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New York Times Profiles East Harlem’s Jesus ‘Papoleto’ Melendez
The New York Times City Room blog takes a close look at the life of Nuyorican Poets movement founder Jesus “Papoleto” Melendez, whose life in the East Harlem is steadily becoming unmanageable, even while his poems have been translated into Spanish for a new collection of poems that stretch back 40 years, Hey Yo! Yo Soy! More:
“We are so used to our poverty, to the conditions we suffer through,” Papoleto said. “You’re accustomed to seeing homelessness in your neighborhood. We talk casually about ghetto things. But when you read it in Spanish, it blows your mind. How can a people live like this?”
This is not a rhetorical question. He is three months behind on his $662 rent for his tiny one-bedroom apartment on East 111th Street – the same narrow warren where he spent the first 14 years of his life. Unemployment benefits he had thought would be extended through March – when several events related to his book would be held — instead ended in December. He is looking for work, but opportunities for a poet are few.
On a bookcase crammed with dog-eared tomes, rests a letter rejecting him for food stamps. He awaits a decision about welfare. At 62 years of age, a man who has been a poet, a prophet and king – Gaspar, in the neighborhood’s Three Kings Day Parade – now might end up being a pauper.
“The weeks of unemployment I thought I had left were enough to keep me afloat, even while teetering on the edge of catastrophe,” he said. “Now, I’m in the black hole.”
He had cobbled a living from workshops and recitals and by teaching local classes until 2011, when a program that employed him lost funding. Colleges and classrooms have increasingly turned to younger “spoken word” artists who have laid claim to the Nuyorican tradition, but not his discipline. Nor his life experience.
“There is a lot of vanity, where they’ve co-opted our movement and watered down everything,” he said. “They don’t teach technique. They teach shouting.”
Sandra Maria Esteves, a poet who wrote the introduction for his book, said it was not uncommon for Papoleto to do 20 revisions or more for one poem. Then he would rehearse, alone, with a microphone to get the cadences down pat. She can relate to his craft, as well as his predicament.
“Ultimately, we’re in a society that does not support paying poets,” she said. “Poets show up, often for no pay, and in the past few years the pay scale has gone way down. I haven’t gotten much lately.”