Short story writer, novelist, poet and professor, he was part of the 1960s and 1975 generations. He was known mostly for his work in the genre of the short story, but he also wrote an experimental novel following the trends of the Latino American boom. His books opened the door to a new Puerto Rican literature that was free of political and traditional agendas and in which homosexuality and death were dominant themes.
José Manuel Ramos Otero was born July 20, 1948, in Manatí. When he was seven years old, his family moved to San Juan, where he attended elementary school. After graduating from the University of Puerto Rico High School, he continued his studies at the university and graduated in 1969 with a degree in social sciences with a specialization in sociology. In 1979, he completed a master’s degree in literature at New York University. He also studied theater, cinema and direction at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute.
He worked as a professor of Spanish American literature and Puerto Rico history at various universities, such as Rutgers University, La Guardia Community College, York College and Lehman College. He organized conferences and meetings among Puerto Rican writers based in the United States and founded the press El Libro Viaje. He was writer in residence at the Center for American Studies at Columbia University in New York.
Ramos Otero began his career as a writer by focusing on the short story. His stories won three prizes in the annual Christmas festival held by the Puerto Rican Athenaeum: the first, in 1967 for “Concierto de metal para un recuerdo;” the second, in 1969, for “Happy Birthday;” and the third, in 1970, for “Alrededor del mundo con la señorita Mambresi.” The following year, these stories were included in his first collection, titled Concierto de metal para un recuerdo y otras orgías de soledad (1971). This collection marked a milestone in Puerto Rican literature by rebelling against the realism dominant in short stories at the time. Critics considered the stories experimental because of their questioning of the narrator and their autobiographical nature.
The author published other stories in various magazines of the era, such as “Viernes Santo” (1973) in the magazine Penélope y el Mundo Nuevo; “Romance de Clara Gardenia Otero”(1973), “Peregrinación por un eclipse” (1973), “La última plena que bailó Luberza” (1974) and “Vida ejemplar del esclavo y el señor” (1975) in Zona de Carga y Descarga and “La hora del ángel” (1975), “Tren que no pasa por la vía” (1976) and “Ceremonia de bienes y raíces” (1976) in the magazine Sin nombre. The last two received a prize from the same cultural magazine. Like his first collection of stories, his second, El cuento de la mujer del mar (1979), included already published stories and some new ones.
Death became one of the dominant themes in his work after he was diagnosed with AIDS. He developed the theme by alluding to his own death or that of characters in his works, to the death of certain traditions and customs, and to the death of literary genres. Death is the central theme of his first book of poetry, El libro de la muerte (1985). He continued addressing the same topic in his short story collection titled Página en blanco y staccato (1987). A second and final book of poems, Invitación al polvo (1991), in which death is the page on which he writes about love, passion and sex, was published posthumously.
Ramos Otero published a novel, La novelabingo (1976), which followed the child’s play style of Rayuela by Julio Cortázar, but using the game of bingo. The action takes place between San Juan and New York in a matriarchal society of Puerto Ricans who feel alienated in a capitalist world. In La novelabingo, the chapters are balls pulled from the “mamutcandungo” (which is also the novel itself. The narrative thread is carried on by the characters, who have the task of understanding the “bingomitos,” which are the numbers on the balls pulled from the “mamutcandungo.” Each chapter is conceived as an independent story but they are intertwined with the recurring themes of collective alienation and the search for freedom.
He also wrote essays such as “La ética de la marginación en la poesía de Luis Cernuda,” published in the magazine Cupey (1988); “Ficción e historia: texto y pretexto de la autobiografía,” in the newspaper El Mundo (1990) and “De la colonización a la culonización,” also in Cupey (1991).
He died from AIDS in San Juan on October 7, 1990. After his death, the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture published Cuentos de buena tinta (1992), which collects the stories that appeared in his first two publications, as well as La novelabingo, which had been out of print for some time. As part of the Guadalajara International Book Fair, the University of Guadalajara in Mexico published Tálamos y tumbas prosa y verso de Manuel Ramos Otero (1998), a book that included various stories from the collection El cuento de la mujer del mar, and the book of poetry El Libro de la muerte.
Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: September 16, 2014.
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