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The Puerto Rican Harlem Renaissance
Counterculture, commodification and inclusivity in the evolution of the Nuyorican arts movement
By Courtney Suciu
From boogaloo and salsa to the spoken word craze, Puerto Rican New Yorkers have had a profound impact on music and literature around the world. We’ll explore how a hunger for a cultural identity and creative fellowship among an impoverished, marginalized population evolved into a radical arts movement, a cool brand for the MTV generation and an inclusive safe space for diversity and self-expression.
But was this evolution a matter of cultural collaboration and cooperation, or cultural appropriation?
How did the Nuyorican movement begin?
Narrator of the documentary The Salsa Revolution1, actor Jimmy Smits set the scene:
The 1960s in East Harlem, el barrio. By then, the city held over half a million Latinos, mostly Puerto Ricans. Many were young, part of a massive postwar generation whose search for identity would transform U.S. culture. New York-born Puerto Ricans would become Nuyoricans and salsa would be their flag.
This Spanish-speaking community – marginalized from mainstream America and hundreds of miles, as well as a couple of generations, removed from ancestors in the Caribbean (many of whom were themselves removed by space and/or time from their Spanish, African and Taino ancestry) – was fertile grounds for the birth of a new music born of these eclectic influences.
As Afro-Puerto Rican poet, journalist and activist Felipe Lucian explained, “Rock and roll knocked us out and it knocked us out as much as it did any other American.”
“It didn't take long for musicians in el barrio to make R&B and rock their own,” Smits continued. “They called it Latin boogaloo, a fusion of traditional Latin rhythms and the new sounds of a new generation.”
While hits songs like Ray Barretto’s “El Watusi” and Pete Rodriguez’s “I Like It Like That” semi-popularized this funky, free-wheeling dance music, other artists like band leader Willie Colón sought to put more emphasis on a fusion of traditional Cuban, Puerto Rican and global influences. Mambo, cha-cha-cha, bomba and son were combined with Spanish guitars, African percussion, North American jazz and Spanglish lyrics to ignite a new international music and dance sensation – salsa.
But music was only one part of this revolution coming out of el barrio. A whole movement was unfolding, and in the early ‘70s its hub was the Nuyorican Poets Café.
The Nuyorican Poets Café
In the documentary Shattering the Silences: The Case for Minority Faculty2, Miguel Algarin, a now-retired, Puerto Rican-born professor of Shakespeare, creative writing and international literature, recalled the days of hosting a salon of Nuyorican artists and intellectuals in his home:
I was living on 6th street [in the East Village] and my friends were collecting in my house. It would be three or four o’clock in the morning and I’d have an eight o’clock class at Rutgers. So oftentimes, I wouldn’t even be going to bed. I would shower, get dressed, take a train and teach. I realized I had to get these people out of my living room, that I was truly physically and mentally exhausted. That’s how this thing happened.
So, in 1974, Algarin and his friends rented a nearby storefront café where they could gather at all hours to read, perform, argue with and support each other. The Nuyorican Poetry Café became the heart of this community still trying to develop a sense of identity as it struggled with poverty, the loss of its cultural heritage, and in many cases, the disintegration of family structures.
“What are the roots of the New York Puerto Ricans?” Algarin asked in his 1981 essay on “Nuyorican Literature.”3 He answers his own question with a bleak image of despair:
Those roots are really the debris of the ghettos, the tar and concrete that covers the land, the dependence of manual labor that is merely brute force, the force feeding of the young in schools that kill their initiative rather than nourish it, and the loss of trust.
Yet, life, if not hope, continued to thrive in Nuyorican music and poetry, Algarin added:
We have maintained our music, we have put down in New York something that is called salsa […] and, most importantly, we carry on the oral tradition – the tradition of expressing self in front of the tribe, in the front of the family. The holding force in that expression is a feeling and commitment that becomes the deepest bond of trust that we have going at the moment.
This is how language and spoken word poetry became the crux of Nuyorican culture, the “psychic cure” for the community, empowering its transformation out of hopelessness into a vibrant sense of connection and possibility; and that’s how the Nuyorican Poetry Café became a sanctuary “for anyone looking for art or looking to art to relieve him or her,” Algarin wrote.
The evolution of a Nuyorican institution
By the mid ‘70s, the Nuyorican Poets Café had become “a dynamic cultural phenomenon,” according to The New York Times4.
Reporter David Vidal wrote that readings featured “a group of young artists whose writings reflect the anger, despair, pride, identity conflict and hopes of the children of the young marriage between New York and its Puerto Rican population of more than one million people,” and attracted growing audiences, mostly second- and third-generation Puerto Rican New Yorkers, but also outsiders, including poets of the Beat Generation, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.
“It is about 11 o’clock now on this evening at the café,” Vidal wrote, describing the scene he witnessed:
The conga drums have ceased, but their rhythm returns intermittently, with a dash of guitar added. The animated conversation in Spanish and English, or both, has quieted as the poems demand their moment…The Nuyorican state of mind is a collective experience here, and the listeners sometimes encourage the poet by shouts of ‘Right On!” or “You Got It, Sister.’”
Just two decades later, this collective experience would come to encompass a new generation of spoken-word performers from coast to coast. Building violations forced the Nuyorican Poets Café to close in the early ‘80s but by the time it reopened nine years later, poetry slam competitions were popular across the country. The Nuyorican Poets Café became synonymous with this new, MTV-friendly youth culture movement.
But for Puerto Rican-born poet and critic Urayoán Noel, “this Nuyorican crossover was by no means unproblematic.” In his article “Counter/Public Address: Nuyorican Poetics in the Slam Era,” Noel points to a 1993 New York magazine cover story on the Nuyorican poets which declared “The Beats Are Back”:
Although providing some helpful contextualizing for the general reader (for whom the Beats may well be the sole recognizable exemplar of performance poetry), such a coding, as [Nuyorian poet Ed] Morales suggests, risks diluting what was in fact a diverse, multiethnic and multicultural poetry community into little more than a neo-Beat revival.
In the ‘90s, Noel continued, the term “Nuyorican” was “deployed in its doubleness, to signal both its origins as an ethnic marker and its evolution as a multicultural poetics,” adding that it did so “at a price.”
Through spoken-word traveling shows, book and recording sales, and partnerships with the likes of MTV and HBO, Nuyorican poetics became kind of a brand for cool urban youth culture. This crossover evolution resulted in a market-friendly, populist poetics that was “no longer solely the property of Puerto Ricans, which begs the question,” Noel argued, “if Nuyorican language is no longer the property of Puerto Ricans, then how are Nuyoricans to articulate their diaspora experience?”
For Noel, the original “promise of unfettered Nuyorican self-expression is now checked by two distinct but seemingly related trends: the commodification of slam and the gentrification of diaspora neighborhoods such as Harlem.”
A recent NPR Code Switch piece from Manual Betancourt confirmed but did not resolve Noel’s concerns. According to Betancourt, the current incarnation of the Nuyorican Poets Café is situated “in the heart of an ever-gentrifying New York City neighborhood.” It exists as a tourist destination/cultural landmark/non-profit entity as well as a regular gathering spot for performers from diverse ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations and gender identities who straddle the intersection between artists and activists.
As Betancourt wrote, “in the words of poet Portia Bartley…’the Café speaks to the marginalized, to anyone who's usually not granted a safe space to express themselves and speak on their experiences.’"
While this scene seems to embody Algarin’s original vision for the Nuyorican Poets Café as a home “for anyone looking for art or looking to art to relieve him or her,” does it, as Noel argued, come at the price of no longer belonging to the people who created it? What does this say about contemporary Nuyorican cultural identity – and the cultural identity of diasporic communities in general – and cultural appropriation?
Abundant resources – from music, video and poetry to newspapers, scholarly works and book-length analysis – are available to bring depth and nuance into further exploration of such complex questions.
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For further research
Thousands of full-text poetry, prose and critical works by and about Puerto Rican and Nuyorican artists – including Miguel Algarin, Urayoán Noel, Sandra Maria Esteves, Pedro Pietri and Ntozake Shange – can be enjoyed, analyzed and easily cross-searched with other literary content on this most inclusive library of texts available online. Learn more about World Literature and Black Writing collections.
With 100,000 pages of poems, drama, novels, stories, and related material, this online collection illuminates the history and culture of the Caribbean through literary works from the million and a half Africans, along with many Indians and South Asians, who were brought to the region between the 15th and 19th centuries.
The contributions, struggles, and identities of the African diaspora come to life through personal accounts, video, and primary sources in this global Black Studies collection that focuses on the migrations, communities, and ideologies of people in the Caribbean, Brazil, India, United Kingdom, and France.
El Barrio: Gangsters, Latin Soul & The Birth Of Salsa 1967-75 [Streaming Audio]. (2007). Fania Records. (2007).
Fania Signature Vol. 3 - Boogaloo [Streaming Audio]. (2006). Fania Records. (2006).
The Bad Boogaloo - Nu Yorican Sounds 1966-70 [Streaming Audio]. (2007). Fania Records. (2007).
Alt, A. H. (2009). Nuyorican poetry: Identity and Representation (Order No. 1471754).
Bernard, R. A. (2006). Nuyorganics: Understanding Organic Intellectualism Through Nuyorican Poetry (Order No. 3213139).
Negron, M. (2006). Hecho in Nuyorican: An Analysis of the Creation, Circulation, and Consumption of Salsa in 1970s New York (Order No. 3235304).
Rodriguez, Z. L. (2009). Writing to Survive: Nuyorican Literary and Cultural Performativities Across Genres in the 1970s and 1980s (Order No. 3374415).
Santamaria Lopez, C. M. (2011). Boricuas isleños y nuyorriqueños: La construcción de identidades puertorriqueñas a través de la poesía de la calle (Order No. 3457030).
Diaz, C. S. (2014). Our Nuyorican Thing: The Birth of a Self-Made Identity. Noel, U. (2014). In visible movement : nuyorican poetry from the sixties to slam.
Melendez, J. P., & Flores, J. ". (2012). Hey yo! Yo soy! 40 Years of Nuyorican Street poetry : A Bilingual Edition.
Noel, U. (2014). In Visible Movement: Nuyorican Poetry from the Sixties to Slam.
Rivera, C. H., Hayd'e, R. C., & Torres-Padilla, J. L. (Eds.). (2011). Writing Off the Hyphen : New Perspectives on the Literature of the Puerto Rican Diaspora.
- Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) (Producer). (2009). The Salsa Revolution [Video file]. Available from Academic Video Online.
- Pellett, G., & Nelson, S. (Directors), & Pellett, G., & Nelson, S. (Producers). (1997). Shattering the Silences [Video file]. California Newsreel. Available from Academic Video Online.
- Algarín, M. (1981). Nuyorican Literature. Melus, 8(2), 89-92.
- By, D. V. (1976, May 14). 'Nuyoricans' Express Pain and Joy in Poetry. New York Times (1923-Current File). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- Urayoán Noel. (2011). Counter/Public Address: Nuyorican Poetries in the Slam Era. Latino Studies, 9(1), 38-61. Available from PRISMA.
- Betancourt, M. (2017). The Nuyorican Poets Café, A Cauldron for Poetry and Politics. Washington: NPR. Available from ProQuest Central.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu