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LA BODEGA SOLD DREAMS: a reading of Miguel Pieros poetry.

By ADRIANE FERREIRA VERAS

adriveras@gmail.com

1 INTRODUCTION

The present study will deal with the subject of self identification, with the struggle of

the individual to be known by terms that differ from the ones given by others. In this case, it

is the Nuyorican identity, which will be analyzed through the poetry of Miguel Piero.

Searching for one`s identity not only can it be painful to oneself, but it can also lead to

antagonisms and misunderstanding among people. Piero and other Nuyorican poets claimed

an identity which is defined by them, denying a binary identity of black and white imposed by

the American culture. Such bold action, especially for the decades of the 60s and 70s, is one

of the first attempts by Latinos to claim their own and unique sense of self.

The choice of author and subject came from my personal experience. Having lived in

the United States for almost eight years in the 90s, I had to face some of the same problems

the Puerto Rican immigrants had in America. The idea of not belonging, of being displaced,

and to be defined by others on the basis of race were very strong feelings that I believe I

shared with them. In the last decades, the so-called first world countries have been receiving,

willingly or not, thousands of immigrants each year. These people are prone to experience

some of if not the same feelings Piero experienced. However, the poet managed to surpass

these feelings of inadequacy and inferiority and found his home in a third country the

borderland.
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In order to write about such a difficult subject to define as identity, the second chapter

will present different theories and concepts on identity and borders. These theories will be

used here to analyze and understand the creation of the Nuyoricans. Borders can represent

more than just physical boundaries. The limits and frontiers become wider and greater than

walls and checkpoints by the American immigration, they become cultural concepts that are

unique to each group and individual. Still on the second chapter, the Puerto Rican problem

will be explained. Theories will be presented aiming to explain the singular situation Puerto

Ricans find themselves as American citizens who do not enjoy the same rights and priviledges

that other American citizens do.

The third chapter will briefly describe Puerto Rico`s history; its present situation and

its political status as a protectorate of the United States. The islands history as a colony has a

crucial role on the self-worth and validation of its citizens and their culture. This same

chapter will introduce the Nuyorican movement, its origins, beliefs, and main characters. The

Nuyorican Poets Caf will also be included in this chapter in order to explain how it came

about to be an expression of the movement. There will be a broad view of its path and

influences.

Miguel Piero is the main topic of the fourth chapter. Being one of the movements

founders, the artists life and work become essential to understand the Nuyoricans. There is a

summarized biography of the author and analysis of some of his poems. Besides that, this

chapter will show how Piero struggled to find his place and how he came to adopt Lower

East Side on the island of Manhattan in the United States as his home. Using his poetry to

awaken his fellow countrymen, Piero wanted to depict the reality of the life in the Latino
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ghettos in New York and, through his work, claim his identity of a hybrid, a mix of Puerto

Rican and New Yorker, not worse, not better, just different.

The final chapter will show that even though human beings are constantly defined and

labeled by others, without consciousness and awareness one cannot claim his/her own space,

beliefs, culture and much less identity. These claims should be decided by each individual

being in an attempt to de-colonize him/herself and not to conform to the establish standards

and limits given by the other.


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2 LIVING AT THE BORDER

2.1 Si le preguntas a mi mam, Qu eres?

dreamt i was a poet &


writin silver sailin songs
words strong & powerful crashin thru
walls of steel & concrete []
i dreamt i was this poet
words glitterin brite & bold []
in las bodegas
where our poets words & songs
are sung []. (PIERO, 1974).

The poet wishes to be a poet, one who could use words and songs rhymes and

musicality of the poetry, to be one of our poets in las bodegas. Even though it may seem

an oxymoron since he is already a poet, he experiences an identity crisis; is he a poet because

he writes poetry, or because others have accepted him as such? His crisis is one of self-

identification, the struggle of the individual to be known by terms that are defined by others.

Is he a Latino, a Puerto Rican, an AmeRcan (term coined by the poet Tato Laviera)?

Ilan Stavans (2001, p.1)says that since we are children, we acquire a sense of

uniqueness, of self, when we begin to distinguish what is and isnt ours. In a nutshell, our id

(inner selves) formulates its own identity, interacting dynamically with parents who are part

of a group that will reaffirm (and/or modify) the identity. One adopts the principles of an
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even larger group, his community, nation and culture. Providing a definition of identity is

directly related to concepts such as ethnicity, nation and nation-state. Rien Segers (2001,

p.53) when trying to report such concepts quotes Adrian Hastings who considers ethnicity to

be a group of people with a shared cultural identity and spoken language. Segers continues

quoting Hastings to define a nation

A nation is a far more self-conscious community than an ethnicity. Formed from


one or more ethnicities, and normally identified by a literature of its own, it
possesses or claims the right to political identity and autonomy as a people, together
with the control of specific territory [...] (HASTINGS apud SEGER, 2001).

Segers describes a nation-state still quoting Hastings who says that

[] a state which identifies itself in terms of one specific nation whose people are
not seen simply as subjects of the sovereign but as a horizontally bonded society to
whom the state in a sense belongs [...] there is basic equivalence between the
borders and character of the political unit upon the one hand and a self-conscious
cultural community on the other.

Still in the same article, Seger says that there are different views for the concept of

identity. One of them is that it can be regarded as the cultural identity of a particular group or

people that can be partly determined by their national identity. On the other hand, when an

individual belongs to a particular state is only one way to describe oneselfs identity among

many others. Cultural identity is usually regarded as a variety of characteristics which are

unique for a specific culture and even innate to a particular people.

Another approach to cultural identity is that it has a structuralist character, where a

particular culture is regarded as a range of characteristics which are all related to each other,

not necessarily dependent on the people that make that culture. There is still another

alternative to regard considering cultural identity, according to Rien Segers (p.58). If this

identity is considered as a construction, the cultural identity of a particular nation or of a

certain ethnic group within that nation can be attached to [] formal characteristics [] and

the way people from the outside of that group or nation conduct a process of selection,
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interpretation and evaluation concerning the specificity of the ingroup, which means the

outside image of the cultural identity of a foreign nation or group (p.58).

If we consider cultural identity as a construction as mentioned previously, this means

that it is a mental conception which may vary according to the constructor, the time and the

place of construction (p.59). Thus, there are as many identities as there are times, places and

people that construct this identity. In order to deal with such a broad concept, many scholars

have added the prefix post to numerous concepts in an attempt to solve the paradox between

globalization and nationalization. A postnational identity suggests a puzzle to be solved

involving the need of the construction of one political European identity as opposed to many

distinctive cultural identities, all inhabitting the same living quarters under the shelter of a

postnational identity.

2.2 Mestizo or Global?

Nstor Canclini (1999) states in his book La globalizacin imaginada that the

Europeans, or the colonizers, tended to level all men under the abstract denomination of

citizens. He believes that today there is a temptation to imagine that globalization will unify

us all and make us similar. He adds

De este modo, se pretenden borrar los desafos que colocan en esta etapa las
discrepancias culturales y las polticas que las gestionan. Para hacernos cargo de
estos retos, propongo el camino inverso: tomar algunas frmulas clave usadas en
ciertas sociedades para intentar resolver las diferencias, y voy a indagar qu
significa que esas frmulas no tengan equivalente lingstico en otras culturas, o les
dan otro distinto. Primera pregunta: por qu en ingls no existe la palabra mestizo?
[...] en ingls no existe un trmino equivalente. Textos de antroplogos e
historiadores que se ocupan de otras sociedades incorporan la palabra en francs o
espaol como una licencia necesaria para referirse a los dems. El diccionario de
Oxford la incluye como sinnimo de half-caste si uno se va a referir a espaoles o
portugueses. Tambin pueden aparecer miscegenation, half-breed, mixed-blood,
generalmente con sentido despectivo [...] (p.109), (emphasis mine).
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Canclini goes on saying that it is necessary to diferentiate the metaphor of the melting

pot used in the United States, which implies a purification and destilacin in order to create

a new identity only with the races which have European origin, and that the multicultural

nation has different groups within the same society. Nestr Canclini says that in the United

States, multicultural heterogeneity is perceived as separatism and dispersion among ethnic

groups to which belonging to a community became the main guarantee of their individual

rights. The author declares in his book

Se piensa y acta como miembro de una minora (afro americano, o chicano, o


puertorriqueo) y en tanto se tiene derecho a afirmar la diferencia en la lengua, en
las cuotas para obtener empleos y recibir servicios, o asegurarse un espacio en las
universidades y en las agencias gubernamentales. Esta accin afirmativa ha
servido para corregir y compensar formas institucionalizadas de discriminacin que
condujeron a desigualdades crnicas. Pero mediante un procedimiento que hace
predominar grupos a los cuales se pertenece por nacimiento, por el peso de la
biologa y de la historia, sobre los grupos de eleccin y sobre las mezclas, es decir,
sobre el mestizaje [...] (p.110)

For the author, the culturas fronterizas, such as the ones that are formed in border

cities, literally or otherwise, cities as New York City for example, with its immigrants from

several nationalities would find useful to conceive an ethnic experience en forma relacional

(p.110). Canclini quotes the theorist Peter McLaren saying that this would lead to a new

mestizaje consciousness, that would not be only an identity doctrine based on a cultural

bricolage nor a kind of extravagant subjectivity without a critical practice of a cultural

negotiation and traduccin que intenta trascender las contradicciones del pensamiento

dualista occidental. La crtica a la cultura dominante, en vez de ser hecha desde cada grupo,

sera una resistencia multicultural (p.110).

The cultural border which he refers to can make the individual vulnerable and lead

him to keep close ties to others who feel and live the same experience. The difficulties to

become integrated to the host society create networks of solidarity, emblematic places of

meeting and entertainment such as parks, bars and cafs.


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On the other hand, Gloria Anzalda (1999) declares that living in the borderlands is

the equivalent of an intimate terrorism. In her book Borderlands/La Frontera she says

The world is not a safe place to live in. We shiver in separate cells in enclosed
cities, shoulders hunched, barely keeping the panic below the surface of the skin,
daily drinking shock along with our morning coffee, fearing the torches being set to
our buildings, the attacks in the streets [] (one) does not feel safe when her own
culture, and white culture, are critical of her [] alienated from her mother culture,
alien in the dominant culture, [] does not feel safe within the inner life the self
(p.42).

These unsafe and insecure feelings can petrify one, and hinder his/her ability to respond,

trapping the individual between los interstcios, the spaces between the different worlds

he/she inhabits (p.42). The author believes that this ability to respond is what is meant by

responsibility, yet our cultures take away our ability to act shackle us in the name of

protection. Blocked, immobilized, we cant move forward, cant move backwards [] and

there in front of us is the crossroads and choice: to feel a victim where someone else is in

control and therefore responsible and to blame (being a victim and transferring the blame on

culture, mother, father [] ), or to feel strong, and, for the most part, in control (p.43).

Anzalda states in her book that the self uses many defense strategies to escape the

agony of inadequacy (p.67). These feelings generate rage and contempt specially towards

oneself. In order to escape these feelings, one takes on a compulsive, repetitious activity as

though to busy oneself, to distract oneself, to keep awareness at bay. One fixates on drinking,

smoking, popping pills [] (p.68). Piero was addicted most part of his life to alcohool and

substance abuse which led him to prison numerous times.

Though living on the border may appear to be living in an in-between world, a limbo

zone, border literature offers an account of a stand of not settling down on either side of

these divisions imposed by culture and border texts disturb rigid constellations of power.
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Voices and identities situated in a hybrid land, the third country according to Anzalda,

carve out spaces laden with possibilities of liberation (CASTRONOVO, 1997). Castronovo

says in his article that

[...] border theory narrativizes a history in which culturally trangressive texts,


actions, and bodies circumvent traditional structures of power, but this emplotment
of resistance can mute another narrative in which power can and does reassert itself
[...] encompassing more than geography, the border as a theoretical space provides
commentators with a frontier of alternative identities [...] (p.199-200).

Border identities constitute a bold infringment on normalcy, a violation of the canon of

the bourgeois decorum, a space where one can tear apart the narratives of repression or deal

with them critically. A literary discourse from the border is in a space of cultural articulation

that results from the collision of multiple codes and systems. Such encounters can create

hybrid significations whose meanings mingle and match, spilling on each other becoming a

vehicle for culture, identity and conscious awareness.

2.3 The Puerto Rican Problem

These feelings of inadequacy, of not-belonging and low self-esteem are stronger

among the Puerto Rican population living in the United States, according to Linda Chavez. In

her book Out of the Barrio, she describes the New Yorks Puerto Rican community. She

believes that comparisons between Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics raise questions about

what the role racism plays in explaining why Puerto Ricans do more poorly (p.152). She

does not think that discrimination explains Puerto Ricans lower social and economic status,

specially when you compare them to other groups such as Dominicans, who face the same

labor market conditions and yet manage to find jobs and retain a far higher degree of labor

market attachment; this is so even among women who are single heads of households

(p.153).
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Nevertheless, discrimination does not explain the Puerto Ricans lower income and

lack of social advancements, therefore Chavez understands that

[...] race does play a significant role in their identity in the United States. While
most Hispanics are of mixed background, the spectrum runs from white to Indian.
Among Caribbean Hispanics, however, the spectrum ranges from white to black.
Intermarriage between Spanish colonists and the indigenous people of the region
was common, producing a mestizo population in areas of Hispanic settlement. In
the case of Puerto Rico, the Tainos [] quickly died out [] African slaves were
brought to Puerto Rico in large numbers []. Sexual union and intermarriage
between blacks and whites in Puerto Rico produced a racially mixed people.
Americans tend to view race in stricly black/white terms, but Puerto Ricans []
make more subtle distinctions, using words to describe people of mixed race
trigueo, moreno, and mulatto, among them. (p.154).

Race and skin color seem to be more important in the United States than in Puerto Rico.

Chavez claims that

[...] when Puerto Ricans of mixed race come to the United States, they encounter
different attitudes toward race, and their own sense of racial identification may
indeed change the longer they live in the United States, with the darkest Puerto
Ricans coming to identify with American blacks over time (p.154).

Still in her book, Out of the Barrio, the reader is given Fitzpatricks opinion about the Puerto

Rican community; he states that Americans tend to categorize all dark-skinned Puerto Ricans

as blacks because of their binomial belief: blacks/whites (p.154). Besides that, residential

segregation of blacks still remains prevalent in the US and this affects mixed race Puerto

Ricans who are considered blacks by the white Anglo America. Another view given in her

book is from researchers Nancy Denton and Douglas Massey who inform through a study of

residential segregation that

[...] although people of Spanish [mixed] race may be accepted by white Hispanics,
however, they are not accepted by Anglos, who view them as blacks, and maintain a
high degree of segregation from them. Black Hispanics, in contrast, are not
accepted as neighbors by any group except American blacks, and in spatial terms,
they appear to be on the way to becoming part of the general U.S. black population
(p.155).

If that is right, Puerto Ricans will probably identify themselves in terms of race much

more than in terms of ethnicity. Regarding their place in the US, Ilan Stavans wonders
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whether the Puerto Ricans have been too docile and submissive. He credits great part of the

blame to stereotypes which are the worst enemy, a plague not easily combated but through a

dramatic federation of people (p.47). The American government talk about the Puerto

Rican problem: criminality, the preponderance of drugs, the lack of education, poverty, and

other forms of cyclical misery in El Barrio.

Stavans points out that Puerto Ricans have traded their homes with mountains for the

city buildings, and in doing it so, they have lost some of their collective ties to the Caribbean

culture. They are represented as lacking character and self-esteem, domesticated, harmless,

submissive, gentle to the point of navet, out of touch with themselves human trash as far

as the rest of the United States is concerned (p.47), thus creating this negative collective

identity.

According to Ilan Stavans in his book The Hispanic Condition, any discussion about

the Puerto Rican culture and identity in the United States must include the musical West Side

Story. The author believes this plot, which was first a play and later on became a movie, is

controversial because this 1957 landmark Broadway play a retelling of Shakespeares

Romeo and Juliet [] is a social document that makes many Puerto Ricans uncomfortable

(p.49). The story is set in a poor, racially mixed neighborhood in New York City, where

Puerto Ricans are minority. The counterparts are two gangs -- the Jets and the Sharks.

Although both gangs are sought after by the police, Puerto Ricans are the only ones to be

harassed and verbally attacked.

Furthermore, West Side Story remains true to its Shakespearean model. Things look

good for the young lovers in the beginning, but then Tony -much like Romeo- accidentally

kills his lover's brother while trying to break up a fight. The final message according to
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Stavans, doom, disaster, death in the end, miscegenation and interracial encounters cannot

come without suffering and loss (p.49). The author reports that the male characters of Puerto

Rican descent are machos longing for a less risky life while craving the American Dream

(p.50). He has mixed feelings about the movie, which he says is very enjoyable and it can

be considered worthy of study for showcasing the immigrant patterns from the countryside to

the barrio and also from the barrio to a larger community (p.50).

Besides, the author thinks that the play/movie has some value for the way it depicts

otherness1 by brown-colored skin (p.50), while in the film the Italians are portrayed by

white skin characters with no accent. The lyrics of one of the songs from the play and also

from the movie present the view of a newly come Puerto Rican immigrant to America and the

view of a Puerto Rican who inhabits the island of Manhattan and considers the island of

Puerto Rico the antithesis of the other. The lyrics set the tone for the U.S. approach toward

Puerto Ricans on the mainland. The song is called America and presents Rosalia and Anitas

conversation:

ROSALIA
Puerto Rico,
You lovely island . . .
Island of tropical breezes.
Always the pineapples growing,
Always the coffee blossoms blowing.

ANITA
Puerto Rico . . .
You ugly island . . .
Island of tropic diseases.
Always the hurricanes blowing,
Always the population growing . . .
And the money owing,
And the babies crying,
And the bullets flying.
I like the island Manhattan.

1
This term was coined in the writings of Hegel (1770-1881), and later developed by Lacan, and it has several
definitions according to different fields of study. For the purpose of this paper the definition applied here is the
Literary definition, according to the Website of the University of Texas
<http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~ulrich/rww03/othering.htm>: the social and/or psychological ways in which one
group excludes or marginalizes another group. By declaring someone "Other," persons tend to stress what makes
them dissimilar from or opposite of another, and this carries over into the way they represent others, especially
through stereotypical images. Accessed on June 04th, 2004.
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Smoke on your pipe and put that in!

OTHERS
I like to be in America!
O.K. by me in America!
Ev'rything free in America
For a small fee in America! []
ALL
Automobile in America,
Chromium steel in America,
Wire-spoke wheel in America,
Very big deal in America!
ROSALIA
I'll drive a Buick through San Juan.
ANITA
If there's a road you can drive on.
ROSALIA
I'll give my cousins a free ride.
ANITA
How you get all of them inside?
ALL
Immigrant goes to America,
Many hellos in America;
Nobody knows in America
Puerto Rico's in America!
ROSALIA
I'll bring a T.V. to San Juan.
ANITA
If there a current to turn on!
ROSALIA
I'll give them new washing machine.
ANITA
What have they got there to keep clean?
ALL
I like the shores of America!
Comfort is yours in America!
Knobs on the doors in America,
Wall-to-wall floors in America!
ROSALIA
When I will go back to San Juan.
ANITA
When you will shut up and get gone?
ROSALIA
Everyone there will give big cheer!
ANITA
Everyone there will have moved
here! 2

2.4 Que te destruya tu idioma Speak English, you are in America!

Another aspect of the border identity, according to Anzalda, is the language. She

says that Spanish speakers, among them the ones who are born and live in Puerto Rico,

2
Music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. 1956, 1957 Amberson Holdings LLC and Stephen
Sondheim. Copyright renewed. Leonard Bernstein Music Publishing Company LLC, Publisher.
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consider a pocho to be a cultural traitor, one who speaks the opressors language by speaking

English, thus ruining the Spanish language. As Gloria, Piero was accused by various

Latinos, specially the islanders, of being one. New Yorker Spanish is considered by the purist

and by most Latinos deficient, a mutilation of Spanish.

But New Yorker Spanish, Spanglish or Nuyorican languages are border tongues which

developed naturally. Anzalda says they are living languages (p.77), that

[...] for a people who are neither Spanish nor live in a country in which Spanish is
the first language; for a people who live in a country in which English is the reigning
tongue but who are not Anglo; for a people who cannot entirely identify with either
standard (formal, Castillian) Spanish nor standard English, what recourse is left to
them but to create their own language? A language which they can connect their
identity to, one capable of communicating the realities and values true to themselves
a language with terms that are neither espaol ni ingls, but both (p.77).

People on the process of creating a new identity were rejected by nationalists and

purists for behaving in such manner, and in acting in such way they were considered as

having turned their backs to their native culture and language, thus making them feel

unwelcomed or having feelings of discomfort at places or within groups of people. When this

displacement generates feelings of not-belonging to a place, it becomes even worse when the

place one cannot feel at home is ones inner self . This means that the person does not know

who he or she really is, and this emptiness brought on by the lack of identity causes problems

such as low self-esteem, lack of objectives in life, emotional confusion and distress, and a

sense that life is not worthwhile.

Regarding the question of the language, Juan Gonzalez says that no other issue so

clearly puts Hispanics at odds with English speaking white and black Americans (p.206).

The United States is in the unique position of being the largest English-speaking country in

the world and at the same time the fifth-largest Spanish-speaking one. Gonzalez states that

language is at the heart of an individuals social identity. Language is the means through
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which a people expresses its beliefs, sings its songs, and preserves and transmits them all

along with its folklore and customs to its descendents.

The issue of a national language in the United States has been a controversial one for

many years. The myth of a melting pot country can only be possible if the immigrants

embrace not only the American way of life, but also the English Language. Puerto Ricans

became Americans by force and the American government and its Congress deliberated,

decided and voted without taking into account the peoples wishes and even less regard for

whatever language they spoke. Soon after Puerto Rico was occupied by the U.S. in 1898,

Congress declared the territory officially bilingual, even though its population had spoken

Spanish for four hundred years and almost no one spoke English (p.210). Although Puerto

Ricans cannot vote for Congress representatives and nor for president, English is the language

in the federal courts in the island.

In order for a foreigner who is applying to become an American citizen, one has to

take a literacy test. However, Puerto Ricans were granted immediate citizenship without any

knowledge of the English language. Through the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Congress

declared Puerto Ricans US citizens suspending literacy tests. Thus, Congress has created,

through U.S. territorial expansion, Spanish-speaker citizens. The acknowledgement of the

Congress that Puerto Ricans living in the mainland had the right to citizenship gave them,

consequently, the right to their own language. This action, which intended to include the

colonized islanders, in an attempt of homogenization of the people, ended up creating a legal

loophole that allowed English illiterate people to be American citizens. Gonzalez quotes

Edward Said regarding the antagonistic notions of us and them, cultural imperialism

and colonized culture:

The main battle in imperialism is over land, of course; but when it came to who
owned the land, who had the right to settle and work on it, who kept it going []
these issues were reflected, contested, and even for a time decided in narrative
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[culture], the power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and
emerging, is very important to culture and imperialism and constitutes one of the
main connections between them (SAID apud GONZALEZ, p.214).

The political character of language is made apparent when the dominant class attempts

to create a common cultural environment and tranforms the popular mentality through the

imposition of a national language. Spanish speakers still these days cause a lot of fear among

such dominant classes in the United States and the purist defensors of a hegemonic nation.

Gramsci (apud McLaren, 1994 p.173) believes that there is a close relationship between

linguistic stratification and social hierarchization, in which various accents and dialects found

in a particular society are always ranked as to their legitimacy, appropriatedeness and so on.

Conservative Americans, in the government specially, want to assimilate immigrants into an

unjust social order by arguing that every ethnic group would benefit culturally, economically

and socially if they fulfilled the requisite of (learning) speaking the dominant language.

The current American president, George W. Bush, has used the Spanish language

either in his speeches to address the specific ethnic group or as a subject of his speeches. His

"No Child Left Behind" education plan proposes extreme changes in the way the nation's

more than 3 million English learners will be taught. His plan stipulates that in order for all

students to meet high standards, they need to master English as quickly as possible. To attain

that goal, the Bush plan aims to remove the strong preference that federal funding presently

gives to programs that teach in the students' non-English native language over those that rely

on the structured English immersion approach3. Furthermore, the president has addressed the

Latin community in the United States in Spanish. Although he might think he is fluent, many

people, including the King of Spain, Juan Carlos, who begged, "Our dear friend, George

Bush" to "please stop mangling the Spanish language" and also Mexican president, Vicente

Fox , who said


3
Available at: http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=10002 Accessed on June 18, 2004.
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Usually, I find Bushs groveling to be very entertaining, even endearing. However,


he only needs to know one sentence of Spanish to make me and my compatriots
eternally happy: La frontera es abierta! If he does this, then the United States can
enjoy all of the fruits of our wonderful and elevated Latin culture without inflicting
further outrage upon the Spanish language.4

Nevertheless, this notion of a common culture brought on by a common language

which would regulate and normalize the differences can be considered as a myth. Homi K.

Bhabha (apud McLaren, 1994) states that this common culture, like all myths of nations unity

is a profoundly conflicted ideological strategy; it is a declaration of democratic faith in a

plural, diverse society and, at the same time, a defense against the real, subversive demands

that the articulation of cultural difference the empowering of minorities, makes upon

democratic pluralism [] the common culture is perceived to be an ethical mission whose

value lies in revealing, prophylactically, the imperfections and exclusion of the political

system as it exists. American language and thought are constructed as a system of differences

organized in a binary opposition of white/black, good/bad, national/foreigner, English/other.

Thus, there is not a consensus of what an American identity is. Gonzalez agrees with Said

when the latter declares

[] we have to concede that as an immigrant settler society superimposed on the


ruins of considerable native presence, American identity is too varied to be a unitary
and homogeneous thing; indeed the battle within it is between advocates of a
unitary identity and those who see the whole as a complex but not reductively
unified[] Partly because of empire, all cultures are involved in one another; none
is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarely differentiated, and
unmonolithic (p.215).

Though Gonzalez and Said claim that America has a hybrid identity, this view is not

shared by all. Most of the debate about identity in America lies on the threat of

bilingualism. Due to the special condition Puerto Ricans live in America -- American citizens

who do not speak the dominant language English -- and whose households where Spanish

has been a part of family life for generations, language becomes integral to a sense of who

4
Available at:http://www.houstonreview.com/articles/polichinello/P20010516a.html Accessed on June 18,2 004.
26

one is (GONZALEZ, p.226). Mother tongue retention is much higher among Hispanics than

any other group of immigrants, probably because of the proximity and easiness of traveling

between the two lands, in the case of Puerto Rico, and over fifty years of continued massive

immigration (p.226).

In order to be independent, to stand on his own legs, a person, a group, a community and

even a nation must first see themselves as a whole, separate, unique and differing from the

others. However, Puerto Ricans have always agonized and suffered from insecurity and doubt

over the cunundrum of something seemingly as easy and basic as who they are. Gonzalez

presents studies in his book about Puerto Ricans mental and personality disorders, three

times the U.S. average and that schizophrenia is by far the most treated psychosis [] the

present state of Puerto Rican society is one of identity diffusion and identity confusion

(p.254). Citizenship, which should have enhanced Puerto Rican achievement, may actually

have hindered it by conferring entitlements, such as welfare, with no concomitant obligations

(CHAVEZ, 1991).

Therefore, US citizenship enabled Puerto Ricans to move to the mainland, where they can

take advantage of the US government aids that in turn have made them dependent on the

system. This dependency was not a voluntary decision taken by the islanders. Puerto Ricos

history demonstrates the path that led the Puerto Ricans to the present state of a divided

culture, part on the island and part of its citizens in America mostly in New York City.
27

3 THE PUERTO RICANS

3.1 Historical Overview

[] So here I am, look at me


I stand proud as you can see
pleased to be from the Lower East
a street fighting man
a problem of this land
I am the Philosopher of the Criminal Mind []
to belong to survive you gotta be strong []
I dont wanna be buried in Puerto Rico []
take my ashes and scatter them thru out
the Lower East Side.

These lines are from the poem A Lower East Side Poem by Miguel Piero, a Puerto

Rican poet, circa 1974. Although Piero was, besides a poet, a play writer, a screenwriter, a

television writer, an actor, an eventual director of his own plays; this paper will analyze only

his poetry. The poet and the poem are examples from what is called the Nuyorican

movement. The term Nuyorican"5 is often used to refer to all Puerto Ricans who have lived

their formative years in the United States. In order to understand it better, it is necessary to

analyze a bit of Puerto Ricos history.

Probably the first inhabitants of Puerto Rico were Amerindians. It was the Tanos and

the Arawak Indians who lived there when Columbus arrived in 1493. They were peaceful and

self-reliant tribes that had developed a sophisticated culture, language and religious system.

An unusual fact is that Tanos not only did have male chiefs but also female ones. Tanos

5
In this paper it is used in its original sense, as specific to those raised in New York City.
28

believed in prophecies from gods, in the contact with the dead and in the use of hallucinogens.

Puerto Ricos original inhabitants gave the name of Boriquen to the island. As many other

Caribbean natives, the people from Boriquen were not prepared to defend themselves against

the well-armed Spanish settlers who arrived from Hispaniola with Juan Ponce de Len in

15086. Although the Tanos were enslaved, slaughtered and raped, many still resisted the

conquerors. Many that had survived the battles ended up dying from European diseases.

The Spanish conquerors settled at San Juan (which is the capital), because it was

considered one of the most vital outposts in the Americas. The British, the French and the

Dutch tried numerous times to take over that settlement to make it their own. In the 16 th and

17th centuries, many African slaves were taken to Puerto Rico to work in the sugar, tobacco

and cotton plantations. Nevertheless, the biggest profits came from illegal trades with

neighboring countries. For that reason, many Europeans went to Puerto Rico to invest in the

plantations hoping to become rich in a fairly amount of time and benefiting from slave labor.

However, according to Stavans (2001, p.34), many other Europeans went to Puerto Rico

during this colonial period in order to enblanquecer al pueblo. The author claims that this

immigration policy, called Real Cdula de Gracias of 1815, aimed to whiten the population.

The colonizers feared riots and the uprising of black slaves and native Indians.

After that period, Puerto Rican nationalists spent most of the second half of the 19 th

century arguing the advantages and disadvantages of self-ruling. Revolutions started to break

out around the country. In 1897, Puerto Rico achieved certain autonomy regarding election of

local government, representatives in Spain and their own currency. During the Spanish-

American War, US troops invaded Puerto Rico at Guanica, on July 25, 1898 to fight the

6
Available at: www.lonelyplanet.com/destinations/ caribbean/puerto_rico/history.htm, Accessed on April 12th,
2004.
29

Spanish Troops stationed there. Only American soldiers and Spanish ones died in the conflict.

The war ended before any heavy fighting began in Puerto Rico. The population did not

oppose the American soldiers, because they wanted to free themselves from the Spanish, even

though the government in San Juan had declared loyalty to Spain.

When the war was over, the US demanded Puerto Rico to be given to them as a war

payment from Spain, at the occasion of the signing of the 'Treaty of Paris'. A year later, the

Foraker Law declared Puerto Rico a non-incorporated American territory (TORRES, 2001).

The island, then, became neither a country nor an American state, but a protectorate of the

US. In 1917, Puerto Ricans were granted US citizenship through the Jones Act. After this law

was passed, Puerto Rican residents did not have to pay federal income tax nor do they vote in

presidential elections, but they have to pay social security, and they can receive federal

welfare and serve in the armed forces. Thus the law made Puerto Ricans eligible for military

service in WWI, Vietnam and other armed conflicts the US was and is involved in.

Since Puerto Rico became a protectorate of the United States, the US decided to invest

money on the island bringing reform and investments which apparently improved the

economy; most for the large landholders (particularly US sugar interests). This money came

in the form of tax exemptions to American companies that wanted to establish business on the

island. Unfortunately, the American depression in the 1930s also affected the protectorate.

Due to depression and the appropriation of lands, many Puerto Ricans became unemployed.

This resulted in a great mass migration to the US.

A few years later, during World War II, the US military appropriated a lot of

agricultural lands, which have not been returned to the Puerto Ricans, and most lands were
30

used for target practicing and bomb detonations, mostly on the islands Isla de Culebra, and

Isla de Vieques7. There have been some non-proven claims that these tests are the cause of

Vieques' high cancer rate. The World Socialist Website (WSWS), an opponent of US military

and foreign policy, reports that "Over a third of the island's population of 9,000 are now

suffering from a range of cancers and other serious illnesses." 8 WSWS links these cases of

illness to the US Navy's target practice on Vieques. The cancer rate is reportedly about 25%

higher on Vieques than on the main portion of Puerto Rico. In March, 1999, a Vieques native

was killed by a bomb dropped by a military jet during bombing exercises. A civilian

employee of the Navy was on duty at a military Observation Point when two bombs fell 1

miles away from their designated target; one of them fell 300 feet away from Sanes and

exploded, killing him instantly (http://www.Vieques-island.com/navy/navyfacts.html). From

then on, Puerto Ricans from the island and from the United States traveled to Vieques to

protest the bombings and testing. Many celebrities joined the people in protest, including a

plea from Pope John Paul II who asked for peace in the island. Hundreds of Puerto Ricans

served time in jail for illegally entering the bombing grounds in order to protest.

After many talks with the U.S. government to try to look for a solution to the problem,

in 2001, Governor Sila Maria Calderon signed a treaty with President George W. Bush that

guaranteed the military's leaving of the island in May of 2003. On May 1, 2003, the military

started moving out of Vieques, when a street party erupted all over Vieques celebrating the

military's move out of the island. The US Navy gave $40 million in direct funds which are

now being used to improve the infrastructure of the island. The lands previously owned by the

Navy have been turned over to the U.S. National Fish & Wildlife Service for management.

7
Available at: http://www.wordiq.com/definition/Vieques Accessed on June 18, 2004. See map at anexos.
8
Available at: http://www.wsws.org/articles/2001/feb2001/vieq-f21.shtml Accessed on June 18, 2004.
31

The immediate bombing range area on the eastern tip of the island still suffers from severe

contamination.

When the WW II ended, the American president Harry Truman, in 1948, appointed a

governor for Puerto Rico, Jess T. Piero. Soon after that, president Truman started Operation

Bootstrap, a government program that aimed to boost the islands economy and diversify from

the sugar industry. This operation favored US companies that were established in Puerto Rico

through tax breaks, forcing Puerto Rican companies to sell. Truman claimed that the main

goal of the Operation Bootstrap was to industrialize and urbanize the land and tax concessions

were given to promote investments.

Although the operation was apparently successful and the economy boomed, the gains

were taken to the mainland, thus the local economy did not benefit from the surplus.

Operation Bootstrap promoted migration to the US (particularly to New York) to provide

labor for U.S. industry. The program focused on intensifying capital in the industrialization of

the island, creating an illusion of general prosperity and a very real increase in unemployment

and dislocation as a result of it. Therefore, the success the operation seemed to have achieved

was only to the advantage of the large industries, which belonged to American entrepreneurs.

The transformations that occurred on the island forced people to immigrate to the United

States.

After 1945, over a million Puerto Ricans, including many women, immigrated to the

U.S.9. Those immigrants became vital workers for the American industry. On July 3rd, Puerto

Rico became a commonwealth instead of a protectorate. This new status was conceded by the

U.S. Congress. Puerto Ricans voted three to one in a 1951 referendum to become a

commonwealth of the US rather than remain a colony10. Nationalists wanted complete

9
Available at: http://www.bartleby.com/67/3729.html Accessed on April 23rd, 2004.
10
Available at: www.lonelyplanet.com/destinations/ caribbean/puerto_rico/history.htm , Accessed on April 24 th,
2004.
32

independence and there was an attempt on President Trumans life. However, despite of all the

discussions, arguments and even some violent episodes, Puerto Rico has not become

independent nor has it achieved statehood status.

3.2 The Nuyorican Movement

During the 60s, around one million Puerto Ricans went to work in New York City and

other places in the US. All Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States; therefore

immigration laws and officers were not then nor are they now a reason of concern for them.

Because of their legal status, they could keep straight connections with the island. These ties

between continent and island allow Puerto Rican leaders from New York to campaign in

Puerto Rico and vice-versa. For many of these citizens, their predicament in the inner-city

barrios, like the Lower East Side of the poem, was directly connected to the political destiny

of Puerto Rico.

Therefore, since the Spanish American War, when the island became a colony of the

US, the cultural identity of the Puerto Ricans has been crippled. In an attempt to regain

cultural identity, cultural nationalists turned to Boriquen in the late 60s and early 1970s. Their

literary production and political ideology reflected a romantic and idealized vision of the

island. Boriquen was transformed in an ethnic myth that previous generations had fed to their

young. In his poem This is not the place where I was born, Piero said that:

puerto rico 1974


this is not the place where I was born
remember as a child the fantasizing images my
mother planted within my head
the shadows of her childhood recounted to me many
times over welfare loan on crdito food from el bodeguero []
33

Clearly, to the generation that followed, Boriquen was a dream that their parents had

embraced in an effort to hold onto an identity. The first-generation of Puerto Rican migrants

in the United States lived with the dream of returning to the homeland.

In spite of that, the Puerto Rican writers from the 19 th and 20th centuries turned their

writings to another island, Manhattan. This island concentrated almost 80% of all migration

from Puerto Rico. Most of the writing produced then was about the immigrants impressions

and statements concerning the exile in New York. However, the first author to use New York

as a theme for his work was Zeno Ganda (TORRES, 2001, p.75). He wrote, among other

things, Nueva York, around the 1930s. This work presents a colonial historical panorama of

his country including the migration to the United States (p.75). The writers that followed him

wrote for American newspapers and a few of them were very active and studious of the

African-American expression.

Other writers that depicted the Puerto Rican experience in New York were Bernardo

Vega and Jess Coln. They both wrote about the immigrant experience leaving the native

land and trying to adapt to New York. They dedicated their lives and writings to the working

class (TORRES, 2001, p.75). Vega became a Union militant and a Marxist. Coln also

embraced some of Vegas beliefs and wrote about them in A Puerto Rican in New York. This

work came out in the 40s but it was only published in 1977. Most of their work is about the

struggle of the nationalist movement for Puerto Ricos independence. Their work also

describes their awe toward the island of Manhattan and also depicts the Puerto Ricans

hardships and effort to be accepted in the North American society and their fear of being

considered spicks a derivation from the mispronounced English verb to speak. (p.75).
34

Until that time, the Puerto Rican literature done in New York is about New York but

not necessarily from New York (TORRES, 2001, p.80). The work is written in Spanish, with

just a little input of English, even though in the 50s the community already used the code

switching and the Spanglish (interlanguage code). This easiness the community felt with the

mixing and switching from one language to the other influenced the following generation of

writers, the Nuyoricans.

The term Neorican or Nuyorican is probably a reference to a Puerto Rican character

that appeared in the title of the island author Jaime Carreros 1964 collection of poems, Jet

neorriqueo: Neo-Rican Jet Liner. Carrero presents the point of view of an islander who goes

to New York for college and several visits, pretty much like the author11. His book of poems is

bilingual and according to Juan Flores he offers an outsider-insider contrast that refers not

only to place of residence but to cultural perspective.

The poetry of Nuyorican writers is tied to the events that took place in the 60s and 70s

in New York City and especially to the Young Lords Party (WILLIAM, 1997, p.43). This was

a movement similar to the Black Panthers and others alike that aimed to better Latinos life

quality. The YLP considered itself to be a revolutionary organization committed to improve

and implement social, educational, political and health programs. Unity was the goal of the

Young Lords Party. They wanted to unite the community and bring to El Barrio and other

Puerto Rican and Hispanic communities in New York a sense of pride and identity that had

previously existed (p. 44). This organization influenced greatly the lives of many Latinos in

the US. They considered the minorities, Latinos and blacks, as victims of the system for

keeping them living in slums and ghettos, either unemployed or imprisoned.

11
Available at: http://www.mla.org/ade/bulletin/n091/091039.htm , article by FLORES, Juan. Accessed on:
April 11th, 2004.
35

Many Latino communities started supporting the organization of the YLP and one of

the ways they resort to do it was through art. The feelings and ideas could be vented and

expressed in poems, plays and even music. Based on this platform to give voice to the

community, the Nuyorican movement got its legs. The Nuyoricans developed when the

country was going through the civil rights movement. The poets became spokespersons for

the people from the inner cities, from the barrios. The Hispanic and Latino communities

turned these poets in prophets. They became the outlet for expressing the injustices,

discrimination and persecution they found themselves in.

In the decade of the 1960s Americans were deeply involved in intense racial politics

and Civil Rights Movement, and consequently so were the Puerto Ricans that inhabited New

York. Puerto Ricans felt challenged to define themselves. Some members of the New York

community began to refer to themselves as New Yoricans or Ricans12, trying to maintain not

only their Puerto Rican identity Boricuas, but also embracing their new yorkness of non-

white ghetto second class citizens. A periodical published during the 1970s was also called

The Rican. It featured articles, interviews, literature, and art that focused on what was

considered the contemporary Puerto Rican thought.

On the other hand, the term and the men who adopt it as to refer about themselves are

not well accepted by all. Many Puerto Ricans, mostly the ones who live on the island,

consider that Nuyoricans are endangering the islands culture and language. Poet, professor,

and co-founder of the Nuyorican Poets Caf, Miguel Algarn declares about that:

[] they were looking down on us, as if we were nothing. We were Puerto Ricans
talking in English, and that to them was contemptuous [] Not only did we speak

12
Available at: http://userwww.service.emory.edu/~pthoma4/Nuyorican%20Cultural%20Notes.htm , Accessed
on: February 26th, 2004.
36

good English, but we were presenting a play on Broadway, we were writing for TV,
and we were famous in Europe, but or them, we were just newyoricans.13

For this generation of poets there was a need to return to Puerto Rico and it became

not only part of a personal quest, but also a collective search for a cultural protection to shield

their identity. Many were disappointed with what they saw and experienced; Boriquen was

not the paradise that mamacitas had described to them, the paradise that they had imagined.

Besides that, not all Puerto Ricans welcomed the long lost brothers living in the mainland,

according to the same poem. Piero reports to his fellow companions and his own disillusion

in his poem This is not the place where I was born:

[] have no right to claim any benefit on the birth port


this sun drenched soil
this green faced piece of earth
this slave blessed land
where nuyoricans come in search of spiritual identity
are greeted with profanity
this is insanity that americanos are showered
with shoe shine kisses []

Some of these nationalists and artists, such as Miguel Piero, returned to their barrios

in New York and decided to carry on their struggle at home. Among them, besides Piero,

there was Miguel Algarn, Pedro Pietri and others. Pietri, in a recent interview given to the

newspaper La Prensa San Diego on February 6th, 2004, just a few weeks before he died,

declared about the 70s and the beginning of the Nuyorican movement:

So, I return to New York, and there was all these radical changes going on at home
with the Young Lords Party. Now, I wrote poetry before I met the Young Lords, or
the Black Panther Party. Back then, I was the best poet at baptisms, funerals,
birthdays, confirmations; you name it, I was there. And it was all by memory back
then, in the old tradition. I met Jorge Brandon at Washington Square Park, who years
later reappeared as the Saint of the Nuyorican Poetry Movement. It was his
influence that made me decide whether it was poetry or suicide. We met again on
Sixth Street at Miguel Algarns apartment, with Papoleto Melendez, Tato Laviera,
Amrico Cassiano, Lucky Cienfuegos, the notorious Miguel Piero, and we used to
read our poems there, our first draft poems. That is the original Nuyorican Poets
Caf, on Sixth Street, and thats where I come to the conclusion that the Nuyorican
Movement is the First Draft Movement, because we were all very enthusiastic about
reading the first draft, something thats rarely done now. First draft is you scribbling
it on a notebook, or a paper, or a napkin and you read it there. And if you make

13
Available at: http://userwww.service.emory.edu/~pthoma4/Nuyorican%20Cultural%20Notes.htm , Accessed
on: February 26th, 2004.
37

mistakes, man, it makes the poem much more interesting and exciting, and thats
when history started being made14.

In the same newspaper article, Pietri continues his testimony of those days. He said

that it was the decline of the Beat Generation and poetry, at that time, had gone back to the

academia. To everyones surprise, those poets coming from the streets and doing poetry on

the streets dominated the scene. He also added that the movement gave a space and a venue

for the talented ones who did not have an audience. Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan and the

ghost of Pablo Neruda even read at the Caf. We were all there because of the poetry, and it

was all poetry.

Since the poets had acquired the status of representatives of the people, the Caf

became the pulpit and the court. The Caf, to which Pietri referred, was founded in 1974 and

is still going strong today. New York was the place chosen by the poets to establish their

venue because New York City has the largest population of Puerto Ricans. Their main goals

were to raise awareness of the Puerto Rican culture and to express themselves through their

art, whether it was poetry or plays. The poets wrote for the people, using the language of the

streets, sometimes using English, Spanish or Spanglish.

Because of the Caf, the term Nuyorican became a self-defining term, critically

appropriated by Algarn and poet Miguel Piero15. The members of the Caf and its patrons

were not quite Puerto Rican nor completely New Yorkers. They became a symbol of a

culturally and linguistically hybrid experience of the Puerto Rican community living in New

York, experiencing discrimination and marginality within U.S. society. William (1997) says

14
Available at: http://www.laprensa-sandiego.org/archieve/february06-04/pedro.htm Accessed on: April 25th,
2004.
15
Available at: http://userwww.service.emory.edu/~pthoma4/Nuyorican%20Cultural%20Notes.htm Accessed
on: April 30th, 2004.
38

that writers such as Miguel Piero accepted their destiny, for better or for worse, in New

York where he (the poet) wanted to die (p.56). Williams study (1997) claims that Piero

uses his poetry to depict the difference between Puerto Ricans on the island and the ones in

the mainland. The ones in a North American environment cannot express their nationality and

the Puerto Ricanness in the same way; Piero suggests that Puerto Ricans in New York are

more Puerto Rican than those who reside on the island (p. 58). Luiz William illustrates his

point with Pieros poem This is not the place where I was born:

puertorriqueos cannot assemble displaying the emblem


nuyoricans are fighting & dying for in newark, lower eastside
south bronx where the fervor of being
puertorriqueos is not just rafael hernndez []

3.2.1 NUYORICAN POETS CAF

The official website of the NPC16 provides information about its foundation. It began

in a living room in the East Village apartment of writer and poet, Miguel Algarn. Algarn, a

college professor at the arts center, was dedicated to promote new work to the public in

general. The Nuyorican poets were all involved in some way with the Young Lords Party. In

the mid of 1975, there were too many poets and an excess of energy for Algarn's living room.

Around that time, William Morrow Inc. had just published an anthology titled Nuyorican

Poetry. Miguel Piero's play Short Eyes had just won two awards as best one of the 1974

season.

The founding poets of the movement and its caf thought it was necessary to create a

physical space to host the array of new poets and to bring the new culture to life. So Algarn

rented an Irish bar, the Sunshine Cafe on East 6th Street, which was called The Nuyorican

16
Available at: http://www.nuyorican.org/ Accessed on: April 16th, 2004.
39

Poets Cafe. By 1980, there were so many people in the audience that the Cafe had to buy a

building at 236 East 3rd Street to expand its activities and programs.

From its beginning the Caf has been a non-profit organization and it has been

considered as one of the country's most highly respected arts organizations, bringing new and

innovative poetry, music, hip hop, video, visual arts, comedy and theatre. The mission of the

Cafe is to create a multi-cultural venue that both nurtures artists and exhibits a variety of

artistic works. Without limitation, we are dedicated to providing a stage for the arts with

access for the widest public17.

The Cafe's intent has always been to provide a stage for the artists that are traditionally

under-represented in the mainstream media and culture that are considered a cultural minority.

The president founder of the Caf is still alive and active, Miguel Algarn, Professor of

English, at the Rutgers University (retired). The importance of both the Caf and the

Nuyorican movement are crucial to many Puerto Rican artists and poets. Juan Flores 18 in his

book From Bomba to Hip Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity (p.179) says that

[] for the poor New York Puerto Rican there are three survival possibilities. The
first is to labor for money and exist in eternal debt. The second is to refuse to trade
hours for dollars and to love by your will and 'hustle.' The third possibility is to
create alternative behavioral habits [] Algarn and Piero were among the
founding members of the now famous Nuyorican Poet's Caf that is part of a larger
tradition of New York based Puerto Ricans establishing makeshift, neighborhood
spaces [] to accommodate the rising generation of bilingual and English-language
writers.

Algarn, Piero, Pietri and their companions represent the first generation of Puerto

Rican poets to work at the borders of the established movements of art. They questioned not

only the dominant cultural aesthetics, but also the cultural and political domination of the

17
Available at: http://www.nuyorican.org/AboutUs/AboutUs.html Accessed on: April 20th, 2004.
18
Available at: http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/soc/faculty/ayala/centro/Census2000/NYC/index.htm: From Bomba
to Hip Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. Accessed
on: April 25th, 2004.
40

island. In the sense of being at the margin, at the border, they identified with the struggle of

the Chicanos. Not surprisingly, the Nuyorican Movement set an alliance with the Royal

Chicano Air Force and the Nuyorican poets became honorary members. They felt that they

all suffered the same fate and experiences. Their land was stolen from them and they were

stripped of their culture. Although, they may have had different outlooks, they could still

share their experiences and poetry.

One of the most controversial poets of this movement was Miguel Piero. Not only

did he write different poetry from the molds of the established dominant culture - being a

border writer, but he also lived at the margin of the society. Even among his counterparts he

was cause for distress and shame since he spent most of his life in prison. A Nuyorican

'citizen', Piero used his poetry to create a sense of identity for himself and the Puerto Rican

immigrants in New York City.


41

4 MIGUEL PIERO: Life and Work

4.1 No hay nada nuevo en Nueva York

i was born on an island about 35 miles wide 100 miles long []


where spanish was a dominant word []
i was born in a barrio of the village on the island []
i was born on an island where to be puerto rican
meant to be part of the land & soul
& puertorriqueos were not the minority[]

Miguel Piero provides some information of his own bio in his poem This is not the

place where I was born. Additional information is given by Deborah Grace Winer 19. He was

born on 19 December 1946 as Miguel Antonio Gomez Piero in Gurabo, in east central

Puerto Rico, the oldest child of Adelina Piero and Miguel Angel Gomez Ramos. But he was

taken by his parents still as a young boy (around 1950) along with his siblings to New York

City. The family settled in Manhattan, in the Lower East Side. Soon after they had moved to

NYC, Adelina was forced out onto the streets when her husband left her, and she and her

children subsisted there for several months until welfare payments came through. Pieros

poem reflects his own hardships during his childhood:

[] the shadows of her (his mother) childhood recounted to me


many times over welfare loan on crdito food from el bodeguero
I tasted mango many years before the skin of the fruit ever reached my teeth []

In school, Miguel had behavior problems and was transferred to a few different

schools in the Lower East Side. He was introduced on the streets to drugs while he was still a

pre-teen. By the time he was fifteen, he had been in and out juvenile detention centers and

had been sentenced to a year in a reform school at the Otisville (New York) Training School
19
"Piero, Miguel"; Available at: http://www.anb.org/articles/16/16-03487.html; American National Biography
Online April 2003 Update. Accessed on: Sat May 1 20:57:44 UTC-0300 2004.
42

for Boys. Two years later he was caught burglarizing a jewelry store and was sentenced to

three years in the New York City correctional facility on Rikers Island. Paroled at nineteen,

he came out as a heroin addict, having learned, as he said later, "how to jump cables, how to

break into a house easier, how to have no feelings at all when you stick somebody".

Piero joined a number of programs for education and drug rehabilitation (including

Phoenix House). He also became interested in ethnic pride, joining an antidrug Puerto Rican

gang, the Young Lords. But he was unable to beat his addiction and he went back on the

streets, consuming drugs and committing robberies to support his habit. He was again

sentenced to Rikers Island for possession of drugs. On his release his mother committed him

to the Manhattan State Hospital. There he earned his high school equivalency certificate. But

his addiction again led him back to drug deals and robberies. He usually targeted pimps and

pushers, who, as he later explained to one interviewer, though armed and dangerous, would

not call the police. In 1971 he was caught in an armed burglary of a Lower East Side

apartment. Two witnesses at his trial agreed that he was "the nicest burglar" they had ever

met. Piero was sentenced to five years in the New York State penitentiary at Ossining--Sing

Sing.

Marvin Camillo, in his introduction to Pieros play Short Eyes, provides some data

about the author. So does the New York Times provide, from December 2, 2001 in an article

by Don Shewey by the releasing of a homonymous movie based on Pieros life. In 1972,

when Miguel Piero was 25 years old, he was serving a jail sentence for second-degree

robbery. Two years later, he achieved literary fame with the production of his first play, Short

Eyes, a graphic portrayal of life, love and death among prison inmates who are predominantly

black or Puerto Rican and receive a white inmate accused of child molesting. The script,

which originated in a prison-writing workshop, received excellent reviews.


43

Mike, as he was called by many of his friends, while was incarcerated won an award

for one of his poems, Black woman with the blond wig on 20. Camillo submitted the poem

to a contest while he worked as a Special Programs Consultant to the Council on Arts in

Westchester County; the poem won a $50 dollar-second-place award. The warden at Sing

Sing, where Piero was serving time, called him at his office and read to him and Camillo the

Riot Act. The warden called it contraband. I called it good poetry said Camillo. The Riot

Act had been passed by the British government in 1715. This was the period of the Catholic

Jacobite riots, when people who were against the new king, George I, were attacking the

meeting houses of opposing groups. The government feared rebellions, and passed a law to

avoid gatherings and self-expression against the government. The penalties for breaking such

law were penal servitude for life or not less than three years, or imprisonment with or

without hard labor for up to two years. The Act remained in force for a long time, only finally

being repealed in 1973.21

Pieros play was first acted in a prison, the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, as part

of a workshop for inmates to use theater and poetry as a tension release and self-worth

building tool. From there, Camillo, inmates and Piero created a permanent theater workshop

called The Family. After release from prison, many of these inmates joined this Manhattan

workshop. The group was really committed in rehearsing and soon they started working in

the Players Workshop on the Lower East Side. Their first production was New York, New

York, the Big Apple. They performed every where, in schools, colleges, churches, etc. Mikes

play won several awards including the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and was

subsequently made into a film.

20
This poem tackles on the issue of race, as seen on the lines: I dreamt I ran through the streets of Brownsville/
in my maiden form wig/ and no one noticed my skin.
21
Available at: http://www.quinion.com/words/qa/qa-rea1.htm Accessed on April 14th, 2004.
44

When the theater manager Joseph Papp saw the play at Riverside Church, he decided

to move it to the Public Theater and then to Broadway, where it received six Tony Award

nominations. Piero's mother, who had always encouraged him in his writing, lived to see

Short Eyes reach the stage but died before the height of its success. While his following plays

were produced at the Public and Theater for a New City, Piero also won praise for his raw

and powerful streetwise verses, that later became popular in poetry slams and by rappers like

Tupac Shakur. Leon Ichaso, a movie director who wrote, directed and produced the 2001

movie Piero declared to the news writer Shewey for an article 22 in the New York Times,

December 2, 2001, that

Piero was definitely influenced by the Beat poets, Kerouac, Amiri Baraka and the
precursors of todays rappers: the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, Felipe Luciano. A lot
of his work was built around the conditions of the ghetto and the sociopolitical
atmosphere that blacks and Latinos absorbed in jail. Remember, he was fighting the
incredible wave of mediocrity that the 70's were. He didn't have a little chain around
his neck with a coke spoon. He wasn't dancing at Studio 54. He was doing poetry
and theater, spoken word. If he would have just done it a little later, today every
tooth in his mouth would be gold, and he'd be best friends with Puffy Combs.

The director included in the movie scenes from the poets life that imply that an older

man exploited him sexually while he was still an adolescent in a movie theater. But Mr.

Ichaso suggests that in reality it was the other way around. He said in the interview that Mike

and his friends, when they were 13 or 14, started hustling at the movie theaters on 42nd

Street [...] later on he had a taste for street kids who were very much the way he'd been. The

director suggested that Piero got into trouble once for picking the wrong boy, an Italian

teenager and somebody from the boys family decided to avenge the molestation. Joe Papp, a

fellow poet and a friend who later in life became Pietris life partner, had to send him by train

to Philadelphia. While in Philadelphia, Piero wrote Spring Garden Philadelphia:

[] and now as I go back []


to my lonely hotelthat warm safe secure feeling
escapes from my body and I remember
that I am in Philadelphia
and not on the lower east side

22
Available at: http://www.donshewey.com/arts_articles/pinero.html Accessed on May 30th, 2004.
45

A poet as well as a playwright, Piero helped create the Nuyorican Poets Cafe as

mentioned before. He and Algarn then edited Nuyorican Poetry: An Anthology of Puerto

Rican Words and Feelings (1975). His influence as a pioneering voice for Latino artistic

expression was only matched by his extreme appetite for drugs, smaller and impulsive crimes

(robberies), transgressive sex (as the case mentioned in earlier paragraph) and other forms of

bad behavior, such as heavy drinking. Also in 1975 Piero went to Philadelphia to play God in

Bruce Jay Friedman's play Steambath and decided to stay there, using the city as a setting for

his next play, Eulogy for a Small Time Thief. In 1977 the play was given its premiere off-off-

Broadway at New York's Ensemble Studio Theatre. Also that year Short Eyes was released as

a film, for which Piero wrote the screenplay, adding an additional part for himself, that of Go

Go, a drug-dealing child molester.

After that, In Los Angeles, Piero turned his hand to television, writing two episodes

of Baretta and appearing as an undercover narcotics officer in one. He also appeared in an

episode of Kojak. He acted and co-wrote Bronx (1980) with Paul Newman, and later in the

1980s he appeared in the movies Breathless, Exposed, and Deal of the Century (all 1983), and

The Pick-Up Artist (1987), usually playing cons and hustlers. He played a drug dealer in the

movie The Fort Apache. In 1980 Piero published a volume of his collected poetry, La

Bodega Sold Dreams. This is the only collection of his poetry work. He believed poetry had

to be from the streets and on the streets. He seldom used to write down his poems and most

of them are now only in the memory of his friends and audience. One could say that he is the

creator of what is called today as Slam Poetry, which are improvisational poems that are

created on the spur of the moment using a theme that happens to be the topic of a

conversation or a discussion. In 1988 he died, of cirrhosis of the liver, but before his death he
46

left his will in the shape of a poem, requesting his ashes to be scattered on the Lower East

Side. This was done by his long time friend Miguel Algarn.

4.2 La Bodega Sold Dreams

Pieros poems do not seem to follow a pattern regarding form or rhyme scheme, but

they present musicality within their lines. For example, the poem Seekin the Cause,

according to Torres (2001, p.104), has a structure that resembles the blues, or even the speech

of a black preacher due to its repetitions:

He was Dead
he never lived
died
died
he died seekin a Cause
seekin the Cause
because
he said
he never saw the cause
but he heard
the cause
heard the cryin of hungry ghetto children
heard the warnin from Malcolm
heard the tractors pave new routes to new prisons
died seekin the Cause
seekin a Cause
and the Cause was dyin seekin him
and the Cause was dyin seekin him
and the Cause was dyin seekin him
he never gave
he never gave
he never gave his love to children
he never gave his heart to old people
died seekin a Cause
died seekin the Cause
& the Cause was in front of him
& the Cause was in his skin
& the Cause was in his speech
& the Cause was in his blood
but
he died seekin the Cause
he died seekin a Cause
he died
deaf
dumb
&
blind
he died
& never found his Cause
because
you see he never never
knew that he was the Cause.
47

Some other poems have rhymes in almost every line, and sometimes when read aloud
they present a similar rhythm as of a nursery rhyme, such as in Cocaine Nose Acid Face.
The author uses alliteration, and a pleasing harmony of sounds. This harmony serves as a
contrast to the subject topic of the poem. A pleasing sound to describe such a cruel and
devastating addiction. The rhyme scheme presents also internal rhyme, which end in one or
more unstressed syllables, such as in the lines " laced up spaced out so-called state of grace"
and "idiotic chaotic psychotic neurotic spic". This repetition of sounds resembles the feeling
of abandonment the drug user is taken by the effects of the cocaine. The reader can associate
the chanting-like feeling through which the poem transmits the sensations the addicted has.

Cocaine nose cocaine nose


carefully takin cocaine blows
make believe crucifix
cokedom spoon
Cocaine nose cocaine nose
have you graduated to
cocaine holes
jive sly bedford sty-buy yeah buy [ ]
life con coca makes you supersonic
idiotic chaotic psychotic neurotic spic
with a brain infested cocaine molested acid
mindddcocaine nose cocaine nose
have you graduated to
cocaine holes []
acid face - acid face dreamin' livin'
laced up spaced out so-called state of grace []
acid face acid face not a trace
of intelligence-based
follow your chase the maze
of becomin an acid face an acid face[]

The misspelling of the word 'mind' is also purposeful to create a sense for the reader that the

cocaine user is on the verge of letting go of his inhibitions and reasoning, getting ready for the

"dreamin' livin'" and he is about to lose his mind as a matter of speak.

The language also plays a major role in his poems, which is very colloquial and as the

proposition of the Nuyoricans it came from the streets. The poems are mostly written in

English, but often present both languages in themselves, English and Spanish. Such are the

cases of Jitterbug Jesus, The Book of Genesis According to San Miguelito, Cocaine
48

Nose Acid Face, New York City Hard Times Blues and some others. The excerpt below

is from the poem Jitterbug Jesus:

Tiempos is longin lookin


for third world laughter
to break out like a pimple on the face
of a pimp
of youthful
latino eyes that chase el ritmo del giro
en los vagones del tren on school mornin
shoutin broken spanish dream
- si t cocina como tu mam
como hasta el pegao
jitterbuggin in wrinkled
worn out jeans
bailando new found pride in bein nuyoricano []

Since Piero's idea of poetry was that it had to be spoken, read aloud, this poem gives the

reader the musicality and the mixing of the languages that a Chicano or Puerto Rican

immigrant would produce while speaking. When the poet mixes the two codes, sometimes in

the same verse, it reproduces the speech pattern, marked with a strong accent of a

"nuyoricano". This resource resembles the floating in between the two languages, the refusal

of settling down on either side of these divisions imposed by culture and language, thus

disrupting the linguistics and power structures. In doing it so, the poet introduces the reader

to voices and identities situated in a hybrid land, the "third country" according to Anzalda as

mentioned earlier.

Again, on the poems No Hay Nada Nuevo en Nueva York and There Is

Nothing New in New York, the reader can observe the poet's manipulation of the language.

The poem with the Spanish title has only one line in English, the second one:

No hay nada nuevo en nueva york


there is nothin new in new york
te lo digo en ingls
te lo digo en espaol
la misma situacin de opresin
es la nica accin en todas
las esquinas de esta nacin...
49

The poem in English is a translation of the one in Spanish or the other way around, however
the first line remains the same in both poems, in Spanish.
No hay nada nuevo en nueva york
There is nothing new in new york
I tell you in english
I tell you in spanish
the same situation of oppression
its the only action in all the corners
of this nation []

Piero makes it clear that he can use either language to express himself I tell you in english/

I tell you in spanish"; however, in spite of the language chosen to convey his ideas, the

Latinos situation in America remains the same: "oppression". The message of the poem has

to be understood by all, hence the choice of expressing it twice in both languages. This poem

was written in the early 70's while Richard Nixon was the president of the United States

(1969- 1974)23. In 1971 the United States army took possession of almost all of Culebra Island

and at the same time President Nixon declared Christopher Columbus day a federal public

holiday, also in Puerto Rico, on the 2nd Monday in October. Nixon was fluent in Spanish and

many of his speeches were addressed directly to the Latin community in their native language.

Christopher Columbus introduced the island of Puerto Rico to a life of colony, of

being dominated by a white European force. Nixon honoring Columbus in a holiday that was

supposed to be celebrated on the island seems to be an offense to the native Puerto Ricans. In

fact, Puerto Ricans celebrate the date as Dia de La Raza, in honor to many races coming

together. While Anglo-America celebrates its white ancestors, Puerto Ricans celebrate their

brownness the mixing of the races.

Through the poem "The Book of Genesis According to Saint Miguelito", the poetic

voice "parodies the Bible and provides the reader with his version of the origin of time, one

23
Available at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/presidents/rn37.html Accessed on June 18, 2004.
50

that explains the present course of events in places familiar to the speaker" (WILLIAM, 1997,

p. 59). Besides that, the reader can infer from the poem that the figure of God can be

paralleled to Nixon. God was responsible for the creation of the world, of man and woman,

and also the creation of ghettos and slums "in the beginning/ God created the ghettos &

slums" and he decorated these places with "lead base paint" and "rivers of garbage & filth to

flow [] through the ghettos". After God had created all sorts of diseases and ailments for

the ghetto inhabitants he said " 'My fellow subjects/ let me make one thing perfectly clear/ by

saying this about that:/ NO..COMMENT!' ". This can be construed as a reference to

the political scandal the president went through that led to his eventual resignation.

Furthermore, Piero attributes to God the blame for creating such environment for the

people. William (1997, p.60) reports that on the fifth day the people demanded an explanation

for their exploited condition and the creation of evil. Nonetheless, God did not answer and

only replied with the same words associated with Nixon's style of expression where he says

"my fellow subjects", William reads "my fellow Americans"; what is more disturbing for

William is the fact that Piero's God (in the poem) is bilingual; "he speaks in English and

Spanish, the language of his subjects" (1997, p.61).

Still on the topic of language used in his poems, the author wrote La Gente que no se

quiere pa na con la lengua solely in Spanish:

El Sbado por la noche


la selva de cemento est
brillando y las cuchillas estn
bailando y los hosiadores estn buscando
los soquetas con sus pasos misteriosos
y parece que todo est flojo porque dice la
gente que no se quiere pana con la lengua
que en los ojos de los nios la palabra
escrita grita crimen ...
dice que en el lower east side lo malo
se pone bueno y que lo bueno se pone malo [...]
51

Besides rhyme and language, the author also explores the form of his free poetry.

Most of his poems present reticence as if he were emulating the natural pauses when one

recites poetry. The layout of the poems on the page is particularly important on the poem On

the Lock-In. He considers word & letter as forms, almost as a concrete distortion of the text,

reproducing the cells of Sing Sing prison. It apparently could be read in columns of three, one

column at a time. However, if one reads a pair of verses from each column, the poem seems

to work as well. Bellow, there is an excerpt from the aforementioned poem:

Lock-in I hear I still think of


night time shuffling of cards you
&
i am alone (no mail)
earphones brothers playing the brothers
solitaire voices
hang unused in the stream of solitude fight a losing
battle

The poem The Records of Time explores its form also and it seems to be more a

short story than a poem, presenting an indetermination of genre. There is no rhyme; the

language throughout the poem is English. He makes a play on words with the names of the

characters of the poem; they are Time, a young and ambitious energyhe lived near a

wise old gentleman named His Story and his wife Truth, and their two sons Hypocrisy and

Reality. There is also Unknown, a distant uncle, and their poker-playing buddies,

Shame, Guilt, and Complexes, Coward a bar owner, Cheat a whore who was a customer

of the bar, Greed and Opportunity, two men who shared the work of the lower fortys,

below there is an excerpt of it:

Two hundred fifty million years ago, long before the recorded history of man,
someone sat down and recorded it; And this mans name was Time, and so it was
only right that he should call his writings records and add his name to history.
Time, a young and ambitious energy, lived in the summer hills of the Antarctic. He
lived near a wise old gentleman named His Story and his wife Truth, and their two
sons Hypocrisy and Reality. Truth was a very blunt woman who always tried her
best to please all her family and friends [] Time and His Story became very pretty
good companions. They all sat around listening to Hypocrisy tell tales. Greed and
Opportunity, two men who shared the work [] Opportunity sailed the seas, while
52

His Story laughed at the tears his wife Truth would shed, and time well Time, he
just stood still

Regarding the theme of his poems, there is defamiliarization of a place that through

his mothers memory became familiar (TORRES, 2001, p.102). He creates a visual image of

the island and turns it into an idyllic landscape, this sun drenched soil/ this green faced piece

of earth/ this slave blessed land/ where the caribbean seas pound angrily on the shores, and

this scene is, again according to Torres, crisscrossed with images from the barrio in New York

and images from Puerto Rico of the pre-fabricated homes, red light hotels, fiberglass palm

trees and police officers who seemed to be a mock up of American television shows;

[] pre-fabricated house/hotel redcap hustling people gypsy taxi cab []


& the hot wind is broken by fiberglass palmtrees []
looneytune cartoon comic book characters with badges in their jockstraps []

Torres believes that Piero has a critical positioning in his poems that considers the

concept of identity as something politically necessary, but not static and unchangeable

(p.103). Continuing on the subject, Torres states that this cultural nationalism brings out the

complexity of the concept of nation, especially when it deals with Puerto Rico, since it is a

North American possession and it is neither a country nor an American state (p.103). Snia

Torres also credits to Piero the status of the nuyorican poet who most represents the sordid

side of the ghetto; his world is the underground, the slums, the drugs, the prostitution, and the

world of the broken spanish dreams (Jitterbug Jesus).

Pieros ghetto and its inhabitants are goin nowhere 24; the ghettos & slums were

created by God and God saw this was goodso god created the backyards of the ghettos &

the alleys of the slums in heroin & cocaine in his The Book of Genesis According to San

Miguelito. Hustlers & suckers meet in Piero's poems, faggots & freaks will all get

24
Piero, Miguel. Poem: Running Scared
53

highdope wheelers & cocaine dealers are all depicted and living in the same place, New

York City. His description of the Hispanic ghetto calls the attention of his community to

bring them awareness, consciousness to their situation and to the struggles of their diaspora 25.

In the poem, he is the figure of Satan who in opposition to God the government and Nixon,

is too marginal and has his own version of the creation, who is responsible for introducing

change, who is "planting the seeds of knowledge and rebellion" (WILLIAM, 1997, p. 62):

[]God was riding around Harlem in a gypsy cab


when he created the people
and he created these beings in ethnic proportion
[]he saidPEOPLE!!!
the ghettos & the slums
& all the other great things Ive created
will have dominion over thee[]
But before God got on that t.w.a.
for the sunny beaches of Puerto Rico
He noticed his main man Satan
planting the learning trees of consciousness
around his ghetto edens []

William (1997) considers Miguel Piero as one of the most talented writers to come

out of the New York ghetto environment. The poet was a product of the Hispanic ghetto and

the ghetto was in him. He regarded the ghetto, more precisely Lower East Side, as his land

where he belonged and wanted to become part of when he died. His poem A Lower East

Side Poem functions as his confession and his living will (p.56):

A thief, a junkie Ive been


committed every known sin
Jews and GentilesBums and Men
of stylerun away child
police shooting wild
mothers futile wailspushers
making salesdope wheelers
all thats true
but this aint no lie
when I ask that my ashes be scattered thru
the Lower East Side.

25
The dictionary definition available at: http://www.pro-researcher.co.uk/encyclopaedia/english/diaspora
The term diaspora (Greek , a scattering or sowing of seeds) is used to refer to any people or ethnic
population forced or induced to leave their traditional ethnic homelands, being dispersed throughout other parts
of the world, and the ensuing developments in their dispersal and culture. Accessed on June 18, 2004.
54

When his the day of his death arrived, his friends honored his wish and Miguel Algarn recited

a poem and scattered the ashes on the streets of Lower East Side. Algarn provides us with a

moving recollection of that day, as people walked, their numbers growing as they processed

from Houston to 14th Street and from Second Avenue to Avenue D (WILLIAM, 1997, p. 57).

Besides the themes Piero tackles in his work, William observes that the poet

demonstrates through his poem This Is Not the Place Where I Was Born a forced

enslavement of Africans brought to the Caribbean islands (p.58). The poem reads

[]this green faced piece of earth


this slave blessed land
where nuyoricans come in search of spiritual identity[]

The line this blessed land appears twice in the poem. William sees it as a line that

intimates that Puerto Rico is a blessed land for all Puerto Ricans, however it is an

oxymoron. How can slaves live in a blessed land? If it were truly blessed, they would no

longer be slaves (p.58).

Piero gave the reason for his journey to the blessed land in the following line:

"where nuyoricans come in search of spiritual identity, but they are greeted with profanity/

this is insanity that americanos are showered [] this poem will receive a burning/ stomach

turning scorn nullified classified racist/ from this pan am eastern first national chase

manhattan/ puerto rico". He was amazed how Puerto Ricans who had never left the Island

could accuse him when they allowed the American contamination that could be seen all

around the island, "foreigners scream that puertorriqueos are foreigners" . There were

McDonald's, Pizza Huts, Burger King restaurants and other American establishments alike on

the island. Burger King franchises have been serving their fast food in Puerto Rico since

196326 and McDonalds has been there since 1967.27

26
Available at: http://www.bc-
enschede.nl/wenglish/grassroots/cooking/3tl2_0304/serrano_derkman/fastfood.htm Accessed on June 19, 2004.
27
Available at: http://www.mcspotlight.org/company/company_history.html Accessed on June 19, 2004.
55

In Pieros poem La Bodega Sold Dreams, the author wishes to be a poet, wishes to

fit in a group. This privileged group has the ability to denounce, to stir things up, to awake

the minds weak & those asleep. In this poem, even though the poet expresses his wishes

regarding who he wants to be, he, in fact, already is. He uses his poems to affirm who he is,

and also to call to arms, sort of speak, his fellow Puerto Rican brothers and sisters, to become

aware of their condition.

dreamt i was a poet


& writin silver sailin songs words
i dreamt i was this poet
words glitterin brite & bold
strikin a new rush for gold
in las bodegas
where our poets words & songs are sung

As mentioned earlier, here the artist uses his narrative, his discourse through poetry to

denounce and to raise awareness of his identity. He can still transit between the two worlds

feeling comfortable and at home, whether he is reciting his poems en las bodegas or on a

tenement sky in the Lower East Side. He knows who he is and takes pride in it:

[]
So here I am, look at me
I stand proud as you can see
pleased to be from the Lower East
a street fighting man
a problem of this land
I am the Philosopher of the Criminal Mind
a dweller of prison time
a cancer of Rockefellers ghettocide
this concrete tomb is my home
to belong to survive you gotta be strong [] (A Lower East Side Poem)
His only published book of poems, La Bodega Sold Dreams, curiously uses capital

letters for the word I only in the poems where it is not representative of the poetic I of the

poet, and on this A Lower East Side Poem. It may just be a publishers decision, but

perhaps it was done purposely by the poet, who wanted to affirm his identity only in his most

significant poem his dying will, expressing his desire to have his ashes scattered through his

home, the Lower East Side in Manhattan.


56

Even though, Anzalda states that the border is the equivalent of an intimate

terrorism and, as seen on previous chapters, she believes that the world is not a safe place to

live in when one does not feel at home, Piero found his space and considered it his home.

[] There is no other place for me to be


theres no other place that I can see
theres no other town around that
brings you up or keeps you down [] (Piero).

The feelings and the consequences for discovering a new world are different for border

writers and the great navigators and colonists of past centuries, while the former envisions the

possibility of cultural autonomy and empowerment, the latter aims to create a history of

conquest and genocide (CASTRONOVO, 1997, p.201). Although the boundaries of the

colonized borders of conquested lands are visible, the borders of the fronteirizas narratives

can be limitless. Pieros description of the borders of his chosen home, his place in A

Lower East Side Poem and also his discourse can be read by any other person or community

that is seeking for identity.

[] From Houston to 14th Street


from Second Avenue to the mighty D
here the hustlers & suckers meet
the faggots & freaks will all get
high on the ashes that have been scattered
thru the Lower East Side []

Map of the Lower East Side area


57

90
80
70
60
50 L e s te
40
30 O e s te
20 N o rte
10
0
1 2 3 4
T r im . T r im . T r im . T r im .

So let me sing my song tonight


let me feel out of sight
and let all eyes be dry
when they scatter my ashes thru, the Lower East Side
from Houston to 14th Street, from Second Avenue to the mighty D

Piero wished to remain in his chosen home even after death


I dont wanna be buried in Puerto Rico
I dont wanna rest in long island cemetery
I wanna be near the stabbing shooting
gambling fighting & unnatural dying []
so when I die []
dont take me far away
keep me near by
take my ashes and scatter them thru out
the Lower East Side

As it can be observed, not only did he inform us of his chosen place area, but also he gives us

an overview of the inhabittants of the neighborhood. Pretty much like himself, they are

outcasts, border citizens, living at the margin of society, "hustlers & suckers" and "faggots &

freaks". These people do not live in an easy and safe place. Piero chose this area to be his
58

nation, but he was very much aware of the dangers and hardships it imposed on its

inhabitants:

police shooting wild


mother's futile wailspushers
making salesdope wheelers
& cocaine dealerssmoking pot
streets are hot & feed off those who bleed to
death
all that's true []
to belong to survive you gotta be strong []28

Life on the Loisaida or in El Barrio (located on the East Harlem in Manhattan) has

brought about untimely deaths in the community and they are commemorated by numerous

"R.I.P." portrait murals bearing moving inscriptions from friends and family. This violence

remains till today, as in the case that happened while a photographer 29 was shooting the mural

In Memory of Millie, a young man was shot directly across Loisaida Avenue. Not long before,

Chico, the artist who painted it, was shot and nearly died while trying to prevent the robbery

of a neighborhood restaurant in which he was painting a mural. This violence is present not

only in the murals of today, but it can also be seen in Piero's poems, such as "Seekin' the

Cause":

[] his legs were left in viet-nam


his arms were found in sing-sing
his scalp was on Nixon's belt
his blood painted the streets of the ghetto
his eyes were still lookin' for jesus to come down
on some cloud & make everything ok
when jesus died in attica
his brains plastered all around []

His poem "kill, Kill, Kill" depicts the hard life of a man from that area who became

even harder, and bitter and angry and after being fired, and he ends up killing his own wife.

As the reader can notice, the violence and the comtempt was not only from the white America

towards the "other", but also among themselves.:


28
Piero. A Lower East Side Poem
29
Robert McFarland
59

Fired last week man I was mad. I don't mean angry or pissed off I was mad. I
wanted to grab the boss and the foreman by their red necks, and kill, kill, kill.

So I jumped on the elevator and bumped into my


case worker who said that he was taking me off
the rolls 'cause I was working, and that you people think you can get away with
anything. I wanted to snag him by his $50.00 mod tie, and kill, kill, kill.

[] I ran into Mr. Goldman the social workerman, who said I was not under-
developed enough, or culturally deprived enough
to get into the projects, and besides I was working, and I wasn't on welfare. I
wanted to take him and his never ending legal folders and kill, kill, kill [...]
(Emphasis mine)
60

5 CLOSING REMARKS

[...] I dreamt I ran through the streets of Brownsville


in my maiden form wig
and no one noticed my skin []
free, slave, black, twenty-one, and blond.
If I have but one life to live
Let me live as a blond []30

Human beings identify skin color to mark or symbolize the others in a variety of social

contexts including and excluding people in light of their race. When this occurs, social

inequalities are produced and structured. Piero knew why the black woman in his poem

Black Woman with the Blond Wig on wanted to be 'whitened'. He understood that African-

Americans, much like Puerto Ricans, were (and still are) many times discriminated and

excluded based on their skin color, their race. However, he realized that skin color is

something that is part of one's self, part of one's identity, and he demonstrates that through his

subtle mocking of the black lady trying to look blond.

Therefore, race is a major factor for the condition of Puerto Ricans in America.

However, it is not the only aspect that molds their lives in the US. In many of Piero's poems

it is impossible to ignore the importance of language and its particular impact in shaping the

cultural, social and economic conditions of this population. Although Puerto Ricans on the

island and on the mainland may seem united by a history of conquest and colonialism, a

history of proletarianization and disempowerment, and a common language Spanish,

Pieros poems demonstrate that this is not quite the reality. He went back to Puerto Rico after

many years and was disappointed when his Puerto Rican heritage was questioned by his own

country mates.

30
PIERO, Miguel. Black Woman with the Blond Wig on
61

To be or not to be Puerto Rican, that is the question of who is and who is not Puerto

Rican. Piero, self-identified as a Nuyorican, had a way of intertwining his dual identity

Boricua and New Yorker, and he was not apprehensive about being bilingual and bicultural, "I

tell you in english / I tell you in spanish"31.

Every colonized people, meaning every people in whose soul an inferiority complex

has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality, finds itself face to face

with the language and the culture of the civilizing nation. The colonized is elevated above his

primitive status in proportion to his adoption of the colonizers' cultural standards.

Nevertheless, the use of two languages has been recognized by linguists and

academics as a practice with a high degree of competence, whereas dual identities are still not

accepted as a competence. This ability combined with the unique condition of the American

Puerto Ricans in New York calls for a new vision of identity that requires a vision of power

and organization across borders that ends up leading to an expansion of the boundaries of

citizenship beyond any single nation/state. This new frontier creates a breakdown of physical

boundaries and a complex border place within the struggle and affirmation of an individual, or

group in the case of Nuyoricans, a place in which there is an ongoing process of cultural

resistance and self-construction.

Miguel Piero came to terms with his dual citizenship, dual language, and dual culture

and embraced his identity as a Nuyorican: "so here I am, look at me/ I stand proud as you can

see/ pleased to be from the Lower East" 32. Still, the life of a Nuyorican was not as easy. Even

31
PIERO, Miguel. There is Nothing New in New York
32
PIERO, Miguel. "A Lower East Side Poem"
62

though Nuyoricans found their identity in this "third country", they still had to face a difficult

life, filled with unemployment, welfare and poverty

[]we are gathered here today to spit


out curses at this fool who up & died
on us & left us with all his debts &
blueface bill collectors & buried his
self with credit card suit[]33

Despite the problems of being Nuyoricans, or Puerto Rican immigrants, they decided not to

remain the same and to remake themselves; otherwise they would be remade by others.

Although Piero lived an existence that can be criticized by many, especially due to his arrests

and drug use, he reinvented and situated himself through his poetry. His poems, at times raw

and pulsating with the low street lives, were some of the first cultural and artistic expressions

of this identity, proud and aware.

The works of the Nuyorican artists are greatly relevant for the study of identity. This

small group of artists managed to de-colonize themselves and instead of trying desperately to

identify themselves with the colonizer, they brought into existence a new, effective and rich

personality that depicts their cultural consciousness. In a world that is becoming more and

more globalized, instead of homogenizing ourselves trying to fit in and correspond to the

expectations of the dominant cultures and colonizers, we should seek our own identities and

not leave up to someone else to label us and categorize us.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

33
PIERO, Miguel. "Visitin' a friend at the cold shop"
63

ANZALDA, Gloria. Borderlands La Frontera, The New Mestiza. 2nd ed., San Francisco:
Aunt Lute Books, 1999.

BHABHA, Homi K. A Good Judge of Character: Men, Metaphors, and the Common Culture.
Apud McLAREN, Peter. White Terror and Oppositional Agency: towards a Critical
Multiculturalism. In: Revista do Centro de Artes e Letras. Santa Maria: Universidade Federal
de Santa Maria, volumes 15 e 16, n.1-2, 1994.

CANCLINI, Nstor Garca. La Globalizacin Imaginada. Argentina: Ediciones Paids


Ibrica SA, 2000.

CASTRONOVO, Russ. Compromised Narratives along the Border: The Mason-Dixon Line,
Resistance, and Hegemony. In: JOHNSON, David; MICHAELSEN, Scott. Border Theory
The Limits of Cultural Politics. London: Routledge, 1994.

CHAVEZ, Linda. Out of the Barrio Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation. New
York: BasicBooks, 1991.

GONZALEZ, Juan. A History of Latinos in America. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.

McLAREN, Peter. White Terror and Oppositional Agency: towards a Critical


Multiculturalism. In: Revista do Centro de Artes e Letras. Santa Maria: Universidade Federal
de Santa Maria, volumes 15 e 16, n.1-2, 1994.

PIERO, Miguel. La Bodega Sold Dreams. Houston: Arte Pblico Press, 2nd ed., 1985.

SEGERS, Rien. The Cultural Turn. In: Fronteiras Imaginadas Cultura Nacional/Teoria
Internacional. COUTINHO, Eduardo F. (org.). Rio de Janeiro: Aeroplano Editora e
Consultoria Ltda., 2001.

STAVANS, Ilan. The Hispanic Condition the Power of a People. 2nd ed., New York: Harper
Collins Publishers, 2001.

TORRES, Snia. Nosotros in USA Literatura, Etnografia e Geografias de Resistencia. Rio


de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar Ed., 2001.

WILLIAM, Luis. Dance Between Two Cultures Latino Caribbean Literature Written in the
United States. Nashville and London: Vanderbilt University Press, 1997.

Internet sites:

BUSH, GEORGE. Available at: http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=10002 Accessed


on June 18, 2004.
64

EMORY UNIVERSITY. Cultural Studies Available at:


http://userwww.service.emory.edu/~pthoma4/Nuyorican%20Cultural%20Notes.htm Accessed
on: April 30th, 2004.

FAST FOOD. Available at:


http://www.bc-
enschede.nl/wenglish/grassroots/cooking/3tl2_0304/serrano_derkman/fastfood.htm Accessed
on June 19, 2004.

FLORES, Juan. Available at:


http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/soc/faculty/ayala/centro/Census2000/NYC/index.htm: From
Bomba to Hip Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity. New York: Columbia
University Press, 2000. Accessed on: April 25th, 2004.
- Available at: http://www.mla.org/ade/bulletin/n091/091039.htm Accessed on: April
11th, 2004.

HISTORY OF PUERTO RICO Available at: www.lonelyplanet.com/destinations/


caribbean/puerto_rico/history.htm, Accessed on April 12th, 2004.

HOUSTON REVIEW. Available at:


http://www.houstonreview.com/articles/polichinello/P20010516a.html Accessed on June 18,2
004.

McDONALDS SITE. A Brief History. Available at:


http://www.mcspotlight.org/company/company_history.html Accessed on June 19, 2004.

NUYORICAN POETS CAF. Available at:


http://www.nuyorican.org/AboutUs/AboutUs.html Accessed on: April 20th, 2004.
- Available at: http://www.nuyorican.org/ Accessed on: April 16th, 2004.

PIETRI, Pedro. Available at: http://www.laprensa-sandiego.org/archieve/february06-


04/pedro.htm Accessed on: April 25th, 2004.

PROFESSIONAL RESEARCHER'S ENCYCLOPAEDIA. Available at: http://www.pro-


researcher.co.uk/encyclopaedia/english/diaspora Accessed on June 18, 2004.

PUERTO RICO MAP. Available at: http://www.wordiq.com/definition/Image;Rico.png


Accessed on March 13th, 2004.

QUINION, Michael. Available at: http://www.quinion.com/words/qa/qa-rea1.htm Accessed


on April 14th, 2004.

SHEWEY, Don. Article for the New York Times, December 2, 2001Available at:
http://www.donshewey.com/arts_articles/pinero.html Accessed on May 30th, 2004.
UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS. Available at:
<http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~ulrich/rww03/othering.htm> Accessed on June 04th, 2004.

WHITE HOUSE. Available at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/presidents/rn37.html


Accessed on June 18, 2004.
65

WINER, Deborah Grace. "Piero, Miguel"; Available at: http://www.anb.org/articles/16/16-


03487.html; American National Biography Online April 2003 Update. Accessed on: Sat May
1 20:57:44 UTC-0300 2004.

Additional Selected Reading:

Books:

JOHNSON, David; MICHAELSEN, Scott. Border Theory The Limits of Cultural Politics.
London: Routledge, 1994.

CHIDEYA, Farai. The Color of Our Future Race fot the 21st Century. New York: Quill
William Morrow, 1999.

POUTIGNAT, Philippe; STREIFF-FENART, Jocelyne. Teorias da etnicidade Seguido de


Grupos tnicos e suas fronteiras de Fredrik Barth. So Paulo: Fundao da UNESP, 1998.

A - Map of Puerto Rico


66

B - Photograph of the poet


67

Miguel Piero, circa 1971.

C - Miguel Pieros work


Work on TV and movies
1 Actor - filmography (1980s) (1970s)
a. D.C. Cops (1986) (TV) .... Pablo
68

b. Almost You (1985) .... Ralph


c. Alphabet City (1984) .... Dealer
d. Miami Vice (1984) (TV) .... Calderone also known as Miami Vice: Brother's Keeper (1984) (TV)
(USA)

e. Deal of the Century (1983) .... Molino


f. Breathless (1983) .... Carlito also known as A Bout de Souffle. Made in the USA (1983)
g. Exposed (1983) .... Man in the Street (New York)
h. Fort Apache the Bronx (1981) .... Hernando
i. Times Square (1980) .... Roberto

j. Streets of L.A., The (1979) (TV) .... 2nd Duster

k. Jericho Mile, The (1979) (TV) .... Rubio


l. Looking Up (1977) .... Mugger
m. Short Eyes (1977) .... Go-Go also known as Slammer (1977)

2 Writer - filmography (1980s) (1970s)


a. "Miami Vice" (1984) TV Series (episode "Smuggler's Blues")

b. Short Eyes (1977) (play & screenplay) also known as Slammer (1977)

3 TV Guest Appearances

a. "Equalizer, The" (1985) playing "Apartment Super" in episode: "Lady Cop" (episode # 1.5) 16
October 1985

b. "Miami Vice" (1984) playing "Esteban Calderone" in episode: "Prodigal Son" (episode # 2.1) 27
September 1985 and "Miami Vice" (1984) playing "Esteban Calderone" in episode: "Calderone's
Return: Part 2" (episode # 1.5) 26 October 1984

c. "Miami Vice" (1984) playing "Esteban Calderone" in episode: "Brother's Keeper" (episode # 1.1)
16 September 1984

d. "Baretta" (1975) in episode: "Por Nada" (episode # 4.7) 23 November 1977


e. "Kojak" (1973) playing "Rudy" in episode: "I Was Happy Where I Was" (episode # 4.18) 25 January
1977

SUPPLEMENT D -

A mural depicting community resistance. Photograph by Robert McFarland.


69