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In the 1960s and 1970s, a group of poets in New York City created a movement. As New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent, they called themselves the Nuyorican poets, reclaiming a word once used as a slur against their community. Together, the Nuyorican poets broke barriers: Miguel Piñero’s “Short Eyes” became the first play by a Latino writer to run on Broadway, and Pedro Pietri’s poems, including his opus “Puerto Rican Obituary,” became essential indictments of the so-called “American dream.”

The Nuyorican literary movement also led to the creation of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe—a vital haven for Black and Latinx writers and performers since its inception. The cafe began as an informal literary salon in Miguel Algarín’s living room, one of the movement’s founding poets. But soon after, Algarín and his fellow writers realized that they needed to expand to accommodate the growing roster of artists who frequented the space. They moved into a new venue nearby, and by 1981, they relocated again to the Nuyorican’s current location in New York City’s Lower East Side.

Today, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe is a cultural institution. Artists are welcome to take the Nuyorican stage for open mics, theater performances, and slam poetry competitions. The cafe regularly hosts talks and workshops for writers to develop their own craft and explore the literary legacy they’re inheriting as writers. The cafe has hosted several generations of artists of color, including writers like Nancy Mercado, Paul Beatty, and Willie Perdomo; singer Danny Rivera; and rapper MF Doom.

In this episode of Latino USA, several artists step up to the mic for a spoken history of the cafe. Poet Jesús “Papoleto” Meléndez recalls his experiences from the early days of the Nuyorican literary movement, transporting listeners back to the days when poets congregated in Miguel Algarín’s apartment; Caridad De La Luz, the Bronx poet also known as “La Bruja,” speaks about the cafe’s open mics and hosting events at the Nuyorican; playwright Ishmael Reed reflects on the cafe’s legacy of fostering Black and Latinx talent on and off stage; and artist and archivist Lois Elaine Griffith, who was involved with the cafe for decades, discusses the urgency and importance of preserving the Nuyorican history for future generations.


Featured image by John C. Williams (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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