A Brief Guide to Nuyorican Poetry
PostedSeptember 19, 2017
TypeSchools & Movements
The Nuyorican movement was a tradition of poets, writers, artists, and musicians whose work spoke to the social, political, and economic issues Puerto Ricans faced in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s.
Not unlike the Harlem Renaissance, the Nuyorican movement was born out of a period of migration. After the United States conferred commonwealth status onto Puerto Rico in 1950, Puerto Rican migration to New York City increased, creating pockets of Puerto Rican communities in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side and East Harlem. Many of the Nuyorican writers were part of this group of first-generation New Yorkers, who were either the children of immigrants or who themselves arrived at New York City at a young age.
Originally a pejorative term, “Nuyorican,” a mixture of “New York Puerto Rican” or “Neo-Rican,” was used by native Puerto Ricans to identify Puerto Ricans from New York City as distinct from those from the island. The Nuyorican movement, however, came to represent not only the struggles Puerto Ricans faced in working-class New York City, but also the pride they had in their language, culture, and Afro-Caribbean and indigenous Caribbean identities. While the poems decry the rampant discrimination they faced in schools and workplaces, the lack of economic opportunities, poor living conditions, and the general marginalization of their community, they also tell stories of rebellion, resistance, and endurance in the midst of these struggles.
In his introduction to the seminal anthology Nuyorican Poetry: An Anthology of Puerto Rican Words and Feelings (William Morrow & Company, 1975), Nuyorican poet Miguel Algarín writes, “The experience of Puerto Ricans on the streets of New York has caused a new language to grow: Nuyorican. Nuyoricans are a special experience in the immigration history of the city of New York.”
Beyond the subject matter of the work, Nuyorican poetry embodied through its diction, rhythm, and syntax the everyday speech of the Nuyorican community in a way that was, as Algarín describes it, “street-rooted.” “Nuyorican is full of muscular expression,” he writes. “It is a language full of short pulsating rhythms that manifest the unrelenting strain that the Nuyorican experiences.”
Notable figures of the movement include Jack Agüeros; Algarín; Jorge “El Coco” Brandon, frequently referred to as the “father of Nuyorican poetry”; Lucky Cienfuegos; Victor Hernández Cruz; Sandra María Esteves; Magdalena Gómez; Tato Laviera; Jesús Papoleto Meléndez; fiction writer Nicholasa Mohr, author of Nilda (Harper & Row, 1973); Pedro Pietri, called the “poet laureate of the Nuyorican movement” and author of Puerto Rican Obituary (Monthly Review Press, 1973); playwright Miguel Piñero; Bimbo Rivas; Edward Rivera, the author of Family Installments: Memoirs of Growing Up Hispanic (William Morrow, 1982); Louis Reyes Rivera; and Piri Thomás, author of the memoir Down These Mean Streets (Alfred A. Knopf, 1967).
By the 1970s, the Nuyorican movement was thriving, and in 1973 Algarín began hosting a living room salon in his East Village apartment. At these salons, attended by poets, playwrights, and musicians, poems were created and delivered as performance, and the spoken elements of the work became central to what characterized Nuyorican poetry. Two years later, Algarín and Piñero published Nuyorican Poetry: An Anthology of Puerto Rican Words and Feelings, and the weekly salon soon became too large for Algarín’s apartment. It moved to a local bar and then to 236 East Third Street, where it officially became the Nuyorican Poets Café, a multicultural arts space for poetry, music, live radio broadcasts, theater, and more that also became one of the homes of the slam poetry movement and a hallmark of the arts community in New York City.