I confess that despite moving to NYC in 1996 and spending my entire adult life here (including four years at NYU) I knew nothing of the Nuyorican poetry movement. It wasn’t until I saw the biopic Pinero that I heard about it. Then again, few of my Puerto Rican friends and none of my Puerto Rican students had heard of it either, so I wonder.
Urayoan Noel says in the introduction that the Nuyorican phenomena is the result of the Puerto Rican diaspora, being stuck in a strange place. The East Village barrio was close to Greenwich Village and NYU, where you had all the artsy types, more so than Harlem or the Bronx. He cites Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets as a start; Thomas goes from trying to escape his community to realizing that it has its merits. On a funny note, Down These Mean Streets was banned in every community where the teenage Piri Thomas had gone to escape racism.
The first chapter made me realize that the Nuyorican movement had none of the sponsorship that the Harlem Renaissance had. There was no Puerto Rican counterpart to the C.J. Walker company bankrolling Puerto Rican intellectuals, as Madam Walker did in the 1900’s. The Fords, Guggenheims, Astors, and Rockefellers weren’t sponsoring Puerto Rican artists or writers the way America’s millionaires had done with others. In the book Love Goes To Buildings On Fire, the author describes how Bruce Springsteen, a New Jersey native, had a big following among Andy Warhol’s transvestite crowd. His stubbly face, torn jeans, and rough guitar playing was surprisingly appealing to drag queens. But Miguel Pinero and other Puerto Rican poets and musicians; they were ignored by the established crowd. Perhaps the “arts” scene was little more than a clique, just with grown-ups rather than high school alpha-queens?
Miguel Algarin, founder of the Nuyorican Poets Café, first heard the term on a trip to the island. It was used to describe the New York bred Puerto Ricans, who the natives looked down on for speaking English. He and Pinero were seen as unwanted and undesirable by Puerto Rico’s academics; Pinero’s criminal record and drug use was hardly an impression. But the fact that Algarin was a professor at Rutgers meant nothing to them either.