April 22, 2013— -- 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."
The idea that life is a quest is not new, but the misadventures of Don Quixote and Sancho can strike a familiar cord with the LGBTQ community. The novel dramatizes the struggle to survive in a world that is full of adversities—windmills become monsters, and inns are transformed into castles. But as the characters go farther on their journey, each obstacle forces them to dig deeper into their dreams and emotions to figure out who they are. And for the LGBTQ community, Don Quixote and Sancho could exemplify the courage and determination that is needed to explore their identity, even when society opposes them.
Moreira also pointed out that Don Quixote's quest for understanding and companionship can unite the gay community with Latino immigrants because they share a common plight. "When you immigrate to a country by yourself, and your entire family is back in Latin America, you feel like an outsider, the other," she said. And as an immigrant, a woman, a Latina, working class, and queer, Moreira explained, she had to learn how to reconcile all of these components of her identity into one space. "The LGBTQ community [like the immigrant community] is looking for a space where they could fully be themselves," she said. "And being gay, a person of color, and an immigrant can become forms of poverty [because of discrimination]."
Immigration reform and marriage equality activists would also agree that when you are not protected by the same laws, it creates barriers of discrimination. "[Same-sex couples] are forced to live up to a higher standard," said Cathy Marino-Thomas, co-President of Marriage Equality USA, an organization that defends marriage rights for the LGBTQ community. "There is a higher burden for us to live by example, because our opponents are looking for any reason to say that we are unworthy of marriage. But whether they believe in us or not, we are here, we exist, and we deserve the same rights as citizens."
For Cervantes, the best way to overcome discrimination is to humanize the experience of those who are marginalized. In Chapter 22 of Don Quixote, the errant knight approaches a chain gang to hear their stories. Each captive makes up a story to justify his criminal action. And once Don Quixote realizes that they are being held against their will, he attacks the officers on horseback to set the prisoners free. While the knight's actions are misguided, Cervantes gives each prisoner a voice, and it is this alternative perspective that challenges readers to find a more inclusive truth.
Similarly, marriage equality supporters have been moving people with their personal stories. José Manuel Reyes, a Mexican LGBT activist residing in New York, shared his story to show how love can overcome all opposition. He explained that even though his family comes from a deep Catholic background, they embraced his homosexuality. "When I came out to my mother," he said, "she didn't focus on her religion... She touched her heart, and told me that… she only cared about what she felt inside." And for Reyes, his mom's reaction is one of the biggest arguments for marriage equality. "Love has no color, flavor, or sex," he said.
Today, Latino marriage equality and immigration reform activists can find solidarity in Cervantes through the universality of love. "When equity could and should be upheld," he wrote in Don Quixote, "do not apply the rigor of the law on the accused; the reputation of a rigorous judge is no better than a compassionate one." Cervantes reminds us that love and compassion can be heroic. And through this quixotic perspective, we can understand that in spite of our individual differences, everyone has a right to justice and democracy.