“To burn with desire and keep quiet about it is the greatest punishment we can bring on ourselves.” – Federico García Lorca, Blood Wedding and Yerma
Trigger warnings include homophobic language.
Hello, everyone. Has it collectively been a hard week? It feels like it’s been a hard week. Luckily, Laura and I are still here and bringing you stories about all those queer folks who came before us. This week we’ll be looking at the life, poetry, and activism of Federico García Lorca. While his romances rarely ended well, Lorca made waves by being unapologetically queer in the face of a vindictive, bigoted, and aggressive Spanish government.
Biographies of Lorca indicate that he was born in Granada, Spain in 1898, the son of a well-off farmer of a father and a pianist mother. This family standing meant that Lorca would be educated – he attended the University of Granada to pursue a law degree after finishing school. However, Lorca dropped out to pursue his artistic work in both literature and theater. There’s a debate here to be pursued in the modern era – college is considered a useful pursuit, but sometimes meaningless requirement classes can feel as though they’re taking up a student’s valuable time. Even if going to college provides a community for an artist to work with, the time strain can often limit one’s creativity.
Luckily for Lorca, he found a community outside of academia. Lorca had been writing poetry for some time and is said, according to a biography on LGBT History Month, to have read it allowed in public squares – this already suggests a) an absurd amount of self-confidence or courage and b) Lorca’s tendency to lean towards the theatrical. An article of Queerty elaborates on his experience with theatre, stating that artist Salvadore Dali and director Gregorio Martinez Sierra allowed Lorca the opportunity to write a play for their theatre and that in this environment, Lorca thrived. Lorca was also friends with homosexual Spanish composer, Manuel de Falla, according to Gay Influence; de Falla’s source material, found in the historical and cultural roots of Spain, mirrored Lorca’s own work. Lorca expressed a beatific respect for his country as an idea in his poetry. His work, Romancero Gitano, would be published in 1928, and, according to Gay Influence, would be embraced by the literate Hispanic community.
Which brings us to the country of Spain as a whole during Lorca’s lifetime. I mention in the introduction that the Spanish government during the late 19th and early 20th century was “vindictive, bigoted, and aggressive.” A lot of this has to do with the strong grip Catholicism had in the country. Catholicism and the Roman Catholic Church preached (and still preach) a doctrine of homophobia along with a tremendous fear of non-Catholic worshippers, immigrants, and revolutionaries. It wasn’t just the close ties Catholicism had with the Spanish government that made the country unsafe for individuals like Lorca. The 19th century would see a dramatic and terrifying rise of fascism within the country, and, as many of us know, fascists hate anybody who isn’t cisgender, straight, of a “pure” race and religion, and wealthy. Folks in the queer community, Lorca included, would face discrimination not only for their lifestyles but their inclusion of government-challenging and queer themes in their works.
It’s important to first note this environment, and then to look at the success of Lorca’s Romancero Gitano. Elizabeth Nash of the Independent claims that “All [Lorca’s] poetry turns around frustrated love. His tormented characters who can't live the life they want are precisely the metaphor for his sorrow. He was a genius who turned his suffering into art." Judging by this quote, it could be assumed that most of Lorca’s poetry, including his work in Romancero Gitano, involved some aspect of queerness. The illegal nature of homosexuality and Lorca’s own unfortunate experiences with love – to be explored in a moment – may have led to this feeling of “sorrow” or “suffering.”
A friend of mine once informed me, specifically after the 2016 Presidential Election, that great sorrow provoked great art. It’s possible that Lorca used his poetry and theatre as a medium to express himself when the government of his country turned against him. Gay Influence makes this claim even more blatant, stating that Lorca’s later Sonnets of Dark Love where “heavily homoerotic.” Despite this, and despite the Spanish government’s utter disdain towards the topics Lorca covered, his work was considered successful. This may have been due to the crowd of artists Lorca ran with, many of whom became known as part of the Generation of ’27, a famous group of poets who rallied together against the fascism within Spain’s government and sought “pure poetry” while exploring several poetic movements.
Few of Lorca’s lovers were amongst the Generation of ’27, but he did keep his best company with those of the artistic mind. Lorca’s lovers or love interests would include the aforementioned Salvadore Dalí (the relationship between these two men is a nebulous thing; sources differ as to whether they were together romantically or not, whereas Dali’s letters referring to Lorca and his queerness are…Better left unread), Emilio Aladrén, Manuel de Falla, María Luisa Natera, and Juan Ramírez de Lucas. Lorca, while being cited as having dated María Luisa Natera at one point, seemed primarily interested in men – he claimed that he had tried to love María when they dated at eighteen but found that he was unable. Likewise, his poetry seems to focus on his denied love for men. We’ll specifically take a look at one of the poems from Sonnets of Dark Love, “Sonnet of Sweet Complaint.” Lorca dedicated this sonnet to his lover, Juan Ramírez de Lucas, and some claim that this sonnet was the last that Lorca ever wrote. The poem reads:
Never let me lose the marvel
of your statue-like eyes, or the accent
the solitary rose of your breath
places on my cheek at night.
I am afraid of being, on this shore
a branchless trunk, and what I most regret
is having no flower, pulp, or clay
for the worm of my despair.
If you are my hidden treasure,
if you are my cross, my dampened pain,
if I am a dog, and you alone my master,
never let me lose what I have gained
and adorn the branches of your river
with leaves of my estranged Autumn.
Considering that this may have been one of the last poems Lorca ever wrote, it seems natural to pick out the “sorrow” Nash claims punctuated Lorca’s work. Even as this work exalts the beauties of Lorca’s lover, Lorca is “afraid”; he “regret[s]”; he “never [wishes] to lose what [he has] gained.” The beauty of love, of Juan Ramírez de Lorca, and of Lorca’s life are complicated by Lorca’s underlying tone of fear. What was this fear of, exactly? It could have been a lover’s rejection, or the power of his nation, or the threat of Lorca’s own eventual death?
It seems, unfortunately, that Lorca had good reason to be afraid. According to Katherine Ryder of The New Yorker, Lorca was “executed by Spanish Fascists in 1936” in his home town of Granada. Ryder goes on to state that “one of the men on the death squad reportedly said that he had ‘fired two bullets into his ass for being a queer.' Here we see the power of the fascist nation at work – Lorca stood as a mar against the social fascists, and religious fanatics in Spain wanted to see come to light. Naturally, in their minds, the only solution to the problem Lorca presented would be his death.
This was not the only way they silenced Lorca, however. Nash states that “Lorca’s writing, considered deeply homoerotic, was banned until 1954 and censored until 1975. His family rarely spoke of it.” Lorca’s death was not enough for the government he despised; his work – his means of self-expression – was taken away from him posthumously and denied. The audience that once loved Romancero Gitano could no longer access Lorca’s works, as their government found the power of poetry too revolutionary – ‘inappropriate,' perhaps, in its passion for the things fascists fear.
Katherine Ryder puts it another way. She claims that “Spain couldn’t accept that the greatest Spanish poet of all time was homosexual.”
Fascists are still among us today, trying to censor the work of people in our community and others. Lorca’s work has been released, thankfully, and is now accessible in libraries and online. While his romantic relationships with other men proved a little complicated and often unhappy, Lorca’s queerness as depicted in his life and his work is no longer deniable. His work and the intense reaction to it displayed by the Spanish government implies a great strength to poetry and the written word. If one man can scare a nation so badly by putting pen to paper, then who’s to say that you and I can’t do the same?
Belonsky, Andrew. “Words on Homo Words: Federico García Lorca.” Queerty. 12 Oct 2006. Web.
“Federico García Lorca.” Gay Influence. 2 Aug 2011. Web.
Nash, Elizabeth. “Lorca was censored to hide his sexuality, biographer reveals.” The Independent. 13 March 2009. Web.
Ryder, Katherine. “Lorca and the Gay World.” The New Yorker. 19 March 2009. Web.
“Three Gay Poets You Ought to Know.” South Florida Gay News. 18 April 2013. Web.