Karen Jaime

Karen Jaime recorded audio narration on June 21, 2022, at the Hemispheric Institute office in New York City.

Stage I. 

I remember first reading about the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in college in the late 1990s, first visiting the space, my first time performing there, and the first time that I met Miguel Algarín. Miguel’s use of prose and poetry to name, document, and celebrate the Nuyorican experience and its alignment with the sociocultural and political movements of the late 1960s and 1970s, moved me then and it continues to inspire me now. I had never met anyone like him before and I don’t know if I ever will again. I will never forget being interviewed for a film and realizing once I arrived that Miguel was also going to be participating that day. In fact, what the director was looking to shoot was a conversation between Miguel and me in Loisaida. So, we walked over to one of the many buildings on East 5th Street, sat on the steps outside of the apartments, and discussed the Cafe and its influence for a bit, before wrapping. After the director yelled “cut,” Miguel invited me to go and grab a bite at one of his favorite restaurants, Casa Adela on Avenue C. The moment we walked in he was greeted with the constant refrain of “el profe.” Miguel was home and I was so excited since I felt like he was letting me into his inner circle . . . the people there were family. Ever the mentor, Miguel asked me how much the director had paid me, and I told him that I didn’t ask for compensation. He then pulled a $1,000 check out of his pocket, and said, “Honey, never forget to ask for what you are worth.” Trust me, Miguel. I haven’t. 

Stage II. 

As host of the Friday Night Poetry Slam at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe from 2003-2005, I remember Miguel coming by on many a Friday night and sitting at the corner of the bar drinking his Rolling Rock. One night in particular, I recall asking him if he would consider performing as the spotlight poet. The spotlight poet is the featured artist, usually a well-known slammer, who performs a set before the Friday Night slam poetry competition begins. He agreed and told me that he had never been asked to feature. We set the date for his performance, March 5, 2004. As it happened, that was the week his dear friend and fellow Nuyorican founding poet, Pedro Pietri died. This seemed fitting to me, and Miguel’s performance that evening, beginning with the iconic Miguel “Lobo” Loperena chant, served as a welcome to his house for those in attendance and a very special homegoing for Pietri. 

Stage III.

In 2018, I was on Fellowship in NYC and reconnected with Lois Elaine Griffith. During our first catch-up, she asked me to join her efforts to document Nuyorican Poets Cafe history, and we began working on a digital archive focusing on the Cafe to be hosted by the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics at NYU. Part of this project included interviews with members of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe community. Unfortunately, many of the people initially involved with the Cafe were old with failing health, Algarín included. I was lucky to be able to catch up with him, share some stories, and hear about how he wanted us to start a writing group for other folks in the nursing home—they also had stories to tell. This was Miguel. Always dreaming, always committed to the word, and always thinking about the communities he found himself a part of . . .

Karen Jaime is Assistant Professor of Performing and Media Arts and Latina/o Studies at Cornell University. A Mellon/HIDVL Scholar in Residence at the Hemispheric Institute for Performance and Politics at New York University in 2022, Jaime was also awarded a Career Enhancement Junior Faculty Fellowship from the Institute for Citizens & Scholars (formerly the Woodrow Wilson) in 2018, a Rockefeller Foundation Research Fellowship, and was a Chancellor’s Post-Doctoral Research Associate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Jaime's monograph, The Queer Nuyorican: Racialized Sexualities and Aesthetics in Loisaida (NYU Press, 2021), winner of The Victor Villaseñor Best Latino Focused Nonfiction Book Award at the International Latino Book Awards in 2022, argues for a reexamination of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe as a historically queer space, both in terms of sexualities and performance practices. Her critical writing has been published in Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, e-Misférica, Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism, ASAP/J, TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly and Performance Matters. Jaime is also an accomplished spoken word/performance artist who served as the host/curator of the Friday Night Poetry Slam at the world-renowned Nuyorican Poets Cafe (2003-2005). As a published poet her writing is included in The Best of Panic! En vivo from the East Village, Flicker and Spark: A Queer Anthology of Spoken Word and Poetry, a special issue of Sinister Wisdom: A Multicultural Lesbian Literary and Art Journal, “Out Latina Lesbians,” and in the anthology Latinas: Struggles and Protest in 21st Century USA*.