By Víctor M. Macías-González
I first met Juan Sandoval in the Fall of 1982, about a year after Juan had settled in El Paso to work at the UT-El Paso Library. I was in the seventh grade, enrolled in the El Paso Independent School District’s Gifted and Talented Program. Each participant conducted a research project that required use of resources at UT-El Paso—our regional comprehensive. I was studying rim thickness of El Paso Brown ceramics, from the 12th c., and went to the library to look for some materials that had been recommended to me by folks at the El Paso Archaeological Society. I walked into the library, and was impressed with the university’s seal on the floor. “Can I help you?” I heard his mellifluous voice first, before I saw him, dark brown hair, dark eye brows, in his trademark skin-tight blue jeans and button-down shirt. He was working in the dark room with the card catalogs in the old Main Library (the place is now the department of Geology). He taught me to locate materials in the library, explained the basics of the Library of Congress classification system, and directed me to the sources I sought: “If you need journal articles, you need to go to the Science Library down the street, second building on the left.” He also showed me the older main library, at the core of the brutalist building that enveloped the grand renaissance reading room, with its vaulted ceiling and the names of great humanists inscribed in gold letters on the fascia.
Years later, in 1988, I returned to UT-El Paso as an undergraduate, and again I ran across him. After and in between classes, I was in the library, reading or researching. He always smiled, made me feel welcome, and chatted. I was impressed that a librarian paid so much attention. I liked to see him interact with other patrons; he had what people called el don de gentes. In one sentence, he flirted, encouraged, and debriefed you. He reminded me of the Spanish priests of my childhood. I observed him closely, patiently teaching Cholitas how to look up their topic first in an encyclopedia and later, in the card catalog. I sat for long hours in the library reading Soviet journals and newspapers, and dug out materials. I had piles that made him flinch. “Uf, cuanto libro,” he said. He’d check on me and say “make sure you get a snack so you keep up your energy m’hijo.” I’d smile and assure him that I was fine, he’d offer me tea in his cubicle—a microcosm of his apartment, with its artwork, cushions, and tapestries, music streaming in the background. Sometimes he’d treat me to a burrito at the cafeteria across the street from the new library, a vast cavernous mole that that looked more like the Potala Palace. He pointed out that many of the paintings hanging in the library were not to his liking and shared he really enjoyed art and that he surmised that I probably appreciated quality. In his own way, he was letting me know that he knew I was queer and that he was too. In the late 1980s, it was not safe to be gay in El Paso, and seeing someone like Juan being open and frank was liberating in a way—although he would be horrified to learn that we discussed his private life. He was queer on his own terms, and didn’t talk about it much, at least not to everybody. As Juan Gabriel said, “Lo que se ve no se pregunta.”
I noticed that Juan and I had similar interests. We would run across each other at movie screenings, lectures, and gallery openings. With time, I discovered that we shared the same sphere, the same bunch of friends. There was a small cohort of gay and lesbian students at UTEP, and somehow we gravitated to each other; we are all successful and have dispersed to the four corners of the world. There are professors, librarians, artists, social workers, property managers, executives, teachers, engineers, college deans. Juan touched our lives in different ways. Perhaps the most valuable was in introducing us to each other, in expanding the secret (or not quite so secret) brotherhood and showing us that we could be ourselves, contribute to the greater good, and be happy, like he seemed to be. In his orbit there were other interesting and talented people—like his closest colleague, Claudia Rivers, who also took some of us into her confidence and instilled in us, as Juan did, with a love and respect for Mexican culture. Who can forget the wonderful dinner parties those two would throw with one or two bags of groceries? They served up the best salade niçoise, the best margaritas, and a soundtrack of Tehua or Chavela Vargas, or improvisations on Claudia’s marimba.
In the early 1990s, I spent a lot of time in coffee shops—I really liked La Dolce Vita, on Cincinnati, by UTEP—and I would often see Juan arrive with his retinue of grandes dames, including people like Martha Arat, a woman from an old prominent local family who was a painter, was married a physician, and produced an erotic portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. It was featured as the cover of a novel. Juan bought the original from Arat, and he gifted most of us copies of that “monja metiéndose mano,” he would say. Some other time I saw him with Tatiana de la Tierra—a Lesbian Colombiana poet who lived downstairs from him for a time, or Rosario Sanmiguel, an affluent Juarense writer who financed her own journal. They were interesting, freethinking women. He rubbed shoulders with the binational millionaires, our city’s elite, and was held in great esteem by old Juarense families like the Mascareñas. The UTEP President, Diana Natalicio, enjoyed his colorful personality and frankness and invited him to accompany her to events; many graduates of UTEP remember that Juan called their names at their graduation. Everyone knew Juan. Then, there were the bright young things: interesting, beautiful, younger people, male and female. Singers, dancers, poets, sculptors, travelers, writers, activists, and bon vivants. There were a couple of Jesuits as well. He was fun, and interesting people gravitated to him. He made up funny nicknames for people; he observed them and had them pegged, highlighting a trait or foible in their apodo. I was in student government, and for a while was a member of MEChA, a Chicano activist organization. Juan would attend our events and would also invite us to parties with older MEChistas, like José Antonio Burciaga and Carlos Caballero, who was also a librarian. At these parties people had deep ideological discussions, flirted, fought over lovers, played music, sang, and recited poetry. I wish I had kept a better diary back then.
Through Juan I met, heard, and tasted interesting things. Unknowingly, the gatherings at his home were a finishing school of sorts, where other first-generation college students and young Latino faculty learned to distinguish Pu-ehr tea from Lapsang Souchong, and first sampled the dark smoky notes of Mezcal (Benevá was his favorite) years before hipsters discovered this Oaxacan distilled spirit. Mexican literature colloquia at the university, with leading writers and critics, ended on campus, but resumed with libations at Juan’s apartment. He was the first person that I knew who owned a Bose radio, and on it he played exotic music, everything from Gregorian chant to jazz to opera, and he offered up exquisite teas and good wines. He taught me that I could live well on a few dollars; I could make my money stretch by catching the bus to the border, walk over the bridge, and we would have princely lunches at old Spanish restaurants like La Sevillana, with good wine, aperitifs, and imported cheeses. Juan introduced me to his closest gay male friends—many of them artists—and regaled me with stories. In time, I became one of the grupo. On Saturdays we’d start at a garage sale, end up in Mesilla at the “Double Eagle” for an añejo reposado margarita, watch a foreign movie, come back to El Paso or Juárez for a party, and end up having deep conversations at 2 AM with other college students. At one infamous gathering, we donned a collection of Japanese geisha clogs he had bought at a garage sale earlier in the day and wore them to a sushi restaurant in Juarez. These included two graduate students—one from Nicaragua, the other from Veracruz—and it was quite the reenactment of the Mikado’s “Three Little Maids,” rendered borderlands style, with plenty of sass, con mucho salero. Sometimes Juan’s ex, Marco, would join us. He headed up the Municipal Art Academy in Juarez. They had met in the 1980s, the spark was gone between them, but you could tell they were still fond of each other.
In the time that I knew Juan, he had four or five different apartments, each of them progressively larger, and closer to campus. He walked or biked everywhere; he had owned a VW Bug in the 1980s, but got rid of it—and told me that it was the best decision he ever made (although, in the past 20 years, his sciatica nerve impaired his mobility often). All of his flats were in Sunset Heights, a historic district adjacent to the campus. He often obtained a discount in his rent by managing the buildings where he lived.
When I first went to his apartment, in the early 1990s, he was living in an old Mexican business school, the Colegio Palmore, done up in California Mission style, with two courtyards, and a small bronze fountain. The bathrooms and kitchens had Talavera blue and white tiles, and the floors were wooden. It reminded me of my childhood home in Juárez. There were three rooms in his flat, and they were crammed to the rafters with his collection of paintings, folk art, books, and knick-knacks. It was exuberant and humble, baroque and minimalist, but there was always a chair or a cushion that bid you welcome and allowed you to admire the grand trove of objets he had accumulated over the years, like the shadows of lovers that lurked in his stories and recuerdos. I had a car, so I helped him to pick up many of his garage sale finds, gallery purchases, and estate sales. Once he bought hundreds of Japanese chopstick rests—hashioki—and he listened attentively to the owner tell him everything about each of the fascinating pieces. I think he collected stories, as well as objects, and both brought him joy and enrichment. “¡Qué maravilla!” was his trademark quip in those instances. Occasionally, when there were pretty and cheap things left over after he had seized the best for himself, he encouraged me to acquire some pieces. He noticed that I had an eye for chinoiserie, so I would return from our forays with a lamp, a bowl, a Japanese screen, a lacquer tray. I remember once picking up a particularly callipygian portrait from a house by Lake Ascarate; it was the work of gay painter Manuel Acosta, of a shirtless bullfighter clad in translucent garb. Juan knew Acosta well; he shared that Acosta liked rough trade and that one of his tricks killed him. He shared many stories about him; he liked Acosta’s work, but it was becoming more expensive. Later he acquired Acosta’s “The Washerwoman” from Adair Margo—it wasn’t cheap, but he paid in installments. An old friend of his, a retired gay white professional who had lived and worked in the Middle East, lived at the Palmore in one of the larger flats in the front of the building. He had “sons” who visited him and talked with Juan about the older gentleman. Juan checked in on him and the pair took their holiday meals together at the dining room in our town’s most elegant hotel, the old Paso del Norte, with a Tiffany dome above the bar. Juan’s flat was in the second patio, on the second floor. It was relatively isolated from the rest of the tenants, which allowed him to entertain late into the night. He had a key to the old basement, where the remains of the Colegio Palmore’s library were piled in a corner; he helped me rescue old yearbooks and magazines from the 1920s and 1930s, which I used to write a chapter in my M.A. thesis.
Juan’s second apartment was in a 1920s apartment building. The stairwell was carpeted and the walls were covered with Juan’s paintings. It was closer to campus, and it had four rooms. The window in the front room—an old sleeping porch—had the most beautiful views at sunset. He had a small metal table and a pair of chairs there, it was perfect for tea. Next, the parlor, had some modern pieces and a collection of cushions and musical instruments that many visitors enjoyed playing. The back room was his bedroom, I only saw it once, when I had to use the bathroom. He had a collection of small wooden boxes on a dresser, and slept on a futon. I was surprised he did not own a bed and chalked it up to his eccentricities. In the dining room he had a 1930s Mexican colonial china cabinet that I always admired and hoped to inherit. It had a large collection of coffee and spice mills on it, and some of his many Talavera dishes. He taught me to distinguish between Puebla and Tlaxcala Talavera and its green, red, and yellow imitations from Guanajuato, where incidentally, he had discovered the work of Capelo, whom he later collected. Around his table many of us shared simple meals, good fruit, made friends and listened to Juan’s stories or to the distinguished visitors who came seeking his hospitality, having heard of him from other writers or artists. Day and night people called to notify that they wanted to drop in; the rule was to let him know that you were coming. His phone number was easy to remember, 532-0606.
Juan’s third apartment was the largest of all. There were two or three smaller apartments downstairs; Tatiana de la Tierra lived in the front apartment for a couple of years when she was at UTEP. Juan’s was the second story of an old house—the piano nobile, he liked to point out. It dated from the 1910s or 1920s and had a large parlor that he transformed into three or four nooks with bookshelves, screens, and odd bits of furniture. There was nothing conventional about it. The formal dining room had a small comfortable sitting area as well—he preferred Stickley furniture and covered it over with Zapotec rugs—and off a small hallway, there was a galley kitchen, a back porch, two bedrooms, a bathroom, and his favorite room, the library. Paintings hung over the front of the book ases—he shared that Gertrude Stein had done the same in her Parisian flat—and over the last decade he accumulated about a dozen small stained glass lamps. When they were all lit, you walked through a kaleidoscope of colors. He kept many of the choice books that the Library discarded, and added to this collections of museum catalogs and volumes on the artists he collected. In one closet he had boxes of letters and photos from his travel abroad—he had visited South America in the late 1960s and early 1970s, where he learned Spanish (In Colombia, of all places), and had then visited Europe, where he befriended folks that he subsequently introduced me to. He experienced Madrid at the height of La Movida and had interesting aventurillas there. He sighed when he remembered. This third apartment, where I had the chance to spend more time in the mid-1990s and late 1990s—became legendary and attracted much attention. There was artwork on the doors of all the rooms, even in the bathroom. “Why not?” he would say. For a while, there was talk of the city purchasing the building and arranging it as a house museum and art center. The second bedroom was large enough for guests and his sisters visited him, I remember once helping to cook a nice family meal there, and it dawned on me that I was carrying on as his partner—I knew where all the kitchen implements were and was just too comfortable there, so I made sure I pointed out to them that I wasn’t. I was embarrassed afterwards, when I realized what I had done. The dust in the apartment was a nuisance and Juan was allergic to pollen and dust, so he waged constant war, especially in the spring when fine sand and dust came through the old window sills.
By the early 2000s, I left El Paso, and only occasionally saw Juan. On one trip, I introduced by partner, Scott, to him. Some older gay men like Juan, whom society did not encourage to follow homonormative lives like some of us subsequently did, found long-term monogamous relationships boring. He never said anything bad about Scott—who has been in my life since 2007—and always asked about him. “How is your amigo?” he would say. We corresponded regularly; we both loved e-mail, but he hated Facebook. Letters or e-mails arrived from him from his travels. His letters sounded like him. I have them in a box somewhere. Juan was well-read, cultivated, and urbane . . . and his missives oozed with big, exact words. He instilled a respect for the mot juste. About four or five years ago, Juan finally retired. He returned to Europe a couple of times—he called to tell me he had gone to a concert and had then met Jordi Savall. He loved to spend time in Mexico, especially in Oaxaca, where he had traveled often in the last 15 years. He made many friends there and amassed a collection of alebrijes and textiles from there.
Wherever he went, Juan always took the comforts of home. Before the packed his clothing or toiletries for a trip, he packed a French press for coffee, a tea set, tablecloths, wall hangings, small plates, cups, a corkscrew, tinned sea food, salami, nuts, dried fruits, a couple of bottles of wine . . . all the trimmings to quickly improvise a cocktail party in his hotel room for ten or twenty. He had perfected this art in the 1980s and 1990s, at Chicano Studies conferences, where all the young gays flocked to him and took to calling him Tia Juana behind his back. He held court like only old school queens knew. In Mexico City, he loved to stay at the old Hotel Bamer off the Alameda, sent out for flowers, and hung out the window chatting with pedestrians down below. I once arrived in a bicycle cab, clad in an immaculate white linen suit, and I heard him shouting from above “I knew it was you!” He said I had sartorial vim. We occasionally coincided at same conferences and we would meet up and go out with interesting folks. In Chicago, in the early 2000s, he introduced me to a wonderful man with whom I had an intense affair. He took us out to eat at a Spanish restaurant that prepared excellent lamb shanks and had good tapas. I fell for the handsome poet, a handsome Tarascan whom I dated off and on for two years. Long distance relationships simply don’t work. It ended dramatically in Mexico City after a horrible shouting match in a hotel where I’ve lodged for three decades. I shoved my paramour into a taxi headed for the airport. When Juan had first introduced us to each other, Juan whispered in my ear, “M’hijo, this one is worth it, go have fun.” He was right. Later, after I confided with Juan details about the breakup, he said “Yo sabía que eras un cabroncito.” About three years ago, after he failed to heal from an injury suffered during a fall in Oaxaca, Juan began his decline. A social worker—probably one who inhabits a drab suburban apartment—visited Juan’s home and recommended that he declutter and move out. Most of his paintings and prints were spirited off to Austin and it took 3 conservators two days to select and pack up these treasures. They are now at Mexic-Arte. A nephew moved Juan’s things into a smaller place, close to his friend Claudia’s house. I never saw that fourth home, but I’m sure he made it welcoming and comfortable, and that he joked and entertained people with his usual charm. At least, I like to think of it this way.
I am saddened to lose Juan. I last spoke with him in the Spring and Summer of COVID. Our phone calls lasted 30 or 40 minutes and always felt like a cleansing and recentering experience. Juan kept buying art, kept meeting “beautiful boys,” and continued at his job well after most people enter retirement. I think it kept him busy and engaged. In our chats, Juan mentored me through the nastiness and pettiness of academe and warned me about colleagues and the pitfalls of being friends with the powerful, the indiscrete, and the stupid. Gente pendeja were the bane of his existence. But he also taught me the beauty and privilege of working with bright young minds, of observing, of introducing and networking gente simpática, and of entertaining, hosting, and meeting good people. I will miss you, Juan, but remember your lessons well. Thank you, and farewell, my friend.
Víctor M. Macías-González (1970-) is a native El Pasoan and currently lives in Saint Paul, MN. He is Professor of History and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse (UWL). A UTEP alumnus (BA ’92, MA ’95), Macías-González received his doctorate in Latin American History from Texas Christian University in 1999 and accepted his position in La Crosse in 2000. Macías-González has focused his service on recruitment and retention of historically underrepresented students and faculty, and outreach to Latinos in the Upper Midwest. He has received national recognition for his work designing retention programs for high-achieving minority students in the Liberal Arts from the American Historical Association, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and from the Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Macías-González studies Mexican and LGBT history. He received the inaugural research fellowship in LGBT Studies from Yale University (2015), and was Research Fellow in the Latino Research Initiative of the College of Liberal Arts of the University of Texas, Austin for 2018-2019. He has published nearly two dozen articles and book chapters and coedited, with Anne Rubenstein, Masculinity and Sexuality in Modern Mexico (University of New Mexico Press, 2012). He is presently completing a monograph on the emergence of modern homosexuality in Mexico City, 1930-1960 and is working on a documentary on Wisconsin LGBTQ history for Wisconsin Public Television. Macías-González is a member of the U.S.-Canada Organizing Committee for the XVI and XVII International Conferences of U.S., Mexican, and Canadian Historians of Mexico (2018-2022). He serves on the governing board of the American Historical Association’s Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History (2018-2020). He serves on the editorial board of Antropología: El Boletín Oficial del INAH and is active in Archivos y Memorias Diversas, A.C., Mexico City’s queer public history project. For more information, please visit this website: https://www.uwlax.edu/profile/vmacias-gonzalez/
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