Nuyorican Culture: the Bohemian Revival

Migration to America
As previously stated in the Immigrant History section, there has been a Puerto Rican presence in New York since the 19th century. With the passing of the Jones-Shafroth Act in 1917, almost all Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship and permission to travel to America without a passport. During what is known as the Gran Migración, waves of Puerto Ricans moved to America. In Manhattan, they settled in what is today known as Spanish Harlem and Alphabet City. The beginnings of air travel also served as a catalyst for increased migration starting in the 1950s. This mass movement slowed during the 1960s, but by then a strong Puerto Rican presence had been established in Alphabet City.

 Net Migration from Puerto Rico, 1900-19994

Years Net Migration to the U.S. Mainland
1900-1909 2,000
1910-1919 11,000
1920-1929 35,638
1930-1939 12,715
1940-1949 145,010
1950-1959 446,693
1960-1969 221,763
1970-1979 26,683
1980-1989 490,562
1990-1999 325,875
Total 1,717,969

Beginnings of a Unique Culture
Upon their migration to New York, Puerto Ricans faced ostracism and discrimination. “The immigrants were stigmatized as lazy, ignorant, criminally prone, sexually obsessed, physically unfit, culturally inassimilable, and dark-skinned aliens (even though they were U.S. citizens)” (Toro-Morn and Alicea 187). Facing hardship, the Puerto Rican community was in dire need of a powerful New York cultural identity they could display proudly. The Nuyorican movement was born in the 1960s and 1970s particularly from the working-class and those struck with poverty as means of validating themselves and establishing their presence not as Puerto Rican-American immigrants, but as Nuyoricans.

“Private emotions are also expressed in public settings through the creation of spontaneous shrines and graffiti written and drawn on pavement and walls” (Franck & Stevens 14).

They took advantage of the loose space around them and used it for a variety of means of furthering their identity: murals, performances, and community gatherings to name a few. “Through the diversity of actions and actors it invites, loose space nurtures particularity in the urban public realm, sustaining local practices and allowing the identity of place and culture to flourish” (Franck and Stevens 20-21).

The term Nuyorican is derived from a combination of the words “New York” and “Puerto Rican.” Originally used as an insult by native Puerto Ricans to suggest that their American brethren were less Puerto Rican than they, the term was adopted by people like Miguel Algarín (a prominent leader of the movement) and worn with pride to describe their community.

 

Artistic Movement
The main focus in establishing a Nuyorican cultural identity was through the cultivation of an artistic identity. Poets, visual artists, musicians, and writers were all fundamental in helping the Nuyorican movement to flourish. Miguel Algarín is a prominent poet and was one of the main champions of the movement. Through his works and the works of other poets, the essence of the Nuyorican experience was immortalized through words. They told “the tale of the streets to the streets” (Algarín 11) by using the power of poetry. This power is immense. Gaston Bachelard writes in The Poetics of Space that “the poem possesses us entirely. This grip that poetry acquires on our very being bears a phenomenological mark that is unmistakable… It is as though the poem, through its exuberance, awakened new depths in us.” (Bachelard xxii).

The Nuyorican artists provided a look into the world of the struggling but proud Puerto Rican community. Through their work, it truly became a community with unique characteristics. Words from Spanish and English mixed to make a unique Nuyorican language. Bimbo Rivas exemplified this when he coined the term “Loisaida” as the Spanglish title of the area of the Lower East Side:

“Lower East Side
I love you.
You’er my lady fair.
No matter where I am,
I think of you!
The mountains and the
valleys cannot compare,
my love to you
Loisaida, I love you.”
-Excerpt from Bimbo Rivas’ 1974 poem, “Loisaida”

Street Sign for Avenue C/Loisaida Avenue.

The name was adopted and lives on to this day. Worn like a banner, Avenue C is even alternatively titled Loisaida Avenue.

The residents of Loisaida struggled against the city institutions. In a time fueled by distrust, artists used their works to assert themselves. “The outlaw is morally free to act, to aggress against authority because he realizes that that is his power: he goes for broke whether it is for himself or for his friends or for his people” (Algarín 27). Against prejudice and oppression, words were the poet’s weapon.

The Nuyorican Poets Cafe

The facade of the Nuyorican Poet's Cafe.

As previously stated in the Significant Landmarks section, the Nuyorican Poets Café originated as a living room salon in Miguel Algarín’s apartment. Through the insatiable need for a creative outlet and the vision of Algarín for a sanctuary of artistic expression, a simple room became a loose space of possibility. “Expressive activities are… common in loose space. Spaces where the public gathers provide opportunities for people to communicate with others.” (Franck and Stevens 12), Algarín’s ability to see the potential of the simple area would prove monumental. When the popularity grew too large for the room, which it soon did, Algarín rented an Irish bar and dubbed it The Nuyorican Poets Café. Audiences again surged in and grew too large for the space. The cafe then moved to its current location at 236 East 3rd Street (“History,” Nuyorican Poets Café).

During the Nuyorican Movement, the Nuyorican Poets Café was a haven for the cultivation and showcasing of Nuyorican work. Not only was poetry, “the vital sign of a new culture” (“History,” Nuyorican Poets Café), showcased, but also theatrical and musical performances, visual art, and even hip-hop dancing. Here, artists who were underrepresented and marginalized elsewhere could come to express their identities and in turn, help shape the identity of the cultural movement as a whole.

To this day, the Nuyorican Poets Café continues to foster artistic growth in the community and is widely known as one of the most esteemed organizations of the arts in the country.

Video of a poetry performance at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.

 

 

 

Works Cited

  1. Algarín, Miguel, and Miguel Piñero. Nuyorican Poetry: An Anthology of Puerto Rican Words and Feelings. Ed. Richard August. New York: William Morrow &, 1975. Print.
  2. Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon, 1994. Print.
  3. Cavallo, Diana. The Lower East Side; A Portrait in Time. New York: Crowell-Collier, 1971. Print.
  4. Franck, Karen A., and Quentin Stevens. “Tying Down Loose Space.” Loose Space: Possibility and Diversity in Urban Life. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.
  5. Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1977. Print.
  6. Toro-Morn, Maura I., and Marixsa Alicea. “Puerto Rico: Between the Nation and the Diaspora-Migration to and from Puerto Rico.” Migration and Immigration: A Global View. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2004. Google Books. Google. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.
  7. “History.” Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Nuyorican Poets Cafe, 2008. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.