¡VIVA! Alfredo Villanueva Collado
(October 16, 1944 - September 5, 2020)
By Marithelma Costa
Alfredo was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico. He lived in Venezuela for part of his childhood, returned to the Island to study at the University of Puerto Rico, then came to New York. Here, he worked as a professor of English, and published political and homoerotic poetry and some prose. In his Poetics he declared “I write not with my heart or brain but with my guts. I work with four inks: sweat, blood, semen and tears.”
Rather than detail Alfredo’s life and career, I would like to recount a personal memory of our friendship, which I think exemplifies his remarkable qualities.
We often had lunch or dinner at his apartment. Alfredo was an accomplished cook who loved Caribbean cuisine. One afternoon, when I had written the first chapters of Bea's Papers, a semi-historical novel about my great grandmother Lorenza, something strange happened. I should first say that Lorenza was born in Puerto Rico around 1880. After being falsely accused of adultery by her husband so he could obtain a divorce, she migrated to New York. Alfredo knew these, and some other facts about her because often we talked about my writing.
After our meal, we talked about his other passion, Bohemian glass (his apartment in Chelsea is a virtual museum, since his collection is considered among the best in the world). All of a sudden, he looked at me in a very strange way. I felt uneasy, but continued making conversation until he ordered: “Be quiet.”
I obeyed. After some minutes, he told me my great grandmother was asking why was I writing about her life, since she was not an important person. I can not remember what I answered, but it must have sounded reasonable because immediately Lorenza told Alfredo, “OK, she can do it. She has my permission. But be aware that I have to smell good all the time.”
I was not too surprised at this spin in our conversation, because I knew Alfredo was able to communicate with spirits, though it was something he usually tried to avoid. I was nonetheless shocked by what he’d said. Suddenly, though, it made sense. I remembered that Lorenza’s daughter, my grandmother, with whom I was very close, took after her mother in many ways. To the point that, on her deathbed, she asked to be dabbed with eau de cologne. She hated “la güelentina” or stench, she said; she wanted to give off a beautiful odor.
Beyond this story, I want to share one of my personal favorite poems of Alfredo’s: