Surrounded by boxes that held the Nuyorican Poets Cafe archive, the furniture of Lois Elaine Griffith’s apartment—located in the basement of her Brooklyn brownstone, a space where Miguel lived for several years—the salsa music playing in the background, and the memories that lingered in the air, Miguel arose out of the materials of the place. A body resurrected from the grave, a ghost out of the not-so distant past, like a figure emerging from water. Working with the Nuyorican Poets Cafe Founders Archive Project for the past year, Miguel was always present.
I was at Lois’ helping her curate writings, artwork, and memorias for this anthology. Most of the time, however, we were enjoying each other’s company—Lois gave history lessons through her remembrances; and we spent hours talking about art, music, literature, history, philosophy, the state of the world, the Cafe’s aesthetic, los santos, gossip . . .
Miguel was the focus of our talks. He and Lois were close. Parejas, as she always says—now, still, even when one of them is in death. When Lois speaks, she often evokes the past, the ancestors, and Miguel is a dominating spirit. We talked about Miguel’s personal life, his love interests, his academic pursuits, his professional and aesthetic preoccupations. We spoke to people close and dear to his life, who shared anecdotes and memories. Over time, I shaped a figure of the artist from these multiple assemblages. I knew his temperaments. I knew of his verve, the impetus for his aesthetic revolt. I knew the timbre of his voice, the gentle growl found in his poetic incantations. I even knew of some of his sexual exploits. Most importantly, I learned about a poetics that accounted for the weight of the colonial mind. A poetics that recorded the miraculous strength and resilience it takes to grow old and live a full life as a colonial subject in America.
I learned, through Lois, to think of Miguel’s poetry as elegies that memorialize the Puerto Rican, African American, and Afro-Caribbean diasporas in the Lower East Side. In this vein, we need to consider Miguel’s poems as literary monuments, memorias that undo the work of our national Monuments. Our national Monuments are the structures erected not only to commemorate a History instilled in us in this country to deflect our gazes from the colonial violence necessary for that History’s survival. Our national Monuments are symbols that give credence to a Language responsible for invalidating our humanity by further eliding the history, work, efforts, achievements, joy, pain, beauty, suffering, bodies, and language of the people and communities it attempts to hide—not often in its shadow, but in plain sight.
I think of the most prevalent Puerto Rican image in the American cultural imagination (outside of J.Lo’s ass or Ricky Martin’s hips), West Side Story—a film that is problematic not only because it distorts the lived realities of Puerto Ricans with its blatant racism and xenophobia, but also because it was shot on the demolition site of San Juan Hill, one of New York City’s largest African American, Afro-Caribbean, and Puerto Rican pre-WWI communities, razed to make room for Lincoln Center. I think of West Side Story and Lincoln Center as Monuments (if cinema can be considered as such) that attempt to erase any trace of the colonial violence necessary in their constructions. Both the film and Lincoln Center have been institutionalized, held as cultural nexuses where Americans are disciplined to legitimize colonial violence through bodies that literally sing and dance among ruins, upon graves.
Miguel saw this. His work, in part, gave testimony to it. And I, through Miguel, finally saw it too. Not as information, but for what it was: a vision. A sign of how to read what our collective objects, histories, bodies, feelings, words, memorias hold: the full humanity of our ancestors—people who loved, experienced joy as well as pain, and who resisted in myriad, complicated ways to make our futures possible. A reminder as well as a clarion that transposes space and time, disturbs the specter of History, to call us to action.
In that vein, the following memorias ought to be considered part of the collective memories of Loisaida. And like all collective memories, they offer a discursive history of a person among their people and their place. In one view, a poet that wrote about the importance of love and its hard work. In another, love for a man whom many would describe as not being easy. Nevertheless, the works found herein remind us of the definition of anthologiai, the root word for anthology, as a collection or gathering of flowers. A gathering, in the classical sense, of words, poems, memories that bear witness, record, and honor one of Loisaida’s greatest artists. A garland offered as tribute to a poet whose oeuvre has become the site where our collective memories have been inscribed on the American landscape in the telling of our story: the story of (the) America(s).
As the work of our Nuyorican artists reveal, Yoruba religious practices are central to their aesthetics. Death in Yoruba cosmology does not mean Dead. Those who pass, do exactly that: pass on to the other side of the veil where they remain with us, forever. In that way we are fortunate because our memorias of Miguel, like the profound language found in his work, will always remain with us.
Now, all that is left for us to do is the work: of creating; of building community; of remembering.
Let us pour libations.
Joseph Cáceres is a writer from the South Bronx. His work has been published in Slice, Cosmonauts Avenue, CURA, and Emerge: 2019 Lambda Fellows Anthology. An alumnus of the Yale Writers’ Workshop, Joseph is also the recipient of the Bronx Council of the Arts’ Bronx Recognizes Its Own (BRIO) Grant for Fiction and the LAMBDA Literary Writers Residency for Emerging LGBTQ Voices. An English PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center, where he studies queer American artists of African and Caribbean descent, Joseph has received two Lost & Found: CUNY Poetics Document Initiative Archival Research Grants for his work with the Nuyorican Poets Cafe Founders Archive Project. Joseph is currently working on several projects revolving around the unpublished works of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe’s queer founders.