Homenaje: Jesús Papoleto Meléndez

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Every Caribbean Latino neighborhood in New York—whether it be Puerto Rican, Dominican or Cuban—can boast that it has three specific things: a woman named María who may or may not have been good-looking back in the day depending on whom you talk to; a discount store or a bodega grocery where people can play their numbers and buy cerveza for themselves and some leche or jugo for the kids; and, a botánica. Sometimes you may be lucky to find that that woman named María runs all three out of one storefront.

El Barrio is such a neighborhood.

I walked the streets of East Harlem like I do the aisles of a botánica, looking for little treasures of this and that: candles, potions, magic words, spells, herbs, words to heal and words to guide. I was going to meet el santo, santero, Santa Madre, hijo de gran poeta, Jesús Papoleto Meléndez.

So, when I got to Papoleto’s house, ya llegué yo con el velón prendío-- I already had my candle lit.

Papoleto welcomed me. I had just barely entered when the flame of the candle began to dance. And dance. And dance. And I looked up and saw why. Papoleto had quietly escaped and returned with what looked like a swaddled baby bundle in the low light. He unwrapped the worn, leather-bound bundle and revealed not a baby-baby, but his baby—a big book of potions and spells and words to heal and words to guide and he began to read.

“Cascadance” is the word Papoleto uses to describe his dancing, marching, swirling, twirling mix of Spanglish rhythms and beats that salsa and mambo and plena and bombazo their way across the page and onto the floor and across the room and onto my lap and up my arm and out the window and down the fire escape as they escape onto the streets of El Barrio below beckoning for me to follow.

Papoleto is a poet. He has many books published, the first Latino play produced by  Joseph Papp’s Public Theater, fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts, and his latest collection, “Hey Yo/Yo Soy” was just staged at Pregones Theatre.

Today, though, I listen.  I listen as Papoleto reads and shares and talks and laughs and complains and reminisces and blames and belittles and praises and the whole history of Nuyorican poetry sits next to me that night—aquí mismo—because el gran santo santero Santa Madre hijo de gran poeta Papoleto blessed me. And still to this day, I swear, I swear, I swear I saw Pedro Pietri dancing with those rhythms, too, in those flames of that velón.

© Ricardo Muñiz. Published by permission in Centro Voices on 21 July 2015.

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.