Today, we pay tribute to the writer Miguel de Cervantes, who died on April 22, 1616 (397 years ago!) Fun fact: Since William Shakespeare died a day later that same year, April 23 has been designated as World Book Day. Few Latinos, however, know that the famed Spanish writer has become a symbol of Spanish immigrant culture in the United States, and his most famous creation, Don Quixote himself, has become a gay icon.
In 1590, Cervantes applied to immigrate to America (modern-day Mexico, Colombia and Bolivia.) He was already a war veteran from the naval Battle of Lepanto, having lost the use of his left hand, and was poor. He wanted to get out of Spain, pronto. This was also 15 years before the first volume of Don Quixote was published in Madrid. But had the Spanish monarchy not turned him down, Cervantes would have most likely never written his famous novel.
For Spanish-speakers in the United States, Cervantes and Don Quixote became symbols of their immigrant identity as early as the late 19th century. Both the author and the character personified the spirit of adventure, courage, and heroic values that is characteristic of many immigrants. And Spanish-speakers in large cities like New York could see their ordinary errant lives transformed into knightly adventures through the power of Don Quixote's imagination.
Latinos today continue to identify culturally with Cervantes and Don Quixote, but many would be surprised to discover that the errant knight and his sidekick Sancho have also become icons, at least briefly, of gay identity and marriage equality in Spain. In 2005, 400 years after the publication of the first volume of Don Quixote, the Spanish newspaper cartoonists José María Gallego and Julio Rey published a drawing titled "Four Hundred Years Waiting" that showed the novel's main characters Don Quixote and Sancho Panza riding on horseback into the sunset together.
The artwork referenced the heated debate in Spain over same-sex marriage, which was legalized on June 30, 2005. Gallego and Rey reinterpreted Spain's most emblematic cultural icons as a gay couple, and for the LGBTQ community, Don Quixote's quest became a symbol of the long, arduous journey and the legal obstacles that they had to overcome to defend their love and identity. The cartoon was put on display that same year, along with other artwork representing LGBTQ couples, in an exhibit that celebrated marriage equality.
Cervantes and his characters today could also reflect the mindset and values of the LGBTQ community in the United States. "Don Quixote and Sancho are a good metaphor for queer identity," said Renata Moreira, policy and communications director for Our Family Coalition, an organization that promotes marriage equality and the well-being of LGBTQ families with children in California. "There is an interesting tension between Don Quixote and Sancho which can show how LGBTQ people are always negotiating their identity with themselves and their communities. Cervantes' characters can be good models to show how you can flow between different cultures, languages and experiences to sort your identity out."