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The New Boogaloo: Nuyorican Poetry and the Coming Puerto Rican Identities

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PAGE 1

THE NEW BOOGALOO: NUYORICAN POETRY AND THE COMING PUERTO RICAN IDENTITIES By GUILLERMO REBOLLO-GIL A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF MASTER OF ARTS UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA 2004

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Copyright 2004 by Guillermo Rebollo-Gil

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This thesis is dedicated to the island and to the woman who shares it with me.

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TABLE OF CONTENTS page ABSTRACT.........................................................................................................................v CHAPTER 1 INTRODUCTION........................................................................................................1 Background...................................................................................................................2 Nuyorican Foundations.................................................................................................6 The Migration.............................................................................................................12 Island Literature, Migration and Identity....................................................................14 Nuyorican Poetry in Context......................................................................................18 2 METHODS.................................................................................................................20 3 PEDRO PIETRI: THE INTELLECTUAL ANGUISH OF BEING ORGANIC........23 Puerto Rican Obituary................................................................................................24 Puerto Ricans in New York: The City as Killer.........................................................26 Nuyorican Visions of Puerto Rico..............................................................................30 Traffic Violations........................................................................................................32 The Weight of the Community...................................................................................34 4 WILLIE PERDOMO: NUYORICAN POETRY AS THE SOUNDTRACK FOR LIFE IN EL BARRIO.................................................................................................37 Puerto Ricans in New York: The City as Home.........................................................37 New Nuyorican Visions of Puerto Rico.....................................................................39 The Weight of the Community...................................................................................44 5 THE COMING PUERTO RICAN IDENTITIES.......................................................48 LIST OF REFERENCES...................................................................................................53 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH.............................................................................................56 iv

PAGE 5

Abstract of Thesis presented to the Graduate School of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts THE NEW BOOGALOO: NUYORICAN POETRY AND THE COMING PUERTO RICAN IDENTITIES By Guillermo Rebollo-Gil August 2004 Chair: Milagros Pena Major Department: Sociology This thesis analyzes the work of Nuyorican poets Pedro Pietri and Willie Perdomo in an effort to trace the development of the Nuyorican poetry movement during the past three decades. The analysis is structured according to three main themes common to both authors works. These themes are New York City, Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican identity, and the migrant community. The authors works chosen for analysis are Pietris Puerto Rican Obituary (1973), Obituario Puertorriqueo (1977), Traffic Violations (1983) and Obituario Puertorriqueo/Puerto Rican Obituary (2000) as well as Perdomos Where a Nickel costs a Dime (1996) and Postcards of El Barrio (2002). These works are studied within the context of a rising interest among Island Puerto Ricans for the life experiences and cultural production of Puerto Ricos migrants, specifically those residing in New York. The thesis takes note of, evaluates and highlights the social significance of this interest, especially as it manifests itself in the work of some of the most notable young Island poets. It is hypothesized that Nuyorican poets influence on the poetry produced v

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today on the Island, when coupled with the considerable level of attention and success that these young writers have already garnered and could continue to accumulate, harbors the possibility of altering traditional Puerto Rican identity constructs on the Island. This would set the stage for more inclusive conceptualizations of Puerto Ricanness to be developed vi

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CHAPTER 1 INTRODUCTION He steps up to the mic rather hesitantly. The glare of the spotlight bothers him as he looks over several pieces of crumpled computer paper. If one were to be standing close enough, one could hear the change in his right jean pocket rattling ever so slightly. The crowd of twenty or so waits patiently. Some look towards the stage in subdued expectation, a few go over their own sheets of paper and the rest continue with their dinner, drinks and conversations. After a couple of minutes he looks at the crowd and finds comfort in being unable to distinguish any of their faces. Then, without introduction or warning he begins. Spanish falls abruptly into English and rises again and again as the poem tears through an unnamed urban landscape whose people are the descendants of a Tano nation, which he claims is still alive in the back room of tourist shops filled with bobbing head dolls of ancient deities and ethnic t-shirts at low cost. He ends with an urgent call for unity. His voice cracks as his age betrays him in the last line. Nevertheless, the crowd of twenty or so makes like hundreds and he is able to leave the stage gallantly. As he makes his way back to his seat, a forty-something year old lady with a thick Brooklyn accent grabs him by the wrist, congratulates him and tells him that that was so New York. Later on that night, the music of former Fania All-Star Juancito Torres and his sextet will serve as the perfect backdrop for the romancing of the girl he invited there to 1

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2 impress. Though still unaware of this, Salsa will somehow mean more to him after tonight. On his way out, the guy at the door will hand him a flyer for next week. Hell almost trip over the girls feet going down the couple of steps to the alley. Once on the street, the nights heat will strike him with almost as much force as the crowds reaction to his poem. It will go at him with almost as much intensity as Juancitos percussionist. And it will leave him almost as sweaty and frightened as did the girl he invited here to impress. He will fold the flyer up and stick it in his back pocket. Only the top left-hand corner of it will be visible: Nuyorican Caf, Puerto Rico. Background Recent years have witnessed a rising interest among Island Puerto Ricans concerning the life and work of their U.S. counterparts, especially those living in New York City. The opening of The Nuyorican Caf in Historic Old San Juan, Puerto Rico is but one of the many examples of Islanders efforts to know about and connect with the mainland community. This establishment, loosely modeled after the Nuyorican Poets Caf in the Lower East Side, serves as space for local artists and musicians to come, meet and showcase their talents. Plays are staged. Salsa, bomba and jazz bands harmonize nightly. The Caf even hosts its own poetry night every Sunday where one can hear both Spanish and English pieces amidst an eager and diverse crowd. More importantly than the Caf, however, is the attention that the U.S. Puerto Rican community has received from the Academy and the media. In the summer of 2002, Prohibdo Olvidar and En la Punta de la lengua,two news magazine shows that air regularly on the government funded television station (TuTv)ran an entire series of

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3 weekly episodes filmed in New York City featuring the cultural, political and artistic developments of New York Puerto Ricans. Among those featured, were several of the famed Nuyorican poets and writers, including the Cafs founder Miguel Algarn. Islanders had already gotten a glimpse into Algarns life when earlier that year, the Miramax film Piero, about the life of famed Nuyorican poet and playwright Miguel Piero, opened in Puerto Rico amidst controversy. Those who saw the film debated the issue of whether or not the movie served to further cement the American image of the Puerto Rican as a drug fiend, hustler and criminal (Gonzlez, 2000). They criticized the films explicit drug scenes and some were even troubled by the portrayal of Piero as bisexual. The most heated discussions, however, centered on the issue of whether there was any type of real Puerto Ricanness at the center of the life and work of the deceased writer. Many Islanders questioned whether a true and valid Puerto Rican experience could actually take place in New York, be developed on the streets and be spoken in English. Some viewers outrage with the film even led them to express their opinions in a more public forum and took it to the newspapers, writing jarring letters to the editor. Interestingly enough, one of the most important, if not the most important force spearheading this growing interest for the U.S. Puerto Rican community, specifically its literature, can be found in the newspapers. Dr. Carmen Dolores Hernndez, the book critic for the Islands largest periodical, El Nuevo Da, has frequently and favorably reviewed books from U.S. Puerto Rican writers. She also published a book of interviews with several of them entitled Puerto Rican voices in English (1997). Her devotion for the Puerto Rican literature of the states, coupled with her position as the preeminent book critic on the Island, has definitely helped to get several of these writers more exposure in

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4 Puerto Rico. This is evident in that today some Nuyorican works serve as required readings for college students on the Island and their authors have come on official visits to perform and talk with the students. These visits have proven very important for they have also functioned to bring together Island and mainland authors in a space where they can share their work and establish networks across their shores. Nowhere, perhaps, is the construction of these networks more evident that in the poetry written by several of the up and coming young writers on the Island. The works of people like Urayoan Noel, Raul Moris and Jos Raul Gonzlez, who have all had their poetry published in book and/or audio CD form, stand as testaments to the burgeoning influence of Nuyorican poetry on Island writers. They also serve as a platform and battleground for the creation of a new Island literary aesthetic. In their works, these writers often recur to traditional Nuyorican elements like code switching and infuse their predominantly Spanish texts with English words and phrases. The three poets also draw parallels between Puerto Rican life on the Island and Puerto Rican life in the states, sketching out a scathing criticism of the social forces affecting Puerto Rican communities on both sides of the Atlantic. Furthermore, the importance that these writers place on the public performance of their poetic worksevident in their frequent appearances at open poetry readings in public squares, bars and bookshops as well as in Universities and High Schoolsmirror that of the very founders of the Nuyorican poetry movement who prided themselves on their ability to bring poetry to the people by performing it (Hernndez, 1997). The cultural significance of the work that these writers are producing reaches considerable proportions when one considers the appraisal that all three poets have

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5 received from traditional literary circles on the Island. All three, for example, have been heralded as being among the most important new voices to emerge from the Island literary landscape by the former president of Puerto Ricos Pen Club Alberto Martinez-Mrquez (Hernndez-Durn, 2002). Two of them, Urayoan Noel and Jos Raul Gonzlez, were chosen to appear among the fifteen Island representatives in an anthology published by Isla Negra Press in 2003 that featured the best of the new crop of writers from Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Also, Jose Raul Gonzlezs first book Barrunto, published in 2000, was awarded the national third place prize for poetry that year. What appears to be happening on the Island is a paradigm shift. During the many decades before, Islanderswith several notable exceptions in some literary and political sectorsgenerally ignored and even rejected the cultural product of the New York Puerto Rican community. Now, however, they appear to be embracing it in noticeable ways. Moreover, as in the case of the poets here discussed, they are even adapting that cultural product, and re-creating it within the Island national context. The question one must then ask in the face of this growing trend is not necessarily why. Since the trend has only begun to emerge it is difficult to point out its exact causes. Rather the question is: What does this trend mean? What does this sudden focus on the New York Puerto Rican experience after decades of disinterest and marginalization (Flores, 1993), signify in terms of the future relations that will exist between the Island and the mainland community? More importantly, what consequences might this growing trend have in terms of reworking the national Puerto Rican identity?

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6 In an effort to begin to answer these questions, this thesis will explore and analyze the work of two of the Nuyorican poetry movements principal figures. The two poets chosen for the present study are Pedro Pietri and Willie Perdomo. Pietri is one of the founders of Nuyorican poetry and Perdomo represents the new generation of Nuyorican writers whose works initially appeared during the 1990s. They have been chosen because both have been heralded by scholars and critics as exemplary of their particular generation. Pietri has enjoyed tremendous success on the international level (Barradas, 1998; Guinness, 1999) and Perdomo has been described as headlining the new movement of Nuyorican letters (Santos-Febres, 2002). Further, they are the only two Nuyorican poets to have been published on the Island in bilingual editions. A selection of Pietris first work Puerto Rican Obituary was first published by the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture in 1977 and then revised and updated in 2000 by Isla Negra press. Similarly, a selection of Perdomos poems from his book Where a Nickel costs a Dime (1996) along with several newer poems was published by Isla Negra Press in 2002 in a collection entitled Postcards of El Barrio. A thorough analysis of these two authors work will serve to trace the evolution of the Nuyorican poetry movement and provide us with a clear picture of what exactly the up and coming Island writers are reading, interpreting and adapting into their own works. A distinction however must first be made between Nuyorican poetry and U.S. Puerto Rican literature in general. Nuyorican Foundations Puerto Rican literature in the states possesses a rich and diverse history. Puerto Rican authors have been writing about their experience on the mainland since the early

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7 stages of the 20th century. These writings are in the form of novels, theaters, short stories, autobiographical accounts and poetry. They appear in Spanish and English as well as in the cross between the two languages. Similarly, the writings cover and/or touch upon every possible theme imaginable. Everything from politics to romance can be found in this literature. By the same token, there is really no prototype of the U.S. Puerto Rican writer. They have come from all social class backgrounds, possess diverse political orientations and are the product of different migration experiences. It is no surprise then that so many terms are used to pinpoint and describe these writers and the literature they produce. Terms like NeoRican (Barradas, 1998) and Boricua (Snchez-Gonzlez, 2001) are used by scholars to attempt to house these writings under one roof and neither of them is accurate or vast enough to account for and include everyone. Nuyorican literature is but one manifestation of Puerto Rican writing in the states. Nuyorican poetry is the most recognizable and important genre within this literature. As its name implies, it is an exact and direct product of the Puerto Rican experience in New York. More precisely, it is the cultural product of a people settled in some of the poorest areas of New York City such as Spanish Harlem and the Lower East Side, who came to arrive in the states in the post-World War II era as part of a working class migration from the Island during Puerto Ricos push for industrialization in the mid-20th century (Matos-Rodrguez and Hernndez, 2001). Moreover, the term Nuyorican was originally adopted by a handful of emerging writers from this community whose main preoccupations were the survival and uplift of their fellow community members. Nuyorican poetry is thus characterized and marked as different from all other U.S. Puerto Rican writing in its constant critique of and challenge to, the social and political institutions and policies that

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8 were hindering Puerto Ricans life opportunities in New York City. Consequently, it is the social commitment and activism of these writers that serve as the defining characteristics of their poetic production. These characteristics make Nuyorican poetry a functional literature. According to Antonio Gramsci (2000: 401), a particular literature is functional when it is based on a plan or on a pre-established social course. Functional literature is different from other forms of artistic production in that it seeks to attain a level of practicality among its intended audience. Its main focus is not on raising the present status of art itself but on raising the social status of a particular group of people through art by involving the people in the artistic process. Gramsci (2000: 401) writes: One might say that houses are more necessary than the products of the other arts, meaning by this that everybody needs a house, while the products of other arts are necessary only for intellectuals, for the cultured. One should then consider that it is precisely the practical people who propose to make all the arts necessary for everybody, to make everybody artists As evidenced in this statement, Gramscis vision of functionality is inextricably rooted in notions of liberation. Functionality here calls not only for a democratization of artistic production whereby art would no longer be the exclusive property of a privileged few, but also for an expansion of the concept of art that would recognize all social actors endeavors as artistic. Gramsci (2000: 321) explains: Each man, finally, outside his professional activity, carries on some form of intellectual activity, that is, he is a philosopher, an artist, a man of taste, he participates in a particular conception of the world, has a conscious line of moral conduct, and therefore contributes to sustain a conception of the world or to modify it, that is, to bring into being new modes of thought. A brief overview of the initial stages of the Nuyorican poetry movement confirms how this literature comes to fit comfortably within this framework.

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9 The movement started to take shape in 1975 when Miguel Algarn opened the now famous Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the city's Lower East Side (Hernndez, 1997). Algarins venture was prompted by the fact that his living room had gotten too small to fit the many poets who would flock to his house for readings. Poet Pedro Pietri says of these times: We all used to go to Miguel Algarn's house, all these poets would congregate there: Jess Papoleto Melndez, Lucky Cienfuegos, Shorty Bonbo, my brother, Dr.Willy. We used to stay in his living room and recite poetry. We felt really good about it because at the time we didn't have a space, we didn't have an audience, we were all we had. It was exciting in the beginning; we were young, struggling artists. It was like Magic; everything was so important. (quoted in Hernndez, 1997: 117) Utilizing the city as its thematic center, their poetry, much like the conditions they were living under, was harsh and unrelenting, speaking of and against the many ills and injustices they experienced every day (Hernndez, 1997; Flores, 1993; Barradas, 1998). According to Algarn, for the poor New York Puerto Rican there [were] three survival possibilities. The first [was] to labor for money and exist in eternal debt. The second [was] to refuse to trade hours for dollars and live by your own will and hustle. The third possibility [was] to create alternative behavioral habits (quoted in Flores, 1993: 135). Poetry here then presents itself as a survival strategy; as an alternate life ethic. Art in the Nuyorican context transcends the instruments necessary for its creation, it moves away from the page to encompass every aspect of the writers life, providing him/her with the ability to change his/her social condition. The functional or liberatory character of this literature is glaring. It becomes blinding the moment one considers that it was written out of a need to communicate with their community. Because the poetry sought and even demanded an audience, writers employed a street vernacular in their works that was accessible to the rest of their Puerto Rican people. Any possible advancement or

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10 liberation that could come out of the poets artistic production was intended to be community wide. It is not surprising then that many came to consider the Nuyorican poet as the prophet of the Hispanic and Latino community (Luis, 1997:46). This vision of the Nuyorican poet as prophet or spokesperson for the Latino community is very much akin to Gramscis concept of the organic intellectual. In Gramscian theory, the organic intellectuals are the organizers, leaders, specialized individuals in conceptual and philosophical elaboration working toward the liberation of oppressed groups (Gomez, 1987: 138). They serve as intermediaries between the masses and the ruling class. According to Gramsci, every organic development of peasant masses, up to a certain point, is linked to and depends on movements among the intellectuals (Gramsci, 2000: 309). Therefore, these figures are intricately linked to the people. They are able to immerse themselves in the social reality of marginalized groups and speak of it in solidarity. By way of this close relationship, the masses come to interpret their social reality from a more rational standpoint and develop a more coherent view of the world free of emotion and/or superstition (Gomez, 1997: 141) and the intellectuals for their part, are able to feel the peoples troubles and ills as if they were their own. This relationship of course takes time. According to Gmez (1997: 141), Gramsci advierte que tal unidad es un proceso en el que se repiten continuamente momentos de ruptura y alejamiento, de incomprensiones reciprocas; de ah que nuestro autor aconsejael intelectual debe pasar del saber al sentir y la masa a la inversa, del sentir al saber. Nowhere do the Nuyorican poets appear so intimately linked to their community and thus exhibit the progression from knowing to feeling than in the proposed

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11 aesthetic of their literary production. According to Algarn (1987: 163), this aesthetic is composed of three elements: The first is the expression of the self orally and the domination of one language or both to a degree that makes it possible to be accurate about ones present condition and I think the first stops are always oral. The second reality of the Nuyorican aesthetic is that if we are to safeguard the future, we must create a dialogue among ourselves about setting up systems of protection and mutual benefits. The last thing about the Nuyorican aesthetic has to do with art: transformation before the public eye is a very important way of psychic cure. In other words the creation of places where people can express themselves-expressly created for that purpose. Here Nuyorican literary production is presented as part of a larger social project. Poetry in the Nuyorican framework is a socially motivated practice that moves for both personal and communal change. Its production is inextricably linked to the social position of the community that produces it. Algarn (1987: 162) makes it crystal clear: We create poems for ourselves; poverty keeps us away from the space and time that composing long prose pieces requires but that is changing too. Algarins statement makes no distinction between the circle of writers and poets and their community. Nuyorican poets do not see themselves as making up a different class or social group separate from the rest of the people. In this regard they differ markedly from Gramscis organic intellectuals. In Gramscis eyes, the intellectual, though dependent on the masses, does have to maintain a critical distance from them. He writes: In relation to the people, they [organic intellectuals] are something detached (Gramsci, 2000: 367). This is important for Gramsci since in his view the masses are similar to an empty container that must be filled, the raw material that must be shaped and molded by the intellectuals (Gomez, 1987: 113). These figures then are supposed to lead, to make sense of and speak for the community, but not actually become a fixed part

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12 of it. Nuyorican poets, as organic intellectuals, break away from this original conceptualization. There is no physical or social distance between the writer and the community. Moreover, in the eyes of these writers, the community is at once the root of their work and its main character. It is not something to be filled up or molded, but rather something to uncover, to come to understand, to describe, expose and display. A necessary ingredient for understanding this communitys situation is the history of its migration to the U.S. The Migration Puerto Ricans have been migrating to the U.S. since the 19th century. Their move has been motivated by a variety of personal, economic and political reasons. According to Matos-Rodrguez and Hernndez (2001) the trade of raw materials tied the ports of Puerto Rico with port cities in New England and New York. Those commercial links facilitated the mobility of Puerto Ricans between the island (a Spanish colony at the time) and the United States. The U.S. also harbored Puerto Rican exiles that opposed Spanish rule. In fact, according to Alvarez (1998) as early as 1870 there was a small colony of Puerto Ricans in New York City organizing for the Islands independence and there was already a joint revolutionary committee set up between representatives from Puerto Rico and Cuba. Consequently, the early waves of the Puerto Rican migration were composed of elite and/or politically and socially influential Islanders. The upper class character of the migration changed, however, after the Island was colonized by the U.S. in 1898. Matos-Rodrguez and Hernndez (2001) illustrate: Although elite Puerto Ricans continued to come to New York, the majority of the immigrants worked as cigar-makers, sailors, domestics, garment makers or in other low-paying service jobs. The numbers mushroomed. According to Di Nubila (1997:41)

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13 approximately 90,000 Islanders migrated from Puerto Rico to the U.S. between 1898 and 1944. Four-hundred thousand made the jump in the 1950s alone and although 253, 212 had made their way back from the states during the 1960s, close to 600, 000 had left the Island for the U.S. during that same period (Di Nubila, 1997). Reflecting on the move of more than half a million Puerto Ricans from 1945-1955 alone the Rector of the University of Puerto Rico at that time, commented on the immense significance of the migration for migrants and Islanders alike: La emigracin puertorriquea de los ultimos aos constituye uno de los casos de traslacin humana mas significatvos de la poca y sin lugar a dudas uno de los sucesos mas importantes de nuestra historia. Encierra impredecibles y en cualquier caso significatvas consecuencias para el porvenir. Que en diez aos se hayan mudado a los Estados Unidos mas de medio milln de puertorriqueos es un hecho que ademas de afectar en forma perdurable la existencia individual y privativa de cada una de las quinientas mil personas afectadas se relaciona intimamente con la vida, los problemas, las esperanzas, los ingresos de quienes permanecen en Puerto Rico. (quoted in Alvarez, 1998: 201) The gravity of this exodus then was already palpable at the very time it was happening. Moreover, government officials constantly evoked its crucial role in the political and economic future of the Island. It was described as a necessity and was hurried along by way of government propaganda highlighting the Islands grave overpopulation problem, its poor economic situation and the famine that was haunting many of the Islands poor (Alvarez, 1998: 201). Scholars however have investigated and questioned how the Island governments push for migration coincided with the rise of the Nationalist movement in Puerto Rico (Alvarez, 1998)a time marked by social upheavals and violent confrontations between nationalist supporters and police officials. There was thus a pressing need to do away and/or subdue such a threat to the colonial order. Government officials had to be weary of

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14 what the Nationalist movement could do to hinder Puerto Ricos move toward industrialization. This massive exodus then was part and parcel of the industrialization process, functioning as an escape valve by which the government could channel its excess or troublesome population out of the Island at that time. The migration then was not only looked upon kindly by the Island government but was in fact aided by it through an aggressive advertisement campaign, cheap plane tickets and contractual agreements with North American businesses that sought cheap laborers (Di Nubila, 1997). Puerto Rican workers were lured to the states by way of the promise for a better quality of life. This is glaringly evident in the government issued postcards and ads which portrayed Puerto Rican families gathered around the television set enjoying a quiet evening at home (Matos-Rodriguez and Hernandez, 2001). This was the much-advertised miracle of the Puerto Rican migration. Island Literature, Migration and Identity The migrations all encompassing character is evident in the literature produced on the Island during that time. Looking at the progression of Puerto Rican literature since its inception in the mid-19th century, the translocation of Puerto Ricans to the United States has almost always been present. However, it must be noted that during the years of mass flight in the post-world war II era, the migration passed from the background to the center stage of Island narratives. Puerto Rican migrants became the leading characters in the works of several noteworthy authors like Jose Luis Gonzalez, Emilio Diaz Valcarzel and Pedro Juan Soto. Writes the critic Eugene Mohr (1982: xiii): [migrants] story was told by Island writers who visited the New York Colony and sometimes projected their own cultural concerns on men and women whose main preoccupation was simply staying

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15 alive. He continues establishing the position from which these authors were writing and to the audience for whom they were writing arguing that: These writers are not completely objective chroniclers, nor do they see in the migration the same meanings and patterns that the migrants themselves perceive. They are middle-class intellectuals writing about the unschooled and socially marginal; they are writing for an audience that had had little contact with the migrants at home or abroad; they often view the migration within a framework of moral and cultural values that would have been but dimly recognized by hundreds and thousands migrants washing dishes and running elevators (Mohr, 1982: 26) The fact is that the topic of the migration in the majority of Island literature at that time had more to do with what was going on in the Island than what was happening stateside. In other words, the migration served as a literary recourse by which Island authors could address the many social ills affecting the Island and stake their claim on defining who and what a Puerto Rican was. Consequently, in spite of the fact that many of these narratives were set in New York, the Island was the actual center of the narration. The idea behind having Puerto Rican characters in U.S. settings arose out of a need to establish Puerto Rican and North American culture as polar opposites. The many perils the U.S. Puerto Rican community suffered were then portrayed as the tragic consequences of living within a corrosive U.S. environment, characterized by its anti-Puerto Rican attitude and policies. American soil then came to be the death of Puerto Rican culture and Puerto Rican culture thus came to be defined according to a deep affiliation to the Island itself, to the Spanish language and to Catholicism (Rodrguez Corts, 1997). One could argue that Puerto Rican migrants were used in Island literature as mere pawns in the literary and academic debate over the status and future of Puerto Rican culture under U.S. colonial rule. They were vehicles through which Island scholars and

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16 authors could vent their frustrations with the empire, all the while attempting to construct and promote a monolithic Puerto Rican identity. The Island government was also very much invested in its own process of identity construction. According to Diaz-Quines (1993), the Islands official vision of what a true Puerto Rican was that of the light skinned Puerto Rican man, born and bred on the Island, and adept in all traditional ways of Island life, particularly the Spanish language. Moreover, Puerto Rican identity involves a refusal of all things foreign (meaning American) and requires a necessary shift to all things Hispanic (i.e. Spain as the motherland). This shift and refusal strategy, according to Diaz-Quines (1993), showcases a national identity that is crafted against both the dark skin Island Puerto Rican by way of his/her exclusion from the official tales of historical and political agency and the Puerto Rican immigrant, who in the words of the author became the Island's "other" due to this figure's alleged contamination during his/her experience in the U.S. (i.e. loss of language etc.). Thus, national identity here depends on two immense historical silences: 19th century chattel slavery on the Island and the migration of 40% of Puerto Rico's population to the U.S. in the 20th century. Consequently, the push for a national Puerto Rican identity or for a clearly defined and maintained cultural essence or purity is almost always a push towards the Spanish, or more precisely, to the ideological remnants of the Spanish empire, which in and of itself silences a history of multiple languages and cultures that took form, place and agency on the island. As Diaz-Quines states: Puerto Rico, como todo el caribe y Amrica, es un lugar de complejas construcciones de identidades, resultado de la experiencia colonial europea, de la fuerte presencia de culturas Africanas y de las migraciones de corzos, franceses,

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17 catalanes e ingleses en el siglo 19 y de la experiencia bajo el nuevo imperio norteamericano y la emigraciones puertorriqueos del siglo 20. (1993: 139) Focusing one's attention on the Island's experience under the "new North, American empire," one could ask: how exactly is this Spanish-oriented identity maintained under U.S. rule? Diaz-Quines (1993) looks to answer this query by giving a brief account of the modernization process that took place in Puerto Rico during the 50s, 60s and 70s. In his view, the Island government, through the charismatic leadership of then governor Luis Muoz Marn, established a rhetoric of endless progress and innumerable opportunities for the Island's peoples by way of the country's "alliance" with the U.S. The government's institutionalization of this pro-American rhetoric then led to the establishment of a legitimate middle class; to the contradictory asymmetries of upscale neighborhoods erected right next to urban ghettos; to the partnership between education and government; the promotion of the war and loyalty to U.S. interests and eventually to the equation of Puerto Ricanness with Americanness. In the words of the former Governor himself: "[Puerto Rico] es un pais latinoamericano compuesto de buenos ciudadanos de los Estados Unidos" (quoted in Diaz-Quines, 1993: 141). Evidenced in this statement, the official Puerto Rican identity was crafted to be more of a personality than a nationality so that it would not be at odds with the colonial state. Nationalism was given its own vocalized space in the colony and was thus stricken of any revolutionary prowess by the Island's own government. As Diaz-Quines (1993: 26-27) notes: "se queria una historia que uniera y no dividiera: una historia no conflictiva del pueblo puertorriqueo. In this context it is possible to see how the violence (i.e. urban segmentation, Puerto Rican involvement is U.S. wars etc.) that drove this modernization process (Diaz

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18 Quines, 1993) could be silenced. Moreover, it is possible to see how the exclusion of the then thousands of Puerto Rican migrants could remain unaccounted for in the country's official history when it affected so many families and communities. As Diaz-Quines (1993: 147) states: "lo visible y lo enunciable no siempre coinciden y por eso, la emigracin ha podido estar, simultneamente, presente en la vida y ausente en el discurso. What remains, in the words of James Baldwin (1995), is a "terrible paradox": the language and culturally based exclusion of the now millions of U.S. Puerto Ricans, who identify themselves as Puerto Ricans juxtaposed against the near untouchable character of North America's military bases and complexes on the Island (Diaz-Quines, 1993). What remains is the narrow yet distinct delimitation of what a "typical" or more precisely, a "genuine" Puerto Rican is: someone who possesses the language and the presumed knowledge of Island life to look and act cultured enough but also the necessary whiteness and middle class pedigree to not be threatening to American rule. Nuyorican Poetry in Context As discussed above, the construction of Puerto Ricos national identity has primarily depended on exclusion tactics and practices set up against a rich and diverse community of Puerto Rican peoples. Rodrguez-Corts (1997: 25) notes: Las prcticas sociales de identidad cultural en la historia social de Puerto Rico no se refieren a una accin de solidaridad colectiva ni tampoco a un sentido de un destino comn como pueblo, lo que pone de manifiesto la carencia de un proyecto colectivo de identidad cultural. The efforts of both government officials and of Island authors to create, promote and defend a viable cultural identity, though markedly different from one another, are predicated on the marginalization of the U.S. Puerto Rican community. Both sectors have lacked the foresight to recognize how the Islands colonial status severed the Puerto

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19 Rican people in two and with time constructed the severed parts as polar opposites to each other. The Nuyorican poetry movement must be examined within this context. Thus, in an effort to understand the origin and development of the Nuyorican poetry movement, as well as its present incursion into the Island context, it is necessary to focus on the concept of national identity as it has come to be defined by Nuyorican writers in the face of their personal and communal exclusion both in the States and on the Island.

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CHAPTER 2 METHODS For the purposes of this project, the poetry here analyzed is viewed as human or life documents. Blumer defines the human document as an account of individual experience which reveals the individuals actions as a human agent and as a participant in social life (quoted in Plummer, 2001: 18). As discussed in the previous chapter, the life of working class Puerto Ricans in New York finds expression in Nuyorican poetry. The poets serve as spokespersons for their community, using their writing as a mechanism through which their fellow community members can see themselves as unique social actors under particular social conditions. They give voice to their experiences in these documents and put that experience in context. In this sense, Nuyorican poetry can be looked at as collective life documents or life stories. Granted, sociologists for the most part have not treated poetry as a typical life story such as autobiographies, letters, journals, interviews etc. The artistic character of this writing form separates it from these other more conventional or traditional written confessionals. Nonetheless, Nuyorican poetry, given its immediate relationship with the community and its interest in speaking of the communitys ills and concerns in a readily accessible and vocal way, does confess. It gives testimony of the communitys life in the margins of both U.S. and Puerto Rican society. The writers have in fact lived through the poverty and despair that they talk about in their work. They inhabit the exact geographical spaces in which their poems are set. They are part of the same social class as the characters they present. Furthermore, poetry for the Nuyorican writer is not a vain 20

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21 stylistic choice. Poetry writing in the Nuyorican context is a direct product of the specific social circumstances that envelop these writers. As discussed in the previous chapter, long prose pieceswhether fictional or autobiographicalwas simply not an option when the founders of the movement started to produce their work. This confessional voice then came up from below in the only viable manner it could find. The up from below character of Nuyorican poetry enables one to view the genre as a descendant of the autobiographical type of writing that started to come out during the latter half of the late 18th/ early 19th century. This writing, according to Plummer saw the working class challenging the middle class, women challenging men, slaves challenging oppression, the young challenging elders (2001: 90). Plummer refers to these writings as autobiographies from below and considers them to constitute a different autobiographical form from the work done by members of the dominant social groups. According to him, this marginal type of autobiography was more of a collective exploration than just a private one. The author [was] somehow located as a member of a class, a gendered group, a generational group, an outcast group (Plummer, 2001: 90). Memory plays a key role in this writing. Plummer (2001: 233) states: Life story work involves recollecting, remembering, re-discovering along with the active process of memorializing and constructing history. Memory in the Nuyorican context is a collective affair. It is a socially shared experience. The poems function as memory sites where members of the Puerto Rican community in New York can find their history told and preserved. This is important considering both the Islands and the United States disdain for this community as it is manifested in the silence in which the process and consequences of the Puerto Rican migration have been kept. Thus, the memorializing

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22 done by Nuyorican poets in their work is very much a political practice. It is an affront to both the Island and mainland government. Moreover, it is an attempt to return this history, these memories to their community (Plummer, 2001). This thesis will focus on the memory work done by Nuyorican poets Pedro Pietri and Willie Perdomo. It is important to note that only the authors book length works and their respective translations will be considered for analysis. Full-length books, because they are set up and designed by the author according to a unitary theme or set of themes, function better as units of analysis than single poems. This thesis will thus examine Pietris Puerto Rican Obituary (1973), Obituario Puertorriqueo (1977), Traffic Violations (1983) and Obituario Puertorriqueo/Puerto Rican Obituary (2000) as well as Perdomos Where a Nickel costs a Dime (1996) and Postcards of El Barrio (2002). The analysis will be structured according to three main themes common to both authors works. These themes are the city, Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican identity and the community. This analysis will enable the researcher to trace and highlight how the Nuyorican poetry movement has evolved during the thirty years since its inception and from that speculate as to the possible effects that Islanders exposure to this literature may have.

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CHAPTER 3 PEDRO PIETRI: THE INTELLECTUAL ANGUISH OF BEING ORGANIC To write about Pedro Pietri is to write about arguably the single most recognizable name in Nuyorican poetry (Barradas, 1998). The international successes of both his poems and plays along with his unique public persona have garnered much deserved attention from critics and readers alike. His work has influenced countless Puerto Rican and Latino writers like Roberto Santiago, Martin Espada and Willie Perdomo, who all testify to how upon reading Pietris work, they gathered a sense of what it meant to be a Puerto Rican in New York. Santiago, for example, writes: I read Pedro Pietris Puerto Rican Obituary and understood for the first time what it meant to live in poverty. There I was, living in the Taft Projects on 114th St. and Madison Avenue, but it wasnt until I read this poem that I truly understood the reality of my surroundings (Santiago, 1995: xv). Pietris work must be seen not only as serving as a literary foundation for the Puerto Rican and Latino writers of later generations but also as a poetic blueprint for the personal and collective identity of the Nuyorican community in general. His written word serves as a perfect starting point for the mapping of the Nuyorican poetry movement from its inception to its present situation and beyond. It must also be said, however, that Pietris work is unrepresentative of the movement in one respect. Up until recent years, he has remained the only well known Nuyorican poet on the Island. Barradas (1998: 143) writes entre los llamados poetas neorrican, Pedro Pietri es muy probablemente el mejor conocido en Puerto Rico donde la obra de otros valiosos poetas nuestros que escriben en ingls desde los Estados 23

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24 Unidoses totalmente ignorada. Barradas (1998) attributes Pietris crossover from the states to the Island to mainly three factors. First of all, up until the publication of Willie Perdomos work in 2002, Pietri was the only Nuyorican poet published on the Island in both Spanish and English when the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture published a bilingual edition selected poems in 1977. Second his most famous poem Puerto Rican Obituary has been staged several times on the Island in different productions. And lastly, Pietri has had the opportunity to come to Puerto Rico on official visits to University campuses and the like to present and promote his work (Barradas, 1998: 144). Pietri then is both exemplary of the movement and unique at the same time. More importantly, for the purposes of this thesis, he stands as one of the few and quite possibly the premier link that the Nuyorican poetry movement had with the Island at its beginnings and during the bulk of its development. An analysis of his work is thus critical for his poetry has served as a vital point of intersection between the Island and its migrant population. This chapter critically looks at the books Puerto Rican Obituary (1973) and Traffic violations (1983). Puerto Rican Obituary According to Barradas (1998), there are two major currents running through Puerto Rican Obituary: social and surrealist. The book in fact fluctuates between poems that are framed around and even fueled by the jarring specificity of the New York Puerto Rican condition and others in which Pietri talks about some sort of urban Everyman that could be Puerto Rican or not (Barradas, 1998: 144-145). These latter poems do not reference the working class experience but rather point towards and at times even step in a more abstract and ample world (Barradas, 1998: 144-145). It is this uninterrupted and easy fluctuation between a crude and seemingly inescapable realism and glimpses of the

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25 abstract and absurd that gives the book its contextual and stylistic appeal. Furthermore, the two currents do often meet in poems that infuse the Puerto Rican working class experience with a nightmarish and at times nauseating quality, which clearly convey the poets vision of Puerto Rican life in New York as overwhelmingly dehumanizing and senseless (Barradas, 1998). It is necessary to treat Puerto Rican Obituary as very much a socially motivated work. The out-of-this-world character of the New York Puerto Rican experience that Pietri presents in this book is directly produced by specific social factors that Pietri seeks to uncover and attack on behalf of his community. Consequently, as Barradas states, the explanation for the senselessness of his first book [is] essentially social (1998: 149-150). One could then make the case that the poems in this book are influenced heavily by the poets involvement in political and social movements, specifically with El Grupoa collective of poets and musicians loosely tied to the Puerto Rican Socialist Party during the 1970s and The young Lords (Matilla, 2000). This influence is visible in the moralistic tone that characterizes several of the pieces in the book in which Pietri warns his fellow community member to stay clear of drugs, politicians and salesmen. These poems are often filled with political rhetoric and at times read more like speeches and manifestos than poems. This is understandable considering that Pietris poetry appeared in the politically oriented periodicals published by these groups and was read at protests and other like functions (Matilla, 2000). Matilla (2000: 88) writes of Pietri's involvement with the Young Lords: "Pietri y otros poetas nuyoricans lean en actividades organizadas por el partido, donde participaban por igual escritores escapados del asedio reaccionario de los estadistas en la

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26 isla. The truth is that the poet found himself so deep in the organization that he even had to change a line in his poem Puerto Rican Obituary because it was taken to be offensive by the rest of the party. Matilla (2000: 86) recalls: Pedro se vio forzado a cambiar el final de 'Obituario'; el Comit Central de los Young Lords crey que era muy sexista (y lo era) aquello de 'Aqu the men admire desire/ and never get tired of the women" y lo publicaron en Pa'lante como 'Aqu the men and women admire desire/ and never get tired of each other. A tension appears to lie at the base of Pietris early work between the political and the artistic. This tension or debate must always be kept in the center when studying Pietris work, specially when one takes into account his subsequent parting from this type of political organization precisely because of the personal control that he saw as being placed upon him and his writing. (Hernandez, 1997). Consequently, the poets early work must be seen and examined as harboring this tension and his later work as a reaction to the presumed lifting of that tension. The following sections discuss three of the most salient themes in Pietris Puerto Rican Obituary and Traffic Violations. Puerto Ricans in New York: The City as Killer One of the first things that strike you upon reading Puerto Rican Obituary is the complete and utter lack of movement in these poems. The people in Pietri's work do not walk down crowded New York streets. The only streets present here have dead ends. The dehumanizing character of the metropolis is first perceived in the tragic inability of Pietri's characters to move out; to find an exit and leave. There is an overwhelming feeling of entrapment in these poems that it is barely escapable through drugs. The poem Broadway highlights the inability of drugs in getting the individual somehow lifted away from his/her chronic immobility. The poem reads: "you get off on the same

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27 floor/ you got on/ like you have to get high/ on something else/ if you want to get/ to the floor you came down to from (Pietri, 1973: ln.85-90) This feeling of entrapment is further aided by both the characters' and the poet's proximity to death. The poems here do not simply speak of death but rather speak to it in a distinctively intimate manner. Consequently, the author on the hand portrays death as something outside the individual that is destined to come for him or her. This is evident in the poem Notes on Solitude where Pietri (1973: ln.23-30) writes "The wind/ smelled like a cemetery/ until death/ started a conversation/ with a face in the crowd/ then everybody/ learned how to smile/ again. And on the other hand, death appears as something already inhabiting the people it's about to take, like in "The B-52 Blew" where Pietri (1973: ln.179-181) writes "And everybody you saw/ was already dead/ or about to die." Death is immediate and in some occasions there appears to be a much greater connection with death than with reality. The poem O/D reads: "You roll up your sleeve/ you see a cemetery/ located on your arms/ you are on the roof/ of a condemned building/ you are in the stairways/ of housing projects/ you are in the toilet/ of your apartment/ taking an imaginary shit" (Pietri, 1973: ln. 180-189) There is no question that the poet's and his characters' relationship with death is caused by the city. Pietri does not mince words in presenting the city as a killer. It is an anguishing and relentlessly asphyxiating environment. Again, humanity has no space here. In "Monday Morning," he writes, "Everybody has bad breath this morning/ switchblade tempers anti-social eyeballs/ cemetery erections wash-and-wear headaches/ as downtown trains faint on top of them" (Pietri, 1973: ln. 23-26). This erasure of humanity is evident in the absence of proper names. Pietri's poems do not showcase

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28 different personalities for they are premised on the city being the sole and domineering entity. Thus, proper names appear in only three poems out of the total thirty-seven: 1) The title poem of the book where five Spanish names are periodically listed for the effect of sounding as a daily obituary column. This only serves to highlight the character of the city as monster and the continual execution of New York Puerto Ricans: "Juan/ Miguel/ Milagros/ Olga/ Manuel/ All died yesterday today/ and will die again tomorrow (Pietri, 1973: ln. 23-29). 2) The last poem of the book, Para la Madre de Angel Luna, which is written entirely in Spanish and functions as a letter to the mother of one of the poets, friends who died in Vietnam. 3) A short poem found towards the end of the book entitled "Tata" talks about the poet's 85-year-old grandmother who appears in the work as the only living person of old age. This last poem is of great importance for it stands gallantly as a succinct threat of resistance. The poem reads: "mi abuela/ has been/ in this dept store/ called america/ for the past twenty five years/ she is eighty-five years old/ and does not speak/ a word of english/ That is intelligence" (Pietri, 1973: ln.1-9). By juxtaposing this character's survival against the many deathspast, present and futurewhich appear in the rest of the poems, the social and political message in the book jumps to a completely different level. Neither the city nor the country, neither government nor death has an effect on this lady because of her presumed refusal to learn English. She appears undaunted, unpolluted and miraculously pure. The Spanish language thus appears in this poem as the prime representative of Puerto Rican culture and ultimately that culture serves as a solace for the New York Puerto Rican. The implicit message in this poem could then be interpreted

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29 as being that only through a total and complete adherence to the traditions and ways of the Island can the New York Puerto Rican community survive. This interpretation however falters the minute one remembers that this message is being communicated in a predominantly English work by a predominantly English-speaking writer. Therefore, what is actually being communicated is the need for the preservation of a distinct Puerto Rican spirit amidst the threat of Americanization. The move here then is not towards the Island or toward the strict and exclusive maintenance of Island traditions, but rather a move toward inner core of the New York Puerto Rican so he/she can shelter him/herself from his/her present environment. Consequently, the common conception that Nuyorican literature in general and Nuyorican poetry in particular has recurred to a mystified image of the Island as paradise or the Island as savior (Mohr, 1982; Guinness, 1999) is sadly misguided. While it is true that several Nuyorican works, particularly those of the founding years, have tended to present an unreal, parasidic view of the Islandone that keenly resembles that purported by canonical Island works (Barradas, 1998)this mystification cannot be separated from the social and political context of both, the works in which it has been presented and the authors. The poet Martn Espada puts it in perspective: "This paradise was called Puerto Rico. I think that made sense. The mythology that grows up in the communitiesthat's paradise relatively speaking, thats paradise compared to here and in certain ways such as the weather, that's indisputable. Obviously it's not a paradise or else we wouldn't be here at all" (Steptoe, n.d.). To think that a literary tradition so intimately linked with organized social and political movements bent on improving the conditions of Puerto Rican communities in

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30 the U.S. and whose literary production has focused on exposing and criticizing the political machine that has marginalized those communities would turn to a such an uncritical vision of Puerto Rico is absurd. One cannot confuse the poeticized longing of a displaced migrant community for ignorance concerning the actual situation of the land that they were driven out of. Pietri's Obituary stands as an early testament of this. Nuyorican Visions of Puerto Rico In Pietri's workas we will more clearly see when discussing his second book the Puerto Rican paradise is presented to the reader as an internal space; as having much more to do with a journey to the self than with any plane trip back to any island. Puerto Rican Obituary's deep-seated and passionate concern for the welfare of the community Pietri represents manifests itself in the form of an at times implied and at times blatant call for personal reflection. The author calls for a liberatory type of introspection that would make a return trip to Puerto Rico or a drug trip unnecessary. "Love poem for my people" is exemplary: "if you want/ to feel very rich/ look at your hands/ that is where/ the definition of magic/ is located at" (Pietri, 1973: ln. 16-21). The fact is that the poet's concern with the preservation of his Puerto Rican people's humanity and sense of self is too great and his critique of government structures too brash and stead fast for him to simply offer a physical exodus to a better place. As argued before, actual physical exit is not possible in Pietri. The only possible escape lies inside each community member. Case in point, the poems "The Old Buildings," "O/D" and "Poetry." In "The Old Buildings" the reader gets one of the scarce moments of actual Puerto Rican community life in New York. The poem reads: "unity was happening/ whenever somebody/ cooked pasteles/ everybody in the building/ was invited to eat (Pietri, 1973: ln. 6-10). For a minute, the city seems full of life. The Nuyorican community appears as

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31 whole. The beauty in this poem, however, is quick to deaden as the poet bitterly states: "(city hall/ saw this harmony happening/ and got intimidated/ because there is nothing/ that frightens/ this government more/ than seeing people/ living and loving/ and breathing together/ so they decided to/ demolish the buildings/ that could have been saved by renovation/ and eliminate the unity)" (Pietri, 1973: ln. 13-26). Moments of shared beauty and visible happiness in the city are easily squashed in Pietri's mind. Similarly, in "O/D" a drug-induced escapist flight offers a temporary out. Pietri (1973: ln. 282-300) writes: for a few seconds/ all the buildings from/ the hudson river/ to the east river/ become palm trees/ there is enough grass/ for everybody to walk on/ drums are heard/ thru-out the vicinity/ everybody was dancing/ elephants participated/ the wind was scented/ with coconut integrity/ for the first time/ in a long time/ it was smelling sweet/ everywhere you looked/ a rainbow was present Again, the scene stands in direct opposition to all the others presented in the book. This particular one is even touched by the fantastical. The poet however is quick to bring one down, completely disarming this paradisic scene by detailing the horrific trials of the junkie as he goes on trying to get his fix and ends up dead from shooting up rat poison. The poem continues: "you was known as the airplane/ that never left the ground/ regardless of how high you got/ you are gone and gone you are/ where pushers can no longer find you/ where life is a subject/ than nobody talks about anymore (Pietri, 1973: ln. 355-361). The only viable way out appears in the aptly titled "poetry"a shorter piece that presumably takes the reader to the Island. It reads: in ponce/ there is a beach/ without broken glass/ in the sand/ the ocean has/ twenty-twenty vision/ is safe to breathe/ on this beach/ there are no splinters/ in the wind" (Pietri, 1973: ln. 1-10). Here, poetry becomes Pietri's only personal pure space. To speak of an Island hundreds of miles away while

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32 caught inside the metropolis cannot be taken as manifesting a simple and romanticized longing but rather as an attempt to center oneself and find some internal solace in the environment in which one is. Furthermore, the fact that in Pietri, this centering space is always presented as somehow linked with the Island itself and/or elements of its culture and considering Pietri's political orientations and affiliations, immediately politicizes this internal space. It is used as a direct affront against the U.S. government and culture; as a means by which the Puerto Rican community can forge, promote and defend their own identity in the States. Nowhere is this more evident than in the title poem of the book, Puerto Rican Obituary where Pietri brilliantly describes this internal place. The poem reads: Aqui Se Habla espanol all the time/ Aqui you salute your flag first/ Aqui there are no dial soap commercials/ Aqui everybody smells good/ Aqui tv dinners do not have a future/ Aqui the men and women admire desire/ and never get tired of each other/ Aqui Que Pasa Power is whats happening/ Aqui to be called negrito/ means to be called LOVE For Pietri the inner self is the only possible realm for an uncontaminated Puerto Rican identity. Notions of Puerto Ricanness then are limited to that inner space. They do not color the exterior. They do not extend past the individual. The only thing that is evident from the outside is the refusal to participate in and promote mainstream American life. Traffic Violations Traffic violations is marked by the apparent depolitization of this personal space. No longer is the reality of Puerto Rican life in the States absurd and tragic, the entire cosmos does not make sense (Barradas, 1998: 150). Consequently, the mental-emotional space to which Pietri constantly alludes and escapes to stops being simply a threat to American society and becomes a threat against reality itself. Barradas (1998: 136) writes:

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33 "No es la sociedad solamente sino el cosmos en s que est estructurado de manera absurda, de forma en que la identidad de los seres es falsa. Pietri then wages war against everything around him. In each and every poem, the poet portrays himself as capable of breaking both social and natural rules. At times it seems that he is playing a game of cat and mouse with the world; constantly trying to see with how much can he get away with. Barradas (1998: 135-136) notes: Ahora el poeta quiere cantarse a si mismo como ser que rompe con las normas establecidas por la sociedad en que vive y que el poeta ve en terminos que intentan sobrepasar lo economico. El poeta no es ahora el cantor del obiturario de los boricuas explotados sino el ser que destruye el orden intelectual establecido, el que va en contra el trnsito normal dictado por la sociedad, el que viola esa ruta predeterminada. The depolitization of the space then lies in its apparent individuality. It lies in the poet's privacy and sole ownership of it. The causes of his discontent have stopped being social. The poet has even lost the moralistic tone of his earlier book. The many drug and alcohol references in this work do not serve to steer his community away from those substances. On the contrary, the speaker of these poems readily consumes them without guilt or consequence. One could then argue that Pietri in this book steps away from his role as community leader. He, as an organic intellectual, breaks his ties with the community. It could be argued that he leaves the New York Puerto Rican people to their own devices; to makes sense of the social conditions that encapsulate them on their own. From a Gramscian standpoint, this book could very well mark Pietris refusal to further immerse himself in the troubles of his communityto feel as they doand speak to and for them. This apparent severing of ties however is not accompanied by the poets alliance with the dominant classes. He does not break away from the masses to become a traditional intellectual. The upper class does take away Pietri from the people. They have

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34 no hold on him either. It is as if he exists apart and separate from any type of social dynamic. The social conflict that characterized his first book is no longer there. The Weight of the Community What does stay constant is the poet's actual, physical immobilitya theme which is now readily exploited to accentuate Pietri's ability of breaking with the intellectual and social order while literary staying inside his apartment. Pietri (1983: ln. 32-39) writes in March Hangover: "When I move I don't go anywhere/ Haven't left this block in years/ I pick up speed and stand still/ And relax without changing the subject/ That will bring forth another day/ To forget what was left undone/ After the smoke and rum/ Kept me laughing at everyone. Similarly, the poem "Community Work" reads: "daydreaming across/ the absentminded bridge/ to embrace shadows/ in another world/ the mind disappears/ the body stays here" (Pietri, 1983: ln. 1-6). The poet then presents himself to the reader as almost an untouchable, insurmountable entity. In contrast with his first book, Pietri does not appear to suffer from any ills whether they are social or physical. Pietri's transformation, however, becomes illusory once the reader begins to look and poke at that image of his physical and in fact social immobility. The poet makes it clear that he is still in the same block. The city does not vanish from this book. Pietri marks it indelibly by making it seem absent at times and glaringly obvious at others. "Intermission from Tuesday" reads: "Fortune tellers predict nothing new/ Will happen around this neighborhood/ For those who were born to get nowhere" (Pietri, 1983: ln. 14-16). The social marginalization of the poor community in general and the New York Puerto Rican community specifically, then, while not taking center stage as in the first book, do serve as the indisputable backdrop for his second. For all his dazzling mental tricks Pietri confesses to be unable to wipe reality away. He states in "Intermission from

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35 Monday": "have to leave the city/ when what you see is what you see/ and you don't see is what you don't see/ and the imagination is classified/ as excess luggage at the airport." (Pietri, 1983: ln. 20-24). Pietri is still unable to leave. Perhaps the clearest indication of the poet's prolonged confinement is the image of death as an unrelenting overseer which was carried over from his first book. Death again is presented here as immediate, palpableboth summoned and feared. The poet then fluctuates between talking about death as a necessary break by stating "eternal life is very boring" (ln.23) in the poem September Hangover and outright wishing that nobody would pass on in November Hangover where he writes: "the most incredible sight/ For the human eyes to witness/ Is a cemetery going out of business (Pietri, 1983:ln. 8-10). His most potent confrontation with death however takes place towards the very end of the book in the fourteen page long elegy I hate trees. In this piece Pietri mourns the death of his brother, Dr. Willie. The poetic work reflects the vulnerable state in which the poet finds himself. This is evident in lines such as this is one poem I never/ wanted to write in my life/ but darkness did occur twice/ & wrong numbers didnt exist/ the day his humor was missed (Pietri, 1983: ln. 119-123). The poem is also important because it marks the end of the illusion created, fostered and maintained during the majority of the book. Whereas, up to that point, Pietri, while static, seemed almost untouchable, beyond the reach of reality, this poem brings him crashing down. Death then does what external factors and social circumstances could not do. It forces the poet to let his guard down and the communal element in his work resurfaces. In I hate trees he declares: to forget that you didnt/ die alone is to forget/ that you didnt die at all/ There was also Maria and/ Maria and Mario or Maria/ and Mario and Maria or/ Mario and Maria and Maria/ who was 7 months pregnant/ under the influence of/ thunderbird or bacardi rum/ I dedicate this eulogy/ that you wrote to them too/

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36 whose real names & dreams/ & ambitions I never knew/ give them my best regards/ in the night clubs of the sky/ they will never be forgotten/ by those who remembered they died (Pietri, 1983: ln. 315-332) A thorough reading of this piece indicates that Pietris illusory break from the social in Traffic Violations was in deed inevitable. He felt too much. The dire circumstances of his community did much more than inform his work. They hurt him. As an organic intellectual, Pietri was unable to keep a safe distance from the masses. It was all too personal. The writing then, in order for it to continue, had to develop a shield, a cover. Traffic Violations is the poets attempt to establish the distance he could not maintain in Puerto Rican Obituary. The problem is that the high level of exposure and vulnerability present in the first work give the poet away in the second. They unmask him and the work, for all its dazzling intellectual tricks, ultimately exposes the unique anguish of an intellectual that would not and could not separate the personal from the communal.

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CHAPTER 4 WILLIE PERDOMO: NUYORICAN POETRY AS THE SOUNDTRACK FOR LIFE IN EL BARRIO Puerto Ricans in New York: The City as Home Willie Perdomos poetry marks a return to the street. The city is always at the center of his work. Contrary to Pietri, the city is home for Perdomo and the poet speaks of it with utmost care and tenderness in order to showcase both its seedy and deteriorated conditions as well as the beauty inherent in its community. Perdomos verses thus speak to and for the winos, junkies, abuelas and children that crowd these streets with an immediate and almost palpable love that enables him to bring the people and their stories to the page without losing anything on the way. Perdomo then speaks the city and the city definitely speaks through him. It shines through and does so brilliantly. Unlike in Pietri, beauty is possible here. In the poem Where I'm From, Perdomo (1996: ln. 36-37) writes: Where Im from its sweet like my grandmother reciting a quick/ prayer over a pot of hot rice and beans." Moreover, the possibility of beauty for Puerto Ricans in New York does not rest in Perdomos personal choice to focus on the lighter or more positive elements of life in El Barrio or in his ability to imagine and write about places different from where he lives. On the contrary, Perdomos poetry is characterized by the poets unique ability to create loving portrayals of Puerto Rican peoples in specific situations and places where love and beauty would usually be thought of as foreign. The poet explains in The Making of a Harlem Love Poem: -One day a little girl asked me if I wrote love poems. I said, Yes. I/ used to write infinite I-love-you-and-never-want-to-lose37

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38 you-poems./ But now I write about scabs that chip off stone faces and fall on/ bleeding streets and think all the poems I write are love poems" (Perdomo, 1996: ln. 1-4). Perdomo thus re-imagines the city markedly different from Pietri. While at times he seems at ease with his surroundings and on other occasions he is aching to break through and leave, the city never ceases to be home. Consequently, the city fluctuates between the background and center stage of Perdomos work. And while it may overtake and overwhelm him in any particular poem, it does not eat him up. There is a definite emotional attachment between the poet and the city that allows him to survive. For Perdomo the streets are filled with life. Whereas in Pietris work all the streets had dead ends and were frighteningly desolate, Perdomos poems are filled with avenues. With people walking up and down the block and music blasting from almost every corner. The poem Let me ask you something reads: Scent of indigo incense caresses me into a dream of kings/ and queens./ Manchild steppin strong on the street with his fresh-out-of-the-box/ Nike 380s,/ Holdin' his head high he plexes his gold Nefertili medallion//Little queen in her stroller points to the discount toys//Did you hear the pow! Boom! Plah!/ Guns or drums? Take your pick. (Perdomo, 1996: ln. 6-26) His poems function as a glaring and stubborn proof of life in the margins. He does not simply settle with chronicling the daily experiences of the people in these communities but challenges the reader to step into this world and see for him/herself. In the following lines he taunts and even threatens the reader: Now-let me ask you somethin:/ did you hear all that while you was walking up 125th street?/Did you see all that while you was walkin up 125th Street?/ Did you feel all that while you was walkin up 125th Street?/ Or was you just on your way/ to pay/ the phone bill? (Perdomo, 1996: ln. 35-41). Like in Pietri, there is a clear and definite move in Perdomos poems to have

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39 his community recognized and acknowledged. The difference lies in that in Pietri the move is motivated by the continual extermination of the members of that community and in Perdomo it arises more from a need to lay claim on that physical space as both joyously and painfully theirs. The evolution of the poetry movement and the community begins to be noticeable here. The Nuyorican community has grown its roots and Perdomos work is a clear reflection of the fruits of this growth. New Nuyorican Visions of Puerto Rico Important to note here is how the many music references in Perdomos work, specifically those made to Salsa music, are used to get this point across. The references are not a simple recourse to create a particular poetic ambiance but rather function as key reminders and proof of the distinct legacy of Puerto Rican and other Latino musicians in the city. Furthermore, Perdomos frequent naming of Salsa singers in poems such as The day that Hector Lavoe died and Writing about what you know" from his Postcards of El Barrio collection sets up a parallel between the poet and the famous musicians. Perdomo in fact claims to sing about the Barrio and its people and he claims Lavoe and others as his teachers. In The Day Hector Lavoe Died he writes: She knows that I will stop to see the voice that helped me/ when I was trying to sing my own song about mi gente en el barrio,/ y la vida de las putas, los tecatos, y las brujas, los/ dichosos, los tiburones, los cantantes y los soneros, los/ bodegueros, los perros y las gatas, las matas en la ventanas/ de los projectos and dare you to turn the other way. (Perdomo, 2002: ln. 8-13) Salsa music thus appears in Perdomo as an indelible piece of evidence of Puerto Rican life in the city. As such the music permeates into every scene he describes. Salsa was there when his father beat his mother: He would go kapow and thats where some of us learn to find the beat (The Day Hector Lavoe Died, ln. 70-71). It was there when the poet was dealing with his own drug addiction: Your boys said the day would come when

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40 you would go down like Hector Lavoe, Frankie Ruiz y La Lupe put together (Writing About What You Know, ln. 45-47). It was there to inform his initial stabs at poetry writing: The tempo for this journey is set by a round of glock shots ringing from the rooftops of Wagner projects, followed by a heavy, deep hip-hop jeep, thumping bass line with a stream of furious congas keeping rhythm (Creative Writing 1 Assignment: Sketches of Spanish Harlem, ln. 2-6). And more importantly Salsa is there to mark the announcement of the coming of a new day: Theres a disco ball/ spinning starlight/ on a new boogaloo/ tell Sonia/ that the bombs/are ready to drop/ that we got soneros/ ready to sing/ to those flowers/ that did not survive/ Operation Green thumb (The New Boogaloo, ln. 1-11). Music is everywhere in Perdomo. You cannot escape it. And much like the Salsa icons he is so fond of, Perdomo sings/writes for every occasion. None of his songs, however, are as intimate, as slow-paced and soft as those sung to and for his women characters, especially his mother. Perdomos depiction of women in his work is marked by an irrefutable, unrelenting and bitterly-sweet tenderness which gives these characters an out-of-this-world quality while still remaining deeply and at times tragically entrenched in third-world conditions. The poem This is for Mamasita from Where a Nickel Costs a Dime reads: I can see/ dry tears/ at the bottom/ of your hollow/ cheeks I/ heard you cried/ twice today/ once when the/ sun came out and/ Carlito didnt give/ you the ten/ dollars he promised/ you for your wake/ up/ and then you/ cried real tears when/ one of the guys gave/ Machito five/ dollars if he dared/ to ask you to suck/ his those were/ real tears I saw too/ tired for words I/ say give me/ life I love/ you when you/ return all the kisses/ I blow/ your way. (Perdomo, 1996: ln. 12-38) With very few exceptions the women in Perdomo, young and old, have in some way or another been hurt and their injuries, directly or indirectly, have been inflicted by abusive men, or irresponsible men or perverted men or just simply no good men.

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41 Consequently the gallantry and courage of women in Perdomos work is highlighted by the description of men as manchilds. Men do not grow in Perdomo. Rather, they stumble into manhood," got to jail or otherwise mess up. They do wrong and leave. Thus, they are characterized for who and what they left behind. It must be remembered that flight is a sin in Perdomos work and with no exception flight is a masculine trait. Unlike in Pietri, Perdomo sees flight as possible for his male characters and they are damned on account of that ability. Positive male figures then are almost completely absent in his work. It is as if they simply did not exist. In their place, the reader finds complex and intriguing female figures like the poets own mother who the poet praises in the opening line of Unemployed Mami. The poem reads: Eventhough she dont have a job mami still works hard (Perdomo, 1996: ln. 1). The fact is that while men can be found standing aimlessly on the corners of Perdomos poems, women are always at work. They are always active, even restless characters whose actions seem to be one of the principle steering mechanisms of their communities. One could even say that the life of the communities Perdomo describes is embodied by, preserved in and extended through his women characters. Probing a bit more into Perdomos poetic depiction of the mother-son relationship, particularly in the poems Unemployed Mami and The Day Hector Lavoe died, one is able to see that this relationship opens some sort of cultural passage way by which the poet is able to tap into his Puerto Rican roots. In the poem Unemployed Mami the mother watches over the poet as he runs into the street looking/ for images of Boricua sweetness to explode in his face (Perdomo, 1993: ln. 5-6). The mother becomes more proactive in The Day Hector Lavoe Died, where she directly links his son to the history

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42 of Puerto Ricans in New York by speaking of their familys connection to the late great Salsa singer. Perdomo (2002: ln. 19-20) writes: She starts her story about how Hector use to come to her/ house in the morning to pick up my uncle Lole who was a/ bad boogaloo conguero. She then proceeds to further cement the parallelism between her son the poet and the musical icon by warning him about his own drug use and how he could just as easily end up like Lavoe. The poem reads: She gives me the answer by miming an injection into the/ crook of her elbow. But what she means to say is all that/ talent and if you keep messing around with that shit, the/ same thing is gonna happen to you because even though you/ not putting a needle in your veins, you still lock yourself up/ in your room and a die a little bit more every day. (Perdomo, 2002: ln. 35-40) The mother stands as both watchperson and bearer of sacred traditions that are embedded in the familys oral history. Culture then is passed down directly from mother to son and though men are at the center of her stories, the maintenance and mobilization of the culture is only possible through her because she survived to tell the stories. Consequently, though male figures like Lavoe are revered and cited as crucial to the poets self discovery, without the mothers connection to these men and the music they made, they would not be as meaningful to Perdomo. It is the mother figure who ultimately has center stage and harbors the indispensable link to the culture. The poet writes: I clear my throat, take/ a deep breath and sigh cuz she fucked up my high with that/ same old story about talent left to dry, a small fortune wasted/ and all that coulda been in a world where the only thing left/ to sing about is a woman, putting on her nightgown, talking/ about the night she saw Hector Lavoe sing at the annual St./ Paul Mothers Day Dance and how he made her feel like/ she would never grow old. (Perdomo, 2002: ln. 73-80) This image is similar to the one conveyed in Pietris poem Tata in which the poets grandmother appears to the reader as a solitary bastion of cultural affirmation and

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43 resistance. As discussed in the previous chapter, Pietris grandmother stood in direct contrast to the rest of the characters in his first book because she had survived. Consequently, the peculiar feminine ability to survive in both these poets work is directly attributed to and responsible for the creation and maintenance of Puerto Rican culture in New York. The female gender is thus attributed a markedly strong character by both these authors that because of the always difficult and at times tragic circumstances that envelop themthe fact that others consistently die around themare also portrayed as strikingly lonely figures. Having said this, it should come as no surprise that death is not at all absent from Perdomos work. In tune with Pietris portrayal of Puerto Rican life in the city is Perdomos use of death as a distinctively Puerto Rican experience. Here, as in Pietri, death is ever present. However, Perdomos conception of death is different in that while his characters do take part in an intimate and constant dialogue with death evidenced in the ceremonious pouring of liquor on the street in poems like Funeralthis dialogue is strictly private and personal. Whereas in Pietri masses of Puerto Rican workers pass on everyday and names are listed in order to drown out the singularity of the experience, Perdomo limits his obituaries to loved ones while also highlighting the violence prevalent in El Barrio. His poem Funeral for example mourns the death of his friend Edwin by confessing It was the first time I saw Edwin wearing a suit (Perdomo, 1996: ln. 1). The poet thus makes the experience unique to him and then goes on to place his friends death within a troubling and tragic communal pattern. The poem continues: I didnt know whether to laugh or cry when I/ noticed that I went to more funerals than parties this summer (Perdomo, 1996: ln. 4-5).

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44 The Weight of the Community There is an unnerving sense of violence that underlies Perdomos poetry. Lines like After they bag me up/ the bullets will keep singing from Sangre en Harlem (ln. 16-17) create a Pietri-like environment where the city keeps on living whether or not the people keep on dying. Moreover, like Pietri, Perdomo frequently recurs to the image of a physical and social violence whose perpetrators are known and made public by the poet. The poem Where Im from reads: Where Im from, the police come into your house without/ knocking. They throw us off rooftops and say we slipped. They shoot/ my father and say he was crazy. They put a bullet in my head and say/ they found me that way (Perdomo, 1996: ln. 21-24). The political and social oppression of the New York Puerto Rican community is very much present in Perdomos work. The only discrepancy there is between Pietri and Perdomo as it relates to their portrayal of this oppression is that there seems to be no moralizing agent present in Perdomos poetry. He does not preach to the community, rather he presents the different situations as he sees and feels them as true and leaves it up to the reader for interpretation. His main interest thus lies in depicting the complex character of a community that flourishes within a social dynamic that is based on the continual denial of its existence and the eventual demise of its humanity. Perdomos art thus lies in skillfully and lovingly exposing these contradictions in lines like: Friday night in El Barrio and love and death are standing on the/ corner smiling at you. ('Promises, promises' Perdomo, 1996: ln. 15-16). It is important to note here, however, that while Perdomos poetry does not border on the political rhetoric that some of Pietris early work employed, like his predecessor, Perdomo offers no reconciliation between the community that he represents and the social order that victimizes it. For Perdomo, like Pietri, they are polar opposites and will

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45 continue to be so. Both poets coincide in that social change is only possible within their own community; it is only feasible through the work of their people. This commitment to community uplift has been a mainstay in the Nuyorican poetry tradition and judging solely on Perdomos work it appears that it will continue on that way. In this sense, there is not much separating Pietri and Perdomos poetry. Both poets works are built on and for the community that birthed them. Consequently, the differences in each others poetry are a result of change in their community through time. Having said this, the most significant progression from Pietri's Obituary to Perdomo's Postcards is perhaps the definite externalization of the Puerto Rican identity. Whereas in Pietri, the Puerto Rican essence, as previously discussed, was constricted to an internal space, in Perdomo this essence has broken out, colored its surroundings and can now be found all over the city. Contrary to Pietri, Perdomo's journey of self-discovery occurs in the streets, in a violent yet lively landscape where Pietri himself can be found preaching to young disciples. The poem The New Boogaloo reads: "tell Rosalia/ that the reverend Pedro/ is on the rooftop/ handing out passports/ because the spaceship casita/ is about to take off" (Perdomo, 2002: ln. 28-33). Perdomo, in this fashion, not only acknowledges his poetic foundations but two decades later has the courage and confidence to propose a different ending to Pietris Obituary. In the last lines of The New Boogaloo, Pietris character assures his young disciples that this time/ we gonna die knowing/ how beautiful/ we really/ are (Perdomo, 2002: ln. 84-88). This re-writing not only stands as testament to the survival of the Puerto Rican people in New York but also heralds the successful relocation of the center for production of Puerto Rican culture. With Perdomo, the city gets its own culture factory. Migration is no longer

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46 mourned and the Island no longer stands as a requisite point of reference. New York Puerto Rican tradition is now rich enough to stand as its own point of departure. As Perdomo (1996: ln. 40-45) notes in Nuyorican School of Poetry: Number halls/ behind bodegas/ next to casitas/ by botanicas/ keep history/ on the same block.. There is no need to look anywhere else. Consequently, the poet's references to a Puerto Rican identity must be taken and seen as new and different from any manifestation or construct that had arisen on the Island. The culture has been home grown in the city and re-imagined to reflect the way of life, needs and desires of that specific community. To view it then as a mere transposition of Island tradition is to rid the Nuyorican tradition of its literary creativity and social agency. Furthermore, it must be remembered that the official definitions of Puerto Ricanness are not nor have ever been compatible with New York streets. Therefore, to acknowledge Puerto Ricanness as being alive and practiced across the shores is to acknowledge not a Stateside manifestation of Island life, but rather a people made Island in the States by both Puerto Rico and the U.S. who in the past thirty years were crafting a new nationality on the margins. And Perdomo's poetry is now the premier avenue through which that new nationality is crossing over to the two countries that reside off its shores. The evolution of the Nuyorican poetry movement should now become glaring. In the 23 years that separate Puerto Rican Obituary (1973) and Where a Nickel costs a Dime (1996), the personal internal space that Pietri talked about as the only possible safeguard for working class Puerto Ricans in New York was busted out by Perdomo, stretched and made to fit over all possible members of that community. Perdomos work stands firmly

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47 on Pietri and expands it. This relationship between the two authors is important considering that according to Gramsci (2000), the most important task that organic intellectuals must carry out is to produce future intellectuals. That line of productionthat intellectual heritageis evident here. The two as writers have infused their work with the concerns of their community and through their work have given that community a proper name and an exact shape. They have spoken to it about its history. They have uncovered the distinct causes of its discontent. They have placed its troubles within the larger social context. And more importantly, they have mapped out a route for communal betterment and social uplift through poetry.

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CHAPTER 5 THE COMING PUERTO RICAN IDENTITIES When one considers the type of Puerto Rican identity that the work of Pietri and Perdomo promotesan identity not bogged down by political agendas nor confined to a set geographical locationand takes into account the traditional Island view of what a true Puerto Rican is, the increased exposure of Islanders to Nuyorican works is nothing short of a clash. Traditional Island identity constructions are beginning to collide with Nuyorican formulations of Puerto Ricanness and may very well lead Islanders to question their long held views. If the work produced by the emergent crop of poets in the Island is any indication of the future consequences of this clash, Island Puerto Rican identity is already being reformulated according to a Nuyorican framework. Furthermore, if with time these young poets manage to garner the critical acclaim and status of the established and even canonical Island writers of the 20th century, they, like them before, could find themselves in the position of setting the basis for what the coming generations of Islanders will identify as Puerto Rican. Within this context the work these poets are doing now becomes terribly interesting and worthy of study. It is thus crucial to ask: What exactly is Nuyorican about this new breed of Island poetry? One could initially answer that its the writers focus on the oral or performative character of their work that makes it distinctively Nuyorican. However, it is not so much that performance poetry is being actively practiced and staged on the Island for there is a fertile tradition of oral poetry in Puerto Rico. One could then argue that its the combination of English and Spanish in the work. One could highlight the fact that writers 48

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49 are using an Island form of code switching, infusing their poems with elements of the English language. But that also has a history in Puerto Rico. Lastly, one could point out the fact that poets are addressing the concerns and necessities of their specific communities and voicing out against injustice. But, as discussed earlier, Puerto Rican literature is historically intertwined with the political. What makes these works Nuyorican is not simply a question of themes or style. It is the conscious and purposeful referencing of Nuyorican writers in these poets works. Instead of basing their poetic manifestations on the canonical Island authors, young Puerto Rican writers are jumping off the identity constructions set in place by mainland writers. Urayoan Noel for example writes in his poem Spic Tracts: I've got no friends named Papo/ who hang around street corners/ "Vaya, mami" and "Boricua one hundred per-/cent,/ represent!"/ Don't even have a car/ to wash on Sunday afternoons/ away those NY/PR blues/ no homeboy convoy to loot Loisaida/ listening to la Fania/ "salsa vieja por mi madre por la radio"//I spend the summers at my aunt's/ in Hialeah,/ I'm not down with the program/ and I never met Mumia/ still,/ I have a past. (Noel, 2000: 14-41) This poets move to reference a separate and for decades marginalized taproot of Puerto Rican cultural expression signifies the defunct character of official identity constructions on the Island. His poetic manifestations make it glaringly obvious that these constructions are no longer viable. They have ceased to be applicable to his present experiences. Furthermore, the poets decision to define his own personal Puerto Rican identity against the parameters set during the three decades of Nuyorican literature as opposed to those set on the Island in the 20th century implies the de-centering of Puerto Rican identity. It signifies not only the evolution of the Nuyorican poetry movement but its status as a valid manifestation of what is Puerto Rican. Puerto Ricanness thus becomes

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50 impossible to be set, fixed and limited to a particular geographical location. It begins to open up so as to house everybody. Nowhere is this sentiment communicated as clearly and beautifully on the Island that in Jos Raul Gonzlezs poetry. In a somber yet painstakingly tender tone, Gonzlez proclaims the joy and pain of this de-centering when he states in the poem Batacumbele means: O talvez porque la hisla no reconoce/ el pecado desu historia./ Y quin sabe si es a causa de la similitud/ entre los cadveres dela hisla y los de nuevayol (Gonzlez, 2000: ln. 6-9). He continues numbering the many ways in which the social conditions affecting marginal communities on the Island and in the states have further cemented the relationship between Islanders and the mainland community. He writes in Nantan-Bai, Uno: Escribo porque tambin viv en la ciudad de Nuevayol,/ porque tambin all se estn matando por el crack./ Porque tambin all se estn matando por la heroina,/ porque tambin all existen carceles,/ porque en las crceles de all tambin hacen tiempo/ cientos de puertorriqueos,/ porque tambin all mueren/ chamaquitos que van a parar al ro,/ que van a parar a los buzones, endonde aprenden/ a vivir como viven las cartas. (Gonzlez, 2000: ln. 6-15) His poetry thus functions as a call for the unification of colonized Puerto Rican people on both sides of the Atlantic. It is in fact a call to bonding, to a change in the relations between the Island and mainland communities. If significant change is ever going to come, however, this call for an open house must be accompanied by a critical revision of Puerto Rican history, specifically of the migration. It is simply not enough to acknowledge that the migration occurred and continues to occur, but that it has shaped and affected every single aspect of Puerto Rican life both in the states and on the Island. Furthermore, it must be understood that Puerto Rican life has developed differently in each location according to the particular

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51 circumstances and needs of each population. Consequently, what we have are not mirror images of each community across shores but rather distinct communal manifestations that arose from the same source and that suffer equally from the effects of colonization. To bridge the two communities then mandates the mapping out of the differences between the two and the reaching out through those differences. It demands a critical yet tender look. It is this thesis position that given the revisionist character of both Island and Mainland Puerto Rican literature, specially its poetry, and taking into consideration the Islands prolonged colonial statusthe perennial dependency of the Island government on U.S. policiesliterature appears as the preeminent space for this historical revision to occur. The possible Island adaptation of various elements of the Nuyorican aesthetic1 particularly its liberatory and multicultural philosophycould very well produce and foster a new vision of the Puerto Rican. This vision would be one predicated on the positive contact with other racial/ethnic communities in the U.S., and thus free of venomous notions of cultural purity. Moreover, it could very well lead to a race conscious revision of Puerto Rican history and vindicate the Black Island experience as indelibly native and central to any viable process of identity construction; a vision of the Black Puerto Rican that does not essentialize, marginalize nor trivialize its character, presence and part in the forging of the Puerto Rican nation through time. The Nuyorican aesthetic thus presents itself as a curative agent for Island culture. It presents us with the opportunity to revise and correct our past in order to almost 1 See page 11 for a description of the Nuyorican Aesthetic.

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52 guarantee a more secure and just future for all of us. A Nuyorican way of thinking then enables Island Puerto Ricans to reach out toward its migrant community by standing firm right on top of the core of its Island past. It teaches us to look beyond by looking directly within. Also, the Nuyorican aesthetic brings to the Island Puerto Rican a more nuanced view of colonialism. For years Nuyorican poets have been highlighting the Islands ongoing Americanization as it is manifested in Islanders treatment of their Nuyorican counterparts (Hernandez, 1997). The refusal of the Nuyorican by the Island suggests a deep-seated and seemingly inconsolable self-hatred. The colonial regime divided the Puerto Rican self. Both the U.S. and Island elite have portrayed the migrant community as filthy, indignant and criminal, and middle class Islanders have bought into this portrayal and have grown to despise the migrant community and blame it for the terrible view white Americans have of Puerto Ricans. A Nuyorican framework thus provides the Islander with a way in which to learn to recognize white structures of racism and colonial oppression. The subversive possibilities of this unification process are endless. To think Nuyorican means to think critically; to begin to see the interconnections between the subjugated status of the Island as a colony of the United States and the marginalized status of the U.S. Puerto Rican community as a racial ethnic minority in the U.S. It provides a lens by which to view and dissect the governmental and social structures that divide the two communities with the benefit of being independent of any formal political party. It thus promises a people-centered approach to political and social change.

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53 LIST OF REFERENCES Algarn, M. 1987. Nuyorican Aestheti cs. In A. Rodrguez (Ed.), Images and Identities: The Puerto Rican in Two World Contexts. (pp. 161-165). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books. Alvarez, E. 1998. La Dispora Puertorriquea en los Estados Unidos. In E. Martnez Masdeu (Ed.), Literatura e Identidad Ante el 98. (pp. 191-207). San Juan, PR: Editorial LEA. Baldwin, J. 1995. The Fire Next Time. New York, NY: Modern Library. Barradas, E. 1998. Partes de un Todo: Ensayos y Notas sobre Literatura Puertorriquea en los Estados Unidos. San Juan, PR: EDUPR. Di Nubila, C. 1997. La experiencia migratoria del puertorriqueo. In C. Di Nubila, and C. Rodrguez Corts (Eds.), Puerto Rico: Historia, Sociedad y Educacin (pp. 39-47). San Juan, PR: Isla Negra Editores. Diaz-Quines, A. 1993. La Memoria Rota: Ensayos sobre Cultura y Poltica. San Juan, PR: Ediciones Huracn. Flores, J. 1993. Divided Borders: Essays on Puerto Rican Identity. Houston, TX: Arte Publico Press. Gmez, J. 1987. Intelectuales y Pueblo: Un Acercamien to a la Luz de Antonio Gramsci. San Jose, CR: Editorial DEI. Gonzlez, J. 2000. Harvest of Empire: A Histor y of Latinos in America New York, NY: Viking Press. Gonzlez, J.R. 2000. Barrunto. San Juan, PR: Isla Negra Editores. Gonzlez, R. 1989. Crnica de Tres Dcadas: Poesa Puertorriquea Actual San Juan, PR: EDUPR. Gramsci, A. 2000. The Gramsci Reader: Sel ected Writings 1916-1935. New York, NY: New York University Press. Guinness, G. 1999. The Covers of this Book are too far Apart. San Juan, PR: EDUPR. Hernndez, C.D. 1997. Puerto Rican Voices in English: Interviews with Writers. Westport, CT: Praeger.

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54 Hernndez-Durn, T. 2002. Entrevista a Alberto Martnez-Mrquez. Escner Cultural [On-line], 44. Retrieved September 16, 2002, from: http://www.escaner.cl/escaner44/entrevista.htm Luis, W. 1997. Dance Between Two Cultures: Latino Caribbean Literature in the United States. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press. Matilla, A. 2000. El Espaolito y el Espa. San Juan, PR: Isla Negra Editores Matos-Rodrguez, F. and Hernndez, P.J. 2001. Pioneros: Puerto Ricans in New York City 1896-1948. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing Mohr, E. 1982. The Nuyorican Experience: Literature of the Puerto Rican Minority. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. Noel, U. 2000. Las Flores del Mall. Brooklyn, NY: ALAMALA. Perdomo, W. 2002. Postcards of El Barrio. San Juan, PR: Isla Negra Editores. Perdomo, W. 1996. Where a Nickel Costs a Dime. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company. Pietri, P. 2000. Obituario Puertorriqueo/ Puerto Rican Obituary. San Juan, PR: Isla Negra Editores. Pietri, P.1983. Traffic Violations. Maplewood, NJ: Waterfront Press. Pietri, P. 1977. Obiturario Puertorriqueo. San Juan, PR: Instituto de Cultura Puertorriquena. Pietri, P. 1973. Puerto Rican Obituary. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press. Plummer, K. 2001. Documents of Life 2: An Invitation to Critical Humanism. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Rodrguez Corts, C. 1997. El rol de la identidad cultural en la historia social de Puerto Rico. In C. Di Nubila and C. Rodrguez Corts (Eds.), PuertoRico: Historia, Sociedad y Educacin. (pp.19-36). San Juan, PR: Isla Negra Editores. Snchez-Gonzlez, L. 2001. Boricua Literature: A Literary History of the Puerto Rican Diaspora. New York, NY: New York University Press. Santiago, R. 1995. Black and Latino. In R. Santiago (Ed.), Boricuas: Influential Puerto Rican Writings. (pp.14-27). New York, NY: One World. Santos-Febres, M. 2002. Introduccin. In W. Perdomo, Postcards of El Barrio. San Juan, PR: Isla Negra Editores.

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55 Steptoe, L.B. n.d. Coming of Age in Poetry and Life: Interview with Martn Espada. Retrieved September 16, 2002, from http://www.latnn.com/grafico/interview/articles/espada2.htm

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BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH Guillermo Rebollo-Gil was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He is the author of two published books of poetry. His work has also been included in literary anthologies of the Spanish speaking Caribbean. He is currently pursuing a PhD in sociology at the University of Florida, focusing on racial and ethnic relations. 56


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Material Information

Title: The New Boogaloo: Nuyorican Poetry and the Coming Puerto Rican Identities
Physical Description: Mixed Material
Copyright Date: 2008

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Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
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THE NEW BOOGALOO:
NUYORICAN POETRY AND THE COMING PUERTO RICAN IDENTITIES

















By

GUILLERMO REBOLLO-GIL


A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL OF THE UNIVERSITY OF
FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE
DEGREE OF MASTER OF ARTS

UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA


2004

































Copyright 2004

by

Guillermo Rebollo-Gil

































This thesis is dedicated to the island and to the woman who shares it with me.
















TABLE OF CONTENTS

page

A B S T R A C T ......................................................................................................................... v

CHAPTER

1 IN TR O D U C T IO N ........ .. ......................................... ..........................................1.

B background ................................................................................ ..........................2
N uyorican F oundations... ...................................................................... ...............6...
T he M igration ........................................ ............................................................ 12
Island Literature, M igration and Identity............................................... ............... 14
N uyorican Poetry in C ontext ....................................... ....................... ............... 18

2 M E T H O D S ................................................................................................................. 2 0

3 PEDRO PIETRI: THE INTELLECTUAL ANGUISH OF BEING ORGANIC ........23

P u erto R ican O b itu ary ................................................................................................2 4
Puerto Ricans in New York: The City as Killer ....................................................26
N uyorican V isions of Puerto R ico......................................................... ................ 30
Traffic Violations................ .. ............ .................. ................ 32
The W eight of the C om m unity .............................................................. ................ 34

4 WILLIE PERDOMO: NUYORICAN POETRY AS THE SOUNDTRACK FOR
L IFE IN E L B A R R IO ... ...................................................................... ................ 37

Puerto Ricans in New York: The City as Home....................................................37
N ew N uyorican V isions of Puerto Rico ................................................ ................ 39
The W eight of the C om m unity .............................................................. ................ 44

5 THE COMING PUERTO RICAN IDENTITIES..................................................48

L IST O F R E FE R E N C E S ................................................. ............................................ 53

BIO GR APH ICAL SK ETCH .................................................................... ................ 56














Abstract of Thesis presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts

THE NEW BOOGALOO: NUYORICAN POETRY AND THE COMING PUERTO
RICAN IDENTITIES

By

Guillermo Rebollo-Gil

August 2004

Chair: Milagros Pena
Major Department: Sociology

This thesis analyzes the work of Nuyorican poets Pedro Pietri and Willie Perdomo

in an effort to trace the development of the Nuyorican poetry movement during the past

three decades. The analysis is structured according to three main themes common to both

authors' works. These themes are New York City, Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican identity,

and the migrant community. The authors' works chosen for analysis are Pietri's Puerto

Rican Obituary (1973), Obituario Puertorriqueho (1977), Traffic Violations (1983) and

Obituario Puertorriqueho/Puerto Rican Obituary (2000) as well as Perdomo's Where a

Nickel costs a Dime (1996) and Postcards of El Barrio (2002). These works are studied

within the context of a rising interest among Island Puerto Ricans for the life experiences

and cultural production of Puerto Rico's migrants, specifically those residing in New

York. The thesis takes note of, evaluates and highlights the social significance of this

interest, especially as it manifests itself in the work of some of the most notable young

Island poets. It is hypothesized that Nuyorican poets' influence on the poetry produced









today on the Island, when coupled with the considerable level of attention and success

that these young writers have already garnered and could continue to accumulate, harbors

the possibility of altering traditional Puerto Rican identity constructs on the Island. This

would set the stage for more inclusive conceptualizations of Puerto Ricanness to be

developed














CHAPTER 1
INTRODUCTION

He steps up to the mic rather hesitantly. The glare of the spotlight bothers him as

he looks over several pieces of crumpled computer paper. If one were to be standing

close enough, one could hear the change in his right jean pocket rattling ever so slightly.

The crowd of twenty or so waits patiently. Some look towards the stage in subdued

expectation, a few go over their own sheets of paper and the rest continue with their

dinner, drinks and conversations.

After a couple of minutes he looks at the crowd and finds comfort in being unable

to distinguish any of their faces. Then, without introduction or warning he begins.

Spanish falls abruptly into English and rises again and again as the poem tears through an

unnamed urban landscape whose people are the descendants of a Taino nation, which he

claims is still alive in the back room of tourist shops filled with bobbing head dolls of

ancient deities and "ethnic" t-shirts at low cost.

He ends with an urgent call for unity. His voice cracks as his age betrays him in the

last line. Nevertheless, the crowd of twenty or so makes like hundreds and he is able to

leave the stage gallantly. As he makes his way back to his seat, a forty-something year

old lady with a thick Brooklyn accent grabs him by the wrist, congratulates him and tells

him that that was "so New York."

Later on that night, the music of former Fania All-Star Juancito Torres and his

sextet will serve as the perfect backdrop for the romancing of the girl he invited there to









impress. Though still unaware of this, Salsa will somehow mean more to him after

tonight.

On his way out, the guy at the door will hand him a flyer for next week. He'll

almost trip over the girl's feet going down the couple of steps to the alley. Once on the

street, the night's heat will strike him with almost as much force as the crowd's reaction

to his poem. It will go at him with almost as much intensity as Juancito's percussionist.

And it will leave him almost as sweaty and frightened as did the girl he invited here to

impress.

He will fold the flyer up and stick it in his back pocket. Only the top left-hand

corner of it will be visible: Nuyorican Cafe, Puerto Rico.

Background

Recent years have witnessed a rising interest among Island Puerto Ricans

concerning the life and work of their U.S. counterparts, especially those living in New

York City. The opening of "The Nuyorican Cafe" in Historic Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

is but one of the many examples of Islanders' efforts to know about and connect with the

mainland community. This establishment, loosely modeled after the "Nuyorican Poets

Cafe" in the Lower East Side, serves as space for local artists and musicians to come,

meet and showcase their talents. Plays are staged. Salsa, bomba and jazz bands

harmonize nightly. The Cafe even hosts its own poetry night every Sunday where one can

hear both Spanish and English pieces amidst an eager and diverse crowd.

More importantly than the Cafe, however, is the attention that the U.S. Puerto

Rican community has received from the Academy and the media. In the summer of 2002,

"Prohibido Olvidar" and "En la Punta de la lengua,"-two news magazine shows that air

regularly on the government funded television station (TuTv)-ran an entire series of









weekly episodes filmed in New York City featuring the cultural, political and artistic

developments of New York Puerto Ricans. Among those featured, were several of the

famed Nuyorican poets and writers, including the Cafe's founder Miguel Algarin.

Islanders had already gotten a glimpse into Algarin's life when earlier that year, the

Miramax film "Pifiero," about the life of famed Nuyorican poet and playwright Miguel

Pifiero, opened in Puerto Rico amidst controversy. Those who saw the film debated the

issue of whether or not the movie served to further cement the American image of the

Puerto Rican as a drug fiend, hustler and criminal (Gonzalez, 2000). They criticized the

film's explicit drug scenes and some were even troubled by the portrayal of Pifiero as

bisexual. The most heated discussions, however, centered on the issue of whether there

was any type of real "Puerto Ricanness" at the center of the life and work of the deceased

writer. Many Islanders questioned whether a true and valid Puerto Rican experience

could actually take place in New York, be developed on the streets and be spoken in

English. Some viewers' outrage with the film even led them to express their opinions in a

more public forum and took it to the newspapers, writing jarring letters to the editor.

Interestingly enough, one of the most important, if not the most important force

spearheading this growing interest for the U.S. Puerto Rican community, specifically its

literature, can be found in the newspapers. Dr. Carmen Dolores Hernandez, the book

critic for the Island's largest periodical, EINuevo Dia, has frequently and favorably

reviewed books from U.S. Puerto Rican writers. She also published a book of interviews

with several of them entitled Puerto Rican voices in English (1997). Her devotion for the

Puerto Rican literature of the states, coupled with her position as the preeminent book

critic on the Island, has definitely helped to get several of these writers more exposure in









Puerto Rico. This is evident in that today some Nuyorican works serve as required

readings for college students on the Island and their authors have come on official visits

to perform and talk with the students. These visits have proven very important for they

have also functioned to bring together Island and mainland authors in a space where they

can share their work and establish networks across their shores.

Nowhere, perhaps, is the construction of these networks more evident that in the

poetry written by several of the up and coming young writers on the Island. The works of

people like Urayoan Noel, Raul Moris and Jose Raul Gonzalez, who have all had their

poetry published in book and/or audio CD form, stand as testaments to the burgeoning

influence of Nuyorican poetry on Island writers. They also serve as a platform and

battleground for the creation of a new Island literary aesthetic. In their works, these

writers often recur to traditional Nuyorican elements like code switching and infuse their

predominantly Spanish texts with English words and phrases. The three poets also draw

parallels between Puerto Rican life on the Island and Puerto Rican life in the states,

sketching out a scathing criticism of the social forces affecting Puerto Rican communities

on both sides of the Atlantic. Furthermore, the importance that these writers place on the

public performance of their poetic works-evident in their frequent appearances at open

poetry readings in public squares, bars and bookshops as well as in Universities and High

Schools-mirror that of the very founders of the Nuyorican poetry movement who prided

themselves on their ability to bring poetry to the people by performing it (Hernandez,

1997).

The cultural significance of the work that these writers are producing reaches

considerable proportions when one considers the appraisal that all three poets have









received from traditional literary circles on the Island. All three, for example, have been

heralded as being among the most important new voices to emerge from the Island

literary landscape by the former president of Puerto Rico's Pen Club Alberto Martinez-

Marquez (Hernandez-Duran, 2002). Two of them, Urayoan Noel and Jose Raul

Gonzalez, were chosen to appear among the fifteen Island representatives in an anthology

published by Isla Negra Press in 2003 that featured the best of the new crop of writers

from Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Also, Jose Raul Gonzalez's first

book Barrunto, published in 2000, was awarded the national third place prize for poetry

that year.

What appears to be happening on the Island is a paradigm shift. During the many

decades before, Islanders-with several notable exceptions in some literary and political

sectors-generally ignored and even rejected the cultural product of the New York Puerto

Rican community. Now, however, they appear to be embracing it in noticeable ways.

Moreover, as in the case of the poets here discussed, they are even adapting that cultural

product, and re-creating it within the Island national context.

The question one must then ask in the face of this growing trend is not necessarily

why. Since the trend has only begun to emerge it is difficult to point out its exact causes.

Rather the question is: What does this trend mean? What does this sudden focus on the

New York Puerto Rican experience after decades of disinterest and marginalization

(Flores, 1993), signify in terms of the future relations that will exist between the Island

and the mainland community? More importantly, what consequences might this growing

trend have in terms of reworking the national Puerto Rican identity?









In an effort to begin to answer these questions, this thesis will explore and analyze

the work of two of the Nuyorican poetry movement's principal figures. The two poets

chosen for the present study are Pedro Pietri and Willie Perdomo. Pietri is one of the

founders of Nuyorican poetry and Perdomo represents the new generation of Nuyorican

writers whose works initially appeared during the 1990s. They have been chosen because

both have been heralded by scholars and critics as exemplary of their particular

generation. Pietri has enjoyed tremendous success on the international level (Barradas,

1998; Guinness, 1999) and Perdomo has been described as headlining the new movement

of Nuyorican letters (Santos-Febres, 2002). Further, they are the only two Nuyorican

poets to have been published on the Island in bilingual editions. A selection of Pietri's

first work Puerto Rican Obituary was first published by the Institute of Puerto Rican

Culture in 1977 and then revised and updated in 2000 by Isla Negra press. Similarly, a

selection of Perdomo's poems from his book Where a Nickel costs a Dime (1996) along

with several newer poems was published by Isla Negra Press in 2002 in a collection

entitled Postcards of El Barrio.

A thorough analysis of these two authors' work will serve to trace the evolution of

the Nuyorican poetry movement and provide us with a clear picture of what exactly the

up and coming Island writers are reading, interpreting and adapting into their own works.

A distinction however must first be made between Nuyorican poetry and U.S. Puerto

Rican literature in general.

Nuyorican Foundations


Puerto Rican literature in the states possesses a rich and diverse history. Puerto

Rican authors have been writing about their experience on the mainland since the early









stages of the 20th century. These writings are in the form of novels, theaters, short

stories, autobiographical accounts and poetry. They appear in Spanish and English as

well as in the cross between the two languages. Similarly, the writings cover and/or touch

upon every possible theme imaginable. Everything from politics to romance can be found

in this literature. By the same token, there is really no prototype of the U.S. Puerto Rican

writer. They have come from all social class backgrounds, possess diverse political

orientations and are the product of different migration experiences. It is no surprise then

that so many terms are used to pinpoint and describe these writers and the literature they

produce. Terms like "NeoRican" (Barradas, 1998) and "Boricua" (Sanchez-Gonzalez,

2001) are used by scholars to attempt to house these writings under one roof and neither

of them is accurate or vast enough to account for and include everyone.

Nuyorican literature is but one manifestation of Puerto Rican writing in the states.

Nuyorican poetry is the most recognizable and important genre within this literature. As

its name implies, it is an exact and direct product of the Puerto Rican experience in New

York. More precisely, it is the cultural product of a people settled in some of the poorest

areas of New York City such as Spanish Harlem and the Lower East Side, who came to

arrive in the states in the post-World War II era as part of a working class migration from

the Island during Puerto Rico's push for industrialization in the mid-20th century (Matos-

Rodriguez and Hernmandez, 2001). Moreover, the term Nuyorican was originally adopted

by a handful of emerging writers from this community whose main preoccupations were

the survival and uplift of their fellow community members. Nuyorican poetry is thus

characterized and marked as different from all other U.S. Puerto Rican writing in its

constant critique of and challenge to, the social and political institutions and policies that









were hindering Puerto Ricans' life opportunities in New York City. Consequently, it is

the social commitment and activism of these writers that serve as the defining

characteristics of their poetic production.

These characteristics make Nuyorican poetry a "functional literature." According to

Antonio Gramsci (2000: 401), a particular literature is functional when it is "based on a

plan or on a pre-established social course." Functional literature is different from other

forms of artistic production in that it seeks to attain a level of practicality among its

intended audience. Its main focus is not on raising the present status of art itself but on

raising the social status of a particular group of people through art by involving the

people in the artistic process. Gramsci (2000: 401) writes:

One might say that houses are more necessary than the products of the other arts,
meaning by this that everybody needs a house, while the products of other arts are
necessary only for intellectuals, for the cultured. One should then consider that it is
precisely the "practical" people who propose to make all the arts necessary for
everybody, to make everybody "artists"

As evidenced in this statement, Gramsci's vision of functionality is inextricably rooted in

notions of liberation. Functionality here calls not only for a democratization of artistic

production whereby art would no longer be the exclusive property of a privileged few,

but also for an expansion of the concept of art that would recognize all social actors'

endeavors as artistic. Gramsci (2000: 321) explains:

Each man, finally, outside his professional activity, carries on some form of
intellectual activity, that is, he is a 'philosopher,' an artist, a man of taste, he
participates in a particular conception of the world, has a conscious line of moral
conduct, and therefore contributes to sustain a conception of the world or to modify
it, that is, to bring into being new modes of thought.

A brief overview of the initial stages of the Nuyorican poetry movement confirms

how this literature comes to fit comfortably within this framework.









The movement started to take shape in 1975 when Miguel Algarin opened the now

famous Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the city's Lower East Side (Hernandez, 1997). Algarin's

venture was prompted by the fact that his living room had gotten too small to fit the many

poets who would flock to his house for readings. Poet Pedro Pietri says of these times:

We all used to go to Miguel Algarin's house, all these poets would congregate
there: Jesus Papoleto Melendez, Lucky Cienfuegos, Shorty Bonbo, my brother,
Dr.Willy. We used to stay in his living room and recite poetry. We felt really
good about it because at the time we didn't have a space, we didn't have an
audience, we were all we had. It was exciting in the beginning; we were young,
struggling artists. It was like Magic; everything was so important. (quoted in
Hernandez, 1997: 117)

Utilizing the city as its thematic center, their poetry, much like the conditions they

were living under, was harsh and unrelenting, speaking of and against the many ills and

injustices they experienced every day (Hernandez, 1997; Flores, 1993; Barradas, 1998).

According to Algarin, "for the poor New York Puerto Rican there [were] three survival

possibilities. The first [was] to labor for money and exist in eternal debt. The second

[was] to refuse to trade hours for dollars and live by your own will and hustle. The third

possibility [was] to create alternative behavioral habits" (quoted in Flores, 1993: 135).

Poetry here then presents itself as a survival strategy; as an alternate life ethic. Art in the

Nuyorican context transcends the instruments necessary for its creation, it moves away

from the page to encompass every aspect of the writer's life, providing him/her with the

ability to change his/her social condition. The functional or liberatory character of this

literature is glaring. It becomes blinding the moment one considers that it was written out

of a need to communicate with their community. Because the poetry sought and even

demanded an audience, writers employed a street vernacular in their works that was

accessible to the rest of their Puerto Rican people. Any possible advancement or









liberation that could come out of the poets' artistic production was intended to be

community wide. It is not surprising then that many came to consider the Nuyorican poet

as "the prophet of the Hispanic and Latino community" (Luis, 1997:46).

This vision of the Nuyorican poet as prophet or spokesperson for the Latino

community is very much akin to Gramsci's concept of the "organic intellectual." In

Gramscian theory, the organic intellectuals are the "organizers, leaders, specialized

individuals in conceptual and philosophical elaboration" working toward the liberation of

oppressed groups (Gomez, 1987: 138). They serve as intermediaries between the masses

and the ruling class. According to Gramsci, "every organic development of peasant

masses, up to a certain point, is linked to and depends on movements among the

intellectuals" (Gramsci, 2000: 309). Therefore, these figures are intricately linked to the

people. They are able to immerse themselves in the social reality of marginalized groups

and speak of it in solidarity. By way of this close relationship, the masses come to

interpret their social reality from a more rational standpoint and develop a more coherent

view of the world free of emotion and/or superstition (Gomez, 1997: 141) and the

intellectuals for their part, are able to feel the people's troubles and ills as if they were

their own.

This relationship of course takes time. According to G6mez (1997: 141), "Gramsci

advierte que tal unidad es un process en el que se repiten continuamente moments de

ruptura y alejamiento, de incomprensiones reciprocas; de ahi que nuestro autor

aconseja-el intellectual debe pasar del 'saber' al 'sentir' y la masa a la inversa, del

'sentir' al 'saber.' Nowhere do the Nuyorican poets appear so intimately linked to their

community and thus exhibit the progression from knowing to feeling than in the proposed









aesthetic of their literary production. According to Algarin (1987: 163), this aesthetic is

composed of three elements:

The first is the expression of the self orally and the domination of one language or
both to a degree that makes it possible to be accurate about one's present
condition ... and I think the first stops are always oral. The second reality of the
Nuyorican aesthetic is that if we are to safeguard the future, we must create a
dialogue among ourselves about setting up systems of protection and mutual
benefits. The last thing about the Nuyorican aesthetic has to do with art:
transformation before the public eye is a very important way of psychic cure. In
other words the creation of places where people can express themselves-expressly
created for that purpose.


Here Nuyorican literary production is presented as part of a larger social project.

Poetry in the Nuyorican framework is a socially motivated practice that moves for both

personal and communal change. Its production is inextricably linked to the social position

of the community that produces it. Algarin (1987: 162) makes it crystal clear: "We create

poems for ourselves; poverty keeps us away from the space and time that composing long

prose pieces requires but that is changing too."

Algarin's statement makes no distinction between the circle of writers and poets

and their community. Nuyorican poets do not see themselves as making up a different

class or social group separate from the rest of the people. In this regard they differ

markedly from Gramsci's organic intellectuals. In Gramsci's eyes, the intellectual,

though dependent on the masses, does have to maintain a critical distance from them. He

writes: "In relation to the people, they [organic intellectuals] are something detached"

(Gramsci, 2000: 367). This is important for Gramsci since in his view the masses are

similar to "an empty container that must be filled, the raw material that must be shaped

and molded by the intellectuals" (Gomez, 1987: 113). These figures then are supposed to

lead, to make sense of and speak for the community, but not actually become a fixed part









of it. Nuyorican poets, as organic intellectuals, break away from this original

conceptualization. There is no physical or social distance between the writer and the

community. Moreover, in the eyes of these writers, the community is at once the root of

their work and its main character. It is not something to be filled up or molded, but rather

something to uncover, to come to understand, to describe, expose and display.

A necessary ingredient for understanding this community's situation is the history

of its migration to the U.S.

The Migration

Puerto Ricans have been migrating to the U.S. since the 19th century. Their move

has been motivated by a variety of personal, economic and political reasons. According

to Matos-Rodriguez and Hernandez (2001) "the trade of raw materials tied the ports of

Puerto Rico with port cities in New England and New York. Those commercial links

facilitated the mobility of Puerto Ricans between the island (a Spanish colony at the time)

and the United States." The U.S. also harbored Puerto Rican exiles that opposed Spanish

rule. In fact, according to Alvarez (1998) as early as 1870 there was a small colony of

Puerto Ricans in New York City organizing for the Island's independence and there was

already a joint revolutionary committee set up between representatives from Puerto Rico

and Cuba. Consequently, the early waves of the Puerto Rican migration were composed

of elite and/or politically and socially influential Islanders.

The upper class character of the migration changed, however, after the Island was

colonized by the U.S. in 1898. Matos-Rodriguez and Hernandez (2001) illustrate:

"Although elite Puerto Ricans continued to come to New York, the majority of the

immigrants worked as cigar-makers, sailors, domestics, garment makers or in other low-

paying service jobs." The numbers mushroomed. According to Di Nubila (1997:41)









approximately 90,000 Islanders migrated from Puerto Rico to the U.S. between 1898 and

1944. Four-hundred thousand made the jump in the 1950s alone and although 253, 212

had made their way back from the states during the 1960s, close to 600, 000 had left the

Island for the U.S. during that same period (Di Nubila, 1997). Reflecting on the move of

more than half a million Puerto Ricans from 1945-1955 alone the Rector of the

University of Puerto Rico at that time, commented on the immense significance of the

migration for migrants and Islanders alike:

La emigraci6n puertorriquefia de los ultimos afios constitute uno de los casos de
traslaci6n humana mas significativos de la epoca y sin lugar a dudas uno de los
sucesos mas importantes de nuestra historic. Encierra impredecibles y en
cualquier caso significativas consecuencias para el porvenir. Que en diez afios se
hayan mudado a los Estados Unidos mas de medio mill6n de puertorriquefios es
un hecho que ademas de afectar en forma perdurable la existencia individual y
privativa de cada una de las quinientas mil personas afectadas se relaciona
intimamente con la vida, los problems, las esperanzas, los ingresos de quienes
permanecen en Puerto Rico. (quoted in Alvarez, 1998: 201)

The gravity of this exodus then was already palpable at the very time it was happening.

Moreover, government officials constantly evoked its crucial role in the political and

economic future of the Island. It was described as a necessity and was hurried along by

way of government propaganda highlighting the Island's "grave overpopulation

problem," its poor economic situation and the famine that was haunting many of the

Island's poor (Alvarez, 1998: 201).

Scholars however have investigated and questioned how the Island government's

push for migration coincided with the rise of the Nationalist movement in Puerto Rico

(Alvarez, 1998)-a time marked by social upheavals and violent confrontations between

nationalist supporters and police officials. There was thus a pressing need to do away

and/or subdue such a threat to the colonial order. Government officials had to be weary of









what the Nationalist movement could do to hinder Puerto Rico's move toward

industrialization. This massive exodus then was part and parcel of the industrialization

process, functioning as an "escape valve" by which the government could channel its

"excess" or "troublesome" population out of the Island at that time. The migration then

was not only looked upon kindly by the Island government but was in fact aided by it

through an aggressive advertisement campaign, cheap plane tickets and contractual

agreements with North American businesses that sought cheap laborers (Di Nubila,

1997). Puerto Rican workers were lured to the states by way of the promise for a better

quality of life. This is glaringly evident in the government issued postcards and ads which

portrayed Puerto Rican families gathered around the television set enjoying a quiet

evening at home (Matos-Rodriguez and Hernandez, 2001). This was the much-advertised

"miracle" of the Puerto Rican migration.

Island Literature, Migration and Identity

The migration's all encompassing character is evident in the literature produced on

the Island during that time. Looking at the progression of Puerto Rican literature since its

inception in the mid-19th century, the translocation of Puerto Ricans to the United States

has almost always been present. However, it must be noted that during the years of mass

flight in the post-world war II era, the migration passed from the background to the center

stage of Island narratives. Puerto Rican migrants became the leading characters in the

works of several noteworthy authors like Jose Luis Gonzalez, Emilio Diaz Valcarzel and

Pedro Juan Soto. Writes the critic Eugene Mohr (1982: xiii): "[migrants'] story was told

by Island writers who visited the New York Colony and sometimes projected their own

cultural concerns on men and women whose main preoccupation was simply staying









alive." He continues establishing the position from which these authors were writing and

to the audience for whom they were writing arguing that:

These writers are not completely objective chroniclers, nor do they see in the
migration the same meanings and patterns that the migrants themselves perceive.
They are middle-class intellectuals writing about the unschooled and socially
marginal; they are writing for an audience that had had little contact with the
migrants at home or abroad; they often view the migration within a framework of
moral and cultural values that would have been but dimly recognized by hundreds
and thousands migrants washing dishes and running elevators..." (Mohr, 1982:
26)

The fact is that the topic of the migration in the majority of Island literature at that

time had more to do with what was going on in the Island than what was happening

stateside. In other words, the migration served as a literary recourse by which Island

authors could address the many social ills affecting the Island and stake their claim on

defining who and what a Puerto Rican was. Consequently, in spite of the fact that many

of these narratives were set in New York, the Island was the actual center of the

narration. The idea behind having Puerto Rican characters in U.S. settings arose out of a

need to establish Puerto Rican and North American culture as polar opposites. The many

perils the U.S. Puerto Rican community suffered were then portrayed as the tragic

consequences of living within a corrosive U.S. environment, characterized by its anti-

Puerto Rican attitude and policies. American soil then came to be the death of Puerto

Rican culture and Puerto Rican culture thus came to be defined according to a deep

affiliation to the Island itself, to the Spanish language and to Catholicism (Rodriguez

Cortes, 1997).

One could argue that Puerto Rican migrants were used in Island literature as mere

pawns in the literary and academic debate over the status and future of Puerto Rican

culture under U.S. colonial rule. They were vehicles through which Island scholars and









authors could vent their frustrations with the empire, all the while attempting to construct

and promote a monolithic Puerto Rican identity.

The Island government was also very much invested in its own process of identity

construction. According to Diaz-Quifi6nes (1993), the Island's official vision of what a

true Puerto Rican was that of the light skinned Puerto Rican man, born and bred on the

Island, and adept in all traditional ways of Island life, particularly the Spanish language.

Moreover, Puerto Rican identity involves a refusal of all things foreign (meaning

American) and requires a necessary shift to all things Hispanic (i.e. Spain as the

motherland). This shift and refusal strategy, according to Diaz-Quifi6nes (1993),

showcases a national identity that is crafted against both the dark skin Island Puerto

Rican by way of his/her exclusion from the official tales of historical and political agency

and the Puerto Rican immigrant, who in the words of the author became the Island's

"other" due to this figure's alleged contamination during his/her experience in the U.S.

(i.e. loss of language etc.).

Thus, national identity here depends on two immense historical silences: 19th

century chattel slavery on the Island and the migration of 40% of Puerto Rico's

population to the U.S. in the 20th century. Consequently, the push for a national Puerto

Rican identity or for a clearly defined and maintained cultural essence or purity is almost

always a push towards the Spanish, or more precisely, to the ideological remnants of the

Spanish empire, which in and of itself silences a history of multiple languages and

cultures that took form, place and agency on the island. As Diaz-Quifi6nes states:

Puerto Rico, como todo el caribe y America, es un lugar de complejas
construcciones de identidades, resultado de la experiencia colonial europea, de la
fuerte presencia de cultures Africanas y de las migraciones de corzos, franceses,









catalanes e ingleses en el siglo 19 y de la experiencia bajo el nuevo imperio
norteamericano y la emigraciones puertorriquefios del siglo 20. (1993: 139)

Focusing one's attention on the Island's experience under the "new North, American

empire," one could ask: how exactly is this Spanish-oriented identity maintained under

U.S. rule? Diaz-Quifi6nes (1993) looks to answer this query by giving a brief account of

the modernization process that took place in Puerto Rico during the 50s, 60s and 70s. In

his view, the Island government, through the charismatic leadership of then governor

Luis Mufioz Marin, established a rhetoric of endless progress and innumerable

opportunities for the Island's peoples by way of the country's "alliance" with the U.S. The

government's institutionalization of this pro-American rhetoric then led to the

establishment of a legitimate middle class; to the contradictory asymmetries of upscale

neighborhoods erected right next to urban ghettos; to the partnership between education

and government; the promotion of the war and loyalty to U.S. interests and eventually to

the equation of Puerto Ricanness with Americanness. In the words of the former

Governor himself: "[Puerto Rico] es un pais latinoamericano compuesto de buenos

ciudadanos de los Estados Unidos" (quoted in Diaz-Quifi6nes, 1993: 141).

Evidenced in this statement, the official Puerto Rican identity was crafted to be

more of a personality than a nationality so that it would not be at odds with the colonial

state. Nationalism was given its own vocalized space in the colony and was thus stricken

of any revolutionary prowess by the Island's own government. As Diaz-Quifi6nes (1993:

26-27) notes: "se queria una historic que uniera y no dividiera: una historic no conflictiva

del pueblo puertorriquefio."

In this context it is possible to see how the violence (i.e. urban segmentation,

Puerto Rican involvement is U.S. wars etc.) that drove this modernization process (Diaz-









Quifi6nes, 1993) could be silenced. Moreover, it is possible to see how the exclusion of

the then thousands of Puerto Rican migrants could remain unaccounted for in the

country's official history when it affected so many families and communities. As Diaz-

Quifi6nes (1993: 147) states: "lo visible y lo enunciable no siempre coinciden y por eso,

la emigraci6n ha podido estar, simultaneamente, present en la vida y ausente en el

discurso." What remains, in the words of James Baldwin (1995), is a "terrible paradox":

the language and culturally based exclusion of the now millions of U.S. Puerto Ricans,

who identify themselves as Puerto Ricans juxtaposed against the near untouchable

character of North America's military bases and complexes on the Island (Diaz-Quifi6nes,

1993). What remains is the narrow yet distinct delimitation of what a "typical" or more

precisely, a "genuine" Puerto Rican is: someone who possesses the language and the

presumed knowledge of Island life to look and act cultured enough but also the necessary

whiteness and middle class pedigree to not be threatening to American rule.

Nuyorican Poetry in Context

As discussed above, the construction of Puerto Rico's national identity has

primarily depended on exclusion tactics and practices set up against a rich and diverse

community of Puerto Rican peoples. Rodriguez-Cortes (1997: 25) notes:

Las practices sociales de identidad cultural en la historic social de Puerto Rico no
se refieren a una acci6n de solidaridad colectiva ni tampoco a un sentido de un
destino comun como pueblo, lo que pone de manifiesto la carencia de un proyecto
colectivo de identidad cultural.

The efforts of both government officials and of Island authors to create, promote and

defend a viable cultural identity, though markedly different from one another, are

predicated on the marginalization of the U.S. Puerto Rican community. Both sectors have

lacked the foresight to recognize how the Island's colonial status severed the Puerto






19


Rican people in two and with time constructed the severed parts as polar opposites to

each other. The Nuyorican poetry movement must be examined within this context.

Thus, in an effort to understand the origin and development of the Nuyorican

poetry movement, as well as its present incursion into the Island context, it is necessary

to focus on the concept of national identity as it has come to be defined by Nuyorican

writers in the face of their personal and communal exclusion both in the States and on the

Island.














CHAPTER 2
METHODS

For the purposes of this project, the poetry here analyzed is viewed as human or life

documents. Blumer defines the human document "as an account of individual experience

which reveals the individuals actions as a human agent and as a participant in social life"

(quoted in Plummer, 2001: 18). As discussed in the previous chapter, the life of working

class Puerto Ricans in New York finds expression in Nuyorican poetry. The poets serve

as spokespersons for their community, using their writing as a mechanism through which

their fellow community members can see themselves as unique social actors under

particular social conditions. They give voice to their experiences in these documents and

put that experience in context. In this sense, Nuyorican poetry can be looked at as

collective life documents or life stories.

Granted, sociologists for the most part have not treated poetry as a 'typical' life

story such as autobiographies, letters, journals, interviews etc. The artistic character of

this writing form separates it from these other more conventional or traditional written

confessionals. Nonetheless, Nuyorican poetry, given its immediate relationship with the

community and its interest in speaking of the community's ills and concerns in a readily

accessible and vocal way, does confess. It gives testimony of the community's life in the

margins of both U.S. and Puerto Rican society. The writers have in fact lived through the

poverty and despair that they talk about in their work. They inhabit the exact

geographical spaces in which their poems are set. They are part of the same social class

as the characters they present. Furthermore, poetry for the Nuyorican writer is not a vain









stylistic choice. Poetry writing in the Nuyorican context is a direct product of the specific

social circumstances that envelop these writers. As discussed in the previous chapter,

long prose pieces-whether fictional or autobiographical-was simply not an option

when the founders of the movement started to produce their work. This confessional

voice then came up from below in the only viable manner it could find.

The 'up from below' character of Nuyorican poetry enables one to view the genre

as a descendant of the autobiographical type of writing that started to come out during the

latter half of the late 18th/ early 19th century. This writing, according to Plummer saw "the

working class challenging the middle class, women challenging men, slaves challenging

oppression, the young challenging elders" (2001: 90). Plummer refers to these writings as

'autobiographies from below' and considers them to constitute a different

autobiographical form from the work done by members of the dominant social groups.

According to him, this marginal type of autobiography was "more of a collective

exploration than just a private one. The author [was] somehow located as a member of a

class, a gendered group, a generational group, an outcast group" (Plummer, 2001: 90).

Memory plays a key role in this writing. Plummer (2001: 233) states: "Life story

work involves recollecting, remembering, re-discovering along with the active process of

memorializing and constructing history." Memory in the Nuyorican context is a

collective affair. It is a socially shared experience. The poems function as memory sites

where members of the Puerto Rican community in New York can find their history told

and preserved. This is important considering both the Island's and the United States'

disdain for this community as it is manifested in the silence in which the process and

consequences of the Puerto Rican migration have been kept. Thus, the memorializing









done by Nuyorican poets in their work is very much a political practice. It is an affront to

both the Island and mainland government. Moreover, it is an attempt to return this

history, these memories to their community (Plummer, 2001).

This thesis will focus on the memory work done by Nuyorican poets Pedro Pietri

and Willie Perdomo. It is important to note that only the authors' book length works and

their respective translations will be considered for analysis. Full-length books, because

they are set up and designed by the author according to a unitary theme or set of themes,

function better as units of analysis than single poems. This thesis will thus examine

Pietri's Puerto Rican Obituary (1973), Obituario Puertorriquefo (1977), Traffic

Violations (1983) and Obituario Puertorriquefo/Puerto Rican Obituary (2000) as well as

Perdomo' s Where a Nickel costs a Dime (1996) and Postcards of El Barrio (2002).

The analysis will be structured according to three main themes common to both

authors' works. These themes are the city, Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican identity and the

community. This analysis will enable the researcher to trace and highlight how the

Nuyorican poetry movement has evolved during the thirty years since its inception and

from that speculate as to the possible effects that Islanders' exposure to this literature

may have.














CHAPTER 3
PEDRO PIETRI: THE INTELLECTUAL ANGUISH OF BEING ORGANIC

To write about Pedro Pietri is to write about arguably the single most recognizable

name in Nuyorican poetry (Barradas, 1998). The international successes of both his

poems and plays along with his unique public persona have garnered much deserved

attention from critics and readers alike. His work has influenced countless Puerto Rican

and Latino writers like Roberto Santiago, Martin Espada and Willie Perdomo, who all

testify to how upon reading Pietri's work, they gathered a sense of what it meant to be a

Puerto Rican in New York. Santiago, for example, writes: "I read Pedro Pietri's "Puerto

Rican Obituary" and understood for the first time what it meant to live in poverty. There I

was, living in the Taft Projects on 114th St. and Madison Avenue, but it wasn't until I

read this poem that I truly understood the reality of my surroundings" (Santiago, 1995:

xv). Pietri's work must be seen not only as serving as a literary foundation for the Puerto

Rican and Latino writers of later generations but also as a poetic blueprint for the

personal and collective identity of the Nuyorican community in general. His written word

serves as a perfect starting point for the mapping of the Nuyorican poetry movement from

its inception to its present situation and beyond.

It must also be said, however, that Pietri's work is unrepresentative of the

movement in one respect. Up until recent years, he has remained the only well known

Nuyorican poet on the Island. Barradas (1998: 143) writes entiree los llamados poetas

neorrican, Pedro Pietri es muy probablemente el mejor conocido en Puerto Rico donde la

obra de otros valiosos poetas nuestros que escriben en ingles desde los Estados









Unidos... es totalmente ignorada." Barradas (1998) attributes Pietri's crossover from the

states to the Island to mainly three factors. First of all, up until the publication of Willie

Perdomo's work in 2002, Pietri was the only Nuyorican poet published on the Island in

both Spanish and English when the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture published a

bilingual edition selected poems in 1977. Second his most famous poem "Puerto Rican

Obituary" has been staged several times on the Island in different productions. And

lastly, Pietri has had the opportunity to come to Puerto Rico on 'official visits' to

University campuses and the like to present and promote his work (Barradas, 1998: 144).

Pietri then is both exemplary of the movement and unique at the same time. More

importantly, for the purposes of this thesis, he stands as one of the few and quite possibly

the premier link that the Nuyorican poetry movement had with the Island at its

beginnings and during the bulk of its development. An analysis of his work is thus critical

for his poetry has served as a vital point of intersection between the Island and its migrant

population. This chapter critically looks at the books Puerto Rican Obituary (1973) and

Traffic violations (1983).

Puerto Rican Obituary

According to Barradas (1998), there are two major currents running through Puerto

Rican Obituary: social and surrealist. The book in fact fluctuates between poems that are

framed around and even fueled by the jarring specificity of the New York Puerto Rican

condition and others in which "Pietri talks about some sort of urban Everyman that could

be Puerto Rican or not" (Barradas, 1998: 144-145). These latter poems do not reference

the working class experience but rather point towards and at times even step in a more

"abstract and ample world" (Barradas, 1998: 144-145). It is this uninterrupted and easy

fluctuation between a crude and seemingly inescapable realism and glimpses of the









abstract and absurd that gives the book its contextual and stylistic appeal. Furthermore,

the two currents do often meet in poems that infuse the Puerto Rican working class

experience with a nightmarish and at times nauseating quality, which clearly convey the

poet's vision of Puerto Rican life in New York as overwhelmingly dehumanizing and

senseless (Barradas, 1998).

It is necessary to treat Puerto Rican Obituary as very much a socially motivated

work. The out-of-this-world character of the New York Puerto Rican experience that

Pietri presents in this book is directly produced by specific social factors that Pietri seeks

to uncover and attack on behalf of his community. Consequently, as Barradas states, "the

explanation for the senselessness of his first book [is] essentially social" (1998: 149-150).

One could then make the case that the poems in this book are influenced heavily by the

poet's involvement in political and social movements, specifically with "El Grupo"-a

collective of poets and musicians loosely tied to the Puerto Rican Socialist Party during

the 1970s- and The young Lords (Matilla, 2000). This influence is visible in the

moralistic tone that characterizes several of the pieces in the book in which Pietri warns

his fellow community member to stay clear of drugs, politicians and salesmen. These

poems are often filled with political rhetoric and at times read more like speeches and

manifestos than poems. This is understandable considering that Pietri's poetry appeared

in the politically oriented periodicals published by these groups and was read at protests

and other like functions (Matilla, 2000).

Matilla (2000: 88) writes of Pietri's involvement with the Young Lords: "Pietri y

otros poetas nuyoricans leian en actividades organizadas por el partido, donde

participaban por igual escritores escapados del asedio reaccionario de los estadistas en la









isla." The truth is that the poet found himself so deep in the organization that he even had

to change a line in his poem "Puerto Rican Obituary" because it was taken to be offensive

by the rest of the party. Matilla (2000: 86) recalls:

Pedro se vio forzado a cambiar el final de 'Obituario'; el Comite Central de los Young
Lords crey6 que era muy sexista (y lo era) aquello de 'Aqui the men admire desire/
and never get tired of the women" y lo publicaron en Pa'lante como 'Aqui the men
and women admire desire/ and never get tired of each other.

A tension appears to lie at the base of Pietri's early work between the political and the

artistic. This tension or debate must always be kept in the center when studying Pietri's

work, specially when one takes into account his subsequent parting from this type of

political organization precisely because of the personal control that he saw as being

placed upon him and his writing. (Hernandez, 1997). Consequently, the poet's early work

must be seen and examined as harboring this tension and his later work as a reaction to

the presumed lifting of that tension.

The following sections discuss three of the most salient themes in Pietri's Puerto

Rican Obituary and Traffic Violations.

Puerto Ricans in New York: The City as Killer

One of the first things that strike you upon reading Puerto Rican Obituary is the

complete and utter lack of movement in these poems. The people in Pietri's work do not

walk down crowded New York streets. The only streets present here have dead ends. The

dehumanizing character of the metropolis is first perceived in the tragic inability of

Pietri's characters to move out; to find an exit and leave. There is an overwhelming

feeling of entrapment in these poems that it is barely escapable through drugs. The poem

"3170 Broadway" highlights the inability of drugs in getting the individual somehow

lifted away from his/her chronic immobility. The poem reads: "you get off on the same









floor/ you got on/ like you have to get high/ on something else/ if you want to get/ to the

floor you came down to from" (Pietri, 1973: In.85-90)

This feeling of entrapment is further aided by both the characters' and the poet's

proximity to death. The poems here do not simply speak of death but rather speak to it in

a distinctively intimate manner. Consequently, the author on the hand portrays death as

something outside the individual that is destined to come for him or her. This is evident

in the poem "Notes on Solitude" where Pietri (1973: In.23-30) writes "The wind/ smelled

like a cemetery/ until death/ started a conversation/ with a face in the crowd/ then

everybody/ learned how to smile/ again." And on the other hand, death appears as

something already inhabiting the people it's about to take, like in "The B-52 Blew" where

Pietri (1973: In. 179-181) writes "And everybody you saw/ was already dead/ or about to

die." Death is immediate and in some occasions there appears to be a much greater

connection with death than with reality. The poem "O/D" reads: "You roll up your

sleeve/ you see a cemetery/ located on your arms/ you are on the roof/ of a condemned

building/ you are in the stairways/ of housing projects/ you are in the toilet/ of your

apartment/ taking an imaginary shit" (Pietri, 1973: In. 180-189)

There is no question that the poet's and his characters' relationship with death is

caused by the city. Pietri does not mince words in presenting the city as a killer. It is an

anguishing and relentlessly asphyxiating environment. Again, humanity has no space

here. In "Monday Morning," he writes, "Everybody has bad breath this morning/

switchblade tempers anti-social eyeballs/ cemetery erections wash-and-wear headaches/

as downtown trains faint on top of them" (Pietri, 1973: In. 23-26). This erasure of

humanity is evident in the absence of proper names. Pietri's poems do not showcase









different personalities for they are premised on the city being the sole and domineering

entity. Thus, proper names appear in only three poems out of the total thirty-seven:

1) The title poem of the book where five Spanish names are periodically listed for the

effect of sounding as a daily obituary column. This only serves to highlight the character

of the city as monster and the continual execution of New York Puerto Ricans: "Juan/

Miguel/ Milagros/ Olga/ Manuel/ All died yesterday today/ and will die again tomorrow"

(Pietri, 1973: lIn. 23-29).

2) The last poem of the book, "Para la Madre de Angel Luna," which is written entirely

in Spanish and functions as a letter to the mother of one of the poet's, friends who died in

Vietnam.

3) A short poem found towards the end of the book entitled "Tata" talks about the poet's

85-year-old grandmother who appears in the work as the only living person of old age.

This last poem is of great importance for it stands gallantly as a succinct threat of

resistance. The poem reads: "mi abuela/ has been/ in this dept store/ called america/ for

the past twenty five years/ she is eighty-five years old/ and does not speak/ a word of

english/ That is intelligence" (Pietri, 1973: In. 1-9). By juxtaposing this character's

survival against the many deaths-past, present and future-which appear in the rest of

the poems, the social and political message in the book jumps to a completely different

level. Neither the city nor the country, neither government nor death has an effect on this

lady because of her presumed refusal to learn English. She appears undaunted, unpolluted

and miraculously pure. The Spanish language thus appears in this poem as the prime

representative of Puerto Rican culture and ultimately that culture serves as a solace for

the New York Puerto Rican. The implicit message in this poem could then be interpreted









as being that only through a total and complete adherence to the traditions and ways of

the Island can the New York Puerto Rican community survive. This interpretation

however falters the minute one remembers that this message is being communicated in a

predominantly English work by a predominantly English-speaking writer. Therefore,

what is actually being communicated is the need for the preservation of a distinct Puerto

Rican spirit amidst the threat of Americanization. The move here then is not towards the

Island or toward the strict and exclusive maintenance of Island traditions, but rather a

move toward inner core of the New York Puerto Rican so he/she can shelter him/herself

from his/her present environment.

Consequently, the common conception that Nuyorican literature in general and

Nuyorican poetry in particular has recurred to a mystified image of the Island as paradise

or the Island as savior (Mohr, 1982; Guinness, 1999) is sadly misguided. While it is true

that several Nuyorican works, particularly those of the founding years, have tended to

present an unreal, parasidic view of the Island-one that keenly resembles that purported

by canonical Island works (Barradas, 1998)-this mystification cannot be separated from

the social and political context of both, the works in which it has been presented and the

authors. The poet Martin Espada puts it in perspective: "This paradise was called Puerto

Rico. I think that made sense. The mythology that grows up in the communities-that's

paradise relatively speaking, that's paradise compared to here and in certain ways such as

the weather, that's indisputable. Obviously it's not a paradise or else we wouldn't be here

at all" (Steptoe, n.d.).

To think that a literary tradition so intimately linked with organized social and

political movements bent on improving the conditions of Puerto Rican communities in









the U.S. and whose literary production has focused on exposing and criticizing the

political machine that has marginalized those communities would turn to a such an

uncritical vision of Puerto Rico is absurd. One cannot confuse the poeticized longing of a

displaced migrant community for ignorance concerning the actual situation of the land

that they were driven out of. Pietri's Obituary stands as an early testament of this.

Nuyorican Visions of Puerto Rico

In Pietri's work-as we will more clearly see when discussing his second book-

the Puerto Rican paradise is presented to the reader as an internal space; as having much

more to do with a journey to the self than with any plane trip back to any island. Puerto

Rican Obituary's deep-seated and passionate concern for the welfare of the community

Pietri represents manifests itself in the form of an at times implied and at times blatant

call for personal reflection. The author calls for a liberatory type of introspection that

would make a return trip to Puerto Rico or a drug trip unnecessary. "Love poem for my

people" is exemplary: "if you want/ to feel very rich/ look at your hands/ that is where/

the definition of magic/ is located at" (Pietri, 1973: In. 16-21). The fact is that the poet's

concern with the preservation of his Puerto Rican people's humanity and sense of self is

too great and his critique of government structures too brash and stead fast for him to

simply offer a physical exodus to a better place. As argued before, actual physical exit is

not possible in Pietri. The only possible escape lies inside each community member. Case

in point, the poems "The Old Buildings," "O/D" and "Poetry."

In "The Old Buildings" the reader gets one of the scarce moments of actual Puerto

Rican community life in New York. The poem reads: "unity was happening/ whenever

somebody/ cooked pasteles/ everybody in the building/ was invited to eat" (Pietri, 1973:

In. 6-10). For a minute, the city seems full of life. The Nuyorican community appears as









whole. The beauty in this poem, however, is quick to deaden as the poet bitterly states:

"(city hall/ saw this harmony happening/ and got intimidated/ because there is nothing/

that frightens/ this government more/ than seeing people/ living and loving/ and breathing

together/ so they decided to/ demolish the buildings/ that could have been saved by

renovation/ and eliminate the unity)" (Pietri, 1973: In. 13-26). Moments of shared beauty

and visible happiness in the city are easily squashed in Pietri's mind. Similarly, in "O/D"

a drug-induced escapist flight offers a temporary out. Pietri (1973: In. 282-300) writes:

for a few seconds/ all the buildings from/ the hudson river/ to the east river/ become
palm trees/ there is enough grass/ for everybody to walk on/ drums are heard/ thru-out
the vicinity/ everybody was dancing/ elephants participated/ the wind was scented/
with coconut integrity/ for the first time/ in a long time/ it was smelling sweet/
everywhere you looked/ a rainbow was present

Again, the scene stands in direct opposition to all the others presented in the book. This

particular one is even touched by the fantastical. The poet however is quick to bring one

down, completely disarming this paradisic scene by detailing the horrific trials of the

junkie as he goes on trying to get his fix and ends up dead from shooting up rat poison.

The poem continues: "you was known as the airplane/ that never left the ground/

regardless of how high you got/ you are gone and gone you are/ where pushers can no

longer find you/ where life is a subject/ than nobody talks about anymore" (Pietri, 1973:

In. 355-361).

The only viable way out appears in the aptly titled "poetry"-a shorter piece that

presumably takes the reader to the Island. It reads: in ponce/ there is a beach/ without

broken glass/ in the sand/ the ocean has/ twenty-twenty vision/ is safe to breathe/ on this

beach/ there are no splinters/ in the wind" (Pietri, 1973: In. 1-10). Here, poetry becomes

Pietri's only personal pure space. To speak of an Island hundreds of miles away while









caught inside the metropolis cannot be taken as manifesting a simple and romanticized

longing but rather as an attempt to center oneself and find some internal solace in the

environment in which one is. Furthermore, the fact that in Pietri, this centering space is

always presented as somehow linked with the Island itself and/or elements of its culture

and considering Pietri's political orientations and affiliations, immediately politicizes this

internal space. It is used as a direct affront against the U.S. government and culture; as a

means by which the Puerto Rican community can forge, promote and defend their own

identity in the States.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the title poem of the book, 'Puerto Rican

Obituary' where Pietri brilliantly describes this internal place. The poem reads:

Aqui Se Habla espanol all the time/ Aqui you salute your flag first/ Aqui there are no
dial soap commercials/ Aqui everybody smells good/ Aqui tv dinners do not have a
future/ Aqui the men and women admire desire/ and never get tired of each other/
Aqui Que Pasa Power is what's happening/ Aqui to be called negrito/ means to be
called LOVE

For Pietri the inner self is the only possible realm for an uncontaminated Puerto Rican

identity. Notions of Puerto Ricanness then are limited to that inner space. They do not

color the exterior. They do not extend past the individual. The only thing that is evident

from the outside is the refusal to participate in and promote mainstream American life.

Traffic Violations

Traffic violations is marked by the apparent depolitization of this personal space.

No longer is the reality of Puerto Rican life in the States absurd and tragic, the entire

cosmos does not make sense (Barradas, 1998: 150). Consequently, the mental-emotional

space to which Pietri constantly alludes and escapes to stops being simply a threat to

American society and becomes a threat against reality itself. Barradas (1998: 136) writes:









"No es la sociedad solamente sino el cosmos en si que esta estructurado de manera

absurda, de forma en que la identidad de los series es falsa." Pietri then wages war against

everything around him. In each and every poem, the poet portrays himself as capable of

breaking both social and natural rules. At times it seems that he is playing a game of cat

and mouse with the world; constantly trying to see with how much can he get away with.

Barradas (1998: 135-136) notes:

Ahora el poeta quiere cantarse a si mismo como ser que rompe con las normas
establecidas por la sociedad en que vive y que el poeta ve en terminos que intentan
sobrepasar lo economic. El poeta no es ahora el cantor del obiturario de los boricuas
explotados sino el ser que destruye el orden intellectual establecido, el que va en
contra el transito normal dictado por la sociedad, el que viola esa ruta
predeterminada.

The depolitization of the space then lies in its apparent individuality. It lies in the poet's

privacy and sole ownership of it. The causes of his discontent have stopped being social.

The poet has even lost the moralistic tone of his earlier book. The many drug and alcohol

references in this work do not serve to steer his community away from those substances.

On the contrary, the speaker of these poems readily consumes them without guilt or

consequence. One could then argue that Pietri in this book steps away from his role as

community leader. He, as an organic intellectual, breaks his ties with the community. It

could be argued that he leaves the New York Puerto Rican people to their own devices; to

makes sense of the social conditions that encapsulate them on their own. From a

Gramscian standpoint, this book could very well mark Pietri's refusal to further immerse

himself in the troubles of his community-to feel as they do-and speak to and for them.

This apparent severing of ties however is not accompanied by the poet's alliance

with the dominant classes. He does not break away from the masses to become a

traditional intellectual. The upper class does take away Pietri from the people. They have









no hold on him either. It is as if he exists apart and separate from any type of social

dynamic. The social conflict that characterized his first book is no longer there.

The Weight of the Community

What does stay constant is the poet's actual, physical immobility-a theme which is

now readily exploited to accentuate Pietri's ability of breaking with the intellectual and

social order while literary staying inside his apartment. Pietri (1983: In. 32-39) writes in

'March Hangover': "When I move I don't go anywhere/ Haven't left this block in years/ I

pick up speed and stand still/ And relax without changing the subject/ That will bring

forth another day/ To forget what was left undone/ After the smoke and rum/ Kept me

laughing at everyone." Similarly, the poem "Community Work" reads: "daydreaming

across/ the absentminded bridge/ to embrace shadows/ in another world/ the mind

disappears/ the body stays here" (Pietri, 1983: In. 1-6). The poet then presents himself to

the reader as almost an untouchable, insurmountable entity. In contrast with his first

book, Pietri does not appear to suffer from any ills whether they are social or physical.

Pietri's transformation, however, becomes illusory once the reader begins to look

and poke at that image of his physical and in fact social immobility. The poet makes it

clear that he is still in the same block. The city does not vanish from this book. Pietri

marks it indelibly by making it seem absent at times and glaringly obvious at others.

"Intermission from Tuesday" reads: "Fortune tellers predict nothing new/ Will happen

around this neighborhood/ For those who were born to get nowhere" (Pietri, 1983: In. 14-

16). The social marginalization of the poor community in general and the New York

Puerto Rican community specifically, then, while not taking center stage as in the first

book, do serve as the indisputable backdrop for his second. For all his dazzling mental

tricks Pietri confesses to be unable to wipe reality away. He states in "Intermission from









Monday": "have to leave the city/ when what you see is what you see/ and you don't see

is what you don't see/ and the imagination is classified/ as excess luggage at the airport."

(Pietri, 1983: In. 20-24). Pietri is still unable to leave.

Perhaps the clearest indication of the poet's prolonged confinement is the image of

death as an unrelenting overseer which was carried over from his first book. Death again

is presented here as immediate, palpable-both summoned and feared. The poet then

fluctuates between talking about death as a necessary break by stating "eternal life is very

boring" (In.23) in the poem "September Hangover" and outright wishing that nobody

would pass on in "November Hangover" where he writes: "the most incredible sight/ For

the human eyes to witness/ Is a cemetery going out of business" (Pietri, 1983 :ln. 8-10).

His most potent confrontation with death however takes place towards the very end of the

book in the fourteen page long elegy "I hate trees." In this piece Pietri mourns the death

of his brother, Dr. Willie. The poetic work reflects the vulnerable state in which the poet

finds himself. This is evident in lines such as "this is one poem I never/ wanted to write

in my life/ but darkness did occur twice/ & wrong numbers didn't exist/ the day his

humor was missed" (Pietri, 1983: In. 119-123). The poem is also important because it

marks the end of the illusion created, fostered and maintained during the majority of the

book. Whereas, up to that point, Pietri, while static, seemed almost untouchable, beyond

the reach of reality, this poem brings him crashing down. Death then does what external

factors and social circumstances could not do. It forces the poet to let his guard down and

the communal element in his work resurfaces. In "I hate trees" he declares:

to forget that you didn't/ die alone is to forget/ that you didn't die at all/ There
was also Maria and/ Maria and Mario or Maria/ and Mario and Maria or/ Mario
and Maria and Maria/ who was 7 months pregnant/ under the influence of/
thunderbird or bacardi rum/ I dedicate this eulogy/ that you wrote to them too/









whose real names & dreams/ & ambitions I never knew/ give them my best
regards/ in the night clubs of the sky/ they will never be forgotten/ by those who
remembered they died (Pietri, 1983: In. 315-332)

A thorough reading of this piece indicates that Pietri's illusory break from the

social in Traffic Violations was in deed inevitable. He felt too much. The dire

circumstances of his community did much more than inform his work. They hurt him. As

an organic intellectual, Pietri was unable to keep a safe distance from the masses. It was

all too personal. The writing then, in order for it to continue, had to develop a shield, a

cover. Traffic Violations is the poet's attempt to establish the distance he could not

maintain in Puerto Rican Obituary. The problem is that the high level of exposure and

vulnerability present in the first work give the poet away in the second. They unmask him

and the work, for all its dazzling intellectual tricks, ultimately exposes the unique anguish

of an intellectual that would not and could not separate the personal from the communal.














CHAPTER 4
WILLIE PERDOMO: NUYORICAN POETRY AS THE SOUNDTRACK FOR LIFE IN
EL BARRIO

Puerto Ricans in New York: The City as Home

Willie Perdomo's poetry marks a return to the street. The city is always at the

center of his work. Contrary to Pietri, the city is home for Perdomo and the poet speaks

of it with utmost care and tenderness in order to showcase both its seedy and deteriorated

conditions as well as the beauty inherent in its community. Perdomo's verses thus speak

to and for the winos, junkies, 'abuelas' and children that crowd these streets with an

immediate and almost palpable love that enables him to bring the people and their stories

to the page without losing anything on the way. Perdomo then speaks the city and the city

definitely speaks through him. It shines through and does so brilliantly. Unlike in Pietri,

beauty is possible here. In the poem "Where I'm From," Perdomo (1996: In. 36-37)

writes: "Where I'm from it's sweet like my grandmother reciting a quick/ prayer over a

pot of hot rice and beans." Moreover, the possibility of beauty for Puerto Ricans in New

York does not rest in Perdomo's personal choice to focus on the lighter or more positive

elements of life in El Barrio or in his ability to imagine and write about places different

from where he lives. On the contrary, Perdomo's poetry is characterized by the poet's

unique ability to create loving portrayals of Puerto Rican peoples in specific situations

and places where love and beauty would usually be thought of as foreign. The poet

explains in "The Making of a Harlem Love Poem": "-One day a little girl asked me if I

wrote love poems. I said, Yes. I/ used to write infinite I-love-you-and-never-want-to-lose-









you-poems./ But now I write about scabs that chip off stone faces and fall on/ bleeding

streets and think all the poems I write are love poems" (Perdomo, 1996: In. 1-4).

Perdomo thus re-imagines the city markedly different from Pietri. While at times he

seems at ease with his surroundings and on other occasions he is aching to break through

and leave, the city never ceases to be home. Consequently, the city fluctuates between the

background and center stage of Perdomo's work. And while it may overtake and

overwhelm him in any particular poem, it does not eat him up. There is a definite

emotional attachment between the poet and the city that allows him to survive. For

Perdomo the streets are filled with life. Whereas in Pietri's work all the streets had dead

ends and were frighteningly desolate, Perdomo's poems are filled with avenues. With

people walking up and down the block and music blasting from almost every corner. The

poem "Let me ask you something" reads:

Scent of indigo incense caresses me into a dream of kings/ and queens./ Manchild
steppin' strong on the street with his fresh-out-of-the-box/ Nike 380s,/ Holdin' his
head high he plexes his gold Nefertili medallion/.../Little queen in her stroller
points to the discount toys/.../Did you hear the pow! Boom! Plah!/ Guns or
drums? Take your pick. (Perdomo, 1996: In. 6-26)

His poems function as a glaring and stubborn proof of life in the margins. He does

not simply settle with chronicling the daily experiences of the people in these

communities but challenges the reader to step into this world and see for him/herself. In

the following lines he taunts and even threatens the reader: "Now-let me ask you

something: / did you hear all that while you was walking up 125th street?/Did you see all

that while you was walking' up 125th Street?/ Did you feel all that while you was walking'

up 125th Street?/ Or was you just on your way/ to pay/ the phone bill?" (Perdomo, 1996:

In. 35-41). Like in Pietri, there is a clear and definite move in Perdomo's poems to have









his community recognized and acknowledged. The difference lies in that in Pietri the

move is motivated by the continual extermination of the members of that community and

in Perdomo it arises more from a need to lay claim on that physical space as both

joyously and painfully theirs. The evolution of the poetry movement and the community

begins to be noticeable here. The Nuyorican community has grown its roots and

Perdomo's work is a clear reflection of the fruits of this growth.

New Nuyorican Visions of Puerto Rico

Important to note here is how the many music references in Perdomo's work,

specifically those made to Salsa music, are used to get this point across. The references

are not a simple recourse to create a particular poetic ambiance but rather function as key

reminders and proof of the distinct legacy of Puerto Rican and other Latino musicians in

the city. Furthermore, Perdomo's frequent naming of Salsa singers in poems such as "The

day that Hector Lavoe died" and "Writing about what you know" from his Postcards of

El Barrio collection sets up a parallel between the poet and the famous musicians.

Perdomo in fact claims to sing about the Barrio and its people and he claims Lavoe and

others as his teachers. In "The Day Hector Lavoe Died" he writes:

She knows that I will stop to see the voice that helped me/ when I was trying to
sing my own song about mi gente en el barrio,/ y la vida de las putas, los tecatos,
y las brujas, los/ dichosos, los tiburones, los cantantes y los soneros, los/
bodegueros, los perros y las gatas, las matas en la ventanas/ de los projects and
dare you to turn the other way. (Perdomo, 2002: In. 8-13)

Salsa music thus appears in Perdomo as an indelible piece of evidence of Puerto

Rican life in the city. As such the music permeates into every scene he describes. Salsa

was there when his father beat his mother: "He would go kapow and that's where some of

us learn to find the beat" ("The Day Hector Lavoe Died, In. 70-71). It was there when the

poet was dealing with his own drug addiction: "Your boys said the day would come when









you would go down like Hector Lavoe, Frankie Ruiz y La Lupe put together" ("Writing

About What You Know," In. 45-47). It was there to inform his initial stabs at poetry

writing: "The tempo for this journey is set by a round of glock shots ringing from the

rooftops of Wagner projects, followed by a heavy, deep hip-hop jeep, thumping bass line

with a stream of furious congas keeping rhythm" ("Creative Writing 1 Assignment:

Sketches of Spanish Harlem," In. 2-6). And more importantly Salsa is there to mark the

announcement of the coming of a new day: "There's a disco ball/ spinning starlight/ on a

new boogaloo/ tell Sonia/ that the bombs/are ready to drop/ that we got soneros/ ready to

sing/ to those flowers/ that did not survive/ Operation Green thumb" ("The New

Boogaloo," In. 1-11). Music is everywhere in Perdomo. You cannot escape it. And much

like the Salsa icons he is so fond of, Perdomo sings/writes for every occasion.

None of his songs, however, are as intimate, as slow-paced and soft as those sung

to and for his women characters, especially his mother. Perdomo's depiction of women in

his work is marked by an irrefutable, unrelenting and bitterly-sweet tenderness which

gives these characters an out-of-this-world quality while still remaining deeply and at

times tragically entrenched in third-world conditions. The poem "This is for Mamasita"

from Where a Nickel Costs a Dime reads:

I can see/ dry tears/ at the bottom/ of your hollow/ cheeks I/ heard you cried/
twice today/ once when the/ sun came out and/ Carlito didn't give/ you the ten/
dollars he promised/ you for your wake/ up/ and then you/ cried real tears when/
one of the guys gave/ Machito five/ dollars if he dared/ to ask you to suck/ his
those were/ real tears I saw too/ tired for words I/ say give me/ life I love/ you
when you/ return all the kisses/ I blow/ your way. (Perdomo, 1996: In. 12-38)

With very few exceptions the women in Perdomo, young and old, have in some

way or another been hurt and their injuries, directly or indirectly, have been inflicted by

abusive men, or irresponsible men or perverted men or just simply no good men.









Consequently the gallantry and courage of women in Perdomo's work is highlighted by

the description of men as "manchilds." Men do not grow in Perdomo. Rather, they

"stumble into manhood," got to jail or otherwise mess up. They do wrong and leave.

Thus, they are characterized for who and what they left behind.

It must be remembered that flight is a sin in Perdomo's work and with no exception

flight is a masculine trait. Unlike in Pietri, Perdomo sees flight as possible for his male

characters and they are damned on account of that ability. Positive male figures then are

almost completely absent in his work. It is as if they simply did not exist. In their place,

the reader finds complex and intriguing female figures like the poet's own mother who

the poet praises in the opening line of "Unemployed Mami." The poem reads:

"Eventhough she don't have a job mami still works hard" (Perdomo, 1996: In. 1). The

fact is that while men can be found standing aimlessly on the corners of Perdomo's

poems, women are always at work. They are always active, even restless characters

whose actions seem to be one of the principle steering mechanisms of their communities.

One could even say that the life of the communities Perdomo describes is embodied by,

preserved in and extended through his women characters.

Probing a bit more into Perdomo's poetic depiction of the mother-son relationship,

particularly in the poems "Unemployed Mami" and "The Day Hector Lavoe died," one is

able to see that this relationship opens some sort of cultural passage way by which the

poet is able to tap into his Puerto Rican roots. In the poem "Unemployed Mami" the

mother watches over the poet "as he runs into the street looking/ for images of Boricua

sweetness to explode in his face" (Perdomo, 1993: In. 5-6). The mother becomes more

proactive in "The Day Hector Lavoe Died," where she directly links his son to the history









of Puerto Ricans in New York by speaking of their family's connection to the late great

Salsa singer. Perdomo (2002: In. 19-20) writes: "She starts her story about how Hector

use to come to her/ house in the morning to pick up my uncle Lole who was a/ bad

boogaloo conguero." She then proceeds to further cement the parallelism between her son

the poet and the musical icon by warning him about his own drug use and how he could

just as easily end up like Lavoe. The poem reads:

She gives me the answer by miming an injection into the/ crook of her elbow. But
what she means to say is all that/ talent and if you keep messing around with that
shit, the/ same thing is gonna happen to you because even though you/ not putting
a needle in your veins, you still lock yourself up/ in your room and a die a little bit
more every day. (Perdomo, 2002: In. 35-40)

The mother stands as both watchperson and bearer of sacred traditions that are

embedded in the family's oral history. Culture then is passed down directly from mother

to son and though men are at the center of her stories, the maintenance and mobilization

of the culture is only possible through her because she survived to tell the stories.

Consequently, though male figures like Lavoe are revered and cited as crucial to the

poet's self discovery, without the mother's connection to these men and the music they

made, they would not be as meaningful to Perdomo. It is the mother figure who

ultimately has center stage and harbors the indispensable link to the culture. The poet

writes:

I clear my throat, take/ a deep breath and sigh cuz she fucked up my high with
that/ same old story about talent left to dry, a small fortune wasted/ and all that
could been in a world where the only thing left/ to sing about is a woman,
putting on her nightgown, talking/ about the night she saw Hector Lavoe sing at
the annual St./ Paul Mother's Day Dance and how he made her feel like/ she
would never grow old. (Perdomo, 2002: In. 73-80)

This image is similar to the one conveyed in Pietri's poem "Tata" in which the

poet's grandmother appears to the reader as a solitary bastion of cultural affirmation and









resistance. As discussed in the previous chapter, Pietri's grandmother stood in direct

contrast to the rest of the characters in his first book because she had survived.

Consequently, the peculiar feminine ability to survive in both these poets' work is

directly attributed to and responsible for the creation and maintenance of Puerto Rican

culture in New York. The female gender is thus attributed a markedly strong character by

both these authors that because of the always difficult and at times tragic circumstances

that envelop them-the fact that others consistently die around them-are also portrayed

as strikingly lonely figures.

Having said this, it should come as no surprise that death is not at all absent from

Perdomo's work. In tune with Pietri's portrayal of Puerto Rican life in the city is

Perdomo's use of death as a distinctively Puerto Rican experience. Here, as in Pietri,

death is ever present. However, Perdomo's conception of death is different in that while

his characters do take part in an intimate and constant dialogue with death- evidenced in

the ceremonious pouring of liquor on the street in poems like "Funeral"-this dialogue is

strictly private and personal. Whereas in Pietri masses of Puerto Rican workers pass on

everyday and names are listed in order to drown out the singularity of the experience,

Perdomo limits his obituaries to loved ones while also highlighting the violence prevalent

in El Barrio. His poem "Funeral" for example mourns the death of his friend Edwin by

confessing "It was the first time I saw Edwin wearing a suit" (Perdomo, 1996: In. 1). The

poet thus makes the experience unique to him and then goes on to place his friend's death

within a troubling and tragic communal pattern. The poem continues: "I didn't know

whether to laugh or cry when I/ noticed that I went to more funerals than parties this

summer" (Perdomo, 1996: In. 4-5).









The Weight of the Community

There is an unnerving sense of violence that underlies Perdomo's poetry. Lines like

"After they bag me up/ the bullets will keep singing" from "Sangre en Harlem" (In. 16-

17) create a Pietri-like environment where the city keeps on living whether or not the

people keep on dying. Moreover, like Pietri, Perdomo frequently recurs to the image of a

physical and social violence whose perpetrators are known and made public by the poet.

The poem "Where I'm from" reads: "Where I'm from, the police come into your house

without/ knocking. They throw us off rooftops and say we slipped. They shoot/ my father

and say he was crazy. They put a bullet in my head and say/ they found me that way"

(Perdomo, 1996: In. 21-24). The political and social oppression of the New York Puerto

Rican community is very much present in Perdomo's work. The only discrepancy there is

between Pietri and Perdomo as it relates to their portrayal of this oppression is that there

seems to be no moralizing agent present in Perdomo's poetry. He does not preach to the

community, rather he presents the different situations as he sees and feels them as true

and leaves it up to the reader for interpretation. His main interest thus lies in depicting the

complex character of a community that flourishes within a social dynamic that is based

on the continual denial of its existence and the eventual demise of its humanity.

Perdomo's art thus lies in skillfully and lovingly exposing these contradictions in lines

like: "Friday night in El Barrio and love and death are standing on the/ corner smiling at

you." ('Promises, promises' Perdomo, 1996: In. 15-16).

It is important to note here, however, that while Perdomo's poetry does not border

on the political rhetoric that some of Pietri's early work employed, like his predecessor,

Perdomo offers no reconciliation between the community that he represents and the

social order that victimizes it. For Perdomo, like Pietri, they are polar opposites and will









continue to be so. Both poets coincide in that social change is only possible within their

own community; it is only feasible through the work of their people. This commitment to

community uplift has been a mainstay in the Nuyorican poetry tradition and judging

solely on Perdomo's work it appears that it will continue on that way. In this sense, there

is not much separating Pietri and Perdomo's poetry. Both poets' works are built on and

for the community that birthed them. Consequently, the differences in each other's poetry

are a result of change in their community through time.

Having said this, the most significant progression from Pietri's Obituary to

Perdomo's Postcards is perhaps the definite externalization of the Puerto Rican identity.

Whereas in Pietri, the Puerto Rican essence, as previously discussed, was constricted to

an internal space, in Perdomo this essence has broken out, colored its surroundings and

can now be found all over the city. Contrary to Pietri, Perdomo's journey of self-

discovery occurs in the streets, in a violent yet lively landscape where Pietri himself can

be found preaching to young disciples. The poem "The New Boogaloo" reads: "tell

Rosalia/ that the reverend Pedro/ is on the rooftop/ handing out passports/ because the

spaceship casita/ is about to take off' (Perdomo, 2002: In. 28-33). Perdomo, in this

fashion, not only acknowledges his poetic foundations but two decades later has the

courage and confidence to propose a different ending to Pietri's "Obituary." In the last

lines of "The New Boogaloo," Pietri's character assures his young disciples "that this

time/ we gonna die knowing/ how beautiful/ we really/ are" (Perdomo, 2002: In. 84-88).

This re-writing not only stands as testament to the survival of the Puerto Rican people in

New York but also heralds the successful relocation of the center for production of Puerto

Rican culture. With Perdomo, the city gets its own culture factory. Migration is no longer









mourned and the Island no longer stands as a requisite point of reference. New York

Puerto Rican tradition is now rich enough to stand as its own point of departure. As

Perdomo (1996: In. 40-45) notes in "Nuyorican School of Poetry": "Number halls/

behind bodegas/ next to casitas/ by botanicas/ keep history/ on the same block.." There is

no need to look anywhere else.

Consequently, the poet's references to a Puerto Rican identity must be taken and

seen as new and different from any manifestation or construct that had arisen on the

Island. The culture has been home grown in the city and re-imagined to reflect the way of

life, needs and desires of that specific community. To view it then as a mere transposition

of Island tradition is to rid the Nuyorican tradition of its literary creativity and social

agency. Furthermore, it must be remembered that the official definitions of Puerto

Ricanness are not nor have ever been compatible with New York streets. Therefore, to

acknowledge Puerto Ricanness as being alive and practiced across the shores is to

acknowledge not a Stateside manifestation of Island life, but rather a people made Island

in the States by both Puerto Rico and the U.S. who in the past thirty years were crafting a

new nationality on the margins. And Perdomo's poetry is now the premier avenue

through which that new nationality is crossing over to the two countries that reside off its

shores.

The evolution of the Nuyorican poetry movement should now become glaring. In

the 23 years that separate Puerto Rican Obituary (1973) and Where a Nickel costs a Dime

(1996), the personal internal space that Pietri talked about as the only possible safeguard

for working class Puerto Ricans in New York was busted out by Perdomo, stretched and

made to fit over all possible members of that community. Perdomo's work stands firmly









on Pietri and expands it. This relationship between the two authors is important

considering that according to Gramsci (2000), the most important task that organic

intellectuals must carry out is to produce future intellectuals. That line of production-

that intellectual heritage-is evident here. The two as writers have infused their work

with the concerns of their community and through their work have given that community

a proper name and an exact shape. They have spoken to it about its history. They have

uncovered the distinct causes of its discontent. They have placed its troubles within the

larger social context. And more importantly, they have mapped out a route for communal

betterment and social uplift through poetry.














CHAPTER 5
THE COMING PUERTO RICAN IDENTITIES

When one considers the type of Puerto Rican identity that the work of Pietri and

Perdomo promotes-an identity not bogged down by political agendas nor confined to a

set geographical location-and takes into account the traditional Island view of what a

true Puerto Rican is, the increased exposure of Islanders to Nuyorican works is nothing

short of a clash. Traditional Island identity constructions are beginning to collide with

Nuyorican formulations of Puerto Ricanness and may very well lead Islanders to question

their long held views. If the work produced by the emergent crop of poets in the Island is

any indication of the future consequences of this clash, Island Puerto Rican identity is

already being reformulated according to a Nuyorican framework. Furthermore, if with

time these young poets manage to garner the critical acclaim and status of the established

and even canonical Island writers of the 20th century, they, like them before, could find

themselves in the position of setting the basis for what the coming generations of

Islanders will identify as Puerto Rican. Within this context the work these poets are doing

now becomes terribly interesting and worthy of study.

It is thus crucial to ask: What exactly is Nuyorican about this new breed of Island

poetry? One could initially answer that it's the writers' focus on the oral or performative

character of their work that makes it distinctively Nuyorican. However, it is not so much

that performance poetry is being actively practiced and staged on the Island for there is a

fertile tradition of oral poetry in Puerto Rico. One could then argue that it's the

combination of English and Spanish in the work. One could highlight the fact that writers









are using an Island form of code switching, infusing their poems with elements of the

English language. But that also has a history in Puerto Rico. Lastly, one could point out

the fact that poets are addressing the concerns and necessities of their specific

communities and voicing out against injustice. But, as discussed earlier, Puerto Rican

literature is historically intertwined with the political.

What makes these works Nuyorican is not simply a question of themes or style. It

is the conscious and purposeful referencing of Nuyorican writers in these poets' works.

Instead of basing their poetic manifestations on the canonical Island authors, young

Puerto Rican writers are jumping off the identity constructions set in place by mainland

writers. Urayoan Noel for example writes in his poem "Spic Tracts":

I've got no friends named Papo/ who hang around street corners/ "Vaya, mami" and
"Boricua one hundred per-/cent,/represent! "/ Don't even have a car/ to wash on
Sunday afternoons/ away those NY/PR blues/ no homeboy convoy to loot Loisaida/
listening to la Fania/ "salsa viejapor mi madre por la radio"/... /I spend the summers
at my aunt's/ in Hialeah,/ I'm not down with the program/ and I never met Mumia/
still,/ I have a past. (Noel, 2000: 14-41)

This poet's move to reference a separate and for decades marginalized taproot of Puerto

Rican cultural expression signifies the defunct character of official identity constructions

on the Island. His poetic manifestations make it glaringly obvious that these constructions

are no longer viable. They have ceased to be applicable to his present experiences.

Furthermore, the poet's decision to define his own personal Puerto Rican identity

against the parameters set during the three decades of Nuyorican literature as opposed to

those set on the Island in the 20th century implies the de-centering of Puerto Rican

identity. It signifies not only the evolution of the Nuyorican poetry movement but its

status as a valid manifestation of what is Puerto Rican. Puerto Ricanness thus becomes









impossible to be set, fixed and limited to a particular geographical location. It begins to

open up so as to house everybody.

Nowhere is this sentiment communicated as clearly and beautifully on the Island

that in Jose Raul Gonzalez's poetry. In a somber yet painstakingly tender tone, Gonzalez

proclaims the joy and pain of this de-centering when he states in the poem "Batacumbele

means": "0 talvez porque la hisla no reconoce/ el pecado desu historic./ Y quien sabe si

es a causa de la similitud/ entire los cadaveres dela hisla y los de nuevayol" (Gonzalez,

2000: In. 6-9). He continues numbering the many ways in which the social conditions

affecting marginal communities on the Island and in the states have further cemented the

relationship between Islanders and the mainland community. He writes in "Nantan-Bai,

Uno":

Escribo porque tambien vivi en la ciudad de Nuevayol,/ porque tambien alli se
estin matando por el crack./ Porque tambien alli se estin matando por la heroina,/
porque tambien alli existen carceles,/ porque en las carceles de alli tambien
hacen tiempo/ cientos de puertorriquefios,/ porque tambien alli mueren/
chamaquitos que van a parar al rio,/ que van a parar a los buzones, endonde
aprenden/ a vivir como viven las cartas. (Gonzalez, 2000: In. 6-15)

His poetry thus functions as a call for the unification of colonized Puerto Rican people on

both sides of the Atlantic. It is in fact a call to bonding, to a change in the relations

between the Island and mainland communities.

If significant change is ever going to come, however, this call for an open house

must be accompanied by a critical revision of Puerto Rican history, specifically of the

migration. It is simply not enough to acknowledge that the migration occurred and

continues to occur, but that it has shaped and affected every single aspect of Puerto Rican

life both in the states and on the Island. Furthermore, it must be understood that Puerto

Rican life has developed differently in each location according to the particular









circumstances and needs of each population. Consequently, what we have are not mirror

images of each community across shores but rather distinct communal manifestations that

arose from the same source and that suffer equally from the effects of colonization. To

bridge the two communities then mandates the mapping out of the differences between

the two and the reaching out through those differences. It demands a critical yet tender

look.

It is this thesis' position that given the revisionist character of both Island and

Mainland Puerto Rican literature, specially its poetry, and taking into consideration the

Island's prolonged colonial status-the perennial dependency of the Island government

on U.S. policies-literature appears as the preeminent space for this historical revision to

occur. The possible Island adaptation of various elements of the Nuyorican aesthetic1-

particularly its liberatory and multicultural philosophy-could very well produce and

foster a new vision of the Puerto Rican. This vision would be one predicated on the

positive contact with other racial/ethnic communities in the U.S., and thus free of

venomous notions of cultural purity. Moreover, it could very well lead to a race

conscious revision of Puerto Rican history and vindicate the Black Island experience as

indelibly native and central to any viable process of identity construction; a vision of the

Black Puerto Rican that does not essentialize, marginalize nor trivialize its character,

presence and part in the forging of the Puerto Rican nation through time.

The Nuyorican aesthetic thus presents itself as a curative agent for Island culture. It

presents us with the opportunity to revise and correct our past in order to almost


1 See page 11 for a description of the Nuyorican Aesthetic.









guarantee a more secure and just future for all of us. A Nuyorican way of thinking then

enables Island Puerto Ricans to reach out toward its migrant community by standing firm

right on top of the core of its Island past. It teaches us to look beyond by looking directly

within.

Also, the Nuyorican aesthetic brings to the Island Puerto Rican a more nuanced

view of colonialism. For years Nuyorican poets have been highlighting the Island's

ongoing Americanization as it is manifested in Islanders' treatment of their Nuyorican

counterparts (Hernandez, 1997). The refusal of the Nuyorican by the Island suggests a

deep-seated and seemingly inconsolable self-hatred. The colonial regime divided the

Puerto Rican self. Both the U.S. and Island elite have portrayed the migrant community

as filthy, indignant and criminal, and middle class Islanders have bought into this

portrayal and have grown to despise the migrant community and blame it for "the terrible

view" white Americans have of Puerto Ricans. A Nuyorican framework thus provides the

Islander with a way in which to learn to recognize white structures of racism and colonial

oppression. The subversive possibilities of this unification process are endless.

To think Nuyorican means to think critically; to begin to see the interconnections

between the subjugated status of the Island as a colony of the United States and the

marginalized status of the U.S. Puerto Rican community as a racial ethnic minority in the

U.S. It provides a lens by which to view and dissect the governmental and social

structures that divide the two communities with the benefit of being independent of any

formal political party. It thus promises a people-centered approach to political and social

change.














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55


Steptoe, L.B. n.d. Coming ofAge in Poetry and Life: Interview i ith Martin Espada.
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BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH

Guillermo Rebollo-Gil was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He is the author of two

published books of poetry. His work has also been included in literary anthologies of the

Spanish speaking Caribbean. He is currently pursuing a PhD in sociology at the

University of Florida, focusing on racial and ethnic relations.