Nuyorican Poets Café
- LAST REVIEWED: 27 January 2021
- LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0105
- LAST REVIEWED: 27 January 2021
- LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0105
The Nuyorican Poets Cafe is a nonprofit spoken-word and performance venue in Manhattan’s East Village. The Nuyorican was founded in 1973, meeting first in the apartment of writer and poet Miguel Algarín. Miguel Piñero, Bimbo Rivas, and Lucky Cienfuegos were cofounders of the cafe. In 1980 they moved the cafe to the building it still occupies at 236 East 3rd Street. In 1975 Algarín and Piñero published an anthology, Nuyorican Poetry, the first published work defining what became known as the Nuyorican poetry movement. In the introduction, Miguel Algarín describes the Nuyorican poet as “an outlaw”—outside linguistic and social norms, surviving by his wits in a hostile society, and using the hybrid “Nuyorican” language to create poetry that maps a new future for the community. The Nuyorican was also a place where now prominent playwrights, including Miguel Piñero, Ntozake Shange, and Ishmael Reed, experimented and crafted works for theater. Since its founding, successive generations of Latino/a poets have established a canon of Nuyorican literary work. The Nuyorican Theater Festival has become a respected venue for new theatrical works, especially by young playwrights of color. In the 1990s, Bob Holman, a spoken-word activist, introduced slam-poetry competitions on Friday nights at the cafe, which have continued. Algarín and Holman together published ALOUD!, the definitive anthology of poetry from the Nuyorican. The Nuyorican’s prominence as a slam-poetry venue began an era of transformation. A number of Nuyorican poets won national slam-poetry competitions, and the cafe has become a more professionalized venue where a new generation of poets and writers have launched artistic careers. In 1993, the Nuyorican became a “living treasure” of New York. The East Village is now heavily gentrified, and is a major tourist destination. Today, the Nuyorican attracts young people from across the city, and a mix of tourists and artistic professionals. It is less immediately tied in to the experience of poverty and street life, but it continues to reflect a broad mix of peoples and experiences. Nuyorican poetry is often characterized by bilingualism, bilingual wordplay, and a strong orality; a humorous or satirical voice; a critical political vision, concerned with racism, and the contradictions of capitalism; and assertions of a new latinidad that is politicized, cosmopolitan, yet deeply rooted in Latino communities such as El Barrio or the Lower East Side, and that is often contrasted with idealized visions of Puerto Rico as a place of origin.
“There is at the edge of every empire a linguistic explosion that results from the many multilingual tribes that collect around wealth and power. The Nuyorican is a slave class that trades hours for dollars at the lowest rung of the earning scale.” (Algarín and Piñero 1975. p. 15) The anthologies of work from the Nuyorican are the strongest introduction to this canon of work from the Nuyorican. The introduction to Nuyorican Poetry (Algarín and Piñero 1975), written by Miguel Algarín, is considered the manifesto of the Nuyorican poetry movement. He describes the Nuyorican as a hybrid, emerging from the contradictions of capitalism. Nuyorican poetry is an act of cultural agency, as an exploited, colonial minority comes to terms with its bilingual, bicultural identity. The poet is a visionary who brings social alternatives into view, and the Nuyorican Poets Cafe is where poets came to listen to one another. The ideal of a supported, accessible creative environment has remained constant at the cafe, as it has transformed to an artistic institution. More recent anthologies, Algarín and Holman 1994 and Bonair-Agard, et al. 2000, capture the transformation of the cafe as it became mainstream, and as the new generation elaborates its poetic legacy with a new experimentality and confidence. Algarín and Griffith 1997 collects dramatic works from the Nuyorican’s theater festival. Stavans, et al. 2011 has reprints of some of the canonical works by Nuyorican authors. The English-language collection Puerto Rican Poetry (Márquez 2007), which presents work on the island and in diaspora, and from antiquity to the present, is an interesting volume for considering Nuyoricans in relation to the cultural history of the island. It shows how Nuyoricans continued and also radically ruptured cultural discourse from the island on race, nation, and colonialism. Cortes, et al. 1976 is an early essay that gives serious critical attention to the “Nuyorican” voice, situating the cultural florescence taking place in terms of the colonial and class exploitation of Puerto Rican migrants. Morton 1976 heralds this work as a radical departure, bringing ghetto poverty and exploitation to life in a new linguistic style. Flores 1993 delineates four different moments of cultural awareness in Nuyorican work: the first moment is descriptive, angrily capturing the poverty and harshness of ghetto conditions, and the second is a “state of enchantment” that returns to an idealized notion of the island to find lost African and indigenous roots and to affirm a devalued identity. The third moment moves back from the island, to New York, re-engaging with the cultural vitality of Nuyorican culture and understanding it as a legitimate expression, and the fourth interacts more closely with North American society, and especially African American experience. Today, the imagery of poverty associated with this “first moment,” including cockroaches, tenements, welfare, and drug addiction, can seem dated, and no longer reflective of a collective Nuyorican reality, but other aspects of Nuyorican poetry inspire sustained critical attention.
Algarín, Miguel, and Lois Griffith, eds. ACTION: The Nuyorican Poets Café Theater Festival. New York: Touchstone, 1997.
A collection of early plays that were developed and performed at the Nuyorican.
Algarín, Miguel, and Bob Holman, eds. ALOUD: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. New York: Henry Holt, 1994.
An essential anthology, organized by decade, with a mix of founding poems, and later generations. Front matter includes the “Invocation” by Bob Holman, and a preface by the cafe’s founder, Miguel Algarín.
Algarín, Miguel, and Miguel Piñero, eds. Nuyorican Poetry: An Anthology of Puerto Rican Words and Feelings. New York: Morrow, 1975.
The first collection of poetry from the Nuyorican poetry movement.
Bonair-Agard, Roger, Stephen Colman, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Alix Olson, and Lynne Procope. Burning Down the House: Selected Poems from the Nuyorican Poets Café’s National Poetry Slam Champions. Berkeley: Soft Skull, 2000.
Poems by poets who participated in slam-poetry team championship. This anthology shows the institutional transformation of the Nuyorican as it became a celebrated slam-poetry venue.
Cortes, Felix, Angel Falcón, and Juan Flores. “The Cultural Expressions of Puerto Ricans in New York: A Theoretical Perspective and Critical Review.” Latin American Perspectives 3 (Summer 1976): 117–152.
A very nice early perspective on the emerging “Nuyorican” voice, written contemporaneously with the establishment of the cafe. Early scholarship written by now well-established scholars of the New York Puerto Rican experience.
Flores, Juan. “‘Qué assimilated, brother, yo soy asimilao’: The Structuring of Puerto Rican Identity in the U.S.” In Divided Borders: Essays on Puerto Rican Identity. By Juan Flores, 182–197. Houston, TX: Arte Publico, 1993.
An essential essay on Nuyorican poetry and identity. The title is taken from a line of poetry by Tato Laviera. Highlights the local realities that form the Nuyorican identity, such as the adaptation of African American culture.
Márquez, Robert, ed. and trans. Puerto Rican Poetry: An Anthology from Aboriginal to Contemporary Times. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007.
This innovative English-language volume of Puerto Rican poetry has an extended section on Puerto Rican poetry in diaspora, with selections of the major Nuyorican Poets Cafe founders, as well as writers not related to that scene. The book also has useful essays and a historical chronology that situates Puerto Ricans writers in English in relation to cultural and colonial questions on the island.
Morton, Carlos. “The Nuyoricans.” Latin American Theater Review 10 (Fall 1976): 80–89.
An early review of the Nuyorican theatrical works, especially Piñero.
Stavans, Ilan, Edna Acosta-Belén, Harold Augenbraum, Maria Herrera-Sobek, Rolando Hinojosa, and Gustavo Pérez Firmat. The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. New York: Norton, 2011.
This essential anthology of literature by Latinos from European colonization through the 21st century includes a section on Nuyorican writers. An easy-to-access source for canonical writing from the Nuyorican movement, including poetry and a selection of the play Short Eyes, by Miguel Piñero.
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