By Christina Di Biase
Most American immigrants understand what it means to migrate for a chance at a better opportunity. Puerto Ricans, after gaining citizenship in 1917, flooded into New York City in the early to mid-20th century. The need to assimilate showcased itself in the Nuyorican art movement, which picked up speed in the 1960’s. A community of people, stuck between two cultures and identities, proclaimed themselves through poetry, literature, and visual arts. By creating their own hub of support and creative energy they thrived not only in their respective neighborhoods, but on a larger scale as well.
Miguel Piñero and Miguel Algarin co-founded of the Nuyorican Poet’s Café on the Lower East Side (Loisada). Initially operating out of Algarin’s apartment in 1973, the production became so populated that they moved to a local pub and then finally to their current building on East 3rd Street. The Lower East Side was largely a Puerto Rican and Dominican community in the 20th century before being of interest to real estate companies that made it into the “trendy” area it is today. The Nuyorican Poets Cafe was and is a space by the people for the people, a production that existed and thrived outside of the mainstream. There was an aroma of love and struggle that existed in unity within the cafe and within the movement. Communities of marginalized voices sparked a resistant and active arts community, which is what the Nuyorican movement was. Miguel Piñero wrote “A Lower East Side Poem” expressing this love and sadness. The influence of rap on the poem is apparent, also at the start of its popularity.
Miguel Piñero moved to the Lower East side from Puerto Rico at four years old. His father left at an early age and his family lived in poverty. He turned to theft at a young age-- first, to support his family, and later, because it was familiar. Affiliations with gangs and robberies led him from detention center to jailhouse, where he spent a lot of his young life. It is also where he wrote his play, “Short Eyes,” in 1974 as a part of a prison workshop, which would go on to Broadway and win “Best American Play” twice. His writing career was ignited in prison and continued to roar thereafter.
…there’s no other place that I can see
there’s no other town around that
brings you up or keeps you down
no food little heat sweeps by
fancy cars & pimps’ bars & juke saloons
& greasy spoons make my spirits fly
with my ashes scattered thru the
Lower East Side . . .
A thief, a junkie I’ve been
committed every known sin
Jews and Gentiles . . . Bums & Men
of style . . . run away child
police shooting wild . . .
mother’s futile wails . . . pushers
making sales . . . dope wheelers
& cocaine dealers . . . smoking pot
streets are hot & feed off those who bleed to death . . .
all that’s true
all that’s true
all that is true
but this ain’t no lie
when I ask that my ashes be scattered thru
the Lower East Side…
(A selection from Miguel Piñero’s poem “A Lower East Side Poem” )
Further uptown in East Harlem, known colloquially as El Barrio, rests another pocket of artists very active during the Nuyorican movement. Spanish Harlem still remains the largest population of Puerto Ricans in the city. One of the more popular destinations even today is El Museo, known for their celebration of Latin American and Caribbean cultures through visual arts. The museum was a fire station before its transition. Occupied by radical activists, it soon became a place where many fought for educational progress among the Latin community. The El Museo community fought for an integrated education, in a time where the primary focus was on white western cultures in classrooms. After continuous and persistent pressure, the board expanded programming by the late 60’s.
Rafael Montañez Ortiz, an artist, activist, and teacher, was appointed to create the materials for schools that highlighted Puerto Rican culture and history. He then transformed those materials into a museum that acted as an educational institution. In 1969, El Museo first functioned out of a local public school. It moved from brownstone to storefront over the years, before settling in its current location on 104th street and 5th avenue. The museum offers exhibitions, workshops, apprentice programs, library resources, and art project funding, all budgeted through the board of education.
The Nuyorican movement embodied the question of the creation of the self. Arts became a form of activism, amplifying their voices in a system that attempted to drown them out. It transcended ethnic groups and became a symbol of Latinx culture, but also a symbol of hope for any American immigrant who felt they were leaving their culture behind.