The Poetry Of The Nuyorican Experience


January 2, 2002
Copyright © 2002
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.


The Nuyorican Poets Cafe lures young writers like Anthony Morales.
[PHOTO: Ting-Li Wang/The New York Times]


Where are my boricuas?" Anthony Morales shouted during a recent Friday night poetry slam at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, asking for the Puerto Ricans in the house.

The ethnically mixed, gentrified crowd at this legendary Lower East Side space may not have known it, but Mr. Morales was paying homage in his poem to the founders of the stage where he stood, to those

    stoned crazy prophets of revolution,

    giving poetic solutions to political pollution,

    organizing rhythmic confusion of assimilation

    to this untied states nation of eggs, cheese and bacon

    upon wakin'.

One of those prophets was the poet and playwright Miguel Piñero. He is the subject of "Piñero," a new film starring Benjamin Bratt that has put the spotlight on the Nuyorican poets' scene, which came into being in the 1960's and 70's and is still going strong as the popularity of poetry surges nationwide.


Miguel Pinero in 1974, the year he helped found the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and his play ``Short Eyes'' won an award..
[PHOTO: Ting-Li Wang/The New York Times]


Though Mr. Morales, a 21-year-old Bronx native majoring in English and Latino studies at Columbia University, may be far removed from the heroin-infested, crime-ridden, self-destructive world of Piñero, he nevertheless belongs to the same literary tradition, born of the Puerto Rican experience in the United States. "My poetry is about trying to make sense of the world, of being a young Puerto Rican male," Mr. Morales said. "We have incredible stories we got to tell."

In 1974 the story Piñero told in "Short Eyes," a prison drama presented by Joseph Papp's Public Theater and at Lincoln Center, won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best American play. It was developed in a workshop at the Ossining Correctional Facility (Sing Sing), where he was serving time for armed robbery. That year Piñero, known as Miky, was one of the founders of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe; he died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1988, when he was 41.

His poetry, with verses in both English and Spanish, had a strong political and social foundation, using the language of the street to document urban and prison reality. What became the Nuyorican poets' movement was influenced by Beat writers like Jack Kerouac, firebrand black poets like Amiri Baraka and Puerto Rico's oral poetry traditions. And it was informed by the discrimination, segregation and other harsh experiences suffered by Puerto Ricans who settled in New York.

In the spoken word, the Nuyoricans, or Puerto Rican New Yorkers, embraced identity and culture.

"We were coming out of the 60's, and there was a switch from self-hate to self-love," said Sandra María Esteves, 53, a published poet born in the Bronx to a Puerto Rican father and a Dominican mother and who, along with Piñero, was one of the founding poets of the Nuyorican movement. "That was an important marker for us. Embrace who we are. That was very different from the messages I got when I was growing up."

Today Nuyorican poetry can range from sonnets to the frenzied verses of competitive slams, and its themes are universal: the politics of daily life, sex and love, discovery of self. The poets function in a less cohesive, more glamorized setting than in Piñero's days. This is now poetry promoted by hip-hop and delivered in a more theatrical, performance-oriented way, which some Nuyorican poets criticize as being more often about entertaining and shocking an audience than about self-expression.

Miguel Algarin, the primary founder of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, says poetry today takes place in a more integrated setting. "For once," he said, "America is truly brought together into one from its myriads of ethnicities – 10,000 ethnicities become sharply focused into an art form, and ironically, the North American Puerto Rican, the Nuyorican, has become the mainstream of American poetry."

But a preoccupation with the Puerto Rican condition still anchors Nuyorican poetry and gives it its bite, as it did 30 years ago.

Many young Nuyorican writers said they were driven to poetry by racist encounters in mostly white schools, by witnessing injustices suffered by family members or neighbors at the hands of the police, landlords or welfare workers, and by the need to express themselves, "to prove," as one poet said, "that I was a human being."

Some noted parallels to black and Chicano poetry.

"This is a survival thing," said Willie Perdomo, 34, a Nuyorican poet, who said he had his share of rough times while growing up in East Harlem. "When you see things that are wrong, you want to say it's wrong. It's a raw language for a raw experience."

Questions of identity are also thoroughly explored. In a poem called "Ode to the Diasporican," Maria Teresa Fernández, a 30-year-old Bronx poet known as Mariposa (Butterfly), takes on those who say she is not "the real thing" because she was not born in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rican, she writes, "is a state of mind, a state of heart, a state of soul."

Even the term Nuyorican has often come to encompass Puerto Rican poets elsewhere in the United States. The winner of this year's individual title at the National Poetry Slam in Seattle was Mayda del Valle, 23, of Chicago, who moved to New York only a year ago and competed as part of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe's team.

She won with two poems: "Descendancy," about the frustrations of being stereotyped and limited by labels, and "Tonguetactics," a defense of Spanglish.

"It's a different experience to be a Puerto Rican from Chicago and a Puerto Rican from New York, but there are similar underlying experiences," Ms. del Valle said. "The sense of not belonging in Puerto Rico and not belonging in the United States is something everyone goes through. I consider myself part of the movement and I definitely feel the connection."

The Nuyorican Poets Cafe is still home for many Nuyorican poets and remains a thriving poetry hub, but its neighborhood has become trendy and expensive and freer of crime and drugs. The cafe has broadened its audience and core way beyond its bohemian Puerto Rican roots. At the recent Friday poetry slam, about 120 people crowded around tables and lined the bar: college-age, beer- drinking, well-behaved Latinos, blacks, whites and Asians.

Nuyorican poets today also read at places like the Point in the Bronx, Bar 13 in Greenwich Village and the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church in the Bowery. Some earn a living conducting poetry workshops in schools and traveling for readings at colleges; others hold day jobs in the news media and publishing.

And they are often found not only reading but also acting and singing in their own shows and performance pieces. "Spic Chic," a one-man show opening at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe this month, features poetry, music, drama and monologues to portray Puerto Rican pride in surviving life in the United States.

Luis Chaluisan, 44, the show's creator, calls it "the further adventures of an unrepentant Rican with no self- pity."

"You know what a Nuyorican is?" Mr. Chaluisan asked. "It's someone who finds solutions. How do I surmount this?"

But despite the vibrant scene and the poets' increasing opportunities to read, teach and be published, the work remains largely marginalized, some poets said. Most of it is not read by mainstream critics and scholars, does not find its way into major literary journals or magazines that publish poetry and is underrepresented in bookstores, they said.

Martín Espada, 44, who has published six collections of poetry and is a professor of English and Spanish at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, says this situation partly reflects the dearth of Puerto Rican editors in the publishing industry. And he says it might also show distaste for reminders of the poor social and economic conditions many Puerto Ricans have endured in this country.

"Puerto Rican poets are chroniclers," said Mr. Espada, a Brooklyn native who cites as his early influences the novel "Down These Mean Streets," by Piri Thomas; the poem "Puerto Rican Obituary," by Pedro Pietri; and "Short Eyes," which was later made into a film.

"We write about the same things everybody writes about," he said. "The difference is that the people who populate our poems suffer from the system that we live under rather than benefit from it; therefore our work is considered political."

Nuyorican poets have expressed a wide range of opinions on "Piñero," written and directed by Leon Ichaso ("El Super," "Crossover Dreams").

Founders and veterans of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, like Mr. Algarin and Mr. Pietri, who also appear in the movie, attended its premiere last month in New York. Some, like Ms. Esteves and Mr. Espada, criticized the choice of Piñero as a subject, noting that there were other worthy poets with less sensational lives, or who transcended drugs or other problems and did not die young.

"Hollywood and Broadway gave us `West Side Story,' " Mr. Espada said. "Decades go by, and what did we get? We got `Capeman.' Why is it that our hero has to die in the end?"

Many other poets, however, said they were moved and energized by the film, which not only recognizes an American literary movement but gives younger generations a sense of being part of a continuum.

"It was validating in saying we exist," Mariposa said. "Not only are we still here, but we have a tradition and a history."

Among some of these younger Nuyorican poets, Piñero remains an icon.

"The language that he used was his biggest influence," Mr. Perdomo said. "He made the street come alive. You could hear people on the street talking the same way. He represented poets who were giving voice to the voices."

Now Mr. Perdomo and his peers are forging their own legacy. A manager at Henry Holt & Company who has published one poetry collection and a children's book in verse, Mr. Perdomo said he wrote with a sense of threat, as the Puerto Rican population in New York shrinks.

"Puerto Ricans on the Lower East Side are being pushed toward the river," he said. "People are moving back to Puerto Rico. A lot of the writing is coming from a sense of urgency."

His goal, he said, was "to leave a solid body of work behind, so that that kid on 110th Street can go to the library and have his world turned upside down and find a voice."

happy holidaze.....be easy mi gente Posted by Picasa
Latin Arts Weekend
Megan Richards
October 26, 2006

Performers from “The Male Ego” represent a variety of cultures for Latin Arts Weekend.

While poetry readings, movies, and Ryley dances make up typical weekends at Andover, this weekend integrated a cultural twist into the ordinary schedule.

To finish off Latin Arts week, the weekend consisted of a series of events related to Latin culture. Although this weekend’s Latin festivities provided entertainment for the community, the events meant so much more than a cure for Saturday night boredom.

The weekend featured an All-School Commons dinner, a catered Latin Arts dinner, a poetry reading entitled “La Voz Latina,” the theatrical performance “The Male Ego,” a writing workshop, a Salsa dance class and party and a bilingual Christian church service in Lawrence. These events were organized by members of the African-Latino-American Club (Af-Lat-Am). Elinel Almanzar ’07 and Tia Contreras ’07 were the two main coordinators of the weekend.

Almanzar and Contreras set up menus for the Af-Lat-Am dinner, made posters and invitations, organized transportation to the Evangelical Service, decorated Commons and Underwood, and performed many of the other jobs needed to make the Latin Arts Weekend a success.

“[This weekend] was definitely just a piece of the Latin Culture. There are so many subdivisions within the Latin and Latin American culture that one weekend, one week, or even one month would be too little to fully grasp the essence of each country, city, island, and so on,” said Almanzar. “The weekend’s goal was to make a lot of people feel at home and to appreciate some of the food, dances and writing styles that some of these Spanish speaking people share.”

Most of the events during the weekend, including The Male Ego and La Voz Latina were provided by the Timeless Talent Group, a group focused on educating through artistic expression.

On Saturday night, the Latin Arts Dance mixed things up by playing a variety of music, ranging from Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” to traditional Merengue music. Before the dance, there was an opportunity for students and faculty to learn how to Salsa dance as well.

Nicholas Collabo ’98, co-founder and head of programming at the Timeless Talent Group, helped pick music for the dance along with world-famous DJ E.M. When Collabo was a student at Andover, he was president of Af-Lat-Am and one of the co-founders of a Latino group on campus.

“The music we played definitely reflected Latin culture,” said Collabo. “We played Salsa, Merengue, and Bachata. We also played a little bit of Latin pop.” Collabo went on to describe the roots of the different styles of music. Salsa originated in Puerto Rico but has roots even farther back with Mambo from Cuba. Merengue and Bachata are both from the Dominican Republic.

“I thought the music he played was definitely appropriate for Latin Arts Weekend,” said Sarah Rodriguez ‘08. “It was also nice to have something different besides the usual rap music in Ryley.”

Collabo described his experiences with the integration of Latino culture on campus when he was at Andover. “There was definitely Latin Arts weekend when I was at Andover,” Collabo said. “The Latino group I helped to form also raised awareness about Latino culture. We held meetings with traditional Spanish food and discussions about our identities, about the diversity within us. My senior year I became the president of Af-Lat-Am, so I brought our club as a subgroup of Af-Lat-Am. Our club has died out since then, but Af-Lat-Am is still doing the impossible – incorporating very different groups of people into one club. They have been doing a great job over the years.”

“It was an amazing experience to be able to come back and connect with the students,” Collabo concluded. “I hope I was able to incorporate a little more Latino culture into the culture here at Andover.”

Many Latino students at Andover are disappointed with the limited amount of Latin culture present on campus. Many Andover students do not take the time to experience the cultures of the numerous minority groups on campus.

“In Andover the only thing that sort of represents the “Latin Culture” is Latin Arts weekend, but after that, nothing else does. Most people do not even know all the countries that Latinos can be from,” said Almanzar.

In addition to the lack of information regarding Latin culture, other students notice that coming to Andover, in many respects, means giving up some family customs.

Frank Pinto ’08 said, “We had a discussion at Af-Lat-Am about Latin culture because a lot of Latino students felt that they couldn’t fully express their culture here on campus. As a Latino kid, you get used to certain things in everyday life at home that you have to give up when you come here, like the food and the language. Although a lot of Latino students don’t speak Spanish at home, I like speaking Spanish with my parents, but I don’t get to use it that often here.”

“I think a lot of students think that all Latinos are either Mexican or Dominican, because Mexican is a common stereotype associated with the ethnicity Latino,” said Pinto.

Almanzar concluded, “The weekend was a great success - everything from the food to the church service - because people were very welcoming of trying new things such as Salsa dancing and the writing workshop. I believe everyone enjoyed the weekend and left learning something new, even if it was just a few new moves on the dance floor.”

Andover’s Own Def Poet
Edward Kang
October 26, 2005

Shantell Cueras' vibratos silenced the room. An impressive feat indeed - especially at the age of thirteen.

Cueras was one of two acts to open in Kemper Auditorium last Friday for acclaimed poet Anthony Morales ’98.

The African Latino American Society arranged Morales' visit for last week’s Latin Arts Weekend.

After a brief introduction from Interim Dean of CAMD Linda Carter Griffith, Mr. Morales’ close friend Juma Waugh ’98 introduced the speaker as “a poet, a lecturer, a lover who speaks of the hidden rhythms of America.”

Morales shocked the audience as soon as he opened his mouth. He spoke very quickly in a mixture of languages that was difficult to understand. It seemed as though he was speaking English, but at times certain Spanish words were also recognizable.

However, the reason for his confusing speech was soon explained. “In the United States of America, we practice the language of oppression that people are looked down upon when they speak with accents and that speaking two languages at the same time is simply unacceptable,” said Morales.

He continued, “One thing that I learned at Andover was the ability to question - to question the ‘fundamental,’ such as what is right or wrong, and how it is so. It's a beautiful thing.”

Beyond the foreign plane of his language, Morales' character was both evolutionary and extraordinary. The more he read his poems, the more the audience became enchanted by the inexplicable spell of his words.

Morales also spoke about his career at Andover - how he met his best friend, how he felt on the day of graduation, how he fell in love with his girlfriend, how he grew up in the Bronx, how his parents became isolated.

He described the sentiment of hopelessness he felt along with other Puerto Ricans when the FBI assassinated Filiberto Ojeda Ríos on the day of their Independence. Morales' ability to freely and artfully share such personal memories with a complete group of strangers was admirable.

By the end of the evening, Morales had given both students and faculty alike a greater perspective and understanding of a culture perhaps entirely unfamiliar to many.

Said Waugh, “He shares so much of himself that he almost becomes vulnerable, and I cannot have anything other than the purest respect for his sincerity and honesty.” Indeed, Waugh's compliment proved itself true.