Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A. is the first exhibition of its kind to excavate histories of experimental art practice, collaboration, and exchange by a group of Los Angeles based queer Chicanx artists between the late 1960s and early 1990s. To highlight the New York iteration of Axis Mundo, Visual AIDS and the Hunter College Art Galleries hosted a guided talk and tour with an intergenerational group of creatives who knew artists highlighted in the exhibition or have been influenced by the artworks included in the show.
Here, Aldo Hernández shares his writing about Ray Navarro (1964–1990).
Ray & I
July 17 2018
There are certain people in your life the moment you meet them you click. That was us.
Ray and I both grew up in small southern California towns, he in Simi Valley and I in Corona. There, we both had backyards we would sink our bare feet into. There, lack of money didn’t hold us from getting into music, literary and art scenes, or to learn up on anyone and anything by scouring the racks at bookstores.
At 18 I became the youngest Eligibility Worker dispensing Aid To Families With Dependent Children in Riverside County. And Ray had begun to tag along to social welfare demonstrations via his mom’s latina activism.
Back then, sidewalk vatos in chino pants & Pendleton plaids, caballeros in head to toe black, and chicanas marked in spider web tattoos set off by funeral veils signified the tempest of damned romance; a destitute bound, eternal lament. This California Cholo Goth life incubated cinnamon dusted young movers like Ray and I. We felt redeemed in the rebellious mexi-punk skull tat defiance; a posture Gerardo Velasquez—whose art is displayed throughout this room—was at the forefront of. In 1981 I led the noisy queer synth band Strong Silent Types, sharing gigs with Gerardo’s band Nervous Gender. This kindred recognition was centered at the Brave Dog, our downtown LA clubhouse. In parallel, my soon-to-be lil bro Ray was also immersed in X, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Talking Heads, Chris & Cosey, Sun Ra and Prince, our go-to get down.
At Otis College of Art and Design, Ray first lived with his grandparents, and in his 2nd year moved into the infamous Bryson building, collaborating with Diana Gamboa on video, then photographed together for her brother Harry's exhibition poster. As part of ASCO, they included Ray’s drawing in an issue of the group’s magazine. Although Ray was in with the Gamboas, other members were not ready for him, and he was not officially part of the group.
I’ve heard that some ASCO members came up the hard way. Ray did not grow up in the barrio. He wasn’t a vato loco. Teachers liked him; he was highly intelligent and possessed critical thinking skills. Despite his gifts, he was money poor, and the gossip that he was pretentious—‘a chicano falsa’—hurt. It was around this time Ray was accepted into The Whitney Independent Study Program, and we were introduced—as a possible future roommate—by my friend David Bradshaw (his MoCA boss) at Vasilon, a latin hair salon-cum-party night for queer Latinx.
Ray’s dream was to move to New York. Upon arrival he immediately asked me where ACT UP held meetings, and got involved while I was still skirting full-on commitment. Ray loved ACT UP, for political and creative reasons. Once he began at the Whitney Program, he said: "I’m never going home, this is where I want to be." Concurrently, he mopped the classroom floors in order to make tuition and rent.
Early on Ray stayed in a room at the Y in midtown. Sometimes he would nap or sleep over at my place on east 8th St. I’d help him a little so he could buy basic food. I felt bad yet guardedly, I didn’t want to spoil him. Neither of us had any idea he was HIV+, but my dentist suspected it during an oral examination and suggested to me Ray get tested.
In-between work and ACT UP we had good times with friends; lip-syncing ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ in drag at the ACT UP talent show, picnicking in Central Park and trips to Jones Beach & upstate NY. Friday nights we snuck beers into The Bar, a loud, cruisy activist dive.
Ray & I share a core of women in our lives. For Ray there were writing and creative projects with Catherine Gund, Debra Levine, and Zoe Leonard. And close ties with ACT UP women such as Lola Flash, Julie Tolentino, Ellen Neipris, Tracy (Leon) Mostovoy, Jean Carlomusto and Ellen Spiro. And though he wouldn’t admit it, at the center of it all was his amazingly smart mom Patricia, who came up from the barrio & gangs, and sought the best education and life for Ray and his sister Christine.
Ray became roommates with our friend Tracy (Leon) at a storefront in Greenpoint I had shared with artist Fred Tomaselli. When Ray’s Cal Arts lover, dancer Anthony Ledesma arrived, they soon moved in with filmmaker Jennie Livingston and her girlfriend. It was during that time that both Ray and Anthony became ill more often. Ray, nevertheless was determined to present his video and talk at a Film Festival in San Antonio. But the price was steep when he returned with a worsening pneumonia.
My first conversation with Patricia—whose letters to, and news clippings for Ray were often shared with me—was via phone while at their loft moving him and Anthony to the apartment below mine. I told her Ray couldn’t come to the phone and was being rushed to the hospital due to very painful cryptococcal meningitis. That fateful winter day I realized just how alike they were. Both quick witted, full of love for, yet slightly critical of each other. Patricia arrived the next day, working her ass off until after his memorial. We’re still familia.
Actions Together & Projects:
Risking arrest, Ray & I placed a couple dozen large KNOW YOUR SCUMBAGS posters (Cardinal O’Connor wearing his mitre & a condom side by side) inside advertisement frames on the 6 Line subway trains leaving Union Square one midnight.
We would attend Latinx LGBT dance & drag club La Escuelita on weekends, sit at a small table, order drinks, then drop condoms on the waiters' trays asking if they could discreetly pass them out to other tables since management did not openly allow condoms to be made available or promoted. Many patrons had just moved here and could use protection against the HIV virus. Ray continued this outreach with friends at other locations around the city.
We were part of a small group that started the ACT UP Latino Caucus which quickly expanded and gained traction with Moises Agosto & Robert Garcia at the helm. When Ray couldn’t attend anymore, I’d meet Patricia there, who had become very involved, but soon I moved on.
Ray & I were also in the ‘La Cocina’ ACT UP affinity group. One of many activist packs that would coordinate particular actions at demonstrations; such as at Target City Hall where Ray hoisted a cardboard ‘house’ for the street sit-in, then videotaped as part of DIVA TV while I protested with placards, shouted our demands, and passed out info.
We co-wrote a candid, published letter to the editor at the Village Voice over their skewed review of the risqué Art+Positive ScenesObscene anti-censorship video that Ray filmed and I directed, which premiered at a Public Theatre / New Museum symposium in September 1989. Recently located and digitalized, I plan to re-edit it, adding unseen footage.
Art+Positive also funded the making of Ray’s FIGHT WHITE banner addressing inequality via color triangles with statements, and displayed at the Henry Street Settlement’s group exhibition IMAGES & WORDS: Artists Respond To AIDS that opened December 1st, 1989.
The recently published book, Militant Eroticism: The Art+Positive Archives includes an in-depth essay about Ray and his thinking by Deb Levine, along with images of his art and quotes from his writings.
Among his unfinished projects is DEFECT, his hand written movie script of Latin espionage, telecommunications control and gay love. He collected audio and sound effects albums for use in its post-production.
Ray was also featured as one of 25 ‘Up & Coming’ in People Magazine’s ’89 year-end issue. In the accompanying photo he’s smiling, sitting in a psychedelic tie-dye T-shirt next to a monitor playing a DIVA TV video, with a ACT UP poster behind him. Beaming in his cyber hippy essence.
During Ray’s last year, it was mostly the ACT UP women and men like Gregg Bordowitz, Bob Lederer and Hunter Reynolds who became his team of quality of life assistants—feeding, cleaning, massaging, and advocating. Some like Kim Christensen read him newspapers, due to his rapid blindness from CMV Retinitis. This was very difficult on Ray’s father once he arrived. Patricia fiercely held the reins for all of us.
By the time I began Meat, a weekly club night in August of 1990, Ray alternated between the hospital, or being semi-bedridden downstairs. And although I couldn’t share my fab house music party with him, his life was accomplished and richer because he had lived here. Our last dance was on his birthday in October. So fragile, yet he insisted on one final twirl. It was a close, supportive shuffle to Sylvester.
It was that autumn that Ray’s stark, pointed take on the state of being physically disabled; Equipped - a photo triptych of his cane (Third leg), walker (Studwalk) and wheelchair (Hot butt), was shot in and outside our building, the ‘Latin Quarter’ where we lived next to Tompkins Square Park. This tongue-in-cheek swan song with photographer Zoe Leonard was to be framed in prosthetic pink, and underlined with workplace name plates. It was completed for, and first displayed at, the Army Of Lovers exhibition I organized with Art+Positive, along with the show’s essay that Ray dictated to me from his bed. The opening reception was at the beginning of the night Ray passed away. Today, that artwork symbolizes our crux; Ray’s dreams became finite, as mine were coming to life.
28 years ago from a balcony at St. Vincent’s Hospital, Ray said to Patricia he feared he would be forgotten. Yet his inclusion in Axis Mundo proves that not only is he not forgotten, he is singled out as a person of importance in the queer chicano community.
Cuban-American Aldo Hernández and Chicano Ray Navarro both honed their commitments to society through artistic projects in California and then re-located to NYC. Hernández landed jobs with MoMA and Creative Time, and while visiting LA in 1988 was introduced to Navarro at latin gay party Vasilon through a mutual friend from MoCA where Navarro worked. That June, Navarro moved to NY where they became close friends, AIDS activists, and Art+Positive collaborators until Navarro’s death in November 1990. During that summer, Hernández had begun DJing at the Clit Club & MEAT, where he melded a passion for the groove with graphics and photography as he dove into a life long calling of the sonic & visual. It was an urgent vital time in both their lives that remains powerfully conveyed through Navarro’s incisive art & writings focused on young queers of color.