in the grooves of my fingertips, the tension behind my eyelids, and as my Spanglish became a language, I understood more. I ached more for Simón and for myself.


No one cares. This is not a big deal.

How you felt about your father growing up means nothing now.

He’s about to retire.
His patience is as long as the shadows in his eyes.
He is obsolete and he can’t stop thinking about the days when he wasn’t.
He can’t stop thinking about what could have been.
I can see it on his face, in the tears he never sheds.

I imagine his thoughts. Still there is a language barrier. Still it is our silence that speaks.

Nadie lloro

Simón’s extended family is absent. No mothers. No Grandmas. No Titis.
It’s him and his father. Only his father.
The song is about two men.
The song wants to be about two men so badly.

Al extranjero se fue Simón
Lejos de case se le olvido auqel sermon
Cambio la forma de camniar
Usaba falda lapis labial
Y un carteron

Simón was different. Something was different. I was different.

I’m 14 years old and I’m getting A’s in Spanish.

Simón was wearing a skirt, and some lipstick when his father came to visit.

I squirm, flinch, die a little bit when my mother makes me wear skirts. Lipstick isn’t allowed.

My father is silent. He lets the song play. This alone is a radical act. I don’t understand why my strict Christian father let’s a song about a man — who becomes a woman, who wears a dress who puts on lipstick, who contracts HIV, who dies of AIDS alone — play. Is it my Spanish? Am I not understanding this song? Who is Simón?

Who is my Dad?

He’s quiet. He doesn’t explain the song and doesn’t defend me when I’m pressed to put on a skirt in the dressing room for my mother. These are conversations between women.

Simón’s father doesn’t recognize him. I don’t recognize myself. Some days I have no idea what my father’s voice sounds like but I know his looks. I know his ‘just in case you’re up to no good’ glare, thigh slap. Unexpected. Unannounced, without a word.

Maybe if we could talk to our fathers there’d be less shock and awe. We wouldn’t be at war.

Maybe Simón would be alive. Maybe I wouldn’t want to hide inside of my flesh when he walked into any room. Because even though my Spanish was getting stronger, I still couldn’t say a word to my Dad without being afraid of him and his hands and his God and his machismo.

What would he do if I told him about myself? What would he do if I asked him if Simón was gay too? Or a drag queen? Or transgender? Would he even know? What would he do if I used the words associated with this culture that we speak about in silence? No one says gay in Spanish. No one says queer. People say faggot and dyke in Spanish but we don’t use those kinds of words in this house. So we don’t say anything.

Still, he let’s the song play.

Dad let Willie Colón’s voice drop Simón’s tragedy into my heart and fill in the spaces of confusion and shame.

If Simón was a girl, then I was a dyke and if my father let the song play, then maybe I could sing to him and we’d finally be able to speak to each other.

Simón tu hijo, El Gran Varon

NADIELLORO

Illustrations by Miyuki Baker


Simón died alone. His father saw him dressed as a woman and never took another step near him.

The song tells us that we can’t change nature, that what is will always be. This is when the song picks up. Instead of being on the side of the father, the side of machismo, the side of what our religion says is right, this song is on the side of Simón.

Escandalo. Radical. An opening, vocal, spiritual. Possibility.

No se puede corregir a la naturaleza

You can’t change someone’s nature. The trumpets bloom and shout, reaching for the heavens. The tempo moves fast enough to break a sweat, even without understanding the Spanish, the body knows that something has changed.

Salsa is the language of a people stuffed into a barrio and left to bleed to death. And yet, there is joy in what is natural — to sing, to live, to remember those who have died alone.

To remember that time when you were five years old and you didn’t think your dad loved you.


I’m 19 and getting A’s in college-level Spanish because easy As are the best As and it’s like I actually speak a second language.

I tell both of them I’m gay. Mom and Dad.
Grandma knew. She always knew even though I was never able to speak those words to her.
Mom leaves the table. Dad stays.

He let’s the song play.

He doesn’t flinch when she leaves the house and doesn’t come home for hours. He doesn’t flinch when I bow my head and cry at the dinner table. He sits and waits.

This is his language.

He says, “You’re still my kid, muñeca. Nothing changes that.”
We sat there listening to each other’s heartbeats.

We have this moment, one where I know that I still have a home.
Finally, something shared.
Silence. Truth. Denial rejected.

El Gran Varon

What is natural is triumphant.

Simón died alone so I didn’t have to.

A generation of us, Latinas, salseras, little kids in the backseat of the family car, we have danced to Willie’s cry, daring us to love hard, daring us to love past bigotry, machismo, to love our sons in dresses, to keep vigil by their bedsides when they’re stricken by disease, by loneliness, by homophobia, to love the children who reclaim their souls by creating new identities by leaving what is known and daring to strike out alone wearing bold shades of lipstick and burning our skirts and silences to the ground, we’ve been asked to be better, to be triumphant, to honor what is natural, to honor who we are so that none of us die alone.

That’s him, my Dad. But that’s me too.

In that moment, en la sala de un hospital, at our dining room table, he didn’t leave me.
I didn’t die alone.

And I will never skip that song.

I will be just like him in that moment.
I will cry in front of my child.

And we will sing to la naturaleza and praise its beauty and we will hold hands and gather our people in song and we will love loud like the trumpets and the congas and the rhythm of swaying palm trees in the inner city where all the Grandmas and all the Titis live and spread life and love.

We will share a language.

And none of us will die alone or in vain.
And we will dance and dance.

No se puede corregir a la naturaleza

Gabrielle Rivera is an awesomely queer Bronx bred, writer, spoken word artist and director. Her short stories and poems have been published in various anthologies such as the Lambda Award winning Portland Queer: Tales from the Rose City and The Best of Panic! En Vivo from the East Village. Her short film "Spanish Girls are Beautiful" follows a group of young Latina and Caucasian girls who like girls as they hook up, smoke up and try to figure sh*t out. She also freelances for Autostraddle.com while working in the film and television industry. Gabrielle is currently working on her first novel while bouncing around NYC performing spoken word and trying to stick it to the man.

gabby has written 102 articles for us.

46 Comments

  1. thank u, thank u, thank u. Amazingly written. I have the most wonderfully loving and supportive parents…but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have the anxiety that comes with the decision to live openly or that they didn’t suffer heartbreak or grief knowing the hardships their daughter would go through. Now excuse me while I go read every Gabrielle piece I can get my hands on.

    • my parents have come such a long way. now they’re like team queer rights + love all the queers forever. it’s been a long but totally worth it road for all of us. thanks for sharing some of your story here with us.

  2. I wish the words in my head could do justice to the words you just put on paper (or on computer, or whatever), but they can’t. Every time I read one of your stories I’m touched by how you are able to bring something tangible to something that seems ineffable. You’ve got a way of untangling things that are so complex; things that don’t have a beginning, middle or end. Fuck, Gabby, you just got me right in the feels.

  3. The title caught my eye, as soon as I saw the author I was sold. This is absolutely beautiful. You took pieces of my childhood and put them on paper. I was a little Chicana in L.A., but the rest of the details are so recognizable. I feel a little less alone. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  4. This hurt to read, in a way that let me access my own feelings about difficult parental relationships for the first time in a while. Thank you so much for sharing part of your story with us- it does so much to help other people sort out their own experiences and realize they’re valid.
    On a more cheerful note, I understood about a third of the Spanish! Which is disappointing in that I’m from Arizona and should know a lot more Spanish than I do, but it was rewarding to read the lyrics and understand part of what was being said before it was explained in English.

    • Yay for your Spanish! Don’t be too hard on yourself. And yo, like, I was worried that I might share too much and like hurt my dad or my mom by sharing some of the harsh bits of growing up. But I always just hope that sharing the hard stuff helps everyone and so thank you for leaving some love and encouragement here.

  5. This is perfect. And I love how music brought it together. There is a certain way subjects are acknowledged and ignored at the same time in Latino families. And there is definitely a lot of fag/dyke slurs thrown around which makes it hard to come out to family. I never said it out loud, but I’m pretty sure my mom knows just by little things that she does and says. For example, she’s been liking a lot lgbtq/ equality posts and groups on facebook

  6. This is perfect. And I love how music brought it together. There is a certain way subjects are acknowledged and ignored at the same time in Latino families. And there is definitely a lot of fag/dyke slurs thrown around which makes it hard to come out to family. I never said it out loud, but I’m pretty sure my mom knows just by little things that she does and says. For example, she’s been liking a lot lgbtq/ equality posts and groups on facebook

  7. Thank you. What a wonderful surprise to learn how our lives intertwined through art. I am deeply touched by your story. They say that true art is forged by pain. I wish you happiness and success on your journey. Bendiciones

  8. Gabby – Thank you so much. Such a strong piece, both in content and in structure.

    I just love and appreciate being able to envision you reading this all out – all spoken-word like.
    I also know that I’m gonna be listening to a bit more salsa this week.

    You’re amazing, love you dude <3.

  9. I was crying all the way through. I can’t even express in words what this piece made me feel.

    The “stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about” hit me hard.

    I just…this…was so beautifully written. Thank you Gabby for the late night cry I didn’t know I needed.

  10. This is so good!!! I just can’t tell you how your words moved me.

    I grew up hearing and singing this song, dancing to it, and I played it throughout your story and while I cried at the end.

    Just amazing!

  11. Reading this has reduced me to a teary mess. I’m in a place where I can feel the sun on my face but there is a chill on my neck and reading this painfully reminds me of my experiences with my parents. All I can say is that I love your work and it is a testimony to your practice and the world is better for it. All the love.

  12. Gabby, i love your words, always. i was glad to see your name as the author on a piece, but somehow i still wasn’t prepared for how much i would feel with you and about my own world when reading it.
    Thank you

  13. I put off reading this because I was afraid it would hurt too much. Dads and fear and salsa music seemed too close to some very dark and scary shit living in my heart right now. But now that I’ve read it a week later, it all seems a little more ok. I’m crying, but I’m breathing too. Thank you thank you thank you <3

  14. That was absolutely beautiful, Gabrielle. As someone who grew up never being able to talk to my father, always feeling like I was unloved and unwanted while simultaneously being afraid of his attention, this really resonated with me. I’m not sure that feeling every truly goes away, but I’m glad that you found a special link that can tie you to each other even when things aren’t the way you want them to be.

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