Looking for Maelo in New York

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Ismael Rivera, the Sonero Mayor, lived in New York City for a decade. At first glance, however, Ismael left little to no record of his life in the city. There are neither streets nor buildings with his name, nor statues that commemorate his presence anywhere in the city. New York archives and libraries contain no real record of his life and work.[1] Only by chance, did I find an article about him in a newspaper clip from the Dominican newspaper La Nación in Mercedes González Papers at the Dominican Studies Institute at the College University of New York (CUNY). In the summer of 2012, I was teaching a student about research methods and she was researching the exile resistance to Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. The article about Ismael only survived because it just happen to be next to another article about a Dominican radio character, Rodriguito. The article referred to Ismael’s tour in the Dominican Republic and has nothing to do with New York.[2] If we were to write Ismael’s history in New York from these sources, we might be forced to conclude that Ismael either did not live in New York or he was insignificant to Latinos or life in general in New York. This of course is far from the true. How is it possible that someone as famous as Ismael Rivera for the Puerto Rican and Latino community in New York could disappear from the official institutions that preserve the knowledge of history? Where are people like Ismael situated in the production of knowledge or the creation of the city?

In this essay, I try to respond to these questions by investigating the margins of knowledge production. I argue that Ismael Rivera’s life and music were a product of, existed in, and traveled through borders—not necessarily territorial borders but socio-historical and ideological ones. I am informed by the notion of border gnosis developed by Walter D. Mignolo, who defines it as “the subaltern reason striving to bring to the foreground the force and creativity of knowledges subalternized during a long process of colonization of the planet, which was at the same time the process in which modernity and the modern Reason were constructed.”[3] Although Mignolo refers mostly to the knowledges produced by organic intellectuals in the borders of the colonial/modern production of knowledge, I irreverently apply his concept to musicians and popular culture that produce alternative imaginaries to being and being understood in the colonial/modern world. In this particular case, Ismael Rivera’s persona, music, and performances in New York offers an opportunity to study the most important, and therefore more invisible, border of the colonial/modern world system of the 20th century, the Puerto Rican Diaspora in the largest metropolis, the matrix of US imperial/capitalistic world. Ismael Rivera’s erasure in New York crystallized how the Puerto Rican Diaspora, colonized people in the “bowels of the empire” (“en las extrañas del monstruo”), put forth an alternative imaginary that contested the logics of the empire.

El Barrio:
As I document in my book The People’s Poet: Life and Myth of Ismael Rivera, an Afro-Caribbean Icon, Ismael first visited New York City in 1948, when like thousands of Puerto Ricans, traveled to the city in search of work, fortune, and a better quality of life. Ismael found none. Facing the brutality of poverty, racism, and violence, Ismael decided to return to the island.[4]  His second visit to New York is a much happier story. Ismael returned as the main singer of the most popular Latin band of the century, Cortijo y su Combo. 

From the early twentieth century, New York City was the land of opportunity for Puerto Rican musicians. During the Harlem Renaissance, Puerto Ricans joined the finest African American jazz bands in New York.[5] And from the 1920s on, Puerto Rican musicians were also active in producing music for a Latin American audience. Rafael Hernández, Pedro Flores, Tito Rodríguez, Pedro “Davilita” Ortiz, and Daniel Santos were better known in trío and bolero music, while Monserrate “Mon” Rivera and Manuel “Canario” Jiménez were famous for popularizing the plena.[6] These singers formed part of the entertainment world of New York, the radio, and the recording industry.

Ismael return to New York to take advantages of the musical opportunities that the city had to offer. In 1954, Ismael with Rafael Cortijo recorded with the Seeco label their first album, Cortijo y su Conjunto Invites You to Dance.[7]  The title, switching codes between Spanish and English, is a clear indication of what is to come, the wholeheartedly embrace of the Puerto Rican Diaspora in New York. And thus began a very fruitful recording production between New York and Puerto Rico. Immediately, they became a sensation in the Latin community. As I state in The People's Poet, “In New York, Ismael and Cortijo’s Combo swept the Latino community.” They “performed at popular clubs such as the Palladium, the Teatro Puerto Rico, the Bronx Casino, and the Imperial Palace.”[8]

In 1959, Ismael with Cortijo paid tribute to the Puerto Rican community in New York by recording with Gema, Cortijo en New York. The album cover places the Combo in the heart of the Spanish barrio, indicating that the Barrio is also the Combo’s home. This simple gesture is pregnant with meaning in the Puerto Rican community. 

The new Commonwealth of Puerto Rico could only vociferate its success of economic development with the safety valve of thousands and thousands of unemployed workers migrating to the United States.[9] While the Commonwealth did not cause the migration, it did not take a neutral stand. Rather, it encouraged migration. In 1947, the Commonwealth established the Migration Office in New York that hope to be the cultural and political bridge between Puerto Rico and New York.[10] Migration was seen as a temporary remedy to the island economic pressures. Teodoro Moscoso, the architect of the Commonwealth, envisioned that by the second generation these people will no longer be Puerto Rican but fully assimilated Americans.[11] In this sense, there is an official rejection to the Puerto Rican Diaspora.

Cortijo en New York irresolutely refuted the official sentiment claiming El Barrio as an extension of Puerto Rico. The cover is New York and the music is the Combo’s fantastic fusion of different rhythms and styles that made them so famous. Something as innocuous as an album cover thus gave a sense of purpose and national roots to the Puerto Rican Diaspora. As Edna Acosta-Belén points out: “For the community, music has been and continues to be more than a form of entertainment. The creativity, visibility, and prominence of Puerto Rican performers are important symbols for a community confronted with a constant barrage of negative images in the press, movies, and other media.”[12]

No wonder that the Puerto Rican Diaspora in New York incorporated popular music in its literary tradition way before writers did so in the island. In the poetry of Víctor Hernández Cruz, for example, music of the 1960s contextualizes his poetry in Snaps. Music serves this writer as a flag, as a way to mark a Puerto Rican territory or identity. In his poem “Cities,” Hernández Cruz remarks: “stereo music / pucho & the latin / soul brothers / disturb / anglo-saxon / middle-class / loving / americans.” Music marks ethnic and class differences. In Hernández Cruz’s opinion, popular musicians were the first poets of El Barrio.[13]

Hernández Cruz’s Snaps documents the musical landscape of El Barrio during the boogaloo craze, the pre-salsa years. He pays homage to Joe Bataan, Ray Barreto, Edie Palmieri.[14] At first, it is remarkable that Ismael Rivera is absent in this collection. But at a second look, it makes perfect sense. The music of the book coincides with Ismael’s “hiatus” from music production. 

While Ismael was absent from New York, New York was not absent from Ismael’s mind. In 1963, Ismael was sent to the Narcotic Farm in Lexington, Kentucky. A Federal Prison that had one of the two nationwide rehabilitation programs for drug addicts. As a rehabilitating program, the Farm received many musicians from New York who were arrested for drug abuse, including famous jazz musicians. Elvin Jones, Red Rodney and Chet Baker among others passed time in the institution. The Farm encouraged inmates to play music and offered instruments, space and audiences for the musicians. The Farm became an unintended music workshop. According to the lore of New York’s and Chicago’s streets, young musicians who wanted to learn from the masters were checking themselves in the Farm.[15] Ismael and other Latin musicians played with African American jazz musicians at the farm, recreating a New York music scene away from the city.

Sax Player and Tumbadora Player in an open air concert in the Farm, Lexington Kentucky,                                                                        Reproduced with permission of the Kentucky Historical Society

Ismael also remained current with the musical trends of the time. Relatives and friends sent him albums to prison.  In a letter to his sister from 1966, Ismael commented, “Well, here we are listening to the latest [hits]—(I received the recordings two days ago—Friday)—now were are listening to Joe Cuba (Estamos Haciendo Algo Bien! We Must Be Doing Something Right!).” Ismael also made reference to the latest of Celia Cruz with Tito Puente, commenting that the song “La Rueda” reminded him of La Lupe.[16] In addition, Ismael was in contact with Nuyorican musicians. Toward the end of his prison time, Tito Puente was advising Ismael about recording with Tico Records. So in effect, Ismael was preparing for the Latin boom that became salsa in New York.

The Salsa Boom:
From 1968 to 1978, Ismael kept residency in New York City. Ismael felt a special connection to Puerto Ricans in New York; he felt better valued as an artist in this city than in his native island. “Here [in New York],” emphasized Ismael, “I always found support and I was admired by my talent.”[17] The quote is from an interview that Ismael conceded to the Puerto Rican entertainment magazine Teve Guía in 1974 with the title “Ismael Rivera says that it was in New York where people began to recognize his [artistic] value” (“Ismael Rivera asegura que en Nueva York es donde empezaron a conocer su valor”). 

Ismael was living a dream. The salsa world had a special place for Ismael. Salsa glorified life at the margins of society, and salseros tried to construct a public image as outlaws. But Ismael’s image as a tough guy was authentic. He left prison in 1966 and was as tough as before. His time in prison and his music legacy of the 1950s productions placed Ismael’s music and persona at the crossroads of history and music. Ismael was able to connect to different generations, from Puerto Ricans who migrated to New York as adults to their children already born in New York and who called themselves Nuyoricans. Crystallizing this sentiment, Latin New York in 1977 proclaimed, “Ismael’s music unites Latinos, crosses the generation gap and appeals to males and females alike.”[18] Clearly, Moscoso’s plan to assimilate Puerto Ricans had failed.

In 1968, Ismael moved to New York City to launch a new chapter of his career. Javier Vázquez, a musical producer, was instrumental in organizing a new group with Ismael as its epicenter, Ismael Rivera y sus Cachimbos. The Puerto Rican Diaspora warmly received the group. As I state in The People's Poet: “The image and sound of the new band synchronized well with Latin musical tastes, and Ismael and his Cachimbos were booked in the most popular Latin clubs in New York such as the St. George Hotel, Casa Bristol, Three and One Club, Casa Borinquen in Brooklyn, Manhattan Center, Bronx Music Palace, Hotel Riverside Plaza, and Club Caborojeño. Their performances received enthusiastic reviews.”[19] His popularity only grew from here. He shared the stage with the biggest musicians of the salsa world, Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, La Lupe, Santos Colón, Machito, and Joe Cuba among others. He sang in the most important musical venues in New York: the Cheetah, Madison Square Garden, and the Carnegie Hall. He was part of Puerto Rican and New York television (channel 41). He had a productive discography production and many of his songs were top hits for weeks in the Billboard magazine list. In sum, Ismael Rivera was a staple of the musical capital of the Puerto Rican Diaspora in New York during this decade, which was also documented in literature.

In 1979, Arte Público published its first book, La Carreta Made a U-Turn by Tato Laviera, which immediately had a great impact in part because the “book’s clear enunciation of a U.S. Hispanic esthetic, its unashamed proclamation of a bilingual-bicultural, working-class, Afro-European-Amerindian-New World literature.”[20] Unlike Snaps, La Carreta Made a U-Turn portrays Ismael Rivera as a constant and obligatory reference. In the poem, “Tumbao,” Ismael appears in the third stanza: “tumba que la bamba baja / que pacheco se inspira / que ismael la canta / ¡oh! y el baquiné.”[21] Laviera also references Ismael in his poem “santa bárbara,” where the poet describes a spiritual possession where he: “bailé como guarionex / recite como juan borias / canté como Ismael.”[22] Here, Ismael is just a quick reference to the musical world; he appears at the epitome of good singing. Laviera expands in his poem “the salsa of bethesda fountain”:

the internal dance of salsa
is of course plena
and permit me to say these words
in afro-spanish:
la bomba y la plena puro són
de Puerto Rico que ismael es el
rey y es el juez
meaning the same as marvin gaye
singing spiritual social songs
to black awareness.[23]

Laviera does not need to name the songs of black awareness because everyone knows them: “El Nazareno” and “Las Caras Lindas,” released in 1974 album Traigo de Todo. In them, Ismael expresses a strong Pan-African sentiment and explores the theme “black is beautiful.” In the poem, Laviera brings the songs’ sentiment and reaches out to African Americans with the comparison to Marvin Gaye. The collection seems to progressively expose Ismael, first, as a quick reference, then as an exemplary voice, and finally conversing with “discussions” about music and black awareness. He finishes with a full piece dedicated to the singer. 

el sonero mayor” is the second to last poem of the collection. It intermixes stanzas with the chorus or phrases from different songs. In the poem, Ismael’s music has a social leveling effect, where hotels are equals to jails or the slums. In fact, his music finds inspiration in poor neighborhoods, prisons, and personal experience. Ismael had been in prison, had walked and lived in the slums, had used cocaine, had partied hard in both Puerto Rico and the Bronx.  Therefore, Ismael can become one with the downtrodden, and can talk or sing from the position of the lowest in society. His songs have different meanings to his audience: “a veces oíamos / sus canciones pero no lo que / él decía. solamente mi hermano Pablo y todos los compañeros / de la soledad y la ironía.”[24] The downtrodden could understand his message of solidarity among blacks, acknowledging and celebrating living at the edge: “Él me dio, y le da / a muchos condenados en la tierra/ su único momento / de placer y de alegría.”[25] To the wretched of the earth, Ismael’s music offers moments of pleasure and joy by recognizing the humanity of the poor, the black, the imprisoned, and elevating it to the sublime. A form of pleasure is the last trace of humanity left to the condemned. As María Milagros López remarks for working-class Puerto Ricans: “The sociosemantics of everyday life in Puerto Rico speak of forms of cultural resistance to suffering that are both fatalistic and celebratory of life itself. The music, the humor, the festive spirit attest to a sense of community, however, ephemeral that serves as a backdrop against which inevitable everyday fatalities are also understood.”[26] And Ismael is for many the only pleasure. Laviera states: “los lumpen pobres de la tierra / veían a ismael como una luz / poderosa en nuestras vidas.”[27]  In this sense, Ismael is the essence of black solidarity and the salt of the earth. 

The voice of the poet, Ismael’s persona and songs, and the lumpen of the world are unified in this poem to amplify a border perspective outside the capitalist world system, outside ethnic politics in the United States, or outside racist dynamics inside the island. The poem expresses “an internationalist class perspective,”[28] that recognizes wisdom in the poor. Ismael exudes the knowledge of a theoretician, while Laviera, the poet, embodies the knowledge of a philosopher. Both are experts in the knowledge that comes from experiencing poverty, racism, and imprisonment. Their suffering tied them to the lumpen of the world and transform them into wise men. But these wise men are not alienated from the lumpen—there is no division between observer and observed, subject and object. On the contrary, knowledge is only possible through the total unification of the theoretician/ philosopher/lumpen. Ismael as a singer is also a poet and a philosopher, but a special type, because he is the people’s poet.

Conclusion:
Finding Ismael Rivera in New York represents a relevant intellectual exercise because if someone as famous as him could so easily slip through institutions of knowledge, we can certainly suspect that the borders are yet to be defined. Because of our colonial condition, more and more Puerto Ricans find themselves constantly “on the move.”[29] Documenting those physical moves is always challenging, but understanding the formation of socio-historical and ideological borders is imperative to document the production of knowledge among Puerto Ricans, which increasingly happens in the borders. 

In this case, the knowledge reproduced through Ismael’s music and what he inspired in others bespeaks of a working-class consciousness that claimed a Pan-African sentiment that contested a variety of official discourses in diverse space-time junctions. First, the imaginary here challenged the official discourse of the island’s dominant ideology of the “Great Puerto Rican Family” that emphasized the myth of a harmonious mestizaje. The Great Puerto Rican Family exiled its Afro-Puerto Rican working class to make economic development viable. The imaginary of Ismael’s music placed El Barrio at the heart of the island. Second, the imaginary also challenged ethnic policies in the United States. It inspired the creation of an aesthetic that is intrinsically local and international: a Nuyorican or a Rican proclamation that condemns the US colonial system for marginalizing Puerto Ricans both in the island and in the states. It finds a language that destabilizes the standards, spaces and times of knowledge production.


Note from the author: I’d like to thank Antonia Carcelén-Estrada for reading critically a first draft of this essay and providing valuable suggestions. Gracias Toña por tu generosidad con el saber. Also, Xavier Totti suggested the theme and focus of this essay. ¡Gracias mil!


[1] There are some books about Ismael or books that mention him. However, no primary sources about him are available. The Archives of the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños at Hunter College has the film Salsa. Opus 3 (1991). I could not find anything at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
[2] “Grupo Cortijo y su Combo sale de la Voz Dominicana a una gira por el exterior,” La nación, August 4, 1961 an excerpt reprinted in Hoy. Also quoted in Rosa Elena Carrasquillo, The People’s Poet: Life and Myth of Ismael Rivera, an Afro-Caribbean Icon. Florida: Caribbean Studies Press, 2014, 75-76.
[3] Walter D. Mignolo, Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000, 13.
[4] Carrasquillo, The People’s Poet, 29-30.
[5] Basilio Serrano, “Puerto Rican Musicians of the Harlem Renaissance,” Centro Journal, XIX: 2 (Fall 2007): 95-119.
[6] See Ruth Glasser, My Music is My Flag: Puerto Rican Musicians and their New York Communities, 1917-1940.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
[7] Carrasquillo, The People’s Poet, 56.
[8] Carrasquillo, The People’s Poet, 74.
[9] See Jorge Duany, The Puerto Rican Nation on the Move: Identities on the Island and in the United States.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002, 166-172.
[10] César J. Ayala and Rafael Bernabe, Puerto Rico in the American Century: A History since 1898. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Pres, 2007, 194-195.
[11] Teodoro Moscoso in Manos a la Obra: The Story of Operation Bootstrap.  Hunter College, Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, 1986.
[12] Edna Acosta-Belén, “Haciendo Patria Desde la Metrópoli: The Cultural Expressions of the Puerto Rican Diaspora,” Centro Journal, XXI: 2 (Fall 2009): 49-83, 67. There is academic consensus about the relevance of music for Puerto Ricans’ cultural and political expression. See for example Felix Cortés, Ángel Falcón, and Juan Flores, “The Cultural Expression of Puerto Ricans in New York: A Theoretical Perspective and Critical Review,” Latin American Perspectives, 3: 3 (Summer 1976): 117-152; Peter Manuel, “Puerto Rican Music and Cultural Identity: Creative Appropriation of Cuban Sources from Danza to Salsa,” Ethnomusicology, 38: 2 (Spring-Summer 1994): 249-280; Jorge Duany, “Popular Music in Puerto Rico: Toward an Anthropology of ‘Salsa,” Latin American Music Review, 5: 2 (Autumn-Winter 1984): 186-216; and Frances R. Aparicio and Wilson A. Valentín-Escobar, “Memoralizing La Lupe and Lavoe: Singing Vulgarity, Transnationalism, and Gender” Centro Journal, XVI: 2 (Fall 2004): 78-101.
[13] Francisco Cabanillas, “Entre la poesía y la música: Victor Hernández Cruz y el mapa musical nuyorican,” Centro Journal, XVI: 2 (Fall 2004): 15-33, 17.
[14] See Cabanillas, “Entre la poesía y la música; and Francisco Cabanillas, “The Musical Poet, A Session with Victor Hernández Cruz,” Centro Journal, XVI: 2 (Fall 2004):35-41.
[15] Nancy D Campbell, J.P. Olsen, and Luke Walden, The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America’s First Prison for Drug Addicts.  New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2008, 152.  Also quoted in Carrasquillo, The People’s Poet, 108.
[16] Ismael Rivera in Carrasquillo, The People’s Poet, 107.
[17] Ismael Rivera, quoted in Carrasquillo, The People’s Poet, 127.  The quote is originally in Carmen Mirabal, “Ismael Rivera asegura que en Nueva York es donde empezaron a conocer su valor,” Teve Guía, September 21-27, 1974, 22-24, 23.
[18] “Ismael Rivera, A 20th-Century Jibaro,” Latin New York, 47 (April 1977), 28-31, 31.  Also quoted in Carrasquillo, The People’s Poet, 121.
[19] Carrasquillo, The People’s Poet, 131.
[20] Nicolás Kanellos, “Foreword to the 1992 Edition,” in Tato Laviera, La Carreta Made a U-Turn, Houston: Arte Público Press, 1992, 5.
[21] Laviera, La Carreta Made a U-Turn, 63.
[22] Laviera, La Carreta Made a U-Turn, 77.
[23] Laviera, La Carreta Made a U-Turn, 67.
[24] Laviera, La Carreta Made a U-Turn, 84.
[25] Laviera, La Carreta Made a U-Turn, 83-84.
[26] María Milagros López, “Postwork Society and Postmodern Subjectivities,” in John Beverly, José Oviedo, and Michael Aronna (eds.), The Postmodern Debate in Latin America.  Durham: Duke Univeristy Press, 1995, 165-191, 176.
[27] Laviera, La Carreta Made a U-Turn, 85.
[28] Juan Flores, John Attinasi, and Pedro Pedraza Jr., “’La Carreta Made a U-Turn’: Puerto Rican Language and Culture in the United States,” Daedalus, 110: 2 (Spring 1981): 193-217, 210.
[29] In reference to Duany, The Puerto Rican Nation on the Move.
[30] Laviera, La Carreta Made a U-Turn, 83-85.

© Rosa Elena Carrasquillo. Published by permission in Centro Voices on 26 June 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.