The Unspeakable Number Explained

During an August visit to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, I enjoyed the huge exhibit “Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910–1950.” It ranged over painting, prints, photography and murals, with plenty of explanation of the pieces’ context.

And then I came to one that stopped me cold and sent my memory back 50 years. The exhibit showed a poster with the title “Los 41 Maricones” and below that a poem “Aqui Están Los Maricones . . . Muy Chulos y Coquetones,” based on a 1901 scandal in Mexico City where 41 men were arrested at a social event where 19 dressed as women. The exhibit translated the title as “The 41 Faggots . . . Very Cute and Coquettish.” The history of the episode can be found here.

The notorious illustration.

The notorious illustration.

 

The poster and explanation stunned me because it explained a mystery that goes back almost 50 years. During my 1960s days at William Jennings Bryan Elementary School in Mission, Texas, boys regularly invoked the number “41” to signify something. What, nobody knew. But the meaning always spanned naughty to rude to vile and shameful. I never asked, and I wonder if anybody, kid or adult in my heavily Hispanic town, knew. If anybody knew, they weren’t talking.  Maybe this was common knowledge that the gringo population never picked up on, in our ignorance (emphasis on “ignore”) of Mexican culture and history.

Mystery surrounded the number 41. When smirked on the playground, it had vague but alarming vibrations, something best avoided. By the time my classmates and I reached Mission Junior High School, puberty ran wild and numerology mattered far less than the adolescent blossoming all around us.

The forbidden number sank like a stone to the bottom of my consciousness. But it’s there. To this day I can’t see the number on a sports uniform or license plate without a tiny shake of recognition. He said 41. Still, I never knew what it meant and never even looked it up.

Then, at the Museum of Fine Arts, I read all about it.

The explanation made perfect sense, a direct allusion to homosexuality that nobody, but nobody, back then would want to explain or acknowledge except as a sneering shorthand.The number and the episode behind it referred to matters far beyond social propriety. Hearing it in South Texas made sense, given that Mission was three miles from the Rio Grande. The permeable border allowed cultural influences to cross both ways. Over the decades the Mexican meaning of 41 seeped into the Rio Grande Valley and beyond. It became part of the myths and mysteries that kids passed along.

Does the meaning still resonate in the Valley? I don’t know. Maybe this essay will shake some memories out of the trees of 50-somethings. I did discover that the 1901 scandal continues to echo, with a group reversing the number’s shameful meaning into an affirmation. Honor41.org describes itself as

Honor 41 is a national Latina/o LGBTQ online, 501 c3 non-profit organization that promotes positive images of our community, creates awareness about our issues and builds an online family/community.

The word “Honor” means pride in English and Spanish.

The number 41 has a derogatory connotation in Mexican culture. For over 100 years calling someone “41” or associating anyone or anything with that number labeled them maricon/joto which in English translates to calling someone faggot/gay.

By adopting 41 in our name, we take away the negative, oppressive power associated to the number; we educate others about this important moment in LGBTQ history; we honor their legacy; and honor our own lives and contributions to society.

Honor41 envisions a world where Latina/o LGBTQ individuals can live their lives with honor, by being “out”, with acceptance from their families and community, and fully integrated in all aspects of society.

I like that approach. Take the term, turn it around, own it, use it for good. Take 41 out of the shadows and nullify its sting. Maybe the meaning will be different for the next generation.

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