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Last of the Cuchifritos: A Walk with Urayoán Noel
Flash. East Harlem. On 118th between Lenox and 5th resided one of my middle school crushes. On Columbus another crush was kissed during that fateful summer camp week at Bear Mountain. One rode a scooter. Another was a B-Boy whose first name ended with a “–ski.” Because Central Park resides as a marker between East and West, I cannot tell you where exactly El Barrio began and ended for me. Booker T. Washington J.H. 54 and Joan of Arc I.S. 44 probably had more Puerto Ricans than African Americans. Then again, the East/West divide might have begun on Lenox Ave instead of 5th. 111th between Lenox and 5th still hosts the annual Old Timers reunion of stick ballers from the old neighborhood. And long before I was born, a mid-town Manhattan neighborhood—named after an all-black cavalry unit had fought at the battle of San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War—became an El Barrio itself. This happened way before my mother left North Carolina with hopes of becoming a nurse.
On my block, a Dominican building owner purchased his first property in 1979 across the street from where I grew up. Four years ago his family lost the four buildings and the real estate business the owner created over three decades ago to a son’s greed. The owner had taken his first vacation in the 30 years he lived in Harlem to Mexico when he died suddenly. Rumors state that Viagra was the culprit.
Before I entered Saint Cecilia Catholic Church on 106th to collect holy water for my beads, I would be at the home of another crush in Taino Towers who shared an apartment with his sister, her kids and a pit-bull named Una. Block parties and basketball courts. Public pools and public parks. Pizza joints. Everyone co-mingled despite the limitations of fully understanding each other’s histories or thier own. Babies were still being made on a nightly basis. It still cracks me up when a Puerto Rican and Dominican are referred to or refer themselves as “Spanish.”
No. This flash is from 2006. An art exhibit/concert organized by a group of Latino/as. The event: Constructivismo. The location: the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center in the Lower East Side. The organizers call themselves Spanic Attack. Their name tickles the shit out of me. I have no faces to match the name. Only the description of Constructivisimo itself:
Constructivismo constitutes a device to encourage a collective exercise in cogent creation; and a mixer of genres, emergent and established artists. The project itself will become IT’S OWN IGNITION MECHANISM for those who dare engage in a sample update of the constructive spirit today. To develop an experiential taste for structures that pulsate just as much as they are mathematical is the gift we all get as result.
That alone ignited the decision to submit my proposal. It is my first time submitting to anything in fact. I knew nothing about abstracts or proposals or project descriptions. I knew nothing of the collective until that evening or how I would need to convince them through some persuasive language why they might like to have me. My only point of reference was Edwin Torres, a Puerto Rican from the Bronx who I first heard at The Nuyorican Poets Café recite his poems with a tape recorder. He appears before them (in my eyes) as their Shaolin Master. He is Grandfather. Elder. Supreme Being. Who the hell are these cats? Their decision to make their home The Boogie Down Bronx makes me even more curious. And here I meet Urayoán Noel.
Urayoán is a funny guy and a smart one. Poet. Scholar. Part-time punk-cabaret-rock-lounge singer. His dedication to the abstract and the performative catches me off guard when I get wind to his research on the history of Nuyorican literature. While his own artistic aesthetic is what he calls “stateless” and “refers to the poet’s flux between island and mainland, and between textual forms (print, body, web),” we bump into each other in the most random of places downtown, Harlem and the Bronx because we share a desire to pay witness and give tribute.
For the past couple of years sharing food, gossip, “scattered” histories, train rides, and Maracatu concerts, Urayoán is something of a trans-local/trans-island historian. His road could easily be elsewhere but his calling is concerned with something closer to my old stomping grounds.
His first scholarly work, In Visible Movement: Nuyorican Poetry from the Sixties to Slam, “attempts to read key moments in almost half a century of Nuyorican poetry in print and performance in an effort to flesh out its cultural politics at the limits of the page.” It will be the first to focus solely on the Nuyorican literary movement and the first to attempt to explain each mode of its collective voice from its earlier days to present day. It will be the first to expand the Nuyorican conversation beyond its most noted venue and state. I won’t attempt here to be a scholar of any sort but only as I have been, a layperson sharing a plate of rice and beans at the local Cuchifritos reflecting on a time that shaped my very own poetics and oppositions. We begin our travelogue outside Martin Luther King Jr. Housing on 112th and 5th.
LD: Let’s talk about urgency and this book. Why now?
UN: There’s an institutional urgency, of course: there are scholarly books on Chicano/a and Black Arts, but none specifically on Nuyorican poetics. The other urgency has to do with community: with gentrification and commodification and the risk of forgetting, and with a need to respond by affirming this work and these histories, with outlining what these poets did and do and why it matters. When I began working on this book, all the major poets were still with us with the exception of Miguel Piñero and Pedro Pietri. In the past couple of years we have lost so many: Piri Thomas, Louis Reyes Rivera, Tato Laviera, and others. The passing of so many foundational figures brings home to me the fragility and provisionality of poetry communities and the need to document where we have been and where we are.
LD: What does it mean to you for the Nuyorican literary movement to be included in the conversation of American literature? What does it mean for it to be recognized as part of the canon?
UN: Well, I think it’s hard to separate the early Nuyorican writers from the broader Puerto Rican Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, just as it would be hard to understand the Black Arts poets outside the larger civil rights context, in all its complexities. But, in effect, that’s what we do when we canonize these works as American literature. It’s tricky, because this ethnic-American framing risks erasing or trivializing differences related to class, race, diaspora, gender, and so on, yet at the same time it’s important to be included in the conversation, to fill in the map. For instance, the Nuyorican poets can also be understood in the context of the New American Poetries of the postwar era. An alternative map of postwar U.S. poetry where Nuyorican poets can coexist with—and maybe push against—(say) the Language poets, seems to me a good thing.
The other problem has to do with performance. Aesthetically and politically, live performance was and remains a key aspect within various Nuyorican poetry traditions, yet, as I argue in the book, it is inevitably elided as the poetry gets canonized as literature. I am thinking, for example, of the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, which includes a nice section on the foundational Nuyorican poets but does not give a sense of this poetry’s performance life. For that, we would need a web archive—à la PennSound or UbuWeb—of Nuyorican poetry performances (something I am currently working on). As it stands, however, the full breadth and import of these poetics remains invisible both in canonical anthologies (such as the Norton Latino) and in alternative accounts of innovative U.S. poetry.
LD:You write, “Nuyorican poetry not just sociologically, as document of diasporic experience, but also as a mode of creative engagement, as imagining new modes of relation.” From the very first chapter to the final chapter, you highlight several poets over numerous generations that engage the political, the self-reflexive, the performative, the oppositional. Many of these poets—I’ll withhold names here for the sake of encouraging folks to buy your book—investigate themes within the Puerto Rican community in a variety of ways. Yet, I take note (and I’m sure you do) of a handful of themes repurposed and recycled. When and how does this engagement with the counter-political become stunted?
UN: It’s true that over time, many of the features of the original Nuyorican poets have coalesced into what could be called a Nuyorican style, and that at this point some poetic riffs feel recycled (especially in the case of some of the younger poets packaged through the unapologetic commercialism of, say, HBO’s Def Poetry), but I argue that some of the most compelling newer Nuyorican-identified poetry works precisely because it engages the question you’re posing. I’m thinking, for instance, of Willie Perdomo’s Smoking Lovely (2003), a book that seems to be asking itself, over and over, what does it mean to be (or to be labeled) a ‘Nuyorican’ poet in a gentrified, globalized, policed city of commodified slam and marketable authenticity? What surprises and encourages me is Nuyorican poetry’s ability to evolve with the times, along with (but also against and even, perhaps, beyond) the city. In that sense, it reminds me of punk and hip-hop, two subcultural forms that have by now been recycled and commodified to no end, but that retain a political and creative energy and that remain inspirations for many.
No, este flashes más reciente. Augosto 2013. A block party on 105 and Lexington. A block party with politicians preaching, salsa fusion from the island and cover bands. A block party with both community and political motives. The celebration is essentially to conclude a week of activities that consisted of several new murals in The Bronx and El Barrio. The stage features Flaco Navajo, a spoken word artist, actor and now Hector Lavoe crooner. His band, the Razor Blades might be considered the purists. Spanic Attack is here today with it’s newest member; a little 8 month old girl who likes my brightly color tunic and chews on my dreadlocks. Visual artist Miguel Luciano activates his Pimp My Piragua sculpture. Is it a performance?
After the concert, the party moves inside the Julia de Burgos Center, a gorgeous building that has had much tribulation these past couple of years. As with El Museo del Barrio, no one is quite certain if hope should be entirely thrown away. The mass of hipster islanders inside the center make for a spectacle. Are they naturally this off tempo? The number of bodies from the Enchanted Island might be attributed to Puerto Rico’s economy being the worst it has been. Or not. Meanwhile, the cheap beer is overpriced and the piragua man manages to fit his sub-woofer piragua into the elevator. The girls-gone-wild-no-rhythm-worth-a-damn provoke Urayoán and myself to go to a Cuchifritos on 110 and 3rd. To my dismay the old men I’ve come to fondly expect are now Mexican women. Change can be hard to bear.
LD: As I stroll through your work, I can’t help but to think about Erica Hunt’s “Notes on an Oppositional Poetics,” which was published in The Politics of Poetic Form, edited by Charles Bernstein. I’m thinking of an oppositional poetics by way of radical aesthetics and political concerns, race, gender, etc. Did any of her essay resonate with any of your discoveries during the writing of this book?
UN: No, but I can see where you’re going with this. I was interested in how Nuyorican poetry helps us rethink—or even, at times, move beyond—terms such as “radical” and “oppositional.” Most of the Nuyorican poets I study were invested in a decolonial politics, but they weren’t always radical in the sense of language-centered critique I associate with so much innovative U.S. poetry. From Miguel Algarín’s survivalist community poetics and Sandra María Esteves’s pan-diasporic revisions to Pedro Pietri’s anarchist and Dada-inflected works, I read Nuyorican poets partly as seeking an alternative to 1960s-style resistance—and to a programmatic nationalist politics—even as they had emerged from and to some extent remained aligned with these 1960s models. I also think it’s important that many Nuyorican poets were strategically un-radical when they needed to be: they focused on survival, on healing, on transnational histories—on building and not just on opposing. In that sense, I guess I can think of my book as aligned with Hunt’s attempt to reframe the oppositional.
LD: What had you witnessed/experienced to be the limitations of this literary community before your decision to document it?
UN: I don’t think this was (or is) a monolithic literary community. Juan Flores is right when he suggests that Algarín and his Nuyorican Poets Cafe crew were sometimes so focused on their own bohemian, countercultural cred (via their friendship with Allen Ginsberg and others) that they did not always root their poetry in larger and older working-class struggles, Puerto Rican and otherwise. Still, as Flores notes, other poets such as Louis Reyes Rivera did. And you also had the largely forgotten New Rican Village scene, which I touch upon in my book and which is the subject of a forthcoming book by Wilson Valentín Escobar. If anything, the research I did for this book exposed me to the variety of literary and artistic practices that fall broadly under the Nuyorican banner.
LD: In your research, did you find that the Nuyorican literary movement was an early voice for Afro-Latino literature? Off the head, the Afro-Peruvian poet Nicomedes Santa Cruz is virtually unknown and dare I say, hardly, if ever, acknowledged in the “canon” of Latin American literature. What does this book allow to happen not just in the conversation of Puerto Rican/Nuyorican poetry, but Afro-Latino literature?
UN: That’s a great question. I do think that Nuyorican literature has really helped foreground Afro-Puerto Rican histories and experiences, and that many Afro-Puerto Rican identified writers on the island have been inspired by these Nuyorican revisions. (I am thinking of a writer such as Mayra Santos-Febres, who as it happens translated Willie Perdomo into Spanish). Juan Flores writes about this in The Diaspora Strikes Back (and in the essential Afro-Latin@ Reader he co-edited), and I engage with Flores in my book: for Flores, Nuyorican poetry is a “cultural remittance” that the diaspora sends back to the island, allowing the island to confront its own history of racism and its elision of blackness. As Flores suggests, one might see something similar in the work of diasporic Dominican authors such as Junot Díaz and Josefina Báez, whose affirmation of Dominican blackness seems particularly crucial given what’s going on in the D.R. right now.
The broader question of blackness not just in a U.S. Latino/a context but in a Latin American and hemispheric one as well is difficult to answer, partly because the countries with the most internationally visible literary traditions (such as Argentina and Chile) tend to have comparatively small black populations. The exceptions would be Brazil (which is not always considered part of Latin America) and Cuba, which has given us key Afro-Latin American voices such as Nicolás Guillén. The Nuyorican poet Tato Laviera was particularly vocal in his insistence on recovering the Afro-vernacular traditions of Puerto Rican poetry, whether with regards to Luis Palés Matos (arguably Puerto Rico’s greatest poet, along with Julia de Burgos) or to oral poets and declamadores such as Juan Boria. In his poem “barrio (for english only),” Laviera calls black English “el inglés puro” [the pure English]; his poetry, like that of many other foundational Nuyorican poets, works as a mode of Afro-Latino/a revisionism.
No, the flash was two weeks ago. In the Bronx. The visual artist Thomas Hirschorn’s The Gramsci Monument has been installed in Forest Houses five blocks from the 2 train. The installation gives off a type of Viking Noah’s Ark feel. There is a radio station, a computer room, a room where a daily newspaper is made, a workshop room, mini café and library. Some weeks ago, public school teachers talk on the radio show to express their concerns with charter schools. An old resident from 111th and former dancer now lives in Forest and serves me coffee. Today is open mic day and community activists want to make aware the issue of Fresh Direct’s deal with the city—89 million in tax breaks—and what that will mean to the Bronx community. There are both environmental and health concerns. Four additional food companies are planning to relocate to the Bronx and will receive something similar.
After several local folks voice themselves on the mic, Urayoán and his band, Los Guapos Planetas perform. Their special guest is Edwin Torres. Members and friends of Spanic Attack are there to enjoy and support. The residents of Forest Houses recline in the plastic patio seats curious as to what this band of Latinos are doing. This is an open mic but it appears Los Guapos Planetas have infiltrated the installation. Their finale is a rendition of Talking Heads “And She Was.” Their rendition: “Gramsci Was.” Much of the critique revolving around the Swiss’s installation in a predominately Black and Latino community is one of occupation and exploitation. Thomas has been doing these installations that take on the names of European philosophers for some time now. In the Bronx, I’ve always wondered if the residents of Forest would understand the point, if there is a point. Was there something to learned? Why does one feel something needs to be taught? Countless other questions arise from it. But witness here Ura, Edwin and Los Guapos Planetas attempt to bring Gramsci to everyone’s level. Even to the surprise of Hirschorn, Gramsci finally made sense here. Their intervention is a success. There is an encore. The older women who at first sat patiently confused are smiling, giggling and applauding.
LD: Ok man, help me out. What is the difference between slam and def poetry? You make mention to this several times in your book?
UN: For an authoritative (if at times contentious) take on slam, I refer you to Susan B.A. Somers-Willett’s The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry. Put simply, I use slam poetry to refer to the tradition started by Marc Smith in Chicago, imported to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe by Bob Holman (see Aloud), and outlined by Somers-Willett in her book. By contrast, I use def poetry to refer to the more commercial post-millennium version of slam popularized by Russell Simmons through his various Def Poetry projects. So, in a sense the latter can be seen as a subset of the former, but there is also a chronological distinction, since the latter is a 2000s phenomenon while the former has a long and complex history that goes back to the 1980s.
LD: Do you think Benjamin Bratt will ever play a Peruvian? I think he’d make a grand Tupac Amaru II. That said, he does seem to have a thing for playing the “counter-politics of the local.” I wonder if there is ever a moment when Nuyorican literature finds links to the island or attempts to align itself with the poetics coming out of South and Central America? Mexico?
UN: With regards to the island, it’s complicated, because Nuyorican was also a derogatory term used by island Puerto Ricans—it marked diasporic Puerto Ricans as second-class, which is of course ironic, since Puerto Ricans are, strictly speaking, colonial subjects. There was (and to an extent there still is) a lot of resistance to Nuyorican literature on the island, magnified by issues of class, race, and language. But, yes, there were links. The island’s Puerto Rican Socialist Party had a strong presence in New York and played a notable role in the 1960s; out of that whole scene came El Grupo, whose 1974 LP featured Nuyorican poets Jesús Papoleto Meléndez and Sandra María Esteves. As you will notice, for the most part the music on that LP is far closer to Latin American folk music than to anything that was happening stateside at the time.
When I began thinking about the book, I was prepared to write about Nuyorican poetry with regards to Latin American poetry. Certainly, in the case of certain poets, such as Pietri, the Latin American influences are many (Nicanor Parra, Roque Dalton, Ernesto Cardenal), and Algarín translated Neruda’s Song of Protest. That whole tradition of politically engaged Latin American poetry is evident in the work of everyone from Pietri to Martín Espada. It’s just that in the process of researching, I discovered that the extent of African American influences and exchanges was such that I needed to go in that direction rather than in a Latin American one. (A new book that skillfully and imaginatively bridges Latin American and U.S. Latino/a poetic contexts is Michael Dowdy’s Broken Souths). Even in the case of a poet like Pietri, my sense is that the Latin American influences came later, after he had been acquainted with and inspired by poets such as Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, Ginsberg, Bob Kaufman, and Ted Joans. (Of course, there is also in some cases a language barrier, since not all Nuyorican poets would have had the formal Spanish necessary to read and follow modern Latin American poetry). In any case, the African American connection was much more immediate, in terms of shared spaces, shared struggles, and a shared investment in embodied poetics attuned to pan-diasporic horizons.
LD: While this year marks the centennial of William S. Burroughs (Feb 5, 1914), it also marks the centennial for Julia de Burgos (Feb 17, 1914), who is considered the greatest poet born in Puerto Rico and who has been called the goddess of Nuyorican poetry, as her last poem, written in 1953, is in English. Any thoughts?
UN: While Burroughs was certainly an influence on Algarín’s early poetry—with its biotic and erotic explorations and its nomadic and dystopian riffs—I don’t think he is a profound influence on anyone else. And while Burroughs was a presence in the Nuyorican Poets Cafe scene, Ginsberg was much more important, as a model of political poetry and as an ally. Still, the whole question of the Beat element in Nuyorican poetry is also problematic, as I argue in the book.
Julia de Burgos is another story. She is a major influence, as an activist and a poet, but maybe even more as an iconic figure. Many scholars mention the poems in English that you allude to, but I think the self-reflexive lyric address of her poetry (where the intimate and the political meet) is her biggest poetic legacy. As Luz María Umpierre suggests, this aspect of her work is central to the work of diasporic feminist poets such as Lorraine Sutton and Esteves—you can also see it in the first two Nancy Mercado poems here. And it’s not just women poets; her influence extends to a poet like (not4)Prophet; his just-published debut poetry collection creatively remixes the Nuyorican tradition and includes shout-outs to Burgos (and to LGBT icon and Stonewall pioneer Sylvia Rivera, among many others). One could write a credible Nuyorican cultural history through the life, work, figure, and legacy of Julia de Burgos, and in fact Vanessa Y. Pérez Rosario at Brooklyn College has just completed a book along those lines.
Nah son. This flash occurred this week. November 8. Saint Peter’s Church on 54th street and Lexington. This church has over the years been the place where many a jazz musician is given their final celebration and farewell. Tonight it is for Tato Laviera. Tato had been between worlds for several months and many anticipated his departure. No one expected (though no one was surprised) when he decided to leave on November 1, the Day of the Dead. Two weeks prior, on October 21st, Frank Lima passed. Few knew of Frank’s passing. According to Ura, Tato was diligent about connecting the dots and gluing up the seams of the Nuyorican community. He was intent on schooling the importance of demanding the connections.
The church is filled with family and a sort of who’s who in the Nuyorican community past and present. Among the musicians are vibraphonist Bill Ware and percussionist Bobby Sanabria. Nuyorican writers who were published in the very first anthology, are in attendance. Barbara Killens-Rivera, the wife of poet and historian Louis Reyes Rivera is here. Umbra poet David Henderson is here. Camaradas owner Orlando Plaza along with Acentos co-founder Rich Villar are here. Nancy Mercado, Mariposa Teresa Fernandez, Sery Colón, Myrna Nieves, Shaggy Flores…all are present. Jesús Papoleto Melández who might be the baby of his generation is quiet. Felipe Luciano has everyone laughing when he recalls a time when Tato and Felipe were mistaken for each other. In the story, Tato’s response; “Yes, but he’s a little lighter.”
One of Tato grandson’s tells everyone that he saw his abuelito surrounded in a blue light. Tato’s daughter tells us she was “a child victimized by her father’s creativity.” A little girl in a blue sweater with pink flowers is dancing as the drums play. Earlier, an announcement was made that technically, Tato is still present until 8:45. His body shrouded in a casket, cloaked with a Puerto Rican flag and adorned with cardboard reproductions of his books will eventually need to leave for the procession which will take place tomorrow.
The music plays. The poets recite. There is a sea of Panamanian hats scattered throughout the church. And when Las 21 Division Palo singers and drummers enter the room and surround Tato, everyone understands this is as a celebration, not a mourning. Urayoán is here of course. The heaviness of all of this, the timeliness of his work will tell us all how much could be lost within a blink of the eye. It is a little past 8:45 and Tato decides a couple of minutes won’t hurt anyone. When he does, everyone heads to the hallway to eat chicken, arroz grandules and take pictures. A little drink here. A little there. About 15 of us take the 6 uptown to 115 and 1st Avenue to celebrate more. By the time we reach 1st, many of us disperse into smaller groups. Papoleto bounces and heads home. Ura ends up with the Island Ricans. Nancy and I at a tapas bar on 111th and Adam Clayton. We still haven’t figured it out. On November 22nd, Wanda Coleman decides to follow Tato.
LD: The eviction of residents in 1961 from San Juan Hill, the filming of West Side Story in the now abandoned San Juan Hill, the demolishing of San Juan Hill, the rise of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts—I wonder if this helped to radicalize Puerto Ricans and translated into the creative work we would later hear, witness and read?
UN: I’m not going to say much more, since I want to encourage folks to buy the book, but, indeed, opposition to (and mobilization around questions of) urban renewal was essential to the Puerto Rican Movement, from the more militant brand of community activism of the Young Lords to Chino García’s more utopian variety and, indirectly, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe itself. Many scholars have written about West Side Story’s importance (for better and for worse), given its reach and mass visibility, the stereotypes it popularized, and the critiques it helped galvanize. It even inspired video and conceptual art responses!
LD: True story. Preparing for this interview, I camp out at Poets House, reading your manuscript. I am skimming Miguel Algarín’s book and Tato Laviera’s AmeRícan. A young lady sharing the table notices what I am reading. She then asks me if I ever went to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. I tell her yes and smile. She then asks me if I write slam. How do I answer this? How do I inform her that there is a distinction between the two (slam and Nuyorican poetry)? Or is it a lost cause to do so?
UN: What I often do is use an analogy; something like: the original Nuyorican poetry is to slam what Chicago blues is to rock and roll. The average person maybe won’t care, but those with a deeper interest in slam need to do their homework and know their history. Just as there would be no Rolling Stones without Muddy Waters or Bo Diddley, there would be no new-jack slammers without the old-school Nuyorican poets. Something like that. Or you can just tell them to buy my book.
LD: On the subject of translation. Langston Hughes translated Lorca as he did the work of Nicolás Guillén and Jacques Roumain with the assistance of Mercer Cook and Ben Frederic Carruthers. He was not a translator. However by that very act, I feel Hughes was making a radical decision to include himself in the conversation of translation and cultural politics. Added, he was also connecting himself with those he felt an allegiance towards. I might even argue here that he was making these works more accessible to the Black American community. Does this exist in the Nuyorican landscape? Who is being translated? More importantly, who is actively translating their kinfolk? And if not, how crucial will this be for this community beyond 2013?
UN: I mentioned Miguel Algarín’s translation of Neruda’s Song of Protest. Also noteworthy in this regard is the work of Puerto Rican poet, nationalist, and activist Clemente Soto Vélez , a key bridge between island and diasporic poets and activists. The Nuyorican poet Louis Reyes Rivera translated Soto Vélez’s poetry, and later on Martín Espada published a book of his own translations. Neruda and Soto Vélez both embody a model of the revolutionary poet that fuses two senses of the avant-garde: the political and the aesthetic. As surrealists with a social voice, Neruda and Soto Vélez in a sense epitomize the Nuyorican poets’ own self-identity as well as their efforts to decolonize the mind.
How these poets were translated is also significant. Neruda’s book is called Canción de gesta, which we might translate as “epic poem,” but Algarín’s rendering of the title as Song of Protest makes a case for the book’s political immediacy, implicitly underscoring points of contact between Neruda’s take on Cuba and 1970s Nuyorican contexts. On the other hand, I see Rivera’s interest in translating Soto Vélez as part of his broader project of mapping socially engaged diasporic and Third World poetics across, along, and beyond Black and Puerto Rican contexts and traditions, a project outlined in his poems and essays. Algarín is an academic whose translation was published by a major New York house, while Rivera’s translation project operates more within the realm of the organic intellectual, but they share that understanding of translation as enmeshed with cultural politics, and as a means of allegiance-building, that you rightly emphasize in Hughes. (I’m also currently writing about Jack Agüeros’s celebrated translations of Julia de Burgos, but that’s not something I go into in the book.)
I don’t know of any younger Nuyorican poets experimenting with translation, but then again I don’t really know younger Black poets engaging with translation in the spirit of Hughes. (You can educate me as to this.) Maybe, as Nuyorican poetry is becoming its own institutional thing, younger Nuyorican-identified poets don’t need to go outside their own tradition as much. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that most of the younger Nuyorican-identified poets aren’t coming from the MFA track, but rather from slam and/or from community traditions, so they tend to not have the institutional incentives to translate, nor the mentors and the training that facilitate the process.
I do think there is a translation-like element to the cross-media remixings of Nuyorican and global avant-garde traditions in the work of Edwin Torres, and I think Willie Perdomo’s forthcoming book takes on tricky questions of cultural translation in its poems set in Puerto Rico. Also, tracing the term translation back to its etymological Latin meaning of “carrying across,” I do think a poet such as Mariposa has challenged island-born poets (myself included) to keep respatializing the coordinates of Puerto Rican identity, to map an imagined nation. So strict translation isn’t happening as much, but the evolution of cross-cultural and transnational poetics is ongoing.
LD: Does Whiteness play a role in Nuyorican Literature?
UN: Whiteness is, of course, a loaded term. My immediate response is that, in the 1960s and 1970s Nuyorican context, even lighter-skinned New York Puerto Ricans would largely not have seen themselves as white, since so many were subject to experiences of racialization, othering, and discrimination, and since their individual experiences were profoundly shaped by broad social forces (as in, say, urban renewal policies). Historically, the politics of whiteness in Puerto Rico are closely linked to class privilege, and that class privilege was built and preserved partly through the exclusion and marginalization of diasporic communities in New York and elsewhere. So, from a class perspective, the poets I study largely lacked access to the privileges of whiteness as it was defined either on the island or on the U.S. mainland.
I can’t help but think of Pedro Pietri, a poet of Corsican descent, but whose “Puerto Rican Obituary” is written in a Nuyorican vernacular that bears strong imprints of African American Vernacular English, and of his Ponce-Harlem trajectory, and that would never be perceived as unmarked (“white”) English. There is a difference between having white skin (however one defines that) and being perceived as white, and Pietri’s work, in a way, is all about perception, about how we are produced by powers beyond our control, and about how we can maybe short circuit those powers. I can also think of a poet like Magdalena Gómez, whose work forcefully interrogates how women are sexualized through a racialized gaze (big lips, curves, etc.). Once again, there is a difference here between pigmentation and the broader production of racial categories, which often hinges on class, gender, and other variables.
If you’re thinking of whiteness in terms of a Criollo class, then of course we can look at the figure of the jíbaro, the island peasant, but, as Felipe Luciano reminds us, from a Nuyorican perspective the jíbaro also needs to be understood in a global context of diaspora, blackness, and colonialism. (I think the work of Arlene Torres is important in this respect.) Similarly, when Nuyorican poets look to Spain, it’s typically to the South of Spain (as in Lorca’s New York surrealism by way of Andalusian duende) or, in the case of Victor Hernández Cruz, to the histories and traditions of Al-Andalus.
A bigger question is how these historically defined identities might evolve as the demographics of the Puerto Rican diaspora shift, now dispersing and coalescing in new coordinates such as central Florida. How would a Nuyorican model apply (or not) to Orlando Rican contexts? This is a question I touch upon in the conclusion to the book, but somebody else needs to write a separate book about it. I’ve got poems to translate.
Walking East on 116th, I take note to the erasure of Puerto Rican businesses and the increase of Mexican spots. My favorite place I’ll admit is a small Moroccan spot that opened more than 4 years ago on 116th between Park and Madison. My favorite bookstore and the only Harlem establishment that will carry my book is owned by a Chicana from East LA. I’ve also witnessed the expanding Muslim—Arab and African—community moving eastward from Frederick Douglas, past Lenox and now occupying a handful of storefronts between Park and Lexington. The storefronts where my classmate’s mom would buy their calico housecoats and gowns are shops where you can purchase Blinged out Our Lady of Guadalupe statues, framed pictures of Frida Khalo, decked out belt buckles, prayer rugs and Korans.
One of the oldest Cuchifritos spots on 116th is packed today. They have run out of alcapurrias. It is perhaps the first time I have ever experienced this. Then again, the only other spot I frequent is on 3rd and 110th. There are now more taco spots—and trucks—than the cuisine that defined a part of my youth. I’m sorry but I prefer Puerto Rican mofongo over Dominican mofongo. But then I prefer Dominican pastelon over Subway sandwiches. And so, I wait. Or so, we wait. The first batch—about 15—finally come out of the kitchen. They are gone within two minutes. I purchased two. A gentleman who chose to hang outside, smiles at me with excitement and buys 6. Two more folks grab the rest. Yes we had a nostalgic shared moment. It is even funnier for me as I have walked from Columbus and 99th, across Central Park to El Museo del Barrio to arrive to Julia de Burgos to pick up my mini alter and had decided to clear my head with a stroll. The larger altar for Los Dias de los Muertos is being broken down and no one involved with this installation pays me any attention. For a moment I feel as if my happiness with being part of this installation, this collective activity, did not matter. I really need to end my day with an alcapurria.
Two doors from one of the last Latin Music shops in El Barrio is the Ma Sha Allah Lucky Tobacco shop where you can purchase hookahs and apple tobacco. I glance across to House of Candles, one of the oldest Botanicas in Harlem to see if its doors are still open. At one time, there were five botanicas on this strip. The office of Adam Clayton Powell IV used to be just down the hill from the botanicas. Across, you could purchase any color of Lee’s and matching Le Tigre/Lacoste polo shirts imaginable. Now there’s a wine bar and quaint Italian restaurant. When I reach Lenox Ave., I look over to Conway. This building was once the home of Harlem World, a dance club back in the 70s/80s. I was too young to attend Harlem World then but am glad that the two-story structure has not been torn down.
Tarot of the Day: Judgement, The World, Death (reversed)