Miguel and I
I met Miguel back in 1993, when I was consulting as a special events coordinator for the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families in NYC. I knew about Miguel, of course, as a poet, a scholar, and one of the founders of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, and had seen him at many events and at the Cafe. That year George Wolf, then director of the Public Theater, engaged in an effort to bring Latinos back to The Public, and the agency I was working for was interested in having a fundraising event at the theater. I met with Irene Cabrera to discuss the idea and she suggested that I speak to Miguel Algarín. I called Miguel and right away we hit it off, learning about each other, working together, becoming friends. Miguel became the co-producer, and together we created an event that included a reception in the lobby of the theater with a food tasting (which was possible thanks to the one and only Zarela Martinez), and artistic performances by various artists, youth, and children groups. Among the luminaries that performed that evening were Ray Barretto, who delighted our guest with his music and his warmth; Gregory Hines, who tap danced with a group of children named No Small Feet; and Miriam Colón in a scene from Gárcia Márquez’s La Candida Eréndira, directed by Jorge Alí Triana, which was at the time presented at the Repertorio Español. Encouraged by Miguel, a monologue that I wrote, Fifty Seconds Without Breathing, was performed by the amazing Lidia Ramirez, directed by Rome Neal. The event was a total success, thanks to Miguel!
Thereafter Miguel offered me a part-time job at the Cafe as Manager. During those years, amidst the board struggles and the administrative challenges, I was able to work closely and socialize with Miguel. We gave poetry workshops for youth, we read our poems at the Cafe, we attended the Puerto Rican Day Parade and the opening of Shakespeare in the Park, and often went for dinner and drinks at local restaurants and bars. He loved good food (and knew where to find it), he loved women and men with the same intensity . . . good conversation, dancing and flirting with bartenders, buying vintage jewelry and clothing, ideas, and of course, poetry.
One afternoon he came to the Cafe to invite me to the ballet, and there we went in mid -afternoon. He loved ballet! At the intermission, Miguel, with a glass of champagne in his hand, danced salsa solo, to the astonishment of other theater-goers. I was beside myself . . . It was magical . . . just pure Miguel’s fun!
There were many magical moments in my interactions with Miguel. Once I told him about a relationship with a guy who was telling me all kinds of crazy stories about his life, and I was believing them. I remember the look of incredulity in Miguel’s face. “I need to take you to an astrologer to deal with this,” he said, a bit scandalized. Then he took me to see Keith to help me see the light! I am smiling as I write this . . . and as I remember how Miguel got so involved in helping me realize that those stories were just fantasy. On another occasion I was fortunate enough to be invited by Miguel to a very fancy and fun lobster dinner at the home and studio of a local artist and his wife. Quincy Troupe, Steve Cannon were among the guests. Cholo’s sister was the chef. That evening Miguel told me the story of a secret lover he had, a young rich woman who came to visit him at night in a limousine with her chauffeur, who waited for her outside until her visit was over. My companion that night was not convinced that the story was true, but nobody cared. I didn’t. I just enjoyed him and the stories and revelations of the other guests that unveiled juicy secrets about many things, including complicated love affairs, and kept eating and drinking wine. I remember bits and pieces from that evening, like when Steve walked up the stairs touching the walls and the paintings on the walls, which were the host’s works. When he reached the salon he said, “these paintings are shit.” “What do you know, you are blind,” responded the host. “I am blind, but I can feel,” answered Steve loudly.
On another occasion, Miguel was scheduled to travel to Guatemala with Lois and had to cancel, but he insisted that I go in his place. It was an unplanned trip for me, but thanks to Miguel and Lois I was able to go. Lois and I were able to write, visit volcanoes, ruins, markets, art spaces . . . It was just magical!
Miguel loved to give gifts to his friends. He surprised me many times with things that he got at a vintage store or on the street. I remember a brown leather vest that I wore many times, a little beaded jewelry box and a silver necklace that I still have . . . He loved giving just because . . .
Miguel asked me to translate some of his poems for his book Love is Hard Work, and I did so with much pride and pleasure. He encouraged me to continue writing, to perform my poems with musicians, to experience the Nuyorican poetry magnitude and its importance in this City and the world. He was a passionate and compassionate man, he loved and respected women, he was brilliant, wild, and a very generous soul. The quintessential Nuyorican.
The last two times I saw Miguel were at the memorial for Roland Legiardi-Laura at the Cafe—I asked Miguel if he was going to read something and he responded “No, tonight is Roland’s night”—and later, or perhaps before then, after a reading at Boricua College in Washington Heights. Miguel said to me, “Sandra, I want you to stop everything you are doing and focus on me.” We laughed, we hugged, and we said goodbye.
I am forever thankful to you my dear Miguel, for your friendship and generosity. I am sure that wherever you are now, you are dancing poems . . .
November 11, 2021
New York City
Sandra Garcia-Betancourt is a poet and writer, arts activist, and administrator. She is the author of the poetry book Ombligo de Luna and the chapbook Memorias y Olvidos. Her work has appeared in several anthologies, most recently Breaking Ground: Anthology of Puerto Rican Women Writers in New York 1980-2012, edited by Dr. Myrna Nieves and published by Campana, Campo de los Patos, Revista Asturiana, Spain, and Amanecida, an anthology of poems by Latin American writers celebrating renowned Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos, edited by Etnairis Ribera. Her first short novel, Buen Viaje Itzanami, was published in June 2018.