Chulito by Charles González-Rice
Published: May 1st 2010 by Alyson Books
Source: local library
Synopsis: Set against a vibrant South Bronx neighborhood and the queer youth culture of Manhattan’s piers, Chulito is a coming-out, coming-of-age love story of a sexy, tough, hip hop–loving, young Latino man and the colorful characters in his vibrant neighborhood. Chulito, which means “cutie,” is one of the boys, and everyone in his neighborhood has seen him grow up—the owner of the local bodega, the Lees from the Chinese restaurant, his buddies from the corner, and all of his neighbors and friends, including Carlos, who was Chulito’s best friend until they hit puberty and people started calling Carlos a pato . . . a faggot.
Chulito rejects Carlos, buries his feelings for him, and becomes best friends with Kamikaze, a local drug dealer. When Carlos comes home from his first year away at college and they share a secret kiss, Chulito’s worlds collide as his ideas of being a man, being macho, and being in love are challenged. Vivid, sexy, funny, heartbreaking, and fearless, this brilliant work is destined to become a queer classic.
I originally came across this book on Goodreads about a year ago and have wanted to read it ever since it popped up in that “readers also enjoyed” sidebar. I took a class in grad school called cross-cultural perspectives on masculinities, and ever since then, I’ve been interested in the experiences of gay latino men. The anthropology course was taught by a Latin American specialist, so it featured 50% Latin American content and thus counted towards my program. The intersection of the culture of machismo with love and sexual attraction between men is so rife with conflict, it made for excellent academic reading, so I felt the same would likely hold true for a fictional story with those themes.
(The book was also blurbed by Junot Diaz and Sandra Cisneros, which definitely caught my attention, since it gave it some literary cred).
This concept is what initially drew me to the story and what kept me reading. Chulito is a study in contradictions. He is very aware of his own attractions, yet still wants to adhere to the rigid roles the culture he is immersed in demands of him. This conflict makes for a compelling read.
Rice-Gonzalez does an amazing job depicting the vivid characters that populate the world of the South Bronx. It’s obvious he is intimately familiar with this world. Still, at times the dialogue felt manufactured and I was aware of being “in story.” The plot meandered a bit, and sometimes certain scenes didn’t feel strictly necessary.
My biggest issue with the writing is the switch in POV that come late in the novel. While the story is told through Chulito’s eyes the majority of the time, the author briefly gives the reader Carlos’ perspective, which breaks the connection with Chulito and muddles the narrative.
I’m not personally a fan of dream sequences, but the way Rice-Gonzalez uses them makes sense within the context of the story. The narrative moves back and forth in time, and these shifts are felt by the reader; it’s never a seamless transition.
I know this initially popped up on my radar because it was labeled on Goodreads as young adult literature, which it most certainly is not. While it features teenaged protagonists, and is very much a coming out and coming of age story, at its core the book is an adult male-male romance. In fact, I think it would be a prime candidate for the “New Adult” label, if it’s accepting diverse stories (everything I’ve seen in that category thus far is white, cisgendered, heterosexual romance). It had the angst, the slightly older protagonists, the frank and descriptive sex scenes, the more adult themes that are the trademarks of “New Adult.” The sexual encounters in this novel are far more explicit and detailed than something you would find in young adult fiction—I would hesitate to recommend it to any but the most mature teenagers, and even then might not mention it unless it was what he or she was specifically asking for. It was an uncomfortable read for me at times. I mean, I am a former fanfic reader, so not too much surprises me, but this book definitely did.
The draw of this novel in in the bright and colorful description of a very particular community. Rice-Gonzalez brings the characters to life, makes this street corner seem real. While it depicts the dangerous reality of the prejudice that exists within some communities, it also shows a wide spectrum of queer NYC culture, and manages to have a happily-ever-after (at least for now) ending without sacrificing too much of its realism. It’s definitely a book worth checking out if you’re interested in masculinity in Latino culture, queer romance, or diverse stories more generally. While not a flawless novel, it’s a story with a lot of heart and characters that will stay with you.
Impressions of a Reader: “Chulito is a great mixture of gay fiction and romance with a focus on the gay Latino experience. I highly enjoyed Charles Rice-González’s writing style and his down to earth, no holds barred depiction of characters, culture, sub-culture, circumstances and setting in Chulito. I will keep my eye on this writer, hopefully there will be more books like this one from him in the future.