A Nuyorican Poet for the Ages
I met Miguel Algarín the first time that I performed on stage at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in 1996. By that time, I already had a connection to other Nuyorican poets, especially to Pedro Pietri, whom I met at NYU when I was an undergraduate student in the early nineties. Through Pedro, I got to meet and read with Sandra Maria Esteves, Tato Laviera, Lois Elaine Griffith and many others.
Miguel Algarín was much more than the founder of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. He was a keystone figure of a literary movement that celebrates our freedom as Puerto Ricans in New York City. He and the Nuyorican poets were the definition of hipness. They created an aesthetic. A language. A whole vibe, coño! They put the word Nuyorican in the dictionary, meng!
In forging that movement, Algarín was not the most doting padrino, although he had his favorites. I was not one of them. Years into my career he said to me, one Three Kings Day afternoon, “Ya know, Mariposa, I realize that I haven’t done enough to help you in your career. I could’ve done more.”
At that point, without warning, he took off his Azabache earring from his left ear and handed it to me. “Toma,” he said as he pushed the earring into my hesitant palm. I looked down at the small plastic black fist, a bit worn at the edges, and said to him, “Well, it’s not too late!” throwing him a sharp look. “Get me a book deal.” There was an awkward silence. And then we both laughed. “Thanks,” I said. “De nada,” Miguel smiled.
I am grateful for the precious memories of celebrating Algarín and the iconic space that he created. We fully acknowledged him as a community at the Cafe’s 35th Anniversary Celebration at Town Hall that was put together by the Executive Director of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe Carmen Mercedes Pietri and her husband poet Samuel Diaz. It was a big bash with the likes of Ray Barreto, Rosie Perez, Ntozake Shange, Quincy Troupe, Caridad de la Luz, Willie Perdomo, Flaco Navaja, Stephanie Agosto, Frank Perez and Papoleto Melendez in attendance. I also performed at a Tribute for Miguel at Hostos Community College in the Bronx organized by Charles Rice-González. I was unable to attend another tribute when he was admitted to a nursing facility, a few years later. It was not until Miguel passed away that I began incorporating his work into my classroom teaching. I wish it were not the case that we often take each other for granted. But it is not too late. It is never too late. Nuyorican Poetry Lives On. This is not a dead history.
Miguel Algarín, as an out gay Black Puerto Rican poet, was in the mix of the Nuyorican and Black Arts Movements that are intertwined and that his work embodies. The experience of sitting in the audience and listening to the poetry delivered often felt like church. It revived us. Many of the poets from the early days of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and Loisaida are gone but the poetry lives. Poetry is a living history.
If it weren’t for the Cafe, a lot of us would not have had a place to form ourselves. Where else could we have forged our existence as poets and artists? Miguel’s greatest gift was that he created a space where we could celebrate our lives. In this space: we gathered, read our work, scribbled out new poems in tattered notebooks and invited family and friends to check us out. We affirmed one another. This is liberating for people who face oppression. To stand on the stage of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in my mid-twenties was the most freeing experience I could have had at the time. It was a life-changing experience. For that I am truly grateful to Miguel Algarín.
Although we were not extremely close, I have many memories of him. And I have countless memories of the Cafe. There was always an air of celebration around Miguel but also a sense of loneliness. How could someone who created a cultural space that allowed so many of us to gather, carry loneliness? It may have been this duality that compelled him to bring folks together, to host gatherings in his own home and to get the space that became The Nuyorican. He understood the need for community.
To say he was the life of the party may sound cliché, but it is true. Miguel was like a Happy Buddha who sat on a stool by the bar, laughing and having a good ole time. He would yell at poets at the top of his lungs, sometimes spraying the room with his words. He loved showering attention on the poor poets who shyly hid behind their poems. “Get your head outta the book! Stop burying your head! Outta the book, carajo!” If the poet began relaying a long drawn-out story about what inspired the poem they were about to read, he’d join Steve Cannon, the founder of Gathering of the Tribes Gallery and Press, in yelling, “Read the goddamn poem!”
I cherish the memories of traveling with Miguel when we were promoting his book, Supervivencia. We had many conversations riding in the car to Hartford, CT and Allentown, PA. I especially loved his stories about Jorge Brandon and his memories of Puerto Rico. He would randomly quote Shakespeare and Neruda. I vividly recall Miguel sharing his marketing strategy for book sales, in between bochinche and outrageous laughter. Miguel was convinced that for a book to be successful, an author had to promote the book in at least 14 U.S. cities. He held strongly to this theory. I did not understand this at the time, but I tucked this information away. Now upon deeper reflection, I understand the wisdom of his attachment to this number. In numerology, the number 14 represents self-determination, personal freedom, and independence. When taken apart, 14 becomes 1 and 4, the sum of which is 5, a number that signifies fulfillment. The number 5 also represents the five senses as well the directions: north, south, east, west, and center.
Miguel was complex. He was a pensive professor with a wild side. The unheralded laughter, hootin’, and hollerin’, let us know that he was in the room and that he was listening to every single word. There is a video recording of me reciting Love Poem for Ntozake and Me, a tribute to Ntozake Shange, in 2009 at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, when El Puerto Rican Embassy presented her with The Pedro Pietri Hand Award. In the background we can hear someone yelling, “Tell it!” “GO ’HEAD!” It was Miguel. Although the affirmation was a wee bit out of control, it was the best compliment in the world. I knew that my words resonated with him and that he felt the same love for Ntozake that I was attempting to convey to her. This was a quintessential way of how Miguel would let us know that he loved a particular piece. At one point the camera pans and we can see his beautiful smiling face. I am so grateful the moment was recorded.
An unforgettable man, a Nuyorican poet for the ages, let us celebrate Miguel Algarín’s legacy by keeping alive the traditions of the Nuyorican/nuyorican aesthetic that we have created. I will miss him. I will always be inspired by what Algarín created, a safe space for people to gather. In my own way, I will do my best to create poetic spaces for our community. And I will celebrate Miguel Algarín by teaching his work, for as long as I have the privilege and blessing to teach. ¡Que viva Miguel Algarín!
María Teresa "Mariposa" Fernández is an Afro/Black Puerto Rican poet and writer, Letras Boricua Mellon Fellow, performance artist, visual artist, educator, activist, and community historian. Born and raised in the Bronx, Mariposa's poetry has been featured on HBO, BET, and PBS. Mariposa has performed throughout the United States and abroad. Author of Born Bronxeña: Poems on Identity, Love & Survival, her work has also been published in Lift Every Voice: 250 Years of African American Poetry, The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, The Afro Latin@ Reader: History & Culture in the United States, Def Poetry Jam's Bumrush the Page, Breaking Ground: Puerto Rican Women Writers in NYC 1980-2012 and Manteca: Anthology of AfroLatin@ Poets. Mariposa is a graduate of New York University where she received a BA in Gender & Sexuality Studies, and a Masters in Teaching and Learning/Bilingual Special Education. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Africana Studies Department and the Women Studies Program at Lehman College, and is also a faculty member of the Black Studies Program at CCNY, CUNY. For Mariposa, home base remains the Bronx, with frequent travel to Puerto Rico where she maintains strong ties. She serves as a delegate for The Point CDC, a member of the Bronx Wide Coalition.