“Michael Nava” in Red-Inked Retablos (University of Arizona Press, 2013), by Rigoberto González
The name Michael Nava is inextricably bound to Henry Ríos. For the longest time I wasn’t compelled to read his books because they were murder mysteries—a genre I loved but had outgrown by the time I started college. In my Chicano Studies classes his name wasn’t mentioned even though he published five of his seven titles while I was earning my three degrees. My Chicano mariposa friends did know about him, though, and kept bringing up how cute he was and how charming that he was an activist lawyer who wrote books. I went to the local used bookstore and bought the book with the best author photo, a hardcover edition of The Burning Plain (1997). I also snatched up two paperback editions of The Little Death (1986) and Goldenboy (1988).
Before I made the big move to New York City in 1998, I drove my two cats and boxes of books across the California border, to my brother’s house. And thereafter, every time I visited, I picked up a book or two to read on his lawn. On one occasion I devoured the Henry Ríos paperbacks, enthralled by the plots certainly, but also by the moral struggles of this regular gay guy who just wants to do what’s right. It seemed unfair suddenly that Nava had been excluded from the reading lists of my education—my mariposa education. Here, finally, was a complex representation of a man whose inner demons had less to do with his sexuality than with the social fabric of truth and justice. But most importantly, Henry Ríos didn’t define himself strictly through a single cultural lens—as either gay or Chicano—he was both. And he didn’t qualify his profession through either identity because he was both.
It’s important to note, however, that Nava is celebrated primarily by the queer literary community—the Chicano/Latino literary establishment has yet to catch up. I recall that back in 1997, while I was an artist-in-residence in celebrated Chicano writer Rudolfo Anaya’s La Casita in Jemez Springs, New Mexico, my host was telling me he was going to establish a Chicano Mystery Writers Guild because they were growing (he was two titles into his own Sonny Baca series). When I asked him who would be invited, he listed Manuel Ramos, Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, and Lucha Corpi.
“That’s four of us,” he declared.
“What about Michael Nava?” I suggested. He looked at me blankly.
I’m happy to report, however, that in 2005, a teacher-scholar from Tucson, Arizona, wrote Chicano Detective Fiction: A Critical Study of Five Novelists. Without Nava’s seven queer murder mysteries, Susan Baker Sotelo’s analysis of Chicano literature’s “21 whodunits” would be sadly lacking in scope and complexity. That same year, Brown University scholar Ralph E. Rodriguez released Brown Gumshoes: Detective Fiction and the Search for Chicana/o Identity, in which the works of the same five novelists (Nava, Anaya, Corpi, Hinojosa-Smith, and Ramos) are profiled.
Michael Nava and I had the opportunity to discuss these matters when we crossed paths three times within the same year in 2010—at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Denver, at the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans, and at the National Association of Chicano Studies’ Queer Conference (where I picked up the term jotoranos from the hip queer Xicano kids) in Eugene, Oregon, where he presented the keynote address, taking time out of his campaign to be the first gay Latino judge in San Francisco. I congratulated him on all counts, reminding him that we needed him much more than he needed us.*
*[In my judicial race, I won the first round only be defeated in the run-off where I was outspent two to one by the incumbent who had recruited San Francisco’s legal establishment against my upstart campaign. MN]