Memorial by Nan Alamilla Boyd
Horacio N. Roque Ramírez died on December 25, 2015 in Los Angeles as a result of complications related to alcoholism. He was 46 years old. On February 20, 2016, the Department of Chicana/o Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara hosted a memorial to celebrate Horacio’s life and work, and they invited me to speak. As I was gathering my thoughts in preparation, I reread all the emails I had exchanged with Horacio over the last couple years, and for some reason I kept thinking about my grandmother. The last memorial I spoke at was hers. She was 92, and I had been her favorite. I was the one of all my cousins who was interested in our family’s history, who listened to her stories, and who travelled with her home to Belize each summer so she could visit her siblings and spend time at the caye.
When I was little, we’d go to the grocery store in Kenner, Louisiana, where she lived, and the clerk would say, “speak English.” My grandmother would say “I am speaking English” and then under her breath, “bitch.” I would translate as she argued over the bill. When I was in grad school, I took a course where the professor had us do an oral history with someone in our family. That was my first experience with oral history, and I interviewed my grandmother. During the oral history, she told me family secrets, cried about the loss of her favorite brother, and explained why after living in the U.S. for over fifty years she refused to call herself an American. While visiting Belize, wherever we went people knew her and would talk and laugh with her. She was strong and funny, but in the U.S. she was often disregarded, even—or especially—by my family. At her memorial service, as I expressed my grief, I tried to translate to my family my feelings of responsibility for the weight of things unspoken and left behind.
I have similar feelings today. The connection between oral history, translation, grief, and responsibility was central to Horacio’s work. And while there are many differences between us, these similar interests and experiences connected us to each other, at least enough to want to try to publish a book together.
I vividly remember when we first connected. Horacio and I had met a couple times while he was in grad school, but in 2005 at a small conference in Corvallis, Oregon, we were both eating dinner at the hotel bar. We wound up drinking and talking late into the night. Both of us were historians with Central American and immigrant families. Both of us were feminist and queer, studying San Francisco, alienated in our own ways from academia, and committed to community-based scholarship. We were also, and significantly, the first in our large, extended families to get a PhD. and become a professor.
So we connected. We started telling each other stories about strange or funny experiences we’d had doing oral history work in queer communities: the characters we’d met, the singing, the drugs, the politics of flirting, the people who cried uncontrollably, and then, the people who died, leaving us with their stories. Horacio, in particular, felt strongly that he could not carry the grief but was somehow expected to do so. I remember once feeling shocked to hear resentment in his voice as he spoke about the burden of responsibility, as if the people he interviewed were handing their grief over along with their stories.
I also remember him coming to one of my classes to give a talk about using obituaries from the gay press as a strategy to track the lives of Latinos who had died of HIV/AIDS in San Francisco the 1980s and 90s. Obituaries were sometimes the only print record of queer Latino lives that would remain otherwise unrecorded, and silenced by an early death. The students found his presentation disturbing, and Horacio, on that occasion, seemed tired. Yet he conveyed the difficulty of the practice we shared. For me, it was more about how I could tell the story right or well enough, as a historian, in the face of all the contradictory information that oral histories present. It was a burden of complexity coupled with feelings of inadequacy. People I interviewed often cried, recounting the death of so many friends over the years, especially to drugs and alcohol, and sometimes they turned off the tape recorder, insisting that their pain and grief not be recorded. For Horacio, the pain and grief were more than worth recording. They often became the center of the story worth telling. Because he was working with HIV+ Latinos in San Francisco’s Mission district, life was precarious, survivors were self-conscious and often felt guilty, and sometimes they did not have words to explain their experiences. The stakes were high.
Working with Horacio as an oral historian was a pleasure for me. I’m sure I gained more from our collaboration than he did from me. He was really engaged with oral history, as a field. He was going to the oral history conferences, and he knew all the people at the center of the field. I felt like oral history was something I did on my own, methodologically, because there was just no other way to chart the early history of queer San Francisco, but he saw it as a political space, a de-subjugating pedagogical necessity. He was a generous colleague, a collaborator, and right off the bat he wanted to share his connections with me. He introduced me around and asked me to be on the program committee for the Oral History Association (OHA) meetings in Oakland in 2007. He wanted to transform the OHA by asserting the presence of queers and people of color. He really believed in, and could speak passionately, from the heart, about what it might mean to tell the stories of queer of color and queer immigrant lives that would otherwise remain silent. He thought the OHA could change, and he tasked himself with making that change happen. He saw his academic work (like his asylum work) as a true intervention, not an abstraction. That’s why he keeps drawing our attention, in the work he left behind, to the materiality of the body, the embodied subjectivity of survivors who, through Horacio’s intervention, become storytellers.
As we were editing Bodies of Evidence, the volume we produced together, Horacio wrote a draft of the introduction, sent it to me, and then disappeared for a while. Though I didn’t know it at the time, his alcoholism was progressing, and he had dropped out, searching for a method of recovery. Facing deadlines, I had to edit the piece. The editor at Oxford wanted a lot of changes, both to the introduction that we were co-authoring and to the single-authored chapter that Horacio contributed to the volume. I was beside myself with anxiety, and I pestered him with emails and calls, but there was no response. I wound up doing the edits myself, trying to channel Horacio’s spirit, his intentions, but also his language use and writing style.
I was annoyed with Horacio, but I can’t tell you how much I learned from this experience. The single-authored essay, ironically entitled “Sharing Queer Authorities,” describes Horacio’s collaborations with Teresita la Campesina, an HIV+ transgendered performer living in San Francisco’s Mission district. It focuses on the politics of linguistic collaboration, and the fact that acts of translation both during and after the oral history encounter frame the meanings produced. For instance, in the case of Teresita, the content of the oral history is not what matters as much (from an historical perspective) as the linguistic exchange, the collaboration, especially between two queer bodies fluent in “Spanglish” who are literally telling inside jokes, using layered translation to communicate intimacy, to flirt, but also to highlight complex histories of working-class queer and transgender embodiment. Horacio captures all of this in his essay. He asks: What language do we use to remember things that, historically, are outside language? How do we put into words experiences that are so meaningful or so painful that they can’t be spoken?
During the oral history exchange/experience/encounter, you never know what will happen. Some people cry, or sing, or sometimes they make a pass at you. Weird things happen, and the method for an interview can’t be charted out in advance. It’s difficult work, and the oral historian carries these experiences around along with the transcript – the words on paper. So, as Horacio and I connected and exchanged stories, we realized that we shared and were capable of conjuring together a burgeoning queer oral history method that had something to do with two queer bodies in a room together, and we built and published a volume around this premise. We asked other oral historians to join us by pairing an oral history narrative alongside a story about method, an analysis of their own queer method. Horacio’s insights were key to the production of the volume. And somehow, despite all the obstacles, the book was not just published but has become meaningful and useful to others working in the field.
In his life and work, Horacio took responsibility for so much: his students, queer migrants seeking asylum, HIV+ Latinas and Latinos. He carried the grief of a community decimated by HIV/AIDS. He worked hard to make sense of these realities through grounded theory and elegant prose. He did this work from the heart because he believed that people on the margins—queers, trans immigrants, and people of color—have important stories to tell, and it’s not just what they say but how they say it that matters. It’s about two bodies in the room, talking, teasing, gesturing, and making meaning out of life. And now, because he died so young and so unnecessarily, I’m struck by what it means for me (for all of us) to carry the grief of the loss of his life but also to take responsibility for the things left unsaid. For me, I’m trying to listen more closely to the stories Horacio left behind, which are there in his writings, but also here, in the stories and memories we share together.