YAM Notes: November/December 2015

By Marty Snapp

Congratulations to Randy Alfred for his richly deserved induction into the LGBT Journalists Hall of Fame on September 5. Among the accomplishments for which he was honored: a detailed probe in 1980 of the biased portrayal of San Francisco’s gay community in CBS Reports’ “Gay Power, Gay Politics,” an investigation that ultimately resulted in CBS’s making a rare public apology. In 1978 he cofounded the S.F. Bay Times, the first community newspaper on the West Coast to be produced equally by lesbians and gay men. The next year, he began producing and hosting The Gay Life on KSAN-FM, the first regularly scheduled LGBT-oriented program on commercial radio in the country. For four decades, he has spoken out in newsrooms and in professional organizations for bias-free usage, bias-free news coverage, and bias-free workplaces and benefits—not only for LGBT people, but for women, minorities, and disabled people, too. “It wasn’t the same as the phone call from Stockholm,” says Randy modestly, “but it felt like that.”

Alas, the rest of the news is terribly sad. Juan Negrín passed away August 28 in Oakland, California, following a yearlong hospitalization for epilepsy. As befitted the grandson of Juan Negrín López, the last president of the Spanish Republic before it was overthrown by Franco, he dedicated himself to the movement for social and environmental justice in Mexico and beyond.

Juan studied philosophy, French, and existentialism at Yale, where he formed the Party of the Left. During this time, he was profoundly influenced by avant-garde jazz, the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War, and 1960s counterculture in general. Following college he returned to Mexico and was drawn to the art and religion of the Wixárika (aka Huichol) indigenous peoples of the Western Sierra Madre of Mexico. He was welcomed, cautiously at first, by a few Wixárika families and was invited to join on pilgrimages to their sacred places. As he was accepted by more families and later communities, he came to devote his life to the study, protection, and promotion of their culture, art, and territorial defense against the predations of developers and the Mexican government.

Juan became the godfather of several Wixárika children, including two shamans, agreeing to raise them if anything happened to their parents. In the late 1970s, he was elected to represent and advise the Community of Santa Catarina Cuexcomatitlán—the only non-Wixárika to receive this accolade. Thanks to his and his wife Yvonne’s efforts, the iconic Wixárika art paintings, produced by pressing colored yarn onto plywood covered with beeswax, have been exhibited in Europe, Mexico, and the US, with the most recent show in 2014 in Marseille, France.

“I took a Spanish course with Juan,” recalls George Lazarus. “The professor was Manuel Duran, whose father had been the attorney general of the Second Republic in Spain’s pre-Franco era. I was unaware of Juan’s grandfather’s history, but I am sure Manuel Duran was aware! Learning Spanish in school, one becomes used to speaking in the formal manner, the third person ‘usted’ form. After class, Juan spoke with me and told me I had to get used to speaking to him in the ‘tu,’ informal manner. It was a nice thing to do, and I never forgot it. Gracias, Juan.”

“Juan turned me on to John Coltrane,” adds Alan Burdick. “I particularly remember one night, lights out (except for the weed), being totally entranced until someone came in and broke the mood.”

“When we dropped acid in 1967, we sat conversing in a clear space above the clouds,” says Bill Krohn. “I was an old soul, and he was my older brother. The recollection has been my true north ever since. Hasta la vista, maestro.”

“He welcomed his Manuscript peers to the windowless, cloth-draped inner sanctum of his off-campus abode, where we all smoked pot (a naughtiness high in the catalogue of ‘grave sins’ in those days), when it was seen more as a gateway to the ineffable than an invitation to more pizza,” says Kelly Monaghan. “I met him several times in later years when he was championing the art of the Huichol people. A glance at any Huichol yarn painting will reveal that Juan never lost his interest in the psychedelic.”

“At Yale he was committed to the Party of the Left, but he had time to share his cosmopolitan knowledge of women,” says David Lippman. “He once gave me a half-hour lecture on how to caress a woman’s knee. He was an original.”

“Juan’s effect on me as an undergraduate was charismatic in the extreme,” says John Zuska ’68. “He was a source of advanced ideas and sophisticated tastes in music and the arts, at home in a larger world of which I was as yet unaware. When we met again in Berkeley, he drove a Jaguar and was at the center of the counterculture—dashing, in a word. Juan was so wise, a visionary who saw and understood that the universe was a single organic entity of great beauty. He made an invaluable contribution to my mind and heart.”

“I met Juan in the stacks at the library (what fun to wander amid all those books!) and then we got together that summer in Mexico City,” recalls Steve Witty. “Juan had attended the Lycee Française in Mexico City, and I remember spending time with him and his French friends. He took me to what was called then a ‘blasé party,’ where the idea was to hang out looking bored and blasé, with a Gauloises hanging from your lower lip. Doesn’t sound like so much fun in retrospect, but we did have a lot of fun together that summer, and I allowed myself to be happily corrupted by my sophisticated friend. Juan was very cool and very smart, and his left-wing politics were very shocking and intriguing to me. It was one of the gifts of Yale to get to know someone as interesting and challenging as Juan. God bless you, Juan!”

To find out more about Juan’s life’s work, visit http://wixarika.mediapark.net.