Editor's note: This interview is the fourth in a series that will focus on contemporary Puerto Rican authors. To read the previous interview with Peggy Robles-Alvarado, click here.
Author bio: Noel Quiñones is an AfroBoricua educator, writer, and performer born and raised in the Bronx. He has received fellowships from Poets House, CantoMundo, and the Watering Hole, and his work is forthcoming or published in the Latin American Review, Kweli Journal & elsewhere. He has featured with the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College and BronxNet Television as well as performed at Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors Festival, La Casita, the Nuyorican Poets Café, and Jawdance - London. His performances have been showcased in the Huffington Post, Vibe, Button Poetry, Medium & elsewhere. Most recently he was a member of the 2016 Bowery Poetry Club slam team, placing amongst the top twenty teams in the nation. Currently, he tours the country.
Ivelisse Rodriguez: Not speaking Spanish is a source of consternation in your poems. This lack is described as a “lengua turned to water”; as a tongue that “…tries to bribe / its way past borders…,” and as a “…small death / of tongues….” According to Pew Research Center data from 2013, 62% of Puerto Ricans born on the US mainland are English-dominant and 16% mainly use Spanish. Forty percent to sixty-three percent of the other Hispanic groups surveyed mainly used Spanish. While the data denotes use of language and not knowledge of it, it is still noteworthy that Puerto Ricans had the lowest rate of dominant use of Spanish. With Puerto Ricans migrating to the continental US for over 100 years, the lack of Spanish speaking ability seems like a casualty of ongoing migration. Nonetheless, in 2017, the loss of Spanish is acutely felt in your poems. In your generation, what does speaking Spanish mean to you?
Noel Quiñones: For many years, speaking Spanish meant a divide between a shared Latinx identity and myself. I knew I was Latino when I looked into the mirror, but I was perceived as a false Brown by those who found out I was not fluent. Growing up, there were many conflicting messages: my family telling me I was Latino but calling me a gringo when I stumbled through a sentence, teachers telling me I should be in the native speakers class even though I explained I had no foundation in the language, strangers demanding I was a liar for saying I wasn’t fluent because I had conversational proficiency. I believed the myth that speaking Spanish was the only true way to be Latino and that my skin tone somehow required fluency of my tongue.
Ongoing migration to the US is the definite cause of loss of fluency in Spanish, but internalized colonial notions of identity and linguistic integrity amongst our own people fuel the percentages you quoted. The truth is my generation can no longer afford to hold onto this myth that speaking Spanish, specifically a Spanish from Spain, is the gateway to a shared Latinx identity. The debate of fluency continues to weaken our communities as we create a linguistic divide amongst ourselves. Specifically, we put down one another rather than accepting and embracing as symbols of our multifaceted identity our varying levels of proficiency, innovation, and resilience. Is it not cause for celebration that Spanglish is now permeating American pop culture on television (Jane the Virgin); on social media (Remezcla, We Are Mitú, Pero Like, etc.); and on the radio (J Balvin, Nicky Jam, etc.)? The language of Latinx identity has always been a fluid one, but rather than continue to demand it be taught in one colonial way and ridicule those who do not learn it as others do, we must support our people in their individual journeys through Spanish. If we do that, I have no doubt many more of us will be open to learning.
IR: In your poem “Lares, Am I Worthy of Your Name?,” Lares, Puerto Rico becomes the site of an “authentic” Puerto Rican experience. Those who engage in revolutionary behavior in the US are performing a “false Lares.” The narrator in the poem tries to establish her/his Puerto Rican cred by stating, “but I cremated Piñero / pero I guarded The People’s Church / but I saw Lavoe in the Bronx / pero I visited Campos en la hospital / and I performed at the Nuyorican.” The poem declares that “Lares does not know you”—that the New York Puerto Rican is simply a performer. In this poem, Lares is presented as the authentic locale and what is done in New York City is not Puerto Rican enough; ergo, Puerto Ricanness is equated with the nation, with the territory. Jorge Duany in The Puerto Rican Nation on the Move: Identities on the Island and in the United States (2002) details how the idea of the nation needs to be deterritorialized in the Puerto Rican case. “…none of the traditional criteria for nationhood—a shared territory, language, citizenship…are fixed and immutable in Puerto Rico and its diaspora but are subject to constant fluctuation….” Do you think an authentic Puerto Rican experience or space can be created outside of the territorialized nation?
NQ: When we discuss the territorialized nation, especially in 2017, we often only consider the debt crisis, and sometimes, the colonial crisis that is affecting the island. Yet, in order to fully grasp our experience as Puerto Ricans, I find it necessary to begin with the 600+ years of physical, emotional, and mental anguish weighing upon us. Puerto Rican identity sits at one of the most interesting and depressing crossroads of Latinidad, a people so proud of their identity yet ultimately tethered to an inescapable American shadow.
Therefore, I do not believe an authentic Puerto Rican experience or space can be created outside or inside of the territorialized nation unless we accept that our authenticity has been irreversibly tampered with. It has been years since I wrote “Lares, Am I Worthy of Your Name?”, and in that time, I have come to see that this constant distortion of identity is not solely a Nuyorican experience, but a Puerto Rican one, wherever we go. The weight of this sadness is often unbearable, but it is one I carry as a Puerto Rican, a pride that has been poisoned before the meal was served. Yet do I succumb to dismay at this realization? No, I use it to sustain my work, to create a true depiction of Puerto Rican identity, one at war for its very soul on a daily basis.
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IR: In his seminal text, Insularismo: Ensayos de interpretación puertorriqueña (1934), Antonio S. Pedreira promulgates what is now a long-standing view of Puerto Ricans as docile. According to Pedreira, “Aplantanarse in our country is a kind of inhibition, mental lethargy, and lack of assertiveness….” The image of the “docile Puerto Rican” also emerges in your poetry. In “Young Lords, A Cycle,” you write that Puerto Rico is the “first island to fear its own ocean, the last / colony / to fear its own independencia.” In “Misguided Praise” you write, “child of the proudest people in the world, / of the last colony and all its obedient burden.” Over eighty years after Pedreira put forth this idea, how would you characterize the “docility” of Puerto Ricans?
NQ: Our “docility” as Puerto Ricans is in a constant dance with our pride. People of other ethnicities and races have often told me that Puerto Ricans are the proudest people they know. We wave our flag like we are paid to do so, we sing our songs at top volume, and we defend our celebrities like they were saints. Yet this pride so often overshadows our internal turmoil, incited by ourselves as a coping mechanism and incited by non-Puerto Ricans to our detriment. So many of our people wave our flag and sing our ballads, but they do not know the history of la isla, they do not know our political activists, they do not know what their grandparents lived through. Our “docility” comes from a lack of education about our history as well as a conscious push by American culture to assimilate and erase us. We are docile because we believe we have always been docile, because our textbooks, our media, and even our family members tell us we are passive or criminal or worst of all, had no right to exist in the first place.
I will never forget Christmas two years ago when my grandmother, a hard-working single mother from the Bronx who raised my father, my uncles, and my cousins in the 70’s and 80’s said, “You can’t expect much from us, Puerto Ricans are just naturally lazy people.” Never had I seen our docility so clearly than in that moment. To have lived a life full of strife and struggle, yet have emerged still looking down at your own people was something truly terrifying.
IR: In a LatinTRENDS magazine profile by Francisco Bernard, you indicate that you identify as AfroBoricua because “Boriken is the original name of my island, meaning land of the valiant lords, and so people of Boriken are called Boriquens or Boricuas. I say Afro because I find it necessary to acknowledge my connection to Africa and not diminish or demonize it.” In the same article, Bernard notes that “for many young Latinos, the validity of their Latinidad is questioned.” Did feeling like your Latinidad was questioned lead you to creating a particular moniker to identify yourself? Do you think the creation of monikers or identities is a way for Puerto Ricans or Latinos in the US to reclaim their Latinidad, by re-fashioning Latinidad in a way that encompasses their lived experiences?
NQ: The short answer is absolutely. I doubt a constant renaming and re-identification process will ever cease within our communities because Hispanic and Latino are foundational lies. We were given overarching, shallow, and ineffective terms to begin with, and so it is our nature to search for our own meaning. I think of my grandfather battling with the term Hispanic, my father battling with the term Nuyorican, myself battling with the term AfroLatino, and my children battling with whatever term comes next. Siempre puertorriqueños somos ni de aquí ni de allá. Our very existence is a seeking of reclamation, of affirmation from ourselves, from other Latinx people, from la isla, and from other Americans. While the questioning of my identity by others led me to AfroBoricua, I believe our journey as Latinx people led us to find a home within the lexicon of inbetweenness.
IR: What projects are you currently working on, and what do you hope to accomplish as a poet?
NQ: One of my strengths and weaknesses is that I am always juggling multiple projects. Nothing seems to ever be enough and the pure excitement of creation brings me to new projects on a daily basis. I've recently made an intentional shift toward more diverse projects, and so at the moment, I am the founder and co-director of Project X, an arts organization. The organization came from a deep sadness at the lack of spaces for Latinx poets in the Bronx, and so we are curating the first ever all Latinx slam team to send to the National Poetry Slam in August 2018. I am also proud to say I just landed my first acting role as a part of the cast of Latin Lives, a play debuting in November.
Finally, and true to form, I can't fully leave poetry, and so I am working on my first chapbook, a collection of poems about my parents; gender/sexuality; and love as a child of divorce. I hope to publish it when it is completed and pursue my first book tour as a poet.
Born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Ivelisse Rodriguez grew up in Holyoke, Massachusetts. She earned a B.A. in English from Columbia University, an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College, and a Ph.D. in English-creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her short story collection, Love War Stories, is forthcoming from The Feminist Press in summer 2018. The Belindas, a fiction chapbook, is forthcoming from Tammy in summer 2017. She is the senior fiction editor at Kweli, a Kimbilio fellow, and a VONA/Voices alum. She is currently working on the novel The Last Salsa Singer about 70s era salsa musicians in Puerto Rico. To learn more about Ivelisse visit: http://www.ivelisserodriguez.com.