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Caribbean Matters: It’s Puerto Rican Heritage Month. Let’s salute the Nuyorican Movement

In “A Brief Guide to Nuyorican Poetry,” the team at Poets.org describes the genesis of the movement, which comprised primarily of poets and included playwrights, graphic artists, photographers, musicians, and political activists in 1960s-70s New York City.

Not unlike the Harlem Renaissance, the Nuyorican movement was born out of a period of migration. After the United States conferred commonwealth status onto Puerto Rico in 1950, Puerto Rican migration to New York City increased, creating pockets of Puerto Rican communities in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side and East Harlem. Many of the Nuyorican writers were part of this group of first-generation New Yorkers, who were either the children of immigrants or who themselves arrived at New York City at a young age.

Originally a pejorative term, “Nuyorican,” a mixture of “New York Puerto Rican” or “Neo-Rican,” was used by native Puerto Ricans to identify Puerto Ricans from New York City as distinct from those from the island. The Nuyorican movement, however, came to represent not only the struggles Puerto Ricans faced in working-class New York City, but also the pride they had in their language, culture, and Afro-Caribbean and indigenous Caribbean identities. While the poems decry the rampant discrimination they faced in schools and workplaces, the lack of economic opportunities, poor living conditions, and the general marginalization of their community, they also tell stories of rebellion, resistance, and endurance in the midst of these struggles.

Nuyorican poet and scholar Nancy Mercado writes:

In my discussions with friends and colleagues (from both here and the island) regarding what it is to be Nuyorican, throughout the years I’ve come to understand the shapeshifting nature of the term. I came into the “Nuyorican” picture in 1978 when as a student I met Miguel Algarín who had just taken over the chairmanship of the then, Puerto Rican Studies Department at Rutgers University. We became friends and I’ve been part of the movement and around my fellow poets, since.

Initially, the term Nuyorican … was meant to offend which it did, for a while at least. But then, like African-Americans who transformed the insult; “Black,” into a description of beauty and power, so did Puerto Ricans from the mainland transform the insult: “Nuyorican.”

Latino USA released an episode just this week, hosted by journalist Maria Hinojosa and exploring the legacy of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.

Together, the Nuyorican poets broke barriers: Miguel Piñero’s “Short Eyes” became the first play by a Latino writer to run on Broadway, and Pedro Pietri’s poems, including his opus “Puerto Rican Obituary,” became essential indictments of the so-called “American dream.”

The Nuyorican literary movement also led to the creation of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe—a vital haven for Black and Latinx writers and performers since its inception. The cafe began as an informal literary salon in Miguel Algarín’s living room, one of the movement’s founding poets. But soon after, Algarín and his fellow writers realized that they needed to expand to accommodate the growing roster of artists who frequented the space. They moved into a new venue nearby, and by 1981, they relocated again to the Nuyorican’s current location in New York City’s Lower East Side.

In this episode of Latino USA, several artists step up to the mic for a spoken history of the cafe. Poet Jesús “Papoleto” Meléndez recalls his experiences from the early days of the Nuyorican literary movement, transporting listeners back to the days when poets congregated in Miguel Algarín’s apartment; Caridad De La Luz, the Bronx poet also known as “La Bruja,” speaks about the cafe’s open mics and hosting events at the Nuyorican; playwright Ishmael Reed reflects on the cafe’s legacy of fostering Black and Latinx talent on and off stage; and artist and archivist Lois Elaine Griffith, who was involved with the cafe for decades, discusses the urgency and importance of preserving the Nuyorican history for future generations.

I wrote about my friend Pedro Pietri’s ground-breaking poem, Puerto Rican Obituary, back in 2011. Pietri became the poet laureate of the Young Lords Party; we members all knew Obituary by heart. Pietri was also a member of the First Spanish Methodist Church, which we occupied in 1969, and he performed Obituary for the first time there during the takeover.

Below, Pietri recites the poem again in the church, in the 1971 Newsreel film El Pueblo Se Levanta.

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Pietri finally published the poem in 1973. Here he is, reciting it again, in full.

Puerto Rican Obituary is a long piece, and while I won’t include the full text here, I encourage you to read it.

They worked
They were always on time
They were never late
They never spoke back
when they were insulted
They worked
They never took days off
that were not on the calendar
They never went on strike
without permission
They worked
ten days a week
and were only paid for five
They worked
They worked
They worked
and they died
They died broke
They died owing
They died never knowing
what the front entrance
of the first national city bank looks like
Juan
Miguel
Milagros
Olga
Manuel
All died yesterday today
and will die again tomorrow
passing their bill collectors
on to the next of kin
All died
waiting for the garden of eden
to open up again
under a new management
All died
dreaming about america
waking them up in the middle of the night
screaming: Mira Mira
your name is on the winning lottery ticket
for one hundred thousand dollars
All died
hating the grocery stores
that sold them make-believe steak
and bullet-proof rice and beans …

Pietri died of cancer in March 2004 as the result of being exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Before he died, he told his story in his own inimitable ironic style, while at the Oasis of Hope Hospital in Playas de Tijuana, México.

I was born in 1898, during the climax of the Spanish/American War. I say 1898 because that was the year that the U.S. invaded Puerto Rico, the year when they colonized us. Now, I was born again in ‘44 to my mother in Ponce, Puerto Rico and again in ’47, at the age of three, when my folks migrated to New York City through the epic of Operation Boot Strap. We’re all part of the casualties of the Inquisition, the American Inquisition.

I also say I was born in 1949, because that’s the day I went to the first theatre with my grandfather, who felt deceived by Operation Boot Strap and committed hara-kiri, but I don’t think it was suicide. He was killed by the system that deceived him, the system that made him sell his land in Borinquen. What happened was the disillusion. The voices in his head were of the Central Intelligence, compelling him to sever his jugular vein. Think about his friends. There’s nobody to talk to, nobody to communicate with, and there’s nothing to go back to, but the industrialization of the island that had deceived so many people. So, that was the first theatre I went to, at Monje’s Funeral Parlor, in a brown suit. Actually, that was my first teaching, or my first awareness of Puerto Rican history. Puerto Ricans die and go to a Puerto Rican funeral parlor. And Monje was a ghoul; he looked like a ghoul. How you going to have the name Monje, and be a proprietor of a funeral parlor? You’ll scare the customers away, but he didn’t scare us away.

There were five of us, four guys and one girl. My elder brother had a heart attack, and my younger brother went joyriding one night, and I haven’t seen him since. So, there’s a total tragedy, because then there were only three of us. So then, we went back to Monje, and we kept going back to Monje for other people. Every week there was a different funeral, and after a while, I said, ‘Let me just stay dressing in black.’

Nuyorican photographer Adál Maldonado captured this wonderful photo of Pietri. Known as just Adál, he passed in December 2020.

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That same month, the heart and soul of the Poets Cafe, founder Miguel Algarín, also joined the poetry slam in the sky.

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Puerto Rican author, Nuyorican poet, and journalist Ed Morales wrote this eulogy for Algarín for The New York Times.

Born in San Juan and raised on the Lower East Side, Algarín attempted to merge the highbrow culture of his working-class parents with a Rabelaisian Everyman rebellion from below. He had a fearless sense of pride and was a champion of the underprivileged. The passion for Shakespeare he displayed as a professor at Rutgers University seamlessly fused with the Africanist urgency of his own poetry, producing a body of work that reflected his fluid use of Spanglish and shifting sexual identity

[…]

Today, spoken word theater is universal, and the legacy of Algarín and the generation that founded the Nuyorican Poets Cafe has stretched across the globe.

In a sense, Algarín — who tested positive for H.I.V. in the late 1980s, writing, “Can it be that I am the bearer of plagues?” in his 1994 poem “HIV” — was the ultimate survivor, outliving most of his contemporaries, and maintaining a quiet presence on the Lower East Side, even as the cafe became a nonprofit corporation with a new board of directors. With a seemingly endless expression of varied sexuality, much of his work centered on the body.

The day before Morales’ eulogy was published, Neil Genzlinger wrote his Times obituary.

His Lower East Side performance space has been an incubator for poets, playwrights and other artists, many of them not initially embraced by the mainstream.

In 1975, Mr. Algarín and Miguel Piñero, another founding poet of the cafe, published “Nuyorican Poetry: An Anthology of Puerto Rican Words and Feelings.” It included an introductory essay by Mr. Algarín that became something of a foundational document for the Nuyorican literary movement.

“The poems in this anthology document the conditions of survival: many roaches, many busts, many drug poems, many hate poems — many, many poems of complaints,” he wrote. “But the complaints are delivered in a new rhythm. It is a bomba rhythm” — a music and dance form from Puerto Rico — “with many changing pitches delivered with a bold stress. The pitches vary, but the stress is always bomba and the vocabulary is English and Spanish mixed into a new language.”

Keep an eye out for the Anthology.

Sandra Maria Esteves is the matriarch of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, a poet and artist who was born in the Bronx in 1948. Democracy Now! produced this stirring performance at the Young Lords 40th Anniversary Celebration in 2009 at the First Spanish Methodist Church (The People’s Church) in East Harlem.

Again, while I won’t post it here, I encourage you to read the full text of Aguacero.

“Malo tiempo, yo no quiero
que me traigan desarreglo,
en mi soledad, Angel Divino,
yo no quiero en mi camino la fatalidad…”

Growin’ up Puertorriqueña/Latina
White/African/Brown
In South Bronx, Loisaida,
El Barrio parts of town

Growin’ up called
Some slavemaster’s name
Other people’s typecast
Strange nicknames

Spic, cuchicuchi,
Inospeekieeeingle
Pointytoegarliceatin’
Bananaboat adjectives

Growin’ up with labels
Outta someone else’s mouth
Not me, not mine
Not definitions of myself

“Cuando veo el cielo
Que se ta nublando
Cuando veo el cielo
Que se ta nublando
Agua que va caer

In Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies’ feature, “Fourteen Women Poets on Being Nuyorican,”  Esteves states:

In my early years I was a silent child who gravitated towards the visual arts. In college I realized that words could be a tool for creative self-expression and began the process of exploring writing as another way of creating art. Then one day I discovered my voice as a poet on a journey that healed the silent child and empowered my consciousness. I read my first poem to an audience at the Bronx Council on the Arts in 1973. Born and raised in the Bronx, I emerged from the Nuyorican community. It is the community that understands and embraces my writing and that is viscerally linked to my being, culture and creative process.

Andrea Rivera Martinez and Pedro Pérez de la Peña from the University of Puerto Rico created a webpage for Esteves and asked her questions via email. This query and response struck me:

I know that you are Dominican Boricua Nuyorican. Did you as a kid or even as an adult ever experience racial prejudice and did this influence your writing?

Yes and yes. Racial prejudice was always around me although I did not consciously understand it until I was older. It existed within my family when my mother was considered “too dark” to be an acceptable partner for my father. It existed in my building when one of my neighbors gifted me with a pair of light skin-colored nylon stockings and said they would make my legs look lighter. It existed in the boarding school I attended in the fifth grade when my teacher, a nun, said she could tell I was “lazy and shiftless” (a disguised racial cliché) by looking at my hands. (Afterwards I stared at my hands for hours trying to see what she saw.)

Segueing into one of the later generations of Nuyorican poets, Mariposa also addresses the issue of race. But in Broken Ends/Broken Promises, the conversation is all about hair.

Author Jill Toliver Richardson spoke with Mariposa in 2015 for CENTRO: Journal for the Center for Puerto Rican Studies.

Mariposa, born Maria Teresa Fernandez in 1971, is an Afro-Puerto Rican poet who was born and raised in the Bronx, New York. She gained popularity within the Puerto Rican and Latino communities for her spoken word performances and published poems. Her most well-known poem, “Ode to the DiaspoRican,” has influenced many and catapulted her to social media notoriety when young Latinas began posting their own renditions of the poem on You Tube.

[…]

JTR: Do you see a distinction between the labels Nuyorican and DiaspoRican or between the Nuyorican Literary Movement and “post-1990s Puerto Rican poets”? Or do you view them as a continuation of the Nuyorican tradition?

MTF: I think that scholars are making a distinction between Nuyorican as an identification. In many ways I do identify as a Nuyorican. But I think that they’re looking at the Nuyorican movement in terms of the writers who were writing in the ’70s: Pedro Pietri, and Jesus Papoleto Melendez, Miguel Algarin, Miguel Pinero, Sandra Maria Esteves. And there is a distinction, obviously, because we’re from different generations. So we’re coming from different perspectives.

It’s because of that movement that the word, Nuyorican, was born. But I think that it’s because of us, those writers that came later and continued that tradition, that the term Nuyorican is in the dictionary. I do think that those writers that came later, that carried on the tradition, had something to do with that word winding up in the dictionary. There’s a distinction between the term Nuyorican as an identification. I do identify as Nuyorican, but I also identify as being a Puerto Rican. And I don’t claim one over the other. I don’t think that it’s fair to lump us all together; we’re coming from different perspectives because we’re from different generations.

Daily Kos readers may remember Mariposa’s fundraising efforts after Hurricane Maria, which I wrote about in October of 2017, one month after the island was devastated. Since then, Mariposa has become a member here, and I’m looking forward to her writing some stories for us soon! 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey into the Nuyorican Movement. Join me in the comments for even more poetry and for our weekly Caribbean news roundup.

Finally, happy Puerto Rican Heritage Month!


Read the first installment of Caribbean Matters here, and last week’s entry on the Dutch and Papiamento-speaking Caribbean here.




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