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Puerto Rican Renaissance in New York City

Growing up, I remember dearly my parents' stories about the barrio de Nueva York where they used to live and where they raised my older siblings. Everybody knew each other. Almost everyone was Boricua. My mother still remembers her friends from la factoría. There was an Italian lady, a couple of African American women, and an Irish woman. A Dominican family lived down the block on Rutledge St. in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; and the corner bodega was owned by two Cuban bothers. That was about all the diversity she could remember.

Today Brooklyn, as well as the rest of the nation, looks much more diverse. But Puerto Ricans are still around and, in fact, in larger numbers than ever. In New York City, Puerto Ricans account for 30% of the Latino population. But, where are we exactly? Not necessarily in the same buildings or on the same street blocks as in my parents’ day. We are certainly more dispersed but by no means dis-unified.

Spanish Harlem still has a Boricua presence and the Lower East Side is still Loisaida. And no, Williamsburg has not been taken over by yuppies. Boricuas are here, almost three-quarters of a million strong in New York City. Venture into any of these communities, and you’ll see the Puerto Rican presence all around. I did so myself. I went to each of these communities, and talked with some of their movers and shakers—Tato Torres in El Barrio, Libertad Guerra in Loisaida, and Juan Santiago in Los Sures—to learn what was happening.

Tato Torres on how La Marqueta Retoña in Spanish Harlem

The neighborhood of East Harlem, also called Spanish Harlem and better known as "El Barrio," has become more ethnically diverse, but as in the 1960s, it is predominantly Puerto Rican. ‎One of the most historically and culturally important sites in El Barrio is the traditional marketplace popularly known as "La Marqueta." Located underneath the elevated tracks of the Metro North railroad at Park Avenue and 116th Street, La Marqueta has been a cultural and commercial center for residents and visitors for nearly 100 years. Originally an informal gathering place for pushcart vendors and other street merchants, it has been for generations a destination market for residents across the city in need of specialty and ethnic foods and products they couldn't find anywhere else. Commercial and social activity at La Marqueta significantly dwindled over the years mainly due to the widespread availability of the traditional and specialty products once only found there. That's now changing. 

Musician Carlos “Tato” Torres has been a long-time and active member of the community of El Barrio. He was brought in as a consultant to help schedule an artistic program and also to coordinate public relations for this project. La Marqueta Retoña is an initiative supported by New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito in collaboration with the Acacia Network to revitalize the economic, social and cultural elements of this historic site through the arts. The concept was developed by José Morales, proprietor of La Respuesta, an innovative cultural nightlife destination in Santurce, Puerto Rico. Since July, Mr. Morales has served as the lead curator of the ongoing cultural programming. The main purpose of the project is to transform La Marqueta and its spaces for the community. “One of the major achievements of the project has been the reopening of the public plaza or corridor known as La Placita located between 115th and 116th Streets. ‎La Placita is open to the public and furnished with chairs, tables, and public Wi-Fi to encourage residents and visitors alike to utilize the space and local commercial establishments,” said Torres.

The project has also created opportunities for cultural and entertainment events and programming that highlights the rich diversity of art, history, music, and food in El Barrio.‎ “La Marqueta is now again on its way to becoming a hub of social, cultural and artistic activity, which in turn increases opportunities and support for small businesses, artisans and other small vendors to bring thriving commerce to La Marqueta,” said Torres. They have a weekly schedule of events that includes afterschool children’s activities on Wednesday afternoons and bomba sessions on Thursdays. On Fridays, they feature live fusion jazz music and an open jam. On Sundays, live art sessions take place while a local DJ keeps the crowd happy starting at 2 PM. Both residents and visitors ‎of El Barrio attend these events, an intergenerational crowd that includes locals, tourists, individuals, and groups. Torres noted, “The overall reaction has been extremely positive, because it celebrates and honors local history, tradition and identity as a community. People have welcomed, joined, and pleasantly enjoyed the celebration...[La Marqueta is] a place where residents and visitors can find not only specialty products and a variety of culinary experiences reflecting the rich history and culture of El Barrio, but also a public space which will serve as the center of social activity, as it once was, right where the heart of El Barrio beats strongly.” You can get to La Marqueta by taking the 6 train to 116th Street.

Libertad Guerra on the Renaissance of The Loisaida Center

The Lower East Side of Manhattan became Loisaida after Bittman “Bimbo” Rivas’ poem gave it the name in 1974. The name captured the neighborhood's importance to the development of Puerto Rican cultural identity in New York City. A number of important Nuyorican intellectuals, poets, and artists called Loisaida home during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, including Nuyorican poets Tato Laviera, Miguel Algarín, and Miguel Piñero, as well as musician Ismael Miranda. But the demographic has changed several times in recent decades, and today it is a multicultural neighborhood, still with an important Puerto Rican presence.

The Loisaida Center is a Puerto Rican/Latino-based multi-use facility that aspires to build a connection between community, learners, artists, and scholars through affordable education opportunities in S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) design and everyday life. Its history goes back to the mid-1970s, when it started as a grassroots movement led by Puerto Rican activists and Hispanic residents to struggle against the problems affecting their neighborhood at the time. The center reached a turning point when they faced eviction from their original location in 2008. With local community support and later becoming an Affiliate of the Acacia Network, the Center secured a location at 710 East 9th Street. The center now includes an outdoor space, a performance space, a commercial kitchen, a pop-up shop and activity rooms. Their biggest event for the community takes place every year the Sunday before Memorial Day weekend: The Annual Loisaida Festival, which started in 1987. Starting as a community event, each year it attracts new visitors and has become a festival that celebrates multiculturalism. The center hosts a variety of educational and artistic events, including music and theater workshops, artists’ residencies and art exhibitions.

Libertad Guerra, Executive Director and Chief Curator at The Loisada Center, told me about her dreams for the center: “My objective is to see this institution leading the way of the recovery of traditional practices and art forms, while at the same time encouraging new and emergent artists, cultural production, and entrepreneurship. The Center is on its way to becoming a place that fully supports--through exhibits, artistic residencies, productio, curatorial and programming strategies--the growth and expansion of our cultural, activist, socially engaged and artistic heritage, both traditional and forward looking.” You can get to The Loisaida Center on the L train, stopping at 1st Avenue.

Juan Papo Santiago on the roots of The School of Poetic Arts in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

The Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn is known today as an art community with hipster culture. Many ethnic groups have made their home in this neighborhood, including Puerto Ricans. The south side or “Los Sures” is today mainly populated by Hasidic Jews with a considerable Puerto Rican population still thriving. 

To tell the story of The School of Poetic Arts, I will introduce you to its founder’s story. Juan “Papo Swiggity” Santiago started writing poetry as a response to his parents’ death when he was just a young boy. At about that time he learned from an English teacher about Edgar Allan Poe and was fascinated by the themes of darkness, death, and solitude. He then started expressing himself through poetry. Santiago recalls, “I wrote a book when I was about 13 years old and I called it The Book of Death. It reflected my take on my reality, the death not only of my parents but the death of a neighborhood. I’m talking about Brooklyn in the 80s and early 90s, the tumultuous times. I wrote about what was happening in our communities using metaphors, so I wrote about superheroes and space aliens.” It wasn’t until later in life that he learned about the Nuyorican Poets when he came across a book by Miguel Algarín. He recalls reading the book Love is Hard Work, front to back in a heartbeat. “He wrote about the Nuyorican Angels, all different angels, and each represented a different facet of real life. The intimacy with which he wrote about his friends really touched me. I come from a place where I wrote poetry in secret, in the dark of my room. All I have is Poe’s reference, so I just wrote and never showed my writings to anybody. But reading this book by a Nuyorican poet, where he is writing about his homeboys, his friends, his lovers and family… And he wrote about death, but he did it differently. He wrote about la funeraria, it never occurred to me that one could write about things like death so literarily. That was a turning point for me, seeing poetry as a community building tool instead of a solitary practice.”

At a time when Williamsburg was experiencing a rapid population shift, Santiago was discovering his identity as a Puerto Rican poet in Brooklyn. He met social media innovator George Torres and together they identified both the need and the opportunity for creating a platform for building community through the poetic arts. They created Capicu Cultural Showcase as a way of unifying the Puerto Rican community from Brooklyn. They had their first open mic in 2007, and over 200 people attended. They have been doing open mic events at EvilOlivE Pizza Bar in Williamsburg ever since. But Santiago not only wanted to organize these events, he also wanted to empower the artists. “I wanted Capicu to be the place, not only where these artists hold their mike, but where they learned how to publish their work, and how to become better artists,” Santiago said.

This is how The School of Poetic Arts (La SoPA) came to be, as the result of eight years of spoken word open mic events around Brooklyn. Co-founded by poet Jani Rose, La SoPa currently offers a Performance Poetry Workshop, facilitated by Author/ Slam Coach Emeritus Keith Roach and a Writers Workshop, facilitated by author/educator Rich Villar on Saturdays at Boricua College (9 Graham Ave. Brooklyn). “Our students are young Latinos and Latinas, poets and performers interested in developing themselves professionally. We have helped people that were afraid, just watching and wishing they could perform. Our workshops help them get out of their shell and work on their craft. Our mission is to keep it affordable and accessible to the community.”

“Although we started as a counter-gentrification movement, throughout the years we realized it was more important to have the new community understand that this community used to be Boricua, and that we are still around, and our roots are strong. For us it’s a point of pride to have that stand in the neighborhood,” Santiago proudly said. His vision and hard work have helped explode the scene of open mics and poetry readings throughout Brooklyn. Together with his business partner and their collaborative background in promotion and use of social media, they are infusing with poetry a Puerto Rican presence in a diverse Brooklyn. You can get to The School of Poetic Arts on the J or M trains at Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn.

From 116th street in Manhattan, all the way through Alphabet City and onto Flushing Ave. in Brooklyn, our neighborhoods are changing. New neighbors are moving in and old ones moving out. From my clan of more than ten families who used to live in Brooklyn, two single aunts are left. Upstate New York, the Bronx, Long Island, Virginia, Maryland and Florida are some of the destinations chosen by my cousins to raise their families and call home. Although I’ve planted my roots in Brooklyn, I look forward to witnessing with my children the flourishing of Boricua Barrios, old and new, across the country.

To read more, go to: La Marqueta Retoña, The Loisaida Center and Capicu Poetry.

You can share with us about your Boricua communities across the country through social media using the hashtags #BarrioBoricua and #CentroVoices.

Editorial note: On 4 February 2015 we've made the following clarification from the original version of 14 January 2015: La Marqueta Retoña is an initiative supported by New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito in collaboration with the Acacia Network. The concept was developed by José Morales, proprietor of La Respuesta, an innovative cultural nightlife destination in Santurce, Puerto Rico. 

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 14 January 2015.