Caleb Rainey | Out on the Page
Michael Nava is perhaps best known for the “Henry Rios” mystery series, a collection of crime novels that was extremely popular during the ’80s and ’90s and featured a gay Chicano protagonist, a rarity in literature. The series earned Nava six Lambda Literary Awards and the Bill Whitehead Lifetime Achievement Award in LGBT Literature.
His books have been reviewed and studied by professors and students across the country and he is, without a doubt, one of the most important writers in gay and lesbian writing. Nava has enjoyed considerable success with his work, especially considering the many barriers that gay Chicano men face in the arts generally and literature specifically.
However, Nava has not written a new novel in 14 years, during which time he studied up on the Mexican Revolution and Mexican and U.S. culture during the tumultuous period of the late 19th and early 20th century.
After having read his brand new novel, “The City of Palaces,” all I can say is that this was worth the wait! It is lush with vivid descriptions of 19th century Mexico, as Nava tells the story of the Revolution through the eyes of Alicia Gavilán, Miguel Sarmiento, and their son José.
We also are treated to the thoughts and experiences of Jorge Luis, Miguel’s cousin who is banished because he is a “sodomite” and Alicia’s aristocratic family who are deeply tied to the old colonial regime and steadfastly resist any major changes to the system that has allowed them to live in comfort.
“The City of Palaces” is undoubtedly a story about love. But for me, as I was privileged to listen in and experience the brilliant interior worlds of the characters that Nava brings to life, I was struck by how “political awakening” or what feminists call “coming to consciousness” was also a major — if not the major — theme of this ingenious historical “intervention.”
Miguel Sarmiento is a doctor who comes from a family that has lost most of the prestige and privilege it once possessed. Haunted by a terrible secret, Sarmiento dedicates his life to working to heal the Mexican peasant population and help implement modern sanitation methods in some of Mexico City’s poorest areas.
In the beginning of the novel, Sarmiento views himself as “helping” the poor. He does not see or at least acknowledge that these starving and dirty people are part of his community, an extension of himself and indeed a group of people that his lavish lifestyle depends on. Because of this view, his compassion is limited, and he harbors the elitism and racism that is so prevalent in his aristocratic circle which in turn prevents him from being able to truly see the people he works with in all their wonderful individuality and work with the communities he is committed to serving.
It is not until Sarmiento begins to see how he is involved in economic injustices, and how his privilege is tied to others oppression that he begins to openly reject the fruits of colonialism that have been given to him and to openly join in the revolutionary struggle to create a economically and racially just Mexico. In many ways, his political awakening is connected to the political awakening of his cousin, Jorge Luis, who, due to his “aberrant” sexuality, is thrust out of the protected circle that privilege provides and loses everything.
The police interrupt a party for queer men that Luis attends, ruining his ability to closet himself and robbing him of his protected position as a senator’s son. Up until Luis is found out, he is openly hostile toward and disgusted by the poor Indians that serve him, even though his complexion closely resembles theirs. He revels in his wealth and has no time for political matters that do not involve a party. Of course to fully enjoy his position, Luis must cover parts of himself, notably his same-sex desires.
Once he is found out, Luis must leave the country for his own safety. While abroad he connects with other queer men and is influenced by socialist thinkers inspiring him to return to his homeland with the goal of fighting for a revolution that will make Mexico economically just. Luis now disdains the privileges he once reveled in and falls in love with an Indian man whom he treasures, a complete reversal of his original racist thinking. Luis’s political awakening is directly tied to his forced coming out and it is through his connection to the homosexual “underworld” that his eyes are opened and his spirit liberated.
While Sarmiento is brought to a heightened awareness of social injustice through his time spent with Luis, Alicia comes to consciousness through Sarmiento’s work in the medical field. Before she marries Sarmiento, Alicia helps the poor but like Sarmiento, she does not necessarily view herself as connected to them. Rather, she believes that she is serving God by helping those she deems “less fortunate.” It is not until she discovers the plight of the Yucatán Indians that she really experiences her political awakening. She first learns of their struggle through the Native people and the priests that Sarmiento works with. It is through working alongside these people and learning of the depths of their oppression under Mexican rule, that Alicia truly commits herself to the cause of social justice and begins to struggle for Native sovereignty.
These three characters each have journeys that are entirely theirs, but all of them come to a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of all people and as a result each character deepens their commitment to social and economic justice regardless of the cost.
It is in creating a novel that manages to interweave beautiful love stories alongside radical political awakenings that Nava really shows his genius as a novelist. If you only read one book this year, make “The City of Palaces” that book. Be sure to order it online from the San Diego Multicultural LGBT Literary Foundation at sdliteraryfoundation.org. Every purchase goes towards supporting writers.
—Caleb Rainey recently graduated with his master’s degree in cultural studies. He is a long-time activist, and the founder executive director of the San Diego Multicultural LGBT Literary Foundation. Contact him at