Remembering Luis Zapata, Mexico’s Gay Literature Trailblazer

Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla

Mexico’s literary circles and LGBTQ+ community are mourning the passing of the 20th century’s most prominent gay, Mexican author. In November, author Luis Zapata passed away at age 69 due to complications related to a previous cardiac episode.

News of his departure was broken by Mexico’s Secretariat of Culture Alejandra Frausto via Twitter. “With pain and affection, we say goodbye to Luis Zapata, pioneer of LGBT+ literature in Mexico. A creator of experimental and emotive novels,” her post read in part.

Zapata was born in Chilpancingo, Guerrero in 1951. From a young age, he was drawn to the arts, most notably film and literature. As he described in his autobiography, he spent much of his time “watching a lot of cinema, reading a lot, and observing life through introjection.” Despite his talents and accolades as a writer and scholar, he always saw himself as a cinephile above all.

Zapata came of age in Mexico City and graduated from the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) with a degree in modern French literature from the school’s renowned school of philosophy and letters. In 1975, Zapata published his first novel Hasta en las Mejores Familias (“Even in the Best Families”). However, he wouldn’t break into the literary spotlight until 1979 with the publication of his most acclaimed novel “El Vampiro de la Colonia Roma,” which was translated to English under “Adonis Garcia: A Picaresque Novel.”

Watch a lot of cinema, read a lot, and observe life through introjection.

As noted by scholar Leon Guillermo Gutierrez, the book was a breakaway hit in part because of how it handled the lives and encounters of gay men in Mexico City and its rejection of the long-established magical realism formulas which had taken hold of Latin American editorial houses for decades. The book’s hyperrealist grit also ditches the overly-femme stereotype of gay men popularly held in Mexican culture for more inconspicuous characterizations.

With a style and voice that felt closer to Latin America’s La Onda countercultural youth movement than that of Spanish-language literary giants Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Juan Rulfo, “El Vampiro de la Colonia Roma” is narrated by its protagonist Adonis Garcia—a young, working-class man who cruises around Mexico City’s gay community. He shares his world in a stream-of-consciousness style—each nervous thought and rendezvous with a partner recounted to the reader in sentences with little to no punctuation yet ripe with idioms.

The book’s publication coincided with several important developments in the fight for dignity and visibility for Mexico’s LGBTQ+ community. In the same year of the book’s release, Mexico had its very first gay pride event in its capital city. During this period Mexico City’s Zona Rosa neighborhood had become a tolerant quarter of the city for members of the gay community. Singer Juan Gabriel would top Mexico’s charts singing rancheras and arranging original songs while ditching the macho pretenses of previous Mexican superstars for his own feminine expressions. Meanwhile, Zapata’s “Vampiro” built on his past work, which already centered the lives of gay men and working-class people, helping dissolve stereotypes in literature while creating a distinct narrative style.

He helped usher in [Mexico’s] gay and lesbian movement of the ‘70s with that book.

Despite the conservative attitudes of the literary market and the single-party government’s repressive streak, the book was critically acclaimed, earned literary awards, including Mexico’s Juan Grijalbo award for best novel, and became a contemporary classic.

“You didn’t think twice before publishing the story of Adonis Garcia,” columnist Braulio Peralta wrote in a letter to Zapata wishing him a full recovery when he was ill at a hospital in Morelos this past October. “You helped usher in [Mexico’s] gay and lesbian movement of the ‘70s with that book.”