PEDRO LEMEBEL (1952–2015) was a queer Chilean writer and activist who resisted homophobia, decried oppression, and subverted the culture of machismo during the murderous dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973 to 1990) and its aftermath. Few of his writings are available in English translation—his use of chilenismos (idiomatic phrasing specific to Chilean Spanish), gay slang, and figurative language all present challenges to translators. More of his work will soon be available in translation, bringing to our ears his renegade voice, which Lemebel himself once characterized as “mariconaje guerrero” (“warrior faggotry”).
In a country long under the thrall of right-wing dictatorships, subject to toxic strains of machismo and the postcolonial oppressions of the Catholic Church, Lemebel’s status as an effeminate man with indigenous roots, from one of Santiago’s poorest areas, made his marginalization complete. The neighborhood of his upbringing was subject to routine military crackdowns. In his early career, he was fired from teaching jobs for being openly gay, and he would later be spurned by leftist organizations for the same reason. Yet he took on those forces with performances and a body of writing of equal fearlessness. His arc from pariah to celebrated international author, embraced by his own people—indeed a queer national folk hero—is unlike any other. As a young Chilean activist noted while I was in Santiago, “Lemebel is taught in high schools now.”
Lemebel was born Pedro Mardones but took his mother’s surname in defiance of patriarchal naming customs. His father was a baker, and the family lived in Zanjón de la Aguada, along an irrigation ditch that flows into the Mapocho River, providing the city of Santiago with fresh water from runoff high in the Andes. It was a shantytown for displaced working-class families who had begun building rudimentary homes in 1946, with clay floors, corrugated cardboard walls, and roofs of zinc sheets. Its residents were considered squatters by the government and violently repressed by the military.
The Making of a Writer
Lemebel’s writing developed in tandem with his performative activism. In collaboration with his friend Francisco Casas, he formed Las Yeguas del Apocalipsis (“The Mares of the Apocalypse,” a feminist subversion of the biblical Horsemen). Their guerrilla actions called into questions ideals of masculinity and heteronormativity by confronting the political elite and the military regime, as well as their enablers in the Catholic hierarchy. At the Chilean Human Rights Commission, Las Yeguas danced the cueca, Chile’s national dance, on a map of South America littered with broken Coca-Cola bottles, until their commingled blood stained the map in dance-step patterns. They each danced the female role alone, signaling the absence of the desaparecidos (political detainees who were “disappeared” by the state). It was a haunting appropriation of the symbolic dance as much as a rebuke of colonialist violence. They threw their bodies into this and their other performances, acts of transgression that directly challenged repressive structures doing active harm to marginalized people.
Dale Corvino’s short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals, anthologies, and online, including The Rumpus and Salon. His chapbookWorker Names was published in 2019.