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I spent the last few days at the Latino Literary Imagination Conference at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, among a community of humanities scholars who have been steps ahead of what the 2010 census revealed: that Latinos are the largest minority in the United States, that soon we will be the majority. Latino intellectuals and artists soldier on, unfazed by attempts at erasure, censure, denial, dismissal, token nods of acceptance and approval disguised as kindness, progress or hard-won seats at the master’s table. We’ll take those, but know that we know what’s up. And we move forward with the confidence that our growing numbers will eventually tip the cultural and political scales in our favor. May not happen in my lifetime, but it will happen, and the best we can do is leave an indelible footprint in the era of transition, so that those that come after can look back and see that we were doing something beautiful and meaningful.
One of the highlights of the conference was the tribute to Nuyorican Poets Café founders Miguel Algarín and Piri Thomas. Emcee extraordinaire Jive Poetic kicked things off introducing Algarín himself, who demonstrated why he was the master of the stage, how the performance is half the passion, the other half is the loaded word that flies on the strength of pride, history, politics, and community. Two Chicano legends stopped by, Jimmy Santiago Baca and Guillermo Gómez Peña, as well as two highly-regarded Nuyorican scene regulars, Willie Perdomo and Caridad de la Luz (aka La Bruja), who never ceases to dazzle me with her extraordinary voice. Don’t believe me? Check it out.
Baca and I were the only non-stage poets, which made for an interesting pause among the parade of young, energetic spoken-word poets that took to the mic. (Special shout out to Elisabet Velásquez, who impressed the fuck out of me, and to Sean Battle, a young African American poet who will be pursuing his MFA in the fall at Rutgers-Newark.) But all was game in the celebratory spirit of the night. But make no mistake: we may have been coming together beneath the umbrella term Latino, but each poet brought his or her homeland, ethnicity, language and music to the tribute. Situating the self within artistic expression is a good way to achieve orientation, direction, visibility and verve. Hence the power and continuing relevance of places like the Nuyorican Poets Café.
Though the vibe of the evening was justifiably Nuyorican, that there was also a Chicano presence was important, since by 2025, Mexicans will outnumber Puerto Ricans in NYC. That doesn’t mean Mexicans will displace or replace Puerto Ricans, that simply means these two communities will be thriving together into the new millennium. So it’s essential to acknowledge and work together. The NPC has also been steps ahead on this issue as well: a few years ago, Nuyorican legend Tato Laviera brought a group of young Mexican and Chicano poets from the South Texas Valley to read their work on the stage. He had been mentoring these young people, many of them with heartbreaking stories, many of them the children of undocumented aliens, or themselves undocumented aliens.
I was invited to read at that event also, and I remember feeling so fortunate to be there, with Tato, while he was still healthy, with these young people who had the fire in them–the same fire I saw in the young people at the tribute for Algarín and Thomas.
Well, that was kind of strange? I didn’t get all high an mighty. I guess I was humbled by it all. Sometimes we just need to shut the hell up and listen to the young people for guidance.