The Early Days of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe

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In digitizing The New York Times’s photo archives, one of my colleagues, Jeff Roth, came across some never-published photos of the founders of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Their subjects sought to build a creative, social space in the city for Puerto Ricans, where patrons could bear witness to what the writer David Vidal called “a new, intensely cathartic poetry that was born on New York City's streets.”

The cafe is frequently packed on Friday nights. Outside, long lines of people wait to get into the weekly spoken word competitions, and many of the young faces in the audience and onstage are black or brown. For many spoken word performers of color — especially those of Latinx and black descent — the Nuyorican Poets Cafe is what the Comedy Cellar has been for stand-up comics: a place to cut their teeth and test the resonance of their work in front of a live audience.

It’s come a long way from its humble beginnings in a poet’s living room.

In the early 1970s, Miguel Algarín, born in Puerto Rico but raised on the Lower East Side, began inviting other Nuyorican poets to his apartment on East Sixth Street for readings and performances. Algarín and his contemporaries, including Miguel Piñero, Pedro Pietri and Lucky CienFuegos, were part of a growing artistic scene in what was then a primarily Puerto Rican neighborhood, drawing on their identities and daily struggles for their work. The salon quickly outgrew Algarín’s living room, so he and a few other artists began renting an Irish bar down the street to fit more people. In 1981, they bought their current building on East Third Street and, after a lengthy renovation process, formally opened it to the public in 1990 as a space for Nuyorican poets to experiment and hone their craft.

The photos, taken in 1976 by Paul Hosefros, show the excitement of the nascent collective as it expanded into its first storefront.

“Many of the founding artists and those who gravitated toward the group in the early days were informed by and active in a version of poetry that was much less academic, much less literary, much less elitist than many of the incarnations of poetry that existed in the ’60s and ’70s,” said Daniel Gallant, the cafe’s executive director, adding that even in its earliest days, it produced “poetry that evolved into and through injections of music, movement, theater, film and collaborative experience.”

That multidisciplinary, experimental spirit lives on today, and a number of award-winning one-person theatrical shows have evolved from spoken word performances developed there. Sarah Jones’s 2005 show “Bridge and Tunnel,” which won a Tony Award, and Elaine del Valle’s 2014 “Brownsville Bred” are standouts.

The Dominican-American poet Elizabeth Acevedo, who won the 2018 National Book Award for Young People’s Fiction, said she gave her first performance at the cafe when she was 15 and was only vaguely aware of “this important poetry place downtown.” “I did a rap song,” said Acevedo, now 30. “I knew music. I knew bolero songs and church songs and hip-hop. That was my origin.”

Caridad De La Luz, a Nuyorican poet who first performed at the club in 1996 and now hosts the Monday night Open Mics, also said she had only performed music (mostly Mary J. Blige covers on her college campus) before arriving at Nuyorican. The cafe expanded her view of what a poem could be. “Poetry was just something you wrote in journals for therapy,” she said. “Then when you got to the Nuyorican it was like, ‘Oh there’s a mic, there’s a stage, there’s an audience that wants to hear these things.’ Out came the journal.”

Acevedo said there’s a sense of “walking into a lineage” of other Latinx spoken word performers at the cafe. “Even as the poets get younger, you feel that there’s something being passed down,” she said.

She recalled learning about “declamación,” a cousin of spoken word poetry that is performed in the Caribbean and throughout Latin America. “What we name spoken word or slam or esto y lo otro, we have had names for,” she said. The magic of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe was how it blended old-world and new, Acevedo said. It was “this space that, yes, was in conversation with hip-hop. Yes, was in conversation with the beat poets. But was also in conversation with something that was inherently Puerto Rican, inherently Caribbean, inherently Latinx.”

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Concepción de León is the digital staff writer covering literary news and culture for the Books Desk. Separately, she launched El Espace for the Styles section, a weekly column in which she writes about news and culture for a Latinx audience. She previously worked for Glamour magazine.

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