“Living without God” in Cuba

Yusimi Rodriguez

Michel (Nonardo) Perea Enriquezat home. Photo: Bernardo Acosta

HAVANA TIMES, August 31 – I’ve known Michel (Nonardo) Perea Enriquez since he was 19 and I was 16.  During those early years, our friendship deepened first in casual encounters at film festivals and later through my surprise visits to his house.

I was always more and more surprised, because one year this man was a drag queen, the next year a transvestite, the following one a writer (without having finished school), and now he’s even become a visual artist, an actor and I don’t know how many other things.

I still remember the first time I saw him – so thin, so fragile, serious and leaning back against a column.  The director of an artistic project that I was involved in, but which never amounted to anything, had invited him to the rehearsal to join the group as a quick-change artist.  Michel had arrived very early, when the hall where we were to rehearse was still empty.  I was the first one to get there and hardly a moment after I saw him, though he was wearing men’s clothes, I knew he was a homosexual.

Michel was kind enough to grant Havana Times (HT) the following interview:

HT: Michel, what was the reaction of your family when they realized that you were homosexual, and how has your relationship been with them?

Michel Perea Enriquez:  I never had problems with my family, neither with my mom nor with my dad.  Besides, it was something that was realized when I was little; it seems that it was something hormonal.  I had an aunt who didn’t let my cousins play with me because I was this way, but outside of that I didn’t have problems with my family.

HT: Did you always feel that you liked males?

MPE:  Always, ever since daycare.

HT: And how did you get into the drag queen world?

MPE: A friend took me to a house in Capri where they gave shows.  At that time everything was very secretive; it wasn’t like it is now, where they organize shows on the Day against Homophobia and all.  The police would even enter houses and take people to jail.  Nonetheless, I liked the atmosphere.  I liked to see the queers dressed like women, and I learned that I could do it too.  It was there that I saw Juan Luis, who recruited me, and later I met you.

HT: Back then you used to imitate Madonna, and sometimes you still do it for us at parties.  But why her?

MPE:  Because I believe I have a lot in common with her.

Michel with Madonna from his upcoming first photo exhibition.

I like things like that, sensual things.  I’m interested in sexuality and I identify with her because she’s a person who breaks the rules…someone who crosses the line.

HT: When I met you, you only dressed up like women for shows; in the street you walked around in men’s clothes.  But when I went to visit you in Alamar in 95 or 96, I found you with long hair and you were taking hormones to make your breasts grow.  It was then that I realized that you were becoming a transvestite.  How were those years for you?

MPE: I dressed up like women at night. In the day I wore men’s clothing or clothes that could be worn by both men and women.  What happened was that in any case I looked very androgynous, so people would yell things at me, which also bothered me.  I took very few hormones because they kept me from getting an erection, and I didn’t like that.

HT: And the clothes and shoes, Michel? – how did you get them?  Because you’re a guy who’s almost six feet tall, with big feet that don’t look like women’s.

MPE: Well, as for the clothes, I would borrow them from female friends of mine.  Actually I didn’t like them; I thought they were pretty tacky, but they were all there was.  As for the shoes…you can just imagine.  I have big feet, so they were tight.  I just had to put up with the pain.

HT: And did you have problems with the police?

MPE: When the policemen see a man dressed like a woman and they realize it, they’ll give you a fine – even though you didn’t do anything.  They gave me a lot, and since I wasn’t working it was my father who had to pay them.

HT: And what did you tell him?  Didn’t he get upset with you?  He didn’t kick you out of the house?

MPE: No, he simply paid the fines and didn’t ask me what they were for.  He didn’t realize anything…well, I think he did, but he tried to ignore it.  In my house no one said anything to me.  Once I was hitchhiking home and I saw my uncle in his car.  He gave me a lift but he didn’t say a word or look at me during the whole ride.

Bernardo, the photographer who came with me on this occasion, was interested in knowing more about Michel’s relationship with society.  He asked:

HT: With the family it’s one thing, but it’s something else with society, with one’s school and so on.  Could you say something about that?

MPE:  That’s a good question. I suffered a lot of humiliation at school, harassment of all type.  People made fun of me.

I realized that although I’ve known Michel for almost eighteen years, there are things that I still don’t know about him:

HT: Was that why you dropped out of school in the ninth grade?

MPE:  Of course. I quit studying because I was rejected.

HT: But exactly how rejected did you feel in school?  I had classmates who were recognized as gay but they didn’t leave school.  It’s true that they sometimes called them things.  People like Rubencito for example, you know him, he finished high school.

MPE: Yeah, but he wasn’t like me.  You can’t compare Rubencito to me.  I was looked at as being gay much more than he was.  Plus, I was in a dorm in a school in the countryside.  A country school is not the same thing as an urban school.  In a rural school you live in a dormitory with the same people all the time.  There was rejection of all types, as much from the students as from the teachers.  They rejected me and ridiculed me, my homosexuality, and in my face… Once I even tried to escape from the school because something happened that I don’t remember now.  I left running and the teachers had to chase behind me.  They spent a whole afternoon trying to catch me.

HT: So you left because of something they did to you?

MPE: I left for a ton of reasons, a ton of situations.  The moment arrived in which I felt tremendous rejection toward school.  Today you can speak to me about school, but I don’t want to know anything about school.  I totally and completely rejected it, and that’s why I didn’t finish studying.

HT: That didn’t have anything to do with the learning disability that you told me they diagnosed you with?  What age were you?

MPE: It was exactly when I was finishing the ninth grade.  My mom took me to a pediatrician, who was the one who diagnosed me with that.  But I believe it was a way to justify my behavior in school, my rejection.

HT: How were your grades?

MPE: I was flunking.  So the teachers took me to the office and gave me a test that was already filled out, and I copied it.  They let me see it because they couldn’t have any failures.

HT: I went for a couple of years without seeing you, and then at the end of 2002, at the Payret Cinema during the film festival, I remember that you came directly up to me to say hi.  However I didn’t recognize you because you had short hair, glasses and very masculine clothes on.  What was that radical change due to?

MPE: Well dear, I was starting out as a writer then and to maintain that image it wouldn’t have been appropriate to wear women’s clothes.  Imagine me going into UNEAC (the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists) dressed like that for a book presentation or something.  You know that that wouldn’t be looked upon very well.

Michel the Writer

HT: We’ve gotten to a point that especially interests me: your career as a writer, though you also do other things that I would like you to talk about later.  I remember that the first time you told me that you wrote I didn’t take you seriously; you didn’t have a ninth grade education and I didn’t believe that such a person could be a writer.  When did you begin writing and why?

MPE:  I was 16, and stories just came to me. I always liked to tell things that I made up, things that weren’t real, though I can also narrate things that happen in reality, my experiences.

HT: Now that you mention it, what comes to my mind is your story “The Feather Mattress,” one of the ones I liked most and one that reflects the world of transvestitism.  Is it based on something that happened to you?

MPE:  Being transvestite, things happened to me in cars.  I hung out with Celine, who was a very good friend of mine and who died of AIDS; I believe you met him.  We would hitch hike together and things would happen to us on those rides – not like in “Feather Mattress” of course.  In “Feather Mattress” you already know what is or isn’t going to happen, but there were indeed things that were a bit unpleasant, like drivers who wanted to have sex with us, and they forced us; since we had accepted their ride, that was the payment.

HT: Did you ever have to do anything?

MPE: Yeah, we did.

HT: Does it bother you that this is coming out in the interview?

MPE: No, Yusimí, I’m against censorship.

HT: Well, I know that your life as a writer has been quite eventful.  I always say that you’re a great writer with terrible luck.  There is, for example, the matter with your girlfriend.  By the way, was she the only girlfriend you ever had?

MPE: No, I’ve had other girlfriends.  The thing is that I’ve only had sex with one, who was that young woman.  It was a very stormy relationship because, as you know, I’m generally not attracted to women.  In any case, it wasn’t bad for me.  We were in a relationship for two years and I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy it.  But I knew there was something off.

HT: Did she know that you were homosexual?

MPE:  Sure, in fact she met me dressed like a woman, and she liked me that way.  But it was all very stormy.  We fought because in the end that wasn’t what I wanted, it wasn’t my way.

HT:  Tell me what happened with the story that you sent to a competition with her name on it.

MPE: I ran across a call for a short story competition in the magazine Somos Jovenes, which interested me.  However it was for writers under twenty-five, and I was twenty-six.  But since she was younger than me, we agreed to send the story in with her name on it.  She was the one who selected it and we sent it in.

HT: And what was the agreement?

MPE: We decided to split whatever they gave us 50-50.  As usual, I didn’t think the story would win, because I’m very pessimistic; I have that defect.  As things haven’t worked out very well for me in life, I’m pessimistic.  But the story won.

I found out that people from the magazine came to see her concerning a few words in the story that were a little strong and it was necessary to change them because they weren’t considered appropriate.  Here they censor things a lot.

She didn’t put up any objection, especially since she didn’t write it.  They asked her a few questions that she didn’t know how to answer, which made her a little nervous and I’m sure triggered their suspicion that she hadn’t written the story.

The fact is that the story won but I didn’t receive anything – not the money or the books that came with the prize.  To me, what interested me most were the books.  The story was also published in her name, but I don’t hold any grudges; later I won other awards.

HT: You won other awards for your stories but you took a long time to publish them.  Vivir sin Dios (Living without God) was your first published book and it has just come out though it was with the publisher for almost ten years.  Why happened?

MPE:  The problem is that this book was taken by the publisher, but then it was put on hold and not put back in the editorial process again.  It wasn’t me who held it up, but I don’t want to give any names.  After a good while the publishing house started trying to find the book because it appeared on its publishing list.

Cover from the book “Vivir sin Dios” (Living without God). Photo by Bernardo Acosta

They tried to find it by the title but it wasn’t there. Then, thanks to Luis Vaillant and Michael Paneque, the book was put back on the list of the publications because they got personally involved.

I had already changed the stories, because the book had sat there for such a long time that I wanted to update the writings.  Those stories were from another stage of my life, you know?  I had to do something more mature, more about now, because my writing had improved a lot with time… So, the book finally came out. I’m very happy because it has been very well received; all of the copies have been sold out.

HT: How many copies did that edition of your book consist of?

MPE: Very few, five hundred books, and there aren’t any more now.

HT: And the royalty?

MPE: Ah, a very good question.  They paid me seven-hundred and eighty pesos.

HT: That’s to say, less than forty dollars.  What do you think of the royalty payment?

MPE:  There are other publishing houses here that pay more money. I published with Extramuros, which seems to be a very poor publisher. I think that what they pay is way too little.  Everybody says that it’s little. There are competitions that pay you more for a single story.

HT: And you still have to buy fifty copies as the author of the book.  How much will you have to pay?

MPE:  I have to the right to buy fifty books as the author, but from what I understand these will be sold to me at the same retail price as any other buyer. I have to pay 250 pesos, though I really don’t have it.

HT: Have you received critical reviews of the book?

MPE: It’s a little too soon for reviews, but everybody who has read the book liked it and they’ve told me that it’s very good.

HT: However, you told me that you sent this same book to the Pinos Nuevos competition and that the award was declared void.  What do you think about literary competitions, Michel?

MPE:  Literary competitions are terrible, for me at least, because I believe that that they don’t always award those who deserve to win, you know?  Instead it’s about the point of view of the jury, who are guided by their tastes, and that’s what governs the final decisions in the end.

HT: Several of the stories in this book and almost all in your work have the theme of homosexuality.

MPE: I wouldn’t say that’s the case.  I have many stories that are not about gays.

HT: That means you don’t define yourself as a gay writer?

MPE:  Well, you see, generally everything I do, I do gay; though I don’t intend to do it gay, it comes out gay. I don’t know why, it is something magical. The pink always comes out.

HT: What do you think of terms like “gay literature”?

MPE:  No, I don’t believe in that.  I don’t like that. Because then I’d be pigeonholed. Since Nonardo Perea is gay, he’d only go into a gay anthology.

HT:  But do you believe that such is defined by the writer’s sexual orientation or what the writer is trying to do in their literature?

MPE:  Well, it does with what I write.  But there are authors who are not gay but write gay literature.  But I’m gay and I write gay stories.  In this book there are only four stories that are about gays, the rest aren’t, but in any case it can be noted. I feel very good writing about things that are gay.

HT: In fact, two of the presentations of your book were made within the framework of the Day against Homophobia: one with the National Association of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC) and another in the Pavilion Cuba facility.  And at the one at UNEAC, you even had a picture taken with Mariela Castro.

MPE: But that’s normal.

Michel with Mariela Castro at the presentation of “Living without God” at UNEAC. Photo courtesy of the interviewee.

All the queers want to get a picture with Mariela Castro.  She’s becoming our savior.

HT: What do you think in terms of the Mariela’s work in trying to achieve respect for homosexuals in our society and to see that homophobia disappears?

MPE:  Some things have been done, but not a great deal, because we remain in the same situation.  Gays continue being restricted from spaces. The police continue stopping us in the street.  There’s no social setting for us.  Mariela spoke about ghettos; I too am against ghettos, but the reality is that we need a place.  These days I don’t go out on the street very much.

I don’t know how things are going in the gay world, there in the Vedado district.  I’ve gone by the Malecon seawall and it’s horrible, because there’s a mixture of gays with people who are prostituting, and they’re all classified the same. vI go there and they look at me like one of those people due to the image I give off.  Here there’s nowhere I can go on Saturdays, for example, and be totally gay – where I won’t have problems with heterosexuals.  The majority of heterosexuals don’t support gays, though some do.

HT: Doesn’t it seem to you that the ideal would be for all of us —homosexuals and heterosexuals— to be in the same place without problems or discrimination? 

MPE: Well, that would be the ideal thing, but it’s not like that in this country.  Cuba is a jungle for a person like me, you know?  It’s a horror.  And me, when I would go around as a transvestite I had to put up with a lot because men in the street would harass me, which means that being a woman is horrible too.  To be alone in the street at dawn would be a problem because some man would always come out from wherever wanting to do something to me.  I almost got raped once.

HT: But didn’t you tell him that you were a male?

MPE: He knew I was a male, but he didn’t care.  In any case, I was able to get away.

HT: You told me a minute ago that there are no places for homosexuals.  However there’s Mi Cayito Beach (near Guanabo) Isn’t that a gay place?

MPE: Yeah, but the police used to harass us there, now they leave the gays alone.  It’s not an official gay area, but ever since I can remember it’s been a gay beach.  Heterosexuals pass by there, criticizing.  You can see them whispering to themselves, but they don’t stay.

HT: Returning to literature, Michel, you’ve already made the leap from being an unpublished to a published writer.  What expectations and plans do you have now?

MPE:  Well, I have two novels already written as well as a book of stories.  I want to move those works this time.  Unfortunately, everything here is about competitions, and everything entails work: finding paper, finding somewhere to print… and you know how difficult all that is here.  We don’t have the right conditions. And well, I suppose that it would take a little time, because also, when you send a work to a competition you don’t always win.  And sometimes they don’t return your work to you, so if I want to participate in another competition using that same work I have to get it printed again, find paper, everything.  You know?  Plus the economy is bad.  There’s no economy for this.

Art and Acting

HT:  What regular work do you do?

MPE: I’m a ceramist. I worked for ten years with red ceramics in a State workshop, but I had to stop doing that because of health problems.  Now I work with papier-mâché in the same workshop, but the company hardly ever has raw material, so we’re often shut down. The salary is pretty low now, and when there’s no materials they pay us 100 percent the first month and later 70 percent… So all we can do is wait.

HT: A while ago we were talking about how, in addition to writing, you’ve done work in the visual arts.  Here in your house there are plenty of exhibits of your work.  You’ve also acted in productions put on by our friend Efrain Galindo, and you’ve made your own video-art.  Did you study acting at one time or do you have some type of training in the visual arts?

MPE: No, no. Everything I’ve done has been self-taught, because I like it.

HT: Why didn’t you study art or acting?

MPE: Well, there is a stage in life in which one needs their parents to help them.  For example when they see talent in you for something and they help you to develop it.  You see, I liked the piano a lot and I wanted to learn how to play from a neighbor who gave classes, but my father said no.  I suppose that it was because of the “way I was,” which people had already noticed. And so you see, I didn’t learn how to play the piano and I’m this way anyway, just like in the movie Fresa y Chocolate.  Currently I’m making videos, which aren’t as good as I would like, but I do what I can.

HT: However your animation was accepted by the Festival of Low-Budget Film in Gibara.

MPE: Ah, yes, last year.  But I didn’t go because it was in the informational category… But performance also interests me. I’ve done acting with Efrain Galindo.  Someday I hope to work with Almodovar, or with Fernando Perez.

HT: Seriously?

MPE: Yes.  Do you doubt me?

HT: No, not at all… Tell me about how you got into visual arts.  You’ve exhibited your work at the Salon of Erotic Art in Alamar…

MPE: Yeah, what I’ve are things in ceramics, with photographs, collages; I sometimes combine everything.  You know that my works are strong, like what I write, and that’s why they’ve often censored me at the Salon.  They say that I’m too explicit.

HT: But you’ve been a finalist several times at the Salon…

MPE: Yes, I’ve had exhibits at the Salon, but with works that aren’t so explicit.  And then they also tell me that I’m not very conceptual.  But it’s that as an artist I don’t want to be conceptual.  Academics are conceptual.  Look at this work, “A Dinner for Virgilio.”

If you’re going to eat, wait for Virgilio. Photo: Bernardo Acosta

They didn’t accept it because it was too explicit.  So, when there are lots of little female vaginas they accept them, but when there are penises they don’t.

HT: You think that?  In the Salon they have exhibited works with phallic images.

MPE: Yeah, but mine have a very gay treatment.  In the gallery there have been problems when something deals with penises.  I remember that one year there was a photo of a boy with a condom with semen inside it.  That was controversial in the gallery; there were problems with that photo… but, in the end, they put it on display.  I don’t know if it is a personal problem with me; it might also be that there’s a personal problem with my work, or that it doesn’t have any values.  That’s what they saw.  I think is has values.  In that salon of erotic art they once gave the first prize to a work depicting a screw with a thread.  Maybe it was very conceptual, but for me it didn’t have anything erotic about it.

HT: Nonetheless, though your pieces have been censored in that gallery, next year you’re going to have your first personal photo exhibit in that same place.

MPE: Yeah, but that exhibit is not going to have erotic photos, at least that’s what I’ve been thinking up to this moment.  I have thought about it being an exhibit of pop art, manipulated digital photographs.

Finding One’s Place

HT: Michel, given the things we’ve talked about, I find that more than the fact of being homosexual —which has made you experience so many unpleasant moments in your life, is that you are quite evident.  Do you feel that the being so up front has also created difficulties for you in finding a partner?

MPE: Yes, of course. When you go to an Internet site, whichever one, the first thing people say is “I don’t want anybody with feathers,” or in other words, no gays.  It’s not easy to find a partner.

Michel at home posing with a wig. Photo: Bernardo Acosta

People look for a man with certain physical characteristics, someone who is strong, that’s to say, masculine.  That’s how it generally is. There are those who like people who are up front about their gayness, but there are much fewer of them.

HT: And the relationships that you have had with heterosexual guys or gays?  Are they guided by certain stereotypes?  Do they deal with you like a woman?

MPE: They’re generally heterosexual men who are in the closet or who lead a double life.  They have relationships with women and men, meaning they’re bisexual; or they already have a life with a woman, with children, but they have not taken on a life as a homosexual or bisexual.  Generally those are the men who approach me, and everything has to be very discreet; that’s to say that it’s not a relationship of a couple.

HT: And even after being with you they continue feeling that they’re heterosexual men?

MPE: Yeah, they see themselves as heterosexuals.  They’re with me but they’re heterosexual. They don’t feel homosexual.  Then they deal with me as if I were a woman, and that’s not the way it should be.

HT: And how do you feel about that?

MPE: I feel uncomfortable sometimes.  I sometimes allow it to happen, because what else can I do.  I can’t struggle against it.  But it doesn’t bother me.  I immediately situate myself and it doesn’t upset me.  There are instances which have in fact bothered me, but I’ve adapted to them seeing me this way.

HT: How do you feel more comfortable, dressed like a man or a woman?

MPE: I feel the same. What happens is that dressed like a woman I feel sexier, more attractive, and men notice me more.

HT: But what happens when they realize that you’re a man?  Or do you think they know from the beginning that you’re a man?

MPE: I always tell them, before anything happens.  But I’m also a very tall person. They realize that I’m a man. I’m very feminine, but as I’m so tall I get a lot of attention and the person can already see my features: my hands, Adam’s apple and feet are all big.  That’s when they realize it. I generally prefer that they know.

What bothers me is the criticizing and such.  When you get dressed like a woman people criticize you a lot because they don’t look upon it well.  It’s the society.  But I feel Ok.  Maybe if I lived in another country; ideally I would always dress like a woman.  I feel very comfortable; in addition, women’s clothes are also more beautiful, more attractive, you know?

HT: Wouldn’t it be simpler if you had a sex change operation; wouldn’t your problems end if you became a woman?

MPE:  The problem is that I’m not a woman nor do I feel like a woman.  I’m a male and also I like having my male sexual organ, although I like men and I like getting dressed up like a woman, but I also feel good in men’s clothes because a person is not the same every day.  What I want is simply for people to respect me and accept me as I am.

Michel must fight almost daily against the incomprehension and criticism of people who don’t understand his difference.  Although they don’t say anything, he knows that they’re looking at him, that they comment in whispers, that they sometimes mock and ridicule him.  He doesn’t care.  He leads his life, he works and more than anything he tries to create through literature and art, despite all the difficulties.  Right now he’s busy with his photos for his first exhibition, which will take place next year.  I had the luck to see his work ahead of time, and though it’s difficult to predict the success of an exhibition, I dare to assure that it will at least be a very provocative exhibit.

Click on the tumbnails below to view all the photos in this gallery

One thought on ““Living without God” in Cuba

  • Yusimi and Michael: Good interview. Thanks.

    I’d just like to tell you both that the socialist Cooperative Republic we hope to establish in the United States would protect the rights of all person to pursue their own paths to happiness. This means the rights of all to sexual fulfillment, companionship and marriage.

    We believe that the basis for human happiness is personal freedom and cooperative community.

    Best wishes.

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