I arrived early for once, with Tara and Fish and Ellie right behind, going straight to the will-call window, where I figure they've left tickets for our guests. The man behind the window looks at me like I have ten heads, nine of them named Larry. Yes, this is the Town Hall, and this is the Nuyorican Poets' Cafe and its 35th anniversary show, so I should have known that the normal rules of theater courtesy don't apply.
I'm told to go backstage and seek out Carmen Pietri-Diaz, the show organizer and former executive director of the Nuyorican, because she may have a list of performers, along with their comp tickets. So I leave the crew behind and do just that. Folks, the next time you attend a Broadway production, try going backstage like I did, and marvel at the Napoleonic fervor with which you will be stopped and interrogated by tiny theater people. That is some fun shit.
Tiny Theater Guy: "Excuse me. Who are you and what are you doing back here?"
Me (in what should've been my hulking Boricua brute voice but which probably sounded more like a plain perplexed Latin): "Um. I'm performing, dude."
TTG: "Well you have no pass. You are not allowed to be back here.
Me: "What's a pass? Sorry, I'm not a theater person. They just told me to come at 7."
TTG: (slightly hyperventilating) "Well...I mean...ugh. We're just gonna have to see about that..."
In the meantime, other passless performers who were apparently there since the soundcheck come and greet me with some enthusiasm, congratulating Acentos on our award, which of course I haven't seen yet. But it's supposed to be a high honor, the reason we're here, and TTG soon realizes that I am, in fact, supposed to be there. So he bristles and walks off in a hurried harumph. I shrug and proceed to spend the next fifteen minutes searching for Carmen, because more people like me will soon be experiencing the same trouble getting in the door.
I find Carmen finally, on the stage chatting up the stagehands, and I see Acentos' award. It's not an award, exactly...it is a sculpted bust depicting the poet Pedro Pietri, sitting atop a suitcase full of his Telephone Booth poems. The first thing I thought was, "Well, now...that's gonna be a pain in the ass to get home." Then: "That might look good in the Acentos Foundation's home office." And then: A fairly major arts institution representing Boricuas in New York is about to give us the nod in a very public and surreal way. Coupled with the fact that Carmen looks genuinely proud to see me speechless, especially since its her brother's likeness on the pedestal, and I can't be cynical about the night anymore. I thought we'd get some kind of piece of paper. A plaque at best. Instead they give us Pedro Pietri himself. I couldn't exactly process this thought, so I headed off to find the crew and we make our way to our seats.
I say "seats," even though I thought we'd be backstage until the presentation. But Carmen instead tells us to head up to the theater because we'll be in the second half of the show. Okay, I think, but I know the email I got says that we'd be on in the first half. Maybe they've changed it? Against my better judgment, I head up with the folks and we start watching the show. And it's beautiful, of course. There are Acentos regulars all thoughout the crowd, and a surprising number of people who have actually heard of us, making noise and general fuss. Flaco Navaja and Rosie Perez do a decent job of emceeing, and Flaco is great in performance as always.
I don't know if I can call it premonition, or zafa, or something equally espiritualista, but right after Tato Laviera gets off the stage, I turn to Fish and say, "Dude, get ready, I'll bet you money we're next." Sure enough, Flaco announces that Carmen and Pedro Pietri's son Speedo (yep, like the swimwear) are on their way out to present an award. Shite. Fish and I bolt for the side door and immediately search for the stage.
Remember what I said about Tiny Theater People? They're not so tiny if you try to actually bum rush the stage during the show.
Large Brown Usher is soon dispatched backstage to keep the two hulking brutes (Fish and I) from doing anything ignorant.
Large Brown Usher: "Guys, what are you doing back here?"
Hulking Brutes: "We're about to receive an award."
LBU: "What award?"
HB: "Um. Well. An award...for being...the New Nuyoricans?"
LBU: "What the fuck is a Nuyorican?"
HB: "Dude, you have to trust us. We're supposed to be back here. We're SO next..."
LBU: (suddenly becoming confused and somewhat sweet) "Guys...like, I can get in a lot of trouble."
HB: "Just trust us, man."
LBU: "Okay. So...what is this award for again?"
Okay, by now it's clear that the guard is trying to trap us into saying something to give away our ignorance, but before Fish can execute Order 66 on his ass, they call us to the stage and we emerge like two scared kittens on the single biggest friggin' stage I think I've ever seen. The lights are in my face, Speedo is reading a speech, Carmen orders the sculpture revealed (it had been under black cloth). Fish is rendered mute. The crowd, however, is not: I hear Jaime and Maria Nieves and a few others calling loudly for Acentos, I hear whoops and hollers from audience members newly acclamated to what we do, I see some familiar faces in the front row. Fish says some thanks and then I step onto the mic. I actually had prepared something to say, because apparently I'm the only one who believes in doing shit with a script.
These were my nervous remarks—abbreviated, because by now the fucking show is an hour late.
Thanks to Miguel, Lois, Speedo, and the Nuyorican Poets' Cafe for this tremendous honor and this tremendous mandate.
The Acentos reading series and the Acentos Foundation is a group effort, and I need to recognize the following poets, some of whom are here with us: Maria Nieves, Urayoan Noel, Ray Medina, Aracelis Girmay, Raina Leon, John Murillo, John Rodriguez, Eliel Lucero, and our co-founders Sam "Fish" Vargas and Oscar Bermeo.
The spirit that founded the Nuyorican Cafe, this Nuyorican movement, is the spirit we work to embody at Acentos as we continue to define our existence as Boricuas, Nuyoricans, Latinos and Latinas, not in the easy, expected narratives of immigrants and American dreams, but in the unexpected language of adaptation, resilience, and innovation. We work in the spirit of a Nuyorican poet by the name of Sandra Maria Esteves, who reminds us always that we are the ones who must place value on this work we do, and we must never wait for the dominant culture to cosign it...because they won't. And we work in the spirit of the patron saint of the movement, el Reverendo Pedro Pietri, with whose poem I close these remarks.
do not let artificial lamps
make strange shadows out of you
do not dream
if you want your dreams
to come true
you knew how to sing
before you was issued a birth certificate
turn off the stereo
this country gave you
it is out of order
your breath is your promised land
if you want to feel very rich
look at your hands
that is where
the definition of magic
is located at.
I can't say this was the pinnacle for us, because I'm of the belief that high points in the series are made at the reading itself. But this was easily top three of the most memorable nights I've ever had being involved with Acentos. It was strange, it was surreal. Given how little support we'd gotten from the Cafe at the very beginning (with the notable exception of Karen Jaime, and in my personal case, Jeff Feller), it was doubly surreal to go backstage, after a kiss from Rosie Perez and her thumbs up on the speech, to receive congratulations from Dylcia Pagan, Papoleto Melendez, Lois Griffith, Sandra Maria Esteves, and Ntozake Shange.
The rest of the night went pretty well. The highlight for me was watching Willie Perdomo read from a new series of poems complicating the issues between Puerto Ricans here in the States and those back on the island; in terms of colonialism, capitalism, cultural pride, and the politicians and activists on all sides who co-opt these conversations for their own purposes. The writing and delivery were frank and needed, and I think I wanna be him when I grow up.
The show went too damn long, and I heard a little too much old material for my tastes. But the music was damn good, Ishmael Reed and Ntozake Shange were fantastic (Ntozake has new shit, y'all...and it is some good good shit), and Carlos Gomez brought the house down with a poetry/dance duet with surprise guest Savion Glover. That was unreal. I felt that Acentos got some due, a little nod from the viejito on the Lower East Side (a viejito that also has a new Executive Director who wants to inject some new life and vitality into the cafe....we'll see what happens). But what was important to me, what made the night feel special, is that it did not feel like a "passing of the torch," but rather a nod toward a new torch uptown, one that is illuminating some pathways in new ways with new people.
I've had this love/hate relationship with the Nuyorican since I started writing, more so since I started getting involved with curating readings. Some of the older players (fiction writers, poets, and critics) who identify as "Nuyorican" are some of the most self-serving assholes I've ever dealt with in my life. No, I won't name names, but it's old story: folks make their bones on something, and they have to protect it at all costs. It's sad, but not unexpected.
For me, though, the Nuyorican movement was never really about them, per se, but rather about this idea that you can build safe spaces for expression that don't need conform to the easy narratives. And you can build that space without being an asshole, actually supporting younger writers, helping them find their voice...helping YOURSELF find YOUR voice among friends that speak your language(s). I think of Acentos as Steve Cannon's stoop, the Sixth Street cafe before slam and spoken word, the writers that made the space safe for first drafts. We needed that, still need that. It's the spirit that is embodied most, I think, by the Monday night series at Bar 13, the louderARTS Project, the reading series where Oscar, Fish, and I found our footing as writers. But the need, if you will, also drove Oscar and Fish to head uptown, home to the Bronx, to start something new and special for the writers of Latino descent who needed to work and think unapologetically in our languages. I think poets like Pedro Pietri understood that need too, and I think folks like Carmen and Sam Diaz understand that need, although I suspect that running the Cafe leaves them with very little time to show it.
Having gotten the chance to break bread with some of the family running the business, I have some genuine hope for the future of the Cafe, a future that Miguel Algarin and Carmen and Sam and the Nuyorican Board seem to be looking toward. I especially feel very grateful to Carmen and Sam for looking us out in this way, and in a very Reverend Pedro big kind of way. The bust stayed with them, for now. Betts and I can't exactly put it on our bookshelf, and neither can Fish and Ellie. Still, I think we'll take possession of it before too long, hopefully putting it in a place of honor befitting the things we've accomplished and the things we've left to do.
Pues, for all its good things and all its challenges, un toast to the Nuyorican Cafe on 35 years of existence. We should all last that long.
Some shout outs, for those in attendance, those who said what's up, and those there in spirit: Sandra Maria Esteves (who has become, in a very short time, one of Acentos' biggest boosters and an amazing friend/mentor to all of us), Martín Espada, Magdalena Gomez, Carlos Gomez, Jaime El Maestro, Frank Perez, Papoleto, Willie, Mariposa, Nancy Mercado, Danny Shot, Urayoan, LiYun, John Rodriguez, John Murillo, Raina, Eliel, Ray, Nina, Jessica, Debra, Gloria, Fradane, Sonia Lopez, Bonafide Rojas, Anthony Morales, Americo Casiano Jr., Carolina Gonzalez, Elena Marrero, Sery Colon, Luis Cordero, Daniel Gallant, Sandra's lovely daughters (whose names now slip me...bad me!), Maria and Jeremy, Ellie Argilla, and (duh!) Ms. Tara Betts.
Big ups also to Oscar and Fish, for starting this thing called Acentos. Pa'lante with it, always. Big ups to the 13 crew (who celebrated TEN years of the series this past Monday...the blog on THAT show is forthcoming!) and those writers who helped us cut our teeth along all these crazy paths.
If you were there, or if you clicked here, holler at me. I'm feeling pretty good right now, y'all.
NOTE: The photos with the "Mamarazzi" logo across the front were taken by Elena "Mamarazzi" Marrero. You can view all her photos from the event at her Flickr page