Famed Nuyorican Poet’s Collection In Centro Archives

By Clarisel Gonzalez

Centro is pleased to be the home of the papers of literary icon and community champion Tato Laviera, who died November 1. The Laviera Collection will join with those of other key Puerto Rican literary figures including Clemente Soto Vélez, Pedro Pietri, Ed Vega Yunque and Pura Belpré, to enrich the holdings of the famed Centro Archives.

Dr. Alberto Hernández, associate director of Centro’s Library and Archives, noted that the Laviera Collection is “an invaluable resource that documents the personal and artistic career of one of the Puerto Rican community’s most popular published writers as well as one of the founders of the Nuyorican poetry movement.

“The papers were recently donated, with the help of his sister, Ruth Laviera Sánchez, and we are in the process of organizing and making them available to researchers, students and the public in general,” Hernández said.

“Similar to Clemente Soto Vélez, one of our senior Nuyorican poets, Laviera’s writings, drafts and notes are not easy to catalog because of his vaivén (back and forth) between poetry and stage works, not to mention his use of Spanish, English or Spanglish,” Hernández noted.

Laviera’s life and his involvement with the community on social and economic issues is also reflected in the collection, such as his work with Sugar Slams, events, in which poets talked about the effects of diabetes in the Hispanic community. Laviera became legally blind as a result of a diabetic condition and died as a result of complications from the disease, but his blindness did not limit him. Instead, it became another tool for his writing and for his work with the community.

His role as a key figure among Nuyorican poets, Hernández said, is documented by more than 100 poems, 16 plays and 24 yellow-pad notes with his scribbles. “Laviera’s creative process is reflected in numerous visual organizers, charts, doodles and drawings,” Hernández said.

The collection also reflects Laviera’s involvement with the many organizations in which he played an active role, such as Alianza Dominicana, United Bronx Parents, University of the Streets, Puerto Rican Association for Community Affairs and the Hoops for Haiti Campaign, Hernández said. His longtime friend, Elizabeth Colón, noted that among other groups, he helped create the New Jíbaro Democrats and was a founding member of Loisaida Inc. “He was very much a political advisor, an analyst, a great negotiator, a communicator, a universal person,” she said.

He was also a prominent educator. Laviera started as a teen teaching youngsters in an after school program as part of New Beginnings. He served as director of University of the Streets and in1985 he toured more than 20 colleges and community organizations in the United States. Hernández said Laviera’s collection includes teaching materials such as workshop presentations, student assignments and his Cosecha Voices writing workshops at the University of Texas–Pan American.

Highlights of the collection include photos and personal treasures such as letters from his students. It also contains unpublished materials, Laviera was currently working on a poetry book entitled Continental and on two novels, Mayanito and El Barrio: Spanish Harlem ” when he was stricken.

Laviera, a native of Santurce, Puerto Rico, was nine years old when his family moved to New York City. He did not know English when he first arrived on the Lower East Side, but grew to love the language as much as he loved Spanish and the combination of the two, Spanglish. His lifetime was a great mix of his creativity as a poet and performer and his commitment to the empowerment of his people.

Colón said, “He taught me about communication, how important words are and how you can touch people,” she said. “He communicated with people so well. He communicated with feeling, emotion and his body.”

In memory of Laviera, and in appreciation of the Laviera Collection donation to the Archives, Centro is planning events and educational productions celebrating Laviera’s life and works. Plans include producing a documentary with interviews and footage of his family, friends and colleagues, a traveling exhibit, a book featuring essays on his work, a web page and digital images from Laviera’s own archival collection.