Mario Bellatin’s Beauty Salon: Messages about AIDS
Mario Bellatin’s novella Beauty Salon tells the story of a city in which residents suffer from an unknown disease. It is sometimes interpreted as a metaphor to AIDS. The original publication date of the novella is 1999. AIDS was raging in Mexico at the time. Castro and Leyvas wrote that Mexico had approximately 116,000- 174,000 AIDS cases at the time. (138) This was a serious social problem due to the stigmatization and disease that it caused. Bellatin’s novella addresses these social problems by using an allegory which helps readers to understand how those with the disease think. The novella also touches on the stigmatization of the disease, which is a reflection of the stigma that AIDS sufferers face.
The narrator of Bellatin’s novella is a gay, cross-dressing man who transforms his beauty salon into the Terminal. This terminal is for people dying from a horrible plague of diseases. “In Terminal, they were guaranteed a mattress, a bowl soup, and company from other dying people.” Bellatin 38. The novella is filled with apathetic scenes where the narrator talks about caring for fish rather then the suffering people around. Additional metaphors are provided for people with the disease. The beauty salon’s success was due to the popularity of the fish. The narrator neglects fish when the terminal is turned into a beauty salon. The narrator is often faced with difficult decisions about the death of his fish companions. Sometimes, the narrator abandons the fish and lets them die. This could be taken as an indication of the power that the narrator has. The narrator can control the deaths of the fish by controlling their lives. He cannot stop the dying and he is certain of his own death. The narrator refers only to the dying as “guests” and denies them comfort or interaction with the outside. He doesn’t allow medicine or any other treatments. The Terminal is for the sole purpose of allowing him to take in patients. As with AIDS, there is no cure. Readers will find out that the narrator had once attempted to treat his first patient. It was futile. “After exposing the first “guest”, he decides it is futile to continue with the use of palliatives.” (Hollander). This is a logical response to many of the thoughts that have been triggered by the AIDS crisis. Act Up is depicted fighting for legalization to allow the use of medication to treat AIDS. The documentary shows that there is a lot of hopelessness about the cause. AIDS was a death sentence, regardless of the number of medications that were tried. It was also difficult to get medication access because of the stigmas that HIV/AIDS patients were subject to. (France)
The disease was stigmatized in the novella as it is in real life. The novella tells the story of a couple who are both dying and having to deal in a society against them. Sometimes the mental suffering brought on by this disease seems more severe than the physical. It was most commonly associated with homosexual men. Although it wasn’t the cause, this resulted in the unfair treatment for an already marginalized segment. The Terminal is a resource that provides support for people who otherwise would be dying on the streets. The Terminal was even threatened by some of the neighbors, according to the storyteller. “The neighbors attempted burning down the beauty shop, claiming that it was a breeding area for infection and that plague had spread from their homes to theirs.” (Bellatin 24). This is very reminiscent how the United States government responded in the wake of the AIDS crisis. Since the disease affected people who believed they were immoral, it was not treated with respect. Although the stigma helped to create close knit gay communities like the Terminal, the vast majority of people didn’t show any compassion for those in need. Many did not realize that anyone could be affected by disease.
The novella shows that children and women are turned away at the Terminal by the author. The narrator doesn’t want them to be there, even though they are suffering from the same disease. He explains that the beauty salon was once devoted to beautifying women, and he wasn’t willing so many years to give up his work. “That is why I never accepted anyone who wasn’t an American man regardless how much they pleaded.” Bellatin, 24, explains. But it can also be inferred, that gay men were not welcomed into the same community as women because they didn’t share the same suffering. This exclusion, although justified, resulted in women feeling further marginalized. Castro and Leyva explained that women were subject to a similar marginalization in real life. (145) In Mexican culture, women are expected and encouraged to be virgins until marriage, while men are “approved” to engage in sexual conduct with multiple partners. (Castro 146) This created a stigma surrounding women with AIDS because of the perceived promiscuity they had. These women were also excluded by many AIDS-related groups because they were usually associated with gay identity.
“AIDS” is not used in the text. But, many people will take this to mean that the condition has the same effects as AIDS. (Hollander). The disease causes marks on the skin that are similar to lesions seen in AIDS. These marks were described by the narrator to be one of the first signs of the disease. I didn’t have to examine my glands to determine if they were swelling. I was able to identify the smallest symptoms because of my experience.” (Bellatin 441-42). This further cements the connection between AIDS to the minds of readers.
Bellatin successfully tells the story about AIDS as well as those who suffer from it. He does not address the actual disease. “Social injustices,” as Bellatin describes them, are told in a deadpan voice. This increases their power. Although the narrator may be apathetic at times, he still helps his “guests”, who are able to live with dignity and despite their loss. Although AIDS is a major theme in the story, Bellatin’s story could also be applicable to any other major disease. Beauty Salon will continue to be a powerful voice for all those with social stigmas and diseases.