On Belonging to the Nuyorican Literary Movement

rro0035's picture

If I was asked whether as a poet I belong to the Nuyorican literary movement or not, my answer to that question is: yes and no. Most of the persons that make up that movement were born and/or raised in New York City. I was born in Puerto Rico but migrated to New York during the early 1970’s; therefore I have been living here longer than in Puerto Rico and, in that respect, I belong to the movement. However, I grew up in Puerto Rico as a child and the early influence of my family and town culture in Puerto Rico have determined my literary language, which is mainly Spanish. It has also determined some of my concerns or literary themes. Themes such as the metaphoric nature of reality, dreams and the oneiric world, as well as the permeability of the lines between life and death—those themes/elements I believe come from the early upbringing with my family in a small town of Puerto Rico, far from the metropolitan areas. On the other hand, themes such as the City, the emigration to New York, and the creative capacity of our people—those themes I owe to the life in New York City and the dynamics of the community here. The latter themes can be found in my poetry, particularly in some of the poems written in English.

The writers of the Nuyorican Literary Movement write mostly in English, and that language is important for the writers because it is, among other things, how “home” is created in the mainland and the rebellious use of English in that context has political implications. I believe that the issue of language has other complexities to it. I write in both Spanish and English, although writing in Spanish is primary. I have asked myself: Why I write in English? In 2012 I edited an anthology of 46 Puerto Rican women writers in New York, Breaking Ground/ Abriendo caminos, and found that there are many variations regarding the spoken and written language in literary expression among the women writers that were active in New York since the 1980’s: they are producing literature in English, combining English and Spanish in a text, writing in Spanglish, and writing in Spanish. Most recently, I was invited to be part of a virtual publication (also for Centro) about writing in Spanish in New York City. I wrote an essay explaining the influence of my childhood and adolescence in Puerto Rico and stated that I write mostly in Spanish because it is one of the modalities of our diasporic culture; a cultural possibility that reflects our richness. I firmly believe that writing in Spanish in the United States should also be upheld (because that is part of who are, too).

Now, I must explain why I write in English. I think that with me, it has to do with my audience and the listener, particularly if my poem is a dialogue with an imagined or real person who was born and/or raised in New York and for whom English is his/her primary language. It is sometimes difficult to describe “primary language” because it is not necessarily the person’s “emotional/ family based” language, but the language acquired through instruction: the language that she/he was taught in school and which organizes the intellect in a formal manner. Whichever the reason, I tend to write in English if I feel that the listener and potential responder’s language is English, or if my work reflects an experience in their company. Also, when I write semi-historical poems or epic-like poems about the great migration from Puerto Rico to New York, I sometimes write them in English, while keeping myself open to words in Spanish that may also emerge in that particular poetic expression.

As stated before, I have lived in New York City for forty years in several places, most of them densely populated by the Puerto Rican community: the South Bronx, Williamsburg in Brooklyn, and now in East Harlem’s El Barrio; all places where the Nuyorican literary movement was born. I worked in the education of Puerto Ricans, other Latinos and African Americans in Boricua College, and participated in many efforts to build our community despite marginalization and the lack of access to services and entitlements. Yet, my literary production does not focus explicitly on the social and political circumstances nor on the oppressive conditions suffered by my community, which historically have been important themes in the Nuyorican Literary Movement. I believe that my poetry and fiction reflect the internal pain caused by inhuman conditions suffered by my people—and all people-- and the intense longing and nostalgia caused by the separation from my “geographical” homeland and the family that was lost in the emigration process. These feelings and images may not be explicitly stated; they may have to be inferred from the literary text, like “through a glass darkly”, or like a critic stated, “through the crack in the door.” It may suggest the overwhelming feelings of the diasporic speaker, the transformations that she goes through as she tries to reorganize her cognitive maps, and the philosophical impact of the “human tragedy”, to put it in a universal context.

I firmly believe that the Nuyorican Literary Movement is part of the History of Puerto Rican Literature. It is also part of the History of American Literature, particularly that of the United States. I believe that there is a literature written by Puerto Ricans in the USA and that the Nuyorican literary movement is one of its modalities; possibly the most important one up to date. Sometimes I feel that I don’t belong in a Puerto Rico-based literary tradition nor in the Nuyorican Literary Movement, if considered separately. Sometimes the above stated classifications are used to exclude people rather than to explain a wealth of cultural expressions. Sometimes I am treated as marginal in all classifications. I have felt both honored and rejected by both Nuyorican and Puerto Rico-based authors/historians. It is surely a strange place to be at, a place of instability, confusion and sadness; but also a place with an intense sense of freedom and uniqueness, which is used to create.

It is precisely the kind of nostalgia (not despair) described above—an existential status that can be both painful and creative—a characteristic that I have in common with Nuyorican literature. What I most admire about this literary tradition is the capacity to evoke the imagined or “real” ideal (life in the “island paradise” and/ or love for the country and family in Puerto Rico) and how that source of strength is used. The strength that comes from those memories or images is used—along with the influence of other USA “liberating and radicalizing conditions,” such as the Civil Rights Movement, the “revolutionary praxis of the sixties” and the African American movement—to confront, denounce or inspire, but also, in some authors (my favorites), to play and often display a sense of humor that emphasizes the absurdist yet endearing character of our existence. A Nuyorican friend told me once, “When something fortunate happens, we dance. If we have a death or a tragedy, we dance. If we have money, we dance, and when we are “broke” we dance, too.” Nuyorican Literature demonstrates the resilience of a people that continues to create —“dance”— in the midst of all changes and challenges. That is what I call “life force”.


© Myrna Nieves. Published by permission in Centro Voices on 24 April 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.