For half a century, spoken-word savants have seized their roots and given a voice to the Puerto Ricans of New York.
At the Mi Gente lounge/bar in the Castle Hill neighborhood of the Bronx, one Friday every month is poetry night, and July 27, 2012 was a special occasion: “Babble in the Bronx” is celebrating its second anniversary. A moodily lit basement beneath the main room is buzzing with high spirits; dinner was served before the performances began. A soulful duo warmed up the crowd. Then the evening’s hostess steps on stage to a boisterous welcome: A slight figure with a powerful, effervescent presence, La Bruja is in her element.
“Oh, my goodness! It’s hot and poppin’ in the boogie-down Bronx!”
She feels out the atmosphere, talking to the audience, before kicking off her set with “Lola,” a poem about “an unwanted daughter” who “gets high to forget the time and the place / Where she works the busy path of drugs and disgrace.” It’s a modern parable of poverty, just six verses long, packing a thoughtful punch with every word:
It was love at first pipe
So she made it her life
She was engaged to addiction
And would die as its wife
“Ain’t that some shit.”
La Bruja delivers the final line with elongated syllables in an exaggerated junkie twang, an invisible crack pipe clasped between two fingers of her right hand. The crowd erupts.
Nourishing this local poetry scene is part of the mission for Caridad De La Luz, forty-one, whose pseudonym translates as “The Witch.” She leads regular workshops at schools, community centers and prisons, in addition to maintaining a busy schedule of live shows.
“It’s the most natural high you can get,” she says of appearing onstage. “I feel honored that I can do what I do, and live, and inspire. People have told me that because of something they heard me say, it made them go home and write something amazing, which they’ve always wanted to say, and they find the poet within themselves. I live for that.”
De La Luz, whose fiery stage presence belies her slight figure and serene demeanor in person, believes performing is a “spiritual experience” and seeks to channel higher energies through her work. “With our words, with our thoughts, we create our reality,” she continues. “Sometimes we say certain things and we don’t give the spirits time to turn it about. You just have to really hold fast to that prayer and let it evolve, let it happen—you have to be patient and wait. If you can really appreciate the moment, you’ll see it’s really the moment you have created for yourself.”
“It’s really magical, it’s a lot of power that we all have,” she continues. “I’m not the only bruja–that’s the other message. We are all brujos and brujas. How are you going to use your magic?”
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The artistic persona of La Bruja was “born” on April 3, 1996, during an open mic night at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, an iconic venue in Manhattan’s Alphabet City. “I’ve been a poet all my life, really, so it was such a refreshing eye-opener to see there was a place for it, that there was actually an interest, and that I had found a home,” recalls De La Luz. “It was immense, a huge moment—the place was packed, everybody loved it.”
This debut is recreated in her autobiographical poem “For Witch It Stands”:
“My spoken word the first time was heard
And I emerged as Nuyorican poet
I didn’t even have a flow yet …
The seed was planted since then
I just had to grow it.”
The creative and free-flowing atmosphere described by De La Luz was a hallmark of the Cafe’s second coming as a New York institution. Established by poet Miguel Algarín and his literary cohort in Algarín’s apartment in 1973, the organization gradually expanded and bought the building in which it is currently located in 1981. Algarín worked with Bob Holman, an impresariowho brought slam poetry to the city from Chicago, and this import catalyzed a renaissance for the cafe as a new hip-hop youth culture took off in the 1990s. It gained more fame in the 2000s, transcending into popular culture with the appearance of “Def Poetry Jam,” an HBO series produced by music magnate Russell Simmons.
But the roots of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, and the movement that founded it, run deeper into American history. Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens in 1917, and from the 1940s to 1960s, more than 800,000 islanders left for New York and other cities—initially to work manufacturing jobs during World War II, when millions of Americans were conscripted. In “Boricua Pop: Puerto Ricans and the Latinization of American Culture,” Frances Negrón-Muntaner writes that these migrants of diverse skin color were “assigned a low rank within the city’s ethno-racial hierarchy.” They occupied a precarious space at the bottom of the social ladder, at a time when racial segregation was rampant, and endured poor working conditions.
Sociologist Juan Flores, in an essay entitled “Life off the Hyphen: Latino Literature and Nuyorican Traditions,” states that islanders in New York lived “a bitter abortion of that [American] Dream,” as they were “condemned to an outcast status, invisible and finding no representation of any kind in the alien culture that surrounds them.” Faced with the manifold social challenges of assimilation, Puerto Ricans established their own geographical enclaves—in East Harlem, known as “El Barrio”; the Lower East Side, also called “Loisaida”; and parts of the South Bronx and Brooklyn.
In 1969, Pedro Pietri—a father figure of Nuyorican poetry—gave the first performance of “Puerto Rican Obituary,” an incendiary work that chronicled the migrant experience with tragicomic intensity. In the second stanza, Pietri writes:
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 names in on a 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
All died waiting dreaming and hating
Ed Morales, a journalist and scholar who participated in the ’90s poetry scene, describes it as “an epic about the fate of the faceless Puerto Rican worker who came to the U.S. for a better life but found only disappointment.” On a wider level, Morales, in his book “Living in Spanglish,” writes that the poem “not only lionized the Nuyorican underclass, it signaled the ‘death’ of Puerto Ricans in New York and the subsequent birth of the Spanglish-speaking Nuyorican.”
The literary awakening catalyzed by Pietri allowed burning issues to be tackled with new confidence and verve. “The term ‘Nuyorican’ began as an insult and was then recovered in the 1970s,” explains Urayoán Noel, a poet and professor of English at the University at Albany – SUNY. “There was a deep sense that existing representations of the barrio, and the Puerto Rican community in general, were simplistic and not reflective of the richness of the culture and the language.”
Questions of identity also influenced many poets. “Coming to the United States kinda fractured our reality,” says Jesús “Papoleto” Meléndez, sixty-three, who has a shock of curly hair that seems to gyrate with the energy of his speech. He was born and raised in East Harlem after his family migrated from the island, and has been publishing work since 1970 as a full-time writer. “You found yourself in a strange world, and you had to figure a lot of things out. And you had to perpetrate your culture—the reality—so that’s what the movement was about.”
* * *
Perhaps no writer embodied the Nuyorican Spanglish aesthetic more profoundly than Tato Laviera, who died in November 2013 at age sixty-three.
As the child of a migrant family that moved to New York in 1960, Laviera grew up in a bilingual world. The inventive melding of both languages became a signature of his work: “It’s why I am who I am,” Laviera said in a July 2012 interview. “It’s what defines my history—Spanish and English. I’m able to combine it, and one enhances the other. One is not stronger than the other. They are both pretty strong languages and that’s a mantle, an insignia.”
A year before he died, in the summer of 2012, Laviera staged a new production of “King of Cans,” a musical based on a poem he first published in 1988. The original work, “Latero Story,” focuses on a delusional vagabond who aspires to start a business empire by collecting cans from the streets of East Harlem and selling them for scrap metal. In the play, he is supported by a diverse cast of street dwellers living in a surreal underground society that parallels the general public yet falls below its radar.
“I used to walk from the Lower East Side every morning to East Harlem, and, along the way, I found myself with the can pickers,” Laviera recalled. “One day I went with them, followed them right into the redemption center—and I was esteemed by the word ‘redemption.’ It caught my eye. How could it be a redemption center? And one of the very learned guys there says, ‘Well, if you look at the law, if you go and get a can, you are a redeemer.’ I was stunned by this.”
Laviera embarked on a two-year study of the phenomenon. At Orchard Beach in the Bronx, he found inspiration for his hero: A community kingpin who was “sitting by his Cadillac, sending people out to collect cans for him. And they all had their law, so the cops and the parks department workers didn’t bother them. He had a big trunk full of beers, which he got free from the supermarket—he had everything lined up.”
Latero (which translates as “tinsmith”) is a “twentieth-century welfare recipient” who went off the rails after military service saw him take innocent lives in Latin America. During the play’s opening song, he is given a crown made of cans, which also decorate his tatty brown suit jacket. His world is governed by the almighty penny, as illustrated in a monologue that follows the bizarre coronation:
i can now hire workers at twenty
five cents an hour guaranteed salary
and fifty two per cent two and one half cents
profit on each can collected
A potent allegory struck Laviera after he encountered a can-picker at Avenue B and 6th Street on the Lower East Side. “He bends over, and he comes up with a piece of cotton; then he bent over again, and he took out a can—so it was reminiscent of the way slaves bend over to pick up cotton. Right there, my mind saw it: There was no difference between picking cotton and picking cans.”
The other characters are miscellaneous misfits that have been spurned by society. Latero’s romantic partner is Subway Ms. Can, a rape victim who falls in love with him after he rescues her from the brutal act. Reverend Sidewalk is a “fugitive” alcoholic minister who preaches that God is his bottle. The Brain is a mental asylum escapee who invents strange pills and hatches a plan for Latero to win electoral office. Vying for Subway’s affection is The Champ, a dim-witted former boxing champion who colludes with a “crooked cop,” murders The Brain and is then double-crossed and killed by his erstwhile accomplice.
During key scenes at the end of the play, the Reverend talks about “a colony of despair” in which “everybody is exclusively for themselves” and “everybody’s friend is everybody’s enemy.” This highly critical statement is thrown emphatically in the faces of the audience when Subway Ms. Can sings, “Help, help, society help, because we are a reflection of you.” It is a clarion call for understanding and compassion toward the forsaken underclass.
“I’m trying to change society’s attitude about these people,” Laviera said. “I want them to be seen as workers, which is what they are: They’ve got to pick up a can, clean it, go to the redemption center or machines in a supermarket, then get a ticket, get on line—so it’s like going to the bank. It’s a whole day’s effort for five cents per can.”
Making a stand for oppressed groups is a classic feature of the Nuyorican canon. “I definitely believe the mirror imagery of giving a voice back to the people,” Laviera said in a 1989 interview with the Callaloo arts journal. “It is my responsibility, as effectively as I can, to let the voices of my people, at any moment, integrate into me and I just give it back to them the way they give it to me…There are a thousand people in every syllable.”
On November 8, 2013, the Boricua community gathered to remember Laviera, who died of complications related to diabetes that left him legally blind in recent years. Saint Peter’s Church in Manhattan was filled with poetry, music, dance and people wearing Panama hats—a tribute to Laviera’s trademark look. The Red Carpet Theater at the Taíno Towers housing project in East Harlem, where Laviera lived since 2010 (and also staged his 2012 production of “King of Cans”), has been renamed in the poet’s honor.
* * *
Seven is a smaller number than one thousand, but it’s still an impressive total of characters played by a single person. In her one-woman show, “Boogie Rican Boulevard,” that’s exactly what La Bruja set out to do.
“It was different people expressing what life means to them and what’s important to them,” she explains. In the production, which began in 2002 and developed into a full-blown musical, she took on a diverse range of personalities—from a bodega owner to a grandmother to apathetic teenagers. Her goal was to study the Puerto Rican experience on multiple levels, with a distinct generational perspective she has gained from “sitting with my family, watching my uncles, my cousins, my grandparents discuss and make jokes.” She says the elders can be “religious but racist,” in a “comical” way, and that she wanted to create “a real yet imaginary place where people come together and discuss what’s what.”
In that sense, De La Luz believes her work meshes with the Nuyorican poetic tradition of providing a forum to explore the complex cultural issues around migrant assimilation. But she is quick to note the art form has its limits: “A lot of people aren’t into poetry at all, and they’re not getting to talk about those things, so it’s not like we’ve been able to really change on a large scale, come together and all get on the same page through the poetry.”
Music is another weapon in this quest to be heard: De La Luz has built a considerable recording career, most recently with “For Witch It Stands” (2010), an album she released independently. Several poems are reworked into rap lyrics, backed by sounds of salsa, Reggaeton and Afro-Cuban instrumentation as well as more conventional samples and electronically produced hip-hop beats. Spanish choruses feature prominently on songs such as “Flores,” “Cuchillero,” “Piraguero” and the title track.
“I’m not only representing women in hip-hop, I’m representing Puerto Ricans—and those two things are really underrepresented,” she says. “If you’re a woman, it’s difficult to be seen as relevant, especially if you’re not talking about highly sexualized things. If you’re talking about revolution and culture and your people, even though that’s what hip-hop is all about, it’s not considered legitimate.”
“In my reading, what’s interesting about La Bruja is that it’s almost a performance of hip-hop—as opposed to a hip-hop performance,” says Urayoán Noel, whose next book documents Nuyorican poetry from the ’60s until today. “I think there’s a very savvy and self-conscious construction of both a personal identity and a political identity, and also a poetics, around the myth of hip-hop as a social space. Not just hip-hop as a form, because everybody’s doing that—it’s the social space of hip-hop bleeding into the social space of Nuyorican poetry.”
Rap, poetry and song blend together seamlessly in De La Luz’s creative opus. Her greatest literary influence is Pedro Pietri, who went on to become her mentor after she encountered his work at college. “He was the first poet I read that I felt like he was speaking of my life,” she says. “The main lesson he taught was to be fearless and unapologetic. Let it happen, and if you offend someone, whatever. Just do it. Say what you really want to say.”
As demonstrated by “King of Cans,” a strong uncompromising streak is also evident in Tato Laviera’s writing. “I see anger, but you never get just pure anger in Laviera’s work,” says Noel. “I think that’s a distinguishing feature of a lot of early Nuyorican poetry—its irreverence, its playfulness, and you could say its irony also. If you compare it to Black Arts poets like Amiri Baraka, with whom the Nuyoricans shared a lot—they were reading each other—I think there’s a difference in tone that you could call humorous or irreverent or playful.”
In her book “The Poetician,” De La Luz included a tribute to Laviera, heralding him as “pure genius.” Asked to compare her work with his, she said they are poets of “different eras” and identified his equal fluency in both English and Spanish as a key contrast.
“I’m born here, he’s born there,” she continues. “Tato is not hip-hop at all. He’s more salsa, bomba plena—those are his roots. He was an amazing dancer, he could sing and write you songs in those genres, where he really wouldn’t be able to spit a verse, sixteen bars, and throw you a hook. But at the same time, I looked to him for knowledge that I don’t have in order to carry this into my hip-hop. He was like a guru.”
* * *
Successful crossover artists like Caridad De La Luz are possibly the strongest indicator of how Nuyorican poetry has developed over time, evolving into a permeable idiom of twenty-first-century Hispanic life.
“Nuyorican is inclusivity,” stated Tato Laviera in 2012. “The Nuyorican culture is ahead of its time, because very few Mexican or Latin American kids explore or accept black, but the Puerto Rican kids don’t mind being black or Indian or Spanish. They have no conflict. So our language becomes a more acceptable way of looking at society, and that’s why it’s important—it’s a very weird combination of acceptances, rather than exclusions.”
Laviera believed it could even become a lingua franca that unites Latino diasporas in the United States. He drew a comparison with the European single currency: “That was an extreme revolutionary achievement, all those different countries with different languages having the same monetary system. It was when I went there that I realized my worth.”
America’s 4.9 million Puerto Ricans are a shrinking percentage in relation to the total U.S. Latino population of fifty-two million, so it remains to be seen whether this theory holds water. Mexicans are far and away the largest single group at 33.5 million (sixty-three percent of all U.S. Hispanics).
In “Living in Spanglish,” Ed Morales tackles similar questions: “I realized that the working definition for Latinos (or Hispanics) should be ‘everything.’ All races, all creeds, all possible combinations.” While making a compelling case for avoiding narrow categories or labels, he argues that “Spanglish” is the only possible blanket term because it expresses “what we are doing, rather than where we came from.”
Morales encapsulates the quintessential Nuyorican identity crisis, first chronicled by Piri Thomas in his seminal novel “Down These Mean Streets,” with a striking statement: “At the root of Spanglish is a very universal state of being. It is a displacement from one place, home, to another place, home, in which one feels at home in both places, yet at home in neither place.”
Binary ethnic markers seem an increasingly dated concept in modern American cities like New York, as racial intermingling blurs lines and breaks down cultural barriers. Furthermore, since the late 1990s, many ethnic neighborhoods have been hit by waves of gentrification; Nuyorican bastions such as East Harlem and the Lower East Side are becoming rapidly diluted by development.
Urayoán Noel, thirty-eight, a self-declared “stateless poet,” identifies the diffusion of Puerto Ricans around the country as a major turning point for the Nuyorican movement. As alternative geographic centers emerge, the influence of New York could wane in comparison: “You have, for example, increasing communities in Orlando or Tampa, or other areas far removed from what was the hub for this kind of poetry,” says Noel. “It’s occurring across and along class context, different experiences of migration, different definitions of what home is. I think the future is open-ended in that sense, because there are so many more sites of identification.”
The dominance of English in second- and third-generation Puerto Rican families is another significant consideration. “I think about my children,” says De La Luz. “To me, they’re the new generation, but they don’t necessarily pride themselves in speaking Spanish, or Spanglish, or dancing salsa, whereas I felt it was important to learn those things.”
“I really don’t know where it’s going,” she continues. “All I know is that I can just leave these messages behind and hope that, when I’m long gone, somebody will pick it up… and it tells them something about themselves they never would have known, had they not found it.”
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Emon Hassan, Narratively’s Director of Video & Multimedia, is a New York-based filmmaker and photographer. He is also a contributor to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook & Google+.