Emanuel Xavier Talks About AIDS, Love, Sex & His Latest Book of Poetry
Emanuel Xavier is a poet who found his voice—literally. After writing poetry for years, he took his work to the stages of New York’s clubs and cafés, sharing his poetry and his life out loud.
Xavier is one of the most significant openly gay Latino voices in the spoken word poetry movement. “Being Latino and gay gives me much to write about. Anything that oppresses us as artists is always great fodder for art,” he says. Xavier holds nothing back when he performs—living in fear of AIDS, falling in love, questioning the existence of God, describing his sexual encounters. No topic is off limits.
He was born and raised in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn, the son of an Ecuadorian mother and Puerto Rican father, who abandoned the family before Xavier was born. Xavier never met his dad and never even saw a photo of him. “I always felt there was a part of me missing—a part of me that I couldn’t identify. I often want to know what the rest of my family was like or if they even knew that I exist. That really affected all of my life.”
In “Awkward,” he explains:
I enjoy sex with insignificant strange men
whenever I am lonely
I’ve had many lovers
Sometimes I fall asleep in their arms with great ease
This is because I am searching for my father
He disappeared when my mother refused
To have an abortion
When Xavier was just three years-old, he was molested by an older male cousin. “I repressed that throughout my childhood. I didn’t really know what was going on,” he says. Years later, Xavier would realize what had happened and how it impaired his ability to love and trust. “I don’t think I had a real grasp on affection; the only way I understood affection was sexually.”
Around the time he turned seven, Xavier’s mother married; but her husband couldn’t take the place of the father he never knew. “My stepfather was abusive to my mom,” Xavier recalls. “He had his own children that he would go to see every night. We were basically like ‘the other family.’ I was constantly reminded he was not my father.”
As a teenager, Xavier told his mother he was gay. “She completely freaked out,” he says. Xavier then did something he describes as “very cliché and stupid.” He locked himself in the bathroom and attempted suicide by taking a whole bottle of Extra Strength Tylenol. “I think I was just reaching out for attention. I didn’t really have any intention of killing myself.”
She made it clear that Xavier was no longer welcome to live with her after he came out. At sixteen, then a homeless gay teen on the streets of New York, he turned to sex and drugs for survival. Xavier became a hustler on the West Side Highway piers. “I was young. I was angry. I was sexual,” he admits. “I found a way to make money by indulging in sex.”
Next came the club scene, where Xavier got caught up with the wrong crowd in the wrong situation—dealing drugs at some of New York’s major nightclubs. “It seemed very glamorous at the time. I was selling drugs. I was making money. I was popular.”
Soon, Xavier acknowledged he had a drug problem that caused him to make bad decisions. “I was engaging in safe sex because AIDS was already prominent—I was aware of the dangers. But there were times when I would be completely fucked out of my mind and I wouldn’t be completely safe,” he says. “That was when I had the wake-up call. If I continued this life, I was either going to get AIDS or die.”
Xavier got a job at the gay bookstore A Different Light and found a place to stay with a cousin in Riverdale. “At the time I didn’t read any of the books I was selling,” he says. “When I actually picked up one of the books, I was completely inspired.”
A second epiphany came when a date took Xavier to the Nuyorican Poets Café, a haven for Puerto Rican spoken word artists living in New York. “I was blown away by what I saw up on stage. It was a way of expressing yourself very creatively and I had a lot to share,” Xavier says. “That was the moment I realized this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”
Xavier eventually reconciled with his mom and moved back home. He says his mother and stepfather were tolerant, but never accepted his sexual orientation. Xavier finished high school and earned an associate’s degree in communications from St. John’s University.
In his mid-twenties, Xavier began seriously pursuing spoken word poetry as an art form. One of the challenges he faced in the literary world was earning the respect of his peers. He hadn’t studied poetry and didn’t have an advanced degree, like many of the poets and spoken word artists around him.
In his poetry and spoken word, Xavier was very open and honest about being gay. “That to me was what poetry was about—revealing yourself,” he says. At the time, he found himself alienated from the gay community because he was Latino, and shunned by the Latino community because he was gay. “There was still a lot of machismo and homophobia there. I felt like I didn’t really belong anywhere.”
In 1997, Xavier self-published his first book of poetry, Pier Queen.
His debut collection was well received, and his career as a spoken word artist was gaining momentum.
After hearing about Xavier’s sexual abuse at one of his spoken word performances, a woman came up to him and shared her story of being molested. “When you realize you’ve touched other people, you’ve inspired other people, that’s the moment you realize you have accomplished what you set out to do,” Xavier says. “At first, I was giving voice to my own experience. Then I realized I was giving voice to others who maybe didn’t have that opportunity to share their life experiences on a stage.”
Americano, Xavier’s second collection of poems and first official publication, was released in 2000. It helped establish him as a key figure in New York’s underground arts scene. “It was probably the happiest time in my life,” Xavier says.
In October, 2005 tragedy struck Xavier once more. Walking in his neighborhood, he was brutally attacked by at least fifteen young Latinos. “I remember yelling back at them,” he says. “‘I live in the neighborhood. What the fuck are you doing?’” A cab driver down the street saw the assault and came to Xavier’s rescue. The cabbie picked him up in the taxi and drove off—possibly saving Xavier’s life. The assailants were never caught. As a result of the beating and subsequent surgery, Xavier lost all hearing in his right ear.
“I felt really disappointed and angry because these are the kids I try to reach with what I do; these are the kids I want to inspire and motivate with my poetry.” It was a night Xavier will never forget. A large scar around his ear from the surgery serves as a constant reminder of that horrific incident. After the assault, Xavier closed himself off and was unable to write for some time.
In “Passage” he reflects on that fateful October night:
Had they known I was gay they would have killed me
None of my poems about peace and unity
would have kept me whole
In 2008, Xavier edited Mariposas: A Modern Anthology of Queer Latino Poetry, the first-ever collection of queer Latino poetry. Gay rights activist Andres Duque raves, “It’s just an amazing and moving collection of poems that truly represents who we are as queer Latinos at this crucial moment in time.” With this release, Xavier felt like he had arrived. “That’s when I realized I had made a name for myself and I do belong to the literary community,” he says. “I can finally look in the mirror and call myself an artist—a poet.”
In 2010, If Jesus Were Gay & Other Poems was published and received critical acclaim. Fellow author Jaime Manrique said, “Once in a generation, a new voice emerges that makes us see the world in a dazzling new light. Emanuel Xavier is that kind of writer.”
In this collection, the poet explores how the AIDS epidemic has affected him. “I’ve lost a lot of people close to me to AIDS,” Xavier says. In therapy, he tried to overcome survivor’s guilt and find answers to the questions that were troubling him. “Why am I still here? Why am I still alive when everyone around me has died or is living with HIV?”
In “Walking with Angels,”
Knows the fearless meaning
of a friends genuine kiss or hug
converts non-believers to religion…
Knows the prosperous could be doing more
with their wealth
and that everyone still thinks it’s a deserving fate—
for gays, drug addicts, prostitutes,
and the unfortunate children of such
born into a merciless world
of posh handbags and designer jewelry
“Until you know someone in your life who is living with HIV or has died of AIDS, it’s hard to grasp that it affects all of us, that it could potentially reach all of us no matter where you live, no matter who you are, no matter who you sleep with,” Xavier says.
Xavier donates his time and talent to benefit a number of charities, focusing on gay homeless youth and youth affected by AIDS. He has taught workshops and worked with queer youth and AIDS organizations, including New York’s Youth Enrichment Services, the New Neutral Zone, New York Peer AIDS Education Coalition, Sylvia’s Place, and the Latino Commission on AIDS.
“For somebody to be in their teens in 2010 and living with HIV is really tragic because that should not be happening,” Xavier says. “I’ve been in that place—when you’re angry you gamble with your life. It’s a very difficult place to be.”
In October, Equality Forum will honor Emanuel Xavier as one of its GLBT History Month 2010 Icons. Each day in October, a different Icon is recognized at www.glbtHistoryMonth.com with a video, biography, bibliography, downloadable images and other resources. Icons are selected for being national heroes, outstanding in their chosen field, or activists for gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender civil rights.
Xavier has been featured on HBO’s Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry and In the Life on PBS. He costarred in his first acting role in the independent feature film, The Ski Trip, the first gay black and Latino movie to air on cable television. He also appeared in The Cult of Sincerity, which aired on PBS.
This year, one of Xavier’s dreams came true with the release of Legendary: The Spoken Word Poetry of Emanuel Xavier, the first CD of his work, a house mix album with an accompanying music video. Xavier is currently working on editing a poetry collection and curating a series for Museo Del Barrio in New York. A dance performance using tracks from his Legendary CD was staged at New York’s Gay Pride celebration.
Xavier is pleased to see his work presented in various media, but it’s the fundamentals of his craft he values the most. “Spoken word poetry is always going to be my passion, wherever life takes me, because that’s what saved me from myself.”
In “Just Like Jesus,” Xavier writes:
Instead of miracles
I want to document my own history…
Just Like Jesus,
I want to hear the voice of my father
Just Like Jesus,
I simply want to live before I die
For more information about Emanuel Xavier or to purchase his books, visit www.emanuelxavier.com.
Chip Alfred is a nationally-published freelance journalist and writing instructor based in Philadelphia.