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The City in Nuyorican Fiction and Poetry

Summary and Keywords

In 1898, U.S. imperialism spread beyond the continent’s borders and took possession of Puerto Rico during the Spanish–American War. This began the repeated waves of migration from the island to the mainland. In New York City (the main destination, along with Chicago), Puerto Ricans settled in East Harlem and the South Bronx, while the Lower East Side became the immigrant neighborhood par excellence. Adaptation strategies, common to previous immigrant communities, ensued, especially regarding the urban context and the reinvention of spaces. During the 1960s, authors such as Piri Thomas or Pedro Juan Soto began to narrate this complex experience, always in an unsteady balance between Puerto Rico and the United States. This first phase of literary output culminated the following decade (a period of deep economic and social crisis) in the so-called Nuyorican Experience, where “nuyorican” stands for “New York Puerto Rican”—a neologism that sums up the community's condition of “divided self” and defines the social and cultural horizon of a new generation of artists. In their works, poet-performer Pedro Pietri and writer Nicholasa Mohr expressed their peculiar view and sense of the city, both surreal and realistic, ironic and passionate.

Keywords: U.S. imperialism, Puerto Rico, New York City, urban culture, migration, adaptation strategies, counterculture, cityscapes, Nuyorican poetry and fiction

The inauguration in 1975 of the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe, at 505 East 6th Street, between Avenue A and Avenue B in Manhattan (originally an Irish pub, the Sunshine Café) in the heart of an increasingly abandoned and run-down Lower East Side, at once marked a point of arrival and a point of departure on the complicated path toward claiming a social and cultural identity for the New York Puerto Ricans:1 a point of arrival, because the history of this immigrant community dated back to the end of the previous century; and a point of departure, because the movement’s subsequent developments were to inform a range of experiences reaching far beyond their original ethnic borders. Therefore, before analyzing how the metropolis—and in particular New York City—inspired the movement and was, in turn, reflected by it, we will take a brief look over the various stages in this little known story.

Born in 1898

When asked about his date of birth, poet-performer Pedro Pietri (one of the originators of the Nuyorican movement in the early 1970s, who passed away in 2004 at age sixty) used to say that he was born in Puerto Rico “in 1898.” Pietri’s statement surely registers his surreal, upside-down Weltanschauung. But it is also historically (and politically) grounded, 1898 being the year when U.S. imperialism expanded decisively in the Caribbean and the Pacific.2 In that year, the United States concluded what John Hay, U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, defined in a letter to his friend Theodore Roosevelt (then commander of the 1st United States Voluntary Cavalry, the so-called Rough Riders), a series of “splendid little wars,” as the Spanish–American War came to be known. As a consequence, the island of Puerto Rico was annexed as a “commonwealth,” or, in Spanish, “Estado Libre Asociado.” And so, amidst fanfare, flag waving, and the optimistic rhetoric of newborn American imperialism, a new chapter in the long history of suffering and exploitation began.3

Known by its original inhabitants (the Igneri, Ciboney, Arawak, Caribe, and Taíno) as Borinquen, Puerto Rico, Christopher Colombo’s “rich port,” was indeed one of the most highly valued colonies of the Spanish crown: which, as well as the massacre of the local populations, entailed the arrival of other ethnic components, such as black African slaves imported to work on the tobacco, coffee, and sugarcane plantations. This contradictory and dramatic process of mestizaje, or mixing, already experienced at the crossroads of the Caribbean, was thus to become exasperated by Borinquen-Puerto Rico being catapulted first into the condition of a Spanish colony and then into an appendage of the United States: the cachiques, or local chiefs of tribes, were to become pale ectoplasms of the past; the Caribbean gods would embrace the African ones, to be reborn, duly purged of any traces of animism, in Catholic guise; the local languages would blend with those of the slaves and then lose ground to Spanish and then English; the jíbaro or peasant would gradually be turned into a wretched, landless individual and then into a proletarian with no prospects in the coastal towns and the cities on the mainland.

Between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, the exodus from Puerto Rico to the United States (primarily, but not only, New York) coincided with the rise of numerous militants for independence, among whom were Lola Rodríguez de Tió and Arturo Alfonso Schomburg: a karstic trickle that will appear on the streets and in the ghettos of the metropolises, down paths already opened up by the Caribbean hero, the Cuban José Martí. From 1917 onward, when the Jones Act granted Puerto Ricans American citizenship,4 the trickle started to swell, flowing at surface level and becoming a permanent stream in both directions. A first tidalwave was to come in 1932, when—simultaneously with the U.S. and worldwide Depression– the price of the island’s sugarcane plummeted while, at the same time, a demographic explosion took place. These are also the fiercest years of the fights for independence, which culminated in the “massacre of Ponce” (March 21, 1937): a peaceful demonstration in the streets of the Puerto Rican town was crushed amid bloodshed, and another long and troubled phase of travels between the island and the mainland began, with arrests and harsh sentences for militants (among them the celebrated Lolita Lebrón). The second and more massive wave was to follow in the period around the Second World War, when tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans (the great majority of them jíbaros) abandoned Borinquen to seek their fortunes in New York and Chicago—or to be dispatched to the battlefields of Europe. Lastly, in the 1950s, the serious imbalances in Puerto Rico’s economic and social fabric caused by the program of forced industrialization (so-called Operation Bootstrap, begun in 1948) set off another wave of migration, followed by a further exodus in the 1970s, coinciding with the onset of the long phase of economic crises that, with peaks and dips, crashes and recoveries, has lasted into the present, with Puerto Rico’s default. In the midst of all this, another, grave blood sacrifice: in Vietnam, where the spics (as the Puerto Ricans who moved to the mainland were contemptuously called) served as authentic cannon fodder.5

In the last decades of the 20th century, this commuting, rendered even easier by the island’s relative vicinity to the mainland and by the reduction in airfares between New York and San Juan, intensified, following the alternating fortunes of the Puerto Rican and U.S. economies, disaggregating families, exhausting energies, reducing identity to shreds.

“La isla” and “la urbe”: A Reinvention of Spaces

Particularly in the period immediately after the Second World War, a unique phenomenon emerged. As the isla began laboriously to recover in the “ghettos of New York” (the same ghettos that so often escape the attention of visitors, as well as that of the New Yorkers themselves), in Puerto Rico “America” started to bloom. And so, in the streets on the Lower East Side, Spanish Harlem, and the South Bronx, there was a proliferation of clubs, meeting places, social centers, bodegas and marquetas selling tropical fruit, botánicas specializing in medicinal herbs and religious articles, eateries serving mofongo and mondongo, conjuntos playing merengues, bombas and plenas, the street cries of the piraguero pushing his mobile granita stand, the wheeling and dealing of the bolitero gathering bets on clandestine fights.6 By contrast, in San Juan or Ponce, Santurce or Indiera Baja, Mayaguez or Cavey, eminently yanqui images began to appear everywhere in the form of billboards, skyscrapers with pools, nightspots and neon signs, banks and U.S. airlines, McDonald’s and Burger King, overturning scenery and horizons so drastically; rapidly and brutally that Miguel Piñero, the poet-bandit of the Puerto Rican Lower East Side, wrote, “this is not the place where I was born.”7

In New York, the Lower East Side (between East 14th Street, the East River, the access ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge, and Lafayette Street) formed the core of the Puerto Rican immigrants’ experience and soon of their imagination. An immigrant neighborhood since the mid-1800s, it had an extraordinary history of social superimpositions and recompositions, proletarian struggles and organizations. After receiving successive waves of Germans and Irish, Chinese, Italians, Russians, East European Jews, Spanish, Cypriots, and Syrians, from the 1930s onward the Lower East Side, always poor, deteriorated. This, however, failed to cancel the many traces of that dense and complex history with consequences in so many different fields,8 imprinted in the matter of the city and in the collective memory of individuals and groups brought together by identical experiences of uprooting and the search for an identity.

What has always marked the history of the immigrant Lower East Side, as well as its extraordinary capacity for social mobility and political mobilization and a constant process of cultural hybridization, has been the special relationship that it established with the metropolis. In contact with the new or in any case different geographies, topographies, planimetries, whole communities, the vast majority proletarian (or on the way to becoming proletarian), were forced to reinvent traditions, habits, concepts. Stoops, fire escapes, rooftops became the wings and stages of a drama, a comedy, a daily melodrama: the play (and then movie) by Elmer Rice, Street Scene (1929, 1931), would be an emblem of this ceaseless reinvention, in addition to closing, symbolically, a cycle in the neighborhood’s history.

Neighborhoods like the Lower East Side were,9 to use Michael Denning’s effective expression, veritable “terrain[s] of negotiation and confrontation,”10 where circulation and osmosis, mutual influences, collisions of force fields, represented daily experiences: a difficult, tense, and traumatic process, often characterized by loss and sorrow, by suffering and defeat. Here, the reinvention of urban spaces was both material and metaphorical: new meanings for old forms, new forms for old meanings, new readings of the metropolis, a de-composition that moved from the directly existential and social plane to that of culture and yet made up, up to a point, an impetus, a craving, for re-composition. The stoops, for instance: originally introduced into New York by Dutch architects who brought with them building practices dictated by their experience at home (low-lying lands, frequent floodings, limited space).11 They became typical architectonic elements of the middle- and upper-middle-class home-as-castle—the Jamesian brownstone separated from the vulgarly communal street by a steep flight of steps. As neighborhoods, such as the Lower East Side (or Harlem), were abandoned by their initial rich inhabitants in their move away from the growing and disturbing bustle of the city, these earlier buildings were occupied by successive waves of immigrants who reinvented stoops (and fire escapes and rooftops) as public spaces, micro-squares of the new urban village, theaters whose stages hosted a considerable part of meaningful human interaction: contact among individuals and groups (male and female, different generations), circulation of gossip, information, behavioral codes, linguistic interchange, cultural hybridization.12 The shtetl in the metropolis, la isla within la urbe.

More recently, due mainly to the Puerto Rican experience in the Lower East Side, this reinvention of spaces has taken the form of community gardens and casitas. During the 1980s and 1990s, the decades when the neighborhood witnessed a sociocultural resurgence of sorts after a long period of decay, community gardens (impromptu initiatives from below, forever at the mercy of property speculators) became real public meeting places. Away from the small and stifling apartments, these “reclaimed territories” hosted a wide range of communal experiences, from birthday and block parties to shows and performances, concerts and political rallies. Direct expressions of the community, spontaneously designed and fitted out by neighbors with discarded objects, the objets trouvés of a metropolis characterized by abundance and dissipation, misery and dereliction, these gardens often displayed an intensely domestic vegetation, with scenarios that, in a broad sense, evoked back home in Puerto Rico. The names themselves of some of these gardens are eloquent and revealing: Bello Amanecer Borincano, Brisas del Caribe, Dias Y Flores Community Garden, El Jardín de los Niños, El Sol Brillante, Jardín de los Amigos, Parque de la Tranquilidad.13 In several instances, these community gardens were accompanied by colorful murals recounting the multi-ethnic history and reality of the neighborhood and dotting the often peeling walls of buildings with the creations of individual artists (Tomie Arai, María Dominguez, Art Guerra, Chino, Chico, Alan Okada) or of arts collectives such as CityArts: “Chi Lai. Arriba. Rise Up,” “Memory of Puerto Rico,” “Liberty,” “Viva Puerto Rico Libre,” “La Lucha Continua,” “The Congaplayer”—yet more expressions of the will to survive in the metropolis, uniting older and more recent immigrant communities.14

The casitas, they were another example of this reinvention of urban spaces: impromptu cardboard or plywood huts, often reminiscent of homeless people’s shantytowns, “jungles,” but at the same time revealing traditional building skills by their creators, these extensions of stifling apartments were still meeting places for elders, children, and the unemployed (and, not infrequently, hens and roosters!) and helped re-create atmospheres and memories of communal living, public spaces endowed with a sense of intimacy, in the very heart of a hectic and atomized metropolis.15

In 1974, during a period of sedimentation in New York City’s Puerto Rican community, a new phase of profound metropolitan degradation spread across the country and in the Lower East Side in particular.16 The specific metaphorical quality in the process of re-creating the isla in the urbe (which over time was also to record a progressive, though limited, social stratification inside the community, along with topographical reflections, too, as always in these migratory dynamics) was disseminated thanks to a poem by poet-performer-activist Bittman “Bimbo” Rivas. This bilingual love poem to the neighborhood begins “Lower East Side / I love you. / You’er my lady fair. / No matter where I am, / I think of you! / The mountains and the valleys cannot compare, / my love to you. / Loisaida, I love you.”17 From Lower East Side to Loisaida, then: a change even officially acknowledged, when the road sign of “Avenue C” (one of the arteries of the now predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood) was relabeled “Avenue C–Loisaida Avenue.”

The shift from Lower East Side to Loisaida was not simply a matter of linguistics or pronunciation, that is, the permeating musical reality of Spanglish.18 In Sandra María Esteves’s words, “Being Puertorriqueña Americana / Born in the Bronx, not really jíbara / Not really hablando bien / But yet, not Gringa either / Pero ni portorra, pero si portorra too / Pero ni que what am I? / Y que soy, pero con what voice do my lips move?”19 The neologism “Loisaida” also contains a specific reference: to “Loiza,” or “Yuisa,” the cacica (she-chief) of a taíno village called Jaimanio (known today as Loiza Aldea),20 a prominent figure in the mythical past of Borinquen. Once more: la isla in la urbe.

The Nuyorican Experience …

Contrasts and contradictions then, physical and mental commuting, a reversal of prospects and identity, the drive to re-elaborate experience, re-create the past, reinvent physical and mental spaces, and awareness of the same fractures within the immigrant community along lines of class and gender: out of all this is born what will be known as the Nuyorican experience, another neologism that once again sums up the psychologically and emotionally high-voltage state of the (contradictory, ambiguous) mestizaje, of being Puerto Rican in New York City (where New York City and—specifically—the Lower East Side then become, as the community progressively spreads, a part representing the whole: Puerto Rican America, or AmeRíca, as another important figure in the development of third artistic movement, Tato Laviera, would put it).21 An experience that continues to be marked by harsh uprooting and oppression, family disaggregation and youth alienation, the daily search for a reason and a means for resisting and going on living, crushed between the disaster of the island economy and the ruthlessness of the U.S. metropolises.

It was precisely the harshness of this experience that would encourage the appearance, as early on as the first few decades of the 20th century, of a close, though as yet underground, network of meeting places and political-cultural institutions, including the work of researchers and intellectuals, such as Arturo Alfonso Schomburg and Pura Belpré, activists like Bernardo Vega and Jesús Colón, and later writers such as Pedro Juan Soto and Luis Rafael Sánchez (the “Generation of 1940”), and poet-performers like Jorge Brandon, an authentic bard of New York City’s Puerto Rican community, intimately bound to its streets and to the oral tradition transported and ritualized into the metropolitan context.22

An initial reading of the urban dimension of this experience comes from Schomburg’s work as archivist and Belpré’s as librarian. In both cases, it was a matter of gathering and systematically ordering evidence of the Puerto Rican experience (and, in Schomburg’s case, that of the Afro-Caribbeans in general) in contact with the “new reality”—in other words safeguarding, in the midst of the alienating metropolises, a collective memory, past and present: memory as an ark (or ars) on which to ground memory as vis (to use Aleida Assmann’s terminology),23 able to carry over into individuals or groups forms with the necessary energy for existential survival, political resistance, and cultural creation. This pioneering work of collecting and passing on material, creating authentic archival maps, later gave rise, as is well known, to the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture (515 Lenox Avenue, in the heart of Harlem) and to El Museo del Barrio (1230 Fifth Avenue): two essential institutions for reconstructing the historical, social, and cultural story of both the African American and Puerto Rican communities.

During the 1960s, the reality of survival itself, in neighborhoods like El Barrio (East Harlem), the South Bronx, and the Lower East Side, together with a period of great social and political rebellions, provided the impulse toward the increasing politicization and radicalization of youth street gangs. These included the Assassins, the Dragons, and in particular the Young Lords, originating in Chicago and turning into a political party similar to the Black Panthers, before becoming active in New York City, too, where, in December 1969, they occupied the First Spanish United Methodist Church in East Harlem.24 The Young Lords transformed the space into their main headquarters: their search for and reconstruction of a collective identity no longer closed in the blind allies of ethnic belonging but projected (despite many contradictions and much ambiguity) toward a more international identity. This was also inspired by a long history of conflict, battles, and organization by previous immigrant communities, whose traces and lived memories could still be found in the fabric of the metropolis—a map still pulsing with vital energy.25

In subsequent years, far from coming to a conclusion (especially in a phase of increasingly serious economic, social, and political difficulties), this long period of historical elaboration was captured and effectively reflected by a number of cultural initiatives of various kinds: music (salsa, bomba, plena),26 theatre (Miguel Piñero, Reinaldo Povod, Pedro Pietri), cinema, murales, social and cultural centers (Charas, Inc., on East 9th Street), and small journals and publishers. These represented a collective response, arising and developing from the grassroots (and involving other communities, too), to the forces that would impose invisibility and anonymity as the main tools of their merciless exploitation, which came directly from the streets. As Lisa Sánchez Gonzáles writes, “[b]eyond literature proper, there are all sorts of contemporary forms of Boricua signification that speak from margin to center, and from margin to margin, in aesthetically and ethically sophisticated ways. These forms of signification are often referred to as social texts in contemporary cultural studies scholarship. Like literature, these texts can be read and interpreted, but unlike literature, social texts are not exclusively written materials, but also include things like street art, word games, break dancing, tattoos, poetry slams, and other visual, physical, and verbal self-stylizations that people create in their everyday lives.”27 And in which, once again, the link with the metropolis clearly emerges.

It is no coincidence that, starting with its title, Piri Thomas’ autobiographical Down These Mean Streets (1967), a sort of Puerto Rican Autobiography of Malcolm X, set up a close metaphorical and real connection with the urban context—“streets” being the theatre of everyday life in all its aspects, of both drama and comedy. It is also no coincidence that the scenarios behind Pedro Pietri’s long poem “Puerto Rican Obituary,” forming the backdrop against which the real and metaphorical adventures of “Juan / Miguel / Milagros / Olga / Manuel” unfold, are the “nervous breakdown streets / where the mice live like millionaires / and the people do not live at all.”28 And it is no coincidence that Miguel Algarìn’s salon, the catalyst and prime mover of the entire Nuyorican experience, where poets, artists and performers gathered before the official inauguration of the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe, was on the ground floor looking straight out onto East 6th Street—in an osmotic relationship with the street itself.

Together with the gradual rediscovery of poets, like “Clara Lair” (pseudonym of Mercedes Negrón Muñoz) and Julia de Burgos, and narrators, like José Luis Gonzales and Pedro Juan Soto, as well as writer-activists Bernardo Vega and Jesús Colón,29 come the violent and desperate dramas and poems by Miguel Piñero (Short Eyes, 1974; A Midnight Moon at the Greasy Spoon, 1984; La Bodega Sold Dreams, 1980), the prolific work as poet and organizer of Miguel Algarín (Mongo Affair, 1978; On Call, 1980; Time’s Now. Ya es tiempo, 1985), the compilations by Algarín and Piñero Nuyorican Poetry (1975) and Algarín and Holman (Aloud, 1994), the writings of Víctor Hernández Cruz (from Papo Got His Gun, 1966, to Red Beans, 1991), Tato Laviera (from La Carreta Made a U-Turn, 1979, to Mainstream Ethics, 1988), Sandra María Esteves (from Yerba Buena, 1980, to Mockingbird Bluestown Mambo, 1990), of José Ángel Figueroa, Bimbo Rivas, Julio Marzán, and so many other authors, who, in the end, compose the variegated and colorful mosaic of Nuyorican poetry. As the community spread outside the confines of New York, these artists were joined by Rosario Morales and Aurora Levins Morales (Getting Home Alive, 1986), Luz María Umpierre (from Una puertorriqueña en Penna, 1979, to The Margarita Poems, 1987), and Judith Ortiz Cofer (from Reaching for the Mainland, 1987, to Silent Dancing, 1990).

During this initial phase, with the exception of Piñero’s dramas, poetry stands at the center of the Nuyoricans’ artistic laboratory, with its strong plurilinguistic accentuation and musical rhythms, restoring the popular tradition of choral singing and collective ceremonies. This poetry also takes inspiration from African American poetry and, interweaving with the experimentation of the beat movement, is grounded on a direct relationship with its public. And it becomes the vehicle for an often anguished reflection on its Caribbean and colonial past, on a present overshadowed by the unresolved conflict with the mainland, on the island remembered and narrated by the elders and on Africa still playing such a large part in traditional Puerto Rican culture, on the mainland ghetto as a new horizon of experience, on oral tradition as a link with the deepest of roots, and on writing as a present reality to be confronted.

Then again, particularly in the work of Nicholasa Mohr (from Nilda, 1973, to Going Home, 1986) and Ed Vega (from The Comeback, 1985 to Casualty Report, 1991), a vigorous body of fiction was also established, centered on themes of life in the barrio, the clash between generations, the position of women as the first victims of the physical and mental commuting between Puerto Rico and New York, memories of the island’s private and collective history: a narrative capable of holding its own in a dialogue with the best of the “chicano renaissance.” Above all, from this condition of uprooting and superimposition of cultures, in recent Nuyorican output (using the adjective to mean something more than its original, circumscribed geographical definition), there emerges powerfully the perception of a cultural and political syncretism embracing different points of view and prospects, brought together by the will to resist being annulled and canceled out.

Algarín writes, “The poet sees his function as a troubadour. He tells the tale of the streets to the streets. The people listen. They cry, they laugh, they dance as the troubadour opens up and tunes his voice and moves his pitch and rhythm to the high tension of ‘bomba’ truth. Proclamations of hurt, anger and hatred. Whirls of high-pitched singing. The voice of the street poet must amplify itself. The poet pierces the crowd with cataracts of clear, clean, precise, concrete words about the liquid, shifting latino reality around him … The Nuyorican poets have worked to establish the commonplace because they have wanted to locate their position on earth, the ground, the neighborhood, the environment. These are the places that the poet names for his readers.”30

… and the city

Miguel Algarín is echoed by Pedro Pietri, who for example in “Traffic Misdirector” sketches an instant portrait of Jorge Brandon as “street poet” and “father-of-them-all”—who “carries his metaphor / in brown shopping bags / inside steel shopping cart / he travels around with/ on the streets of manhattan.” Finally, establishing a strong link between poet-performer and audience participant, he concludes that “to become familiar / with this immortal poet / you have to hang-out / on street corners / building stoops rooftops / fire escapes bars parks / subway train stations / bodegas botanicas /iglesias pawn shops / card games cock fights / funerals valencia bakery / hunts point palace / pool halls orchard beach / & cuchifrito stands / on the lower eastside.”31

Pietri’s poetry and drama are densely interwoven with metropolitan scenarios, often nocturnal and oneiric, mostly turned upside down and surreal: the title itself of his Brandon poem is indicative of his poetics, consisting of verbal and cultural short circuits, in between modernism and the dozens, beat and jazz, Breton and Amiri Baraka, cadavres exquis and rock ’n‘ roll, Charlie Parker and haikus, Alice in Wonderland and street cat rituals. Being a poetic summa of Nuyorican experiences, his “Puerto Rican Obituary” is understandably and predictably traversed by urban imagery, from Spanish Harlem to Long Island Cemetery, from “sister lopez … / the number one healer / and fortune card dealer” to the bill collectors. Even his “Telephone Booth” series (amounting to some hundreds of short poems),32 although surreal and oneiric, contains clearly recognizable geographies, physical and mental places: subways, street corners, palm reader shops, bodegas, homeless and winos, “dishonest bars,” cafes and diners, shopping bags, garbage, empty buildings, yellow taxis, Brooklyn and the Bronx and the Lower East Side and Spanish Harlem, “park bench solitude,” the Hudson River “where west 125th Street / ends on a fishing hook,” Riverside Drive, bridges and cemeteries, traffic lights, funeral parlors, gypsy women and mailmen, abandoned playgrounds, grocery stores, “dark idle chimney smoke / broad daylight factory,” Coney Island and Stillwell Avenue, “a Chinese / cuban restaurant on / 9th avenue & 53rd st,” the Port Authority Bus Terminal, “a liquor store/ on bleecker street,” fire hydrants, “this park / on 23rd street / 5th Madison avenue / scene land mark flat / Iron Buildingdong,” stoops, Ebbet Fields, the Staten Island Ferry, “this endless city / of tall buildings / and small human beings.”

And even when the two main characters in The Masses Are Asses (perhaps the best of his plays), a Puerto Rican couple aspiring to acknowledged middle-class status, shut themselves up in their apartment pretending to have gone off on a luxury cruise and doing all they can not to be noticed, the city tries to elbow its way in on every side (“Open up! This is the police! There has been a robbery, a rape, and a murder committed in this building. We are questioning everyone. Come on, open up or I will blow out the lock with my beloved revolver!”).33

And if this strongly physical urban dimension is present in most Nuyorican poetry (Miguel Piñero, La bodega sold dreams; Tato Laviera, La carreta made a U-Turn), the same can be said for its fiction. The city-as-neighborhood is often at the center of Nicholasa Mohr’s fiction. In novels such as Nilda (1986), in short-story collections such as El Bronx Remembered (1986) and In Nueva York (1988), we find the same attention to the landscapes of la urbe and its barrios, a topography that is as physical as it is metaphorical and makes use of all the architectural and urbanistic elements.34 Nilda opens with a typical immigrant city scene:

Summers in New York City’s Barrio were unbearable. Even when there was a cool spell, it seemed a long time before the dry fresh air could find a way past the concrete and asphalt, into the crowded buildings which had become blazing furnaces. As Nilda played outside, she could smell the heat mingled with the odors coming from the tenements and sidewalks. Tiny beads of moisture settled in her nostrils, making it hard to breathe.

She was playing on the sidewalk where she had discovered a small patch of shadow. The side wall of the stoop steps of her building created this small island of comfort, which now became her turf. With a small piece of white chalk, she began to draw pictures on the sidewalk. Getting even with her friends, she decided to scribble who loved whom and which one stank. Pausing, she impulsively reached out to touch the unshaded concrete and jumped back, sticking her finger in her mouth to let the saliva take out the sting of the burn.35

Concrete, asphalt, buildings, heat and odors, tenements, sidewalks, turf, children’s graffiti—and then “the stoop steps of her building,” which, as in much immigrant fiction, play a central role: the stage from which to see and be seen, to watch and be watched, to talk and be talked about, to gossip and be gossiped about. “Old Mary,” the opening tale of the collection In Nueva York, places this role at the very beginning:

Old Mary stood outside on the stoop steps of her building and looked for a spot that was fairly clean. The hard gray stone steps were worn, stained, and cracked, but she found a clean place near the loose railing where the surface was still smooth. Bending over, she set down an old plastic carseat cushion and squatted until she felt her bottom resting on it. She put down a copy of the Spanish newspaper El Diario and a cardboard fan, and held to her can of beer. Quickly she snapped the metal tab on the can, feeling the light spray of cold liquid on her nose and chin. She gulped down enough beer to soothe her parched throat; then Old Mary belched and sighed, satisfied.36

In the collection of short pieces and poems she co-authored with her mother Rosario, Aurora Lervins Morales depicts this urban scenery, which is at once visual and emotional, which contains past and present and individual as well as collective memories and experiences:

New York is the Old Country to me. Childhood memories of the four years that I lived there, between the squirrels and stone walls of Riverside Park, and the thrilling roar, the musty winds, and glittering sidewalks of the subway, are laid, thin as silverplate on an old spoon, over an iron core of older memories. The garment district and my grandmother’s hands at the sewing machine, stitching up bras and girdles with the other Puerto Rican women; my mother’s fable about the essence of the city—a man she once saw leading a goat into the subway; my step-grandpa Abe’s sister who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire; my great-grandma Leah and her husband Abe and her sister Betty, all working in the garment trade during the years of unionization; my aunt Eva the hatmaker and her radical Finnish husband Einar. They were the people who lived in my Old Country, who had lived there in the days of the big strikes. In the days of the big hunger called The Depression.

The names of streets and neighborhoods, spoken casually by native New Yorkers, are full of meaning to me, with bits of history clinging to them like earth to a shoe: Amsterdam Avenue and Harlem, a ferment of Black culture, politics, movement; Brownsville where my father was born among the other immigrants, and Coney Island home of Nathan’s hotdogs and the big parachute ride; Bridgeport, where Pop worked in a factory and slept in a rooming house five nights a week, eating his meals at Chopik’s; the Lower East Side, home of both my peoples, mysterious with smells and faces and eateries and the trailing threads of friends and cousins and neighbors last heard of in 1934 or ‘47 or ‘59.37

Here is not only an effective fusion of personal and collective (and of memory as ars and as vis), family genealogies interacting with labor history and the dramatic event of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire,38 But also a revealing image, structured around the repetition of oxymorons: “my mother’s fable about the essence of the city—a man she once saw leading a goat into the subway.” “Fable” and “essence,” “a goat” and “the subway”: as with the casitas and the community gardens, or with the roosters in the empty lots under the huge tenements, again la isla within la urbe—maybe as a “fable,” but one that epitomizes “the essence of the city.” Much in the same way, Pietri’s Jorge Brandon “recites his poetry / to whoever listens / & when nobody is around / he recites to himself / he speaks the wisdom / of unforgotten palm trees / the vocabulary of coconuts/ that wear overcoats”;39 and in Ponce, writes Pietri in another poem, “there is a beach / without broken glass / in the sand / the ocean has / twenty-twenty vision / is safe to breathe / on this beach / there are no splinters / in the wind.”40

As to Nilda, she “remembered her mother’s description of Puerto Rico’s beautiful mountainous countryside covered with bright flowers and red flamboyant trees. ‘There it was a different world from Central Park and New York City, Nilda,’ she could hear her mother saying. Looking ahead, she saw miles and miles of land and not a single sign promising to arrest her for any number of reasons. Signs had always been part of her life: DO NOT WALK ON THE GRASS … DO NOT PICK THE FLOWERS … NO SPITTING ALLOWED … NO BALL PLAYING ALLOWED … VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED.”41 She will finally discover the “trail [that] leads to a secret garden,”42 a place that exists both in reality and in imagination.

Sitting on the stoop steps of her building and drinking beer in the heat of a summer in the city, Old Mary will experience a similar state of mind, again la isla and la urbe shifting one into the other:

Here and there faces looked out of open windows. One small child stood up on the sill against a window guard. He was shrieking and bouncing to the percussion of a fast tune playing on the radio. He swung a wooden ladle as if conducting an orchestra and playfully waved it at Old Mary. She smiled and waved back with her cardboard fan. It was shaped like a Ping-Pong paddle. She looked at the tropical seascape printed on it. A golden sky shone brightly over green palm trees and a clear blue ocean. Gentle waves traveled slowly to the shore of a white sandy beach fronted by a large gleaming white building with lots of windows and terraces. Printed in black letters were the words: PUERTO RICAN SHERATON – CONDADO – SAN JUAN – PUERTO RICO – COMPLIMENTS OF: RODRIGUEZ PHARMACY – LA FARMACIA DEL HOGAR.43

With all the dramatic and ironic contradictions that this shift implies.

Primary Sources

Algarín, Miguel. Mongo Affair. New York: Nuyorican Press Book, Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe, Inc., 1978.Find this resource:

    Algarín, Miguel, and Bob Holman, eds. Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets’ Café. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1994.Find this resource:

      Algarín, Miguel, and Miguel Piñero, eds. Nuyorican Poetry. An Anthology of Puerto Rican Words and Feelings. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1975.Find this resource:

        Colón, Juan. A Puerto Rican in New York and Other Sketches. New York: International Publishers, 1961.Find this resource:

          Esteves, Sandra María. Tropical Rains. A Bilingual Downpour. Bronx, NY: African Caraibian Poetry Theater, 1984.Find this resource:

            Iglesias, Cesar Andreu, ed. Memoirs of Bernardo Vega: A Contribution to the History of the Puerto Rican Community in New York. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984.Find this resource:

              Laviera, Tato. La Carreta Made a U-Turn. Houston, TX: Arte Público Press, 1979.Find this resource:

                Laviera, Tato. AmeRícaní. Houston, TX: Arte Pùblico Press, 1985.Find this resource:

                  Lopez-Adorno, Pedro, ed. Papiros de Babel. Antología de la poesía puertorriqueña en Nueva York. Río Piedras: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1991.Find this resource:

                    Mohr, Nicholasa. In Nueva York. Houston, TX: Arte Público Press, 1986.Find this resource:

                      Mohr, Nicholasa. Nilda. Houston, TX: Arte Público Press, 1986.Find this resource:

                        Morales, Aurora Levins, and Rosario Morales. Getting Home Alive. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books, 1986.Find this resource:

                          Pietri, Pedro. Puerto Rican Obituary. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973.Find this resource:

                            Pietri, Pedro. Traffic Violations. Maplewood, NJ: Waterfront Press, 1983.Find this resource:

                              Pietri, Pedro. The Masses Are Asses. Maplewood, NJ: Waterfront Press, 1984.Find this resource:

                                Pietri, Pedro. Illusions of a Revolving Door. Plays-Teatro. Río Piedras, Puerto Rico: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1992.Find this resource:

                                  Pietri, Pedro. The Masses Are Asses. Las masas son crasas. Edited by Alfredo Matilla Rivas. San Juan, Puerto Rico: Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, 1997.Find this resource:

                                    Pietri, Pedro. Out of Order: Fuori Servizio. Cagliari: CUEC, 2001.Find this resource:

                                      Piñero, Miguel. La Bodega Sold Dreams. Houston, TX: Arte Pùblico Press, 1980.Find this resource:

                                        Piñero, Miguel. Plays. Houston, TX: Arte Pùblico Press, 1984.Find this resource:

                                          Soto, Pedro Juan. Spiks. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973.Find this resource:

                                            Thomas, Piri. Down These Mean Streets. New York: Knopf, 1967.Find this resource:

                                              Turner, Faythe, ed. Puerto Rican Writers: At Home in the USA: An Anthology. Seattle: Open Hand Publishing, Inc., 1991.Find this resource:

                                                Further Reading

                                                Abu-Lughod, Janet, et al. From Urban Village to East Village. The Battle for New York’s Lower East Side. London: Blackwell, 1994.Find this resource:

                                                  Acosta-Belén, Edna, and Carlos E. Santiago, eds. Puerto Ricans in the United States: A Contemporary Portrait. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2006.Find this resource:

                                                    Flores, Juan. Divided Borders: Essays on Puerto Rican Identity. Houston, TX: Arte Público Press, 1993.Find this resource:

                                                      Heyck, Denis Lynn Daly. Barrios and Borderlands: Cultures of Latinos and Latinas in the United States. New York: Routledge, 1994.Find this resource:

                                                        Lippard, Lucy R. Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America. New York: Pantheon Books, 1990.Find this resource:

                                                          Maffi, Mario. Gateway to the Promised Land: Ethnic Cultures in New York’s Lower East Side. New York: New York University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

                                                            Mele, Christopher. Selling the Lower East Side: Culture, Real Estate, and Resistance in New York City. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.Find this resource:

                                                              Mohr, Eugene V. The Nuyorican Experience: Literature of the Puerto Rican Minority. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982.Find this resource:

                                                                Noel, Urayoán. In Visible Movements: Nuyorican Poetry from the Sixties to Slam. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014.Find this resource:

                                                                  Patterson, Clayton, et al., eds. Resistance: A Radical, Social, and Political History of the Lower East Side. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2007.Find this resource:

                                                                    Rodríguez de Laguna, Asela. Images and Identities: The Puerto Rican in Two World Contexts. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1987.Find this resource:

                                                                      Sánchez González, Lisa. Boricua Literature: A Literary History of the Puerto Rican Diaspora. New York: New York University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

                                                                        Sánchez Korrol, Virginia E. From Colonia to Community: The History of Puerto Ricans in New York City, 1917–1948. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983.Find this resource:

                                                                          Steiner, Stan. The Islands: The Worlds of the Puerto Ricans. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1974.Find this resource:

                                                                            Wagenheim, Kal, and Olga Jiménez de Wagenheim, eds. The Puerto Ricans: A Documentary History. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2013.Find this resource:

                                                                              Wakefield, Dan. Island in the City: Puerto Ricans in New York. New York: Corinth Books, Inc., 1960.Find this resource:


                                                                                (1.) The opening of the cafe was preceded throughout 1973, by a series of informal readings with Jorge Brandon, Pedro Pietri, Miguel Piñero, Sandra María Esteves, Lucky Cienfuegos, Bimbo Rivas, and other poets, musicians, playwrights, and performers, held in the apartment next to the Sunshine Cafe, the home of Miguel Algarín, poet and professor of English literature at the Rutgers University as well as cofounder of the cafe itself. On the role of the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe, see Noel Urayoán, In Visible Movement: Nuyorican Poetry Slam from the Sixties to Slam (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014).

                                                                                (2.) See Anders Stephanson, Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995); also see Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease, eds., Cultures of United States Imperialism (London: Duke University Press, 1993).

                                                                                (3.) On this history, see Kal Wagenheim and Olga Jiménez de Wagenheim, eds., The Puerto Ricans: A Documentary History (Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2013); and Edna Acosta-Belén and Carlos E. Santiago, eds., Puerto Ricans in the United States: A Contemporary Portrait (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2006).

                                                                                (4.) The Act is dated March 2, 1917: the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. The coincidence is rather significant.

                                                                                (5.) For what concerns the Puerto Rican immigration to New York City, essential reading is Virginia E. Sánchez Korrol, From Colonia to Community: The History of Puerto Ricans in New York City, 1917–1948 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983).

                                                                                (6.) There are vivid portraits of the Puerto Rican community in New York in Dan Wakefield, Island in the City: Puerto Ricans in New York (New York: Corinth Books, Inc., 1960), and in Stan Steiner, The Islands: The Worlds of the Puerto Ricans (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1974).

                                                                                (7.) Miguel Piñero, “This Is Not the Place Where I Was Born,” in La Bodega Sold Dreams, ed. Miguel Piñero (Houston, TX: Arte Público Press, 1980), 13–14.

                                                                                (8.) On these aspects, see Janet L. Abu-Lughod et al., From Urban Village to East Village: The Battle for New York’s Lower East Side (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994); and Mario Maffi, Gateway to the Promised Land: Ethnic Cultures on New York’s Lower East Side (New York: New York University Press, 1995).

                                                                                (9.) Mario Maffi, “The Parlor and the Street: Private and Public Spaces on New York’s Lower East Side,” in Public and Private in American History: State, Family, Subjectivity in the Twentieth Century, eds. Raffaella Baritono, Daria Frezza, Alessandra Lorini, Maurizio Vaudagna, and Elisabetta Vezzosi (Otto Editore, Turin, 2003), 415–433.

                                                                                (10.) Michael Denning, Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America (London: Verso, 1987), 136.

                                                                                (11.) The noun itself is of Dutch origins: stoep, meaning step.

                                                                                (12.) A neighborhood like the Lower East Side hosted several different immigrant communities, often considerably mixed together in the same building. In his 46 Eldridge/P.S. 65. A Memoir, Italian immigrant Milton Catapano recalls that the “tenants in our building were from Palermo, Naples, Minsk, Bucharest, and Warsaw, with a number of unidentifiables thrown in. How did we communicate? In Yiddish, partly … My father, [an Italian] tailor, mastered conversational Yiddsh in the needle trades; conversed in Italian with his compatriots; and spoke English at home. My [American] mother spoke enough Italian and Yiddish to shop and communicate with in-laws and neighbors”—Milton Catapano, 46 Eldridge/P.S. 65. A Memoir (Chicago: self-published, 1988), 7. A century before, Edward Harrigan (of the Hart-Harrigan duo, of music-hall fame) wrote, in the song “McNally’s Row of Flats” (1882): “It’s Ireland and Italy, Jerusalem and Germany, Oh Chinamen and Nagers, and a paradise of cats / All jumbled togather in snow or rainy weather, / They represent the tenants in McNally’s row of flats” (quoted in Maffi, Gateway to the Promised Land, 97). Other evidence can be found in fictional or autobiographical texts from the years 1880–1920. In more recent decades, demography has changed things. While older immigrant waves arrived in New York City more or less at the same time, and thus intimately interacted, subsequent, post-1920s waves settled in the Lower East Side as previous communities slowly shrank or even disappeared. A process of cultural and linguistic “homogeneization” is thus underway, which also has to do with gentrification dynamics. On these issues, see Janet L. Abu-Lughod et al., From Urban Village; and Christopher Mele, Selling the Lower East Side: Culture, Real Estate, and Resistance in New York City (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

                                                                                (13.) On the community gardens, and their often uncertain survival, due to the gentrification process, see Michela Pasquali, I giardini di Manhattan. Storie di guerrilla gardens (Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2008).

                                                                                (14.) See Gregory Battcock and Philip Pocock, The Obvious Illusion: Murals of the Lower East Side (New York: George Braziller, 1980); and Lucy R. Lippard, Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America (New York: Pantheon Books, 1990). Together with the community gardens, these murals too were often victims of the gentrification process, one example being the stolid whitewashing of the splendid mural by María Dominguez, “La Lucha Continua,” at La Plaza Cultural site, at the corner of Avenue C and East 9th Street.

                                                                                (15.) See Joseph Sciorra and Martha Cooper, “‘I Feel Like I’m in My Country’: Puerto Rican Casitas in New York City,” TDR. The Drama Review 34.4 (1990): 156–168.

                                                                                (16.) In her seminal The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), Jane Jacobs anticipated this other phase of decline, after the one marking the decade of the Great Depression.

                                                                                (17.) The poem was then included in Miguel Algarín and Bob Holman, eds., Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, 361–362.

                                                                                (18.) Or, perhaps better, “Espanglish,” as Lisa Sánchez González prefers, in her Boricua Literature: A Literary History of the Puerto Rican Diaspora (New York: New York University Press, 2001). In her essay, González also makes use of the term “orature,” to indicate the oral quality of much literary expression stemming from the Puerto Rican community in New York. See also Noel Urayoán, In Visible Movement.

                                                                                (19.) Sandra María Esteves, “Not Neither,” in Tropical Rains: A Bilingual Downpour, ed. Sandra María Esteves (Bronx, NY: African Caribbean Poetry Theater, 1984), 26.

                                                                                (20.) See Lisa Sánchez González, Boricua Literature, 99.

                                                                                (21.) Tato Laviera, AmeRícan (Houston, TX: Arte Público Press, 1985). Writes Eugene V. Mohr: “New York really represents the United States for Puerto Ricans. In the first decade or two of the great migration those of limited education used Nova Yor or los Novayores to refer to any part of the country. This usage has pretty well died out, but New York remains la urbe, basic symbol of the American adventure. In any case, very little writing has emerged from Puerto Rican communities elsewhere on the mainland. New York is, moreover, the metropolis of nearly all our immigrant literatures”—Eugene V. Mohr, The Nuyorican Experience: Literature of the Puerto Rican Minority (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982), xiv.

                                                                                (22.) See César Andreu Iglesias, ed., Memoirs of Bernardo Vega: A Contribution to the History of the Puerto Rican Community in New York (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977, 1984); and Jesús Colón, A Puerto Rican in New York and Other Sketches (New York: International Publishers, 1961). As to Jorge Brandon, to my knowledge his work has yet to be collected in printed form, apart from two poems (“La masacre de Ponce” and “El astro de Carolina”), published in Miguel Algarín and Bob Holman, eds., Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets’ Café (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1994).

                                                                                (23.) Aleida Assmann, Cultural Memory and Western Civilization. Arts of Memory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011). A limited, but significant, example of how the work done by Pura Belpré, librarian, teacher, and “popularizer” of the island’s cultural heritage, has “decanted” in the Nuyorican experience is to be seen in one of her children’s stories (“Perez and Martina”), in the use of the figure of the “cockroach”—which not by chance will then be immortalized by Pedro Pietri, particularly in his “Suicide Note from a Cockroach in a Low Income Housing Project” (1973). On Schomburg and Belpré, see Lisa Sánchez González, who calls Belpré’s tale “a pivotal work of early-to-mid-twentieth-century Nuyorican literary history” (González, Boriqua Literature, 91).

                                                                                (24.) It was here that, also in 1969, Pedro Pietri’s long poem “Puerto Rican Obituary,” one of the founding texts of the Nuyorican experience together with Piri Thomas’s memoir Down These Mean Streets (1967), was first read in public, at a rally in support of the new movement. As an organization, the Young Lords Party disappeared around the mid-1970s, torn by internal strife, but above all ruthlessly repressed by the government. See Young Lords Party, Palante. Young Lords Party (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971), a collection of articles from the organization’s newspaper.

                                                                                (25.) For this background, see Mario Maffi, Gateway to the Promised Land. Also see Clayton Patterson et al., eds., Resistance: A Radical Social and Political History of the Lower East Side (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2007). For a firsthand testimony of the 1960s and early 1970s counterculture, see Ed Sanders, Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and the Counterculture in the Lower East Side (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2011).

                                                                                (26.) On these musical forms as expressions of a working-class Puerto Rican community, both on the isla and in the urbe, see both Lisa Sánchez Gonzáles, Boriqua Literature; and Juan Flores, Divided Borders: Essays on Puerto Rican Identity (Houston, TX: Arte Público Press, 1993), 85–91. It should be remembered that Arte Público Press, which specializes in chicana literature, has been and continues to be very active in publishing and making known Nuyorican authors, too, as part of a common sociocultural universe.

                                                                                (27.) Lisa Sánchez Gonzáles, Boriqua Literature, 160.

                                                                                (28.) Pedro Pietri, “Puerto Rican Obituary,” in Puerto Rican Obituary, ed. Pedro Pietri (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973), 3.

                                                                                (29.) Cfr. Pedro Lopez-Adorno, Papiros de Babel: Antología de la poesía puertorriqueña en Nueva York (Río Piedras, Puerto Rico: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1991); and Faythe Turner, ed., Puerto Rican Writers: At Home in the USA: An Anthology (Seattle: Open Hand Publishing, Inc., 1991).

                                                                                (30.) Miguel Algarín, “Introduction: Nuyorican Language” and “Afterword,” in Nuyorican Poetry: An Anthology of Puerto Rican Words and Feelings, eds. Miguel Algarín and Miguel Piñero (New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1975), 11, 181.

                                                                                (31.) Pedro Pietri, “Traffic Misdirector,” in Traffic Violations, ed. Pedro Pietri (Maplewood, NJ: Waterfront Press, 1983), 103–104.

                                                                                (32.) For a selection of “Telephone Books,” see my bilingual edition, Pedro Pietri, Out of Order: Fuori servizio (Cagliari: CUEC, 2001), with photos by Marlis Momber, “the photographer of Loisaida.” Following quotes are from this edition.

                                                                                (33.) Pedro Pietri, The Masses Are Asses (Maplewood, NJ: Waterfront Press, 1984), 72. An enlarged bilingual edition is to be found in Pedro Pietri, The Masses Are Asses: Las masas son crasas, ed. Alfredo Matilla Rivas (San Juan, Puerto Rico: Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, 1997). Also see Pedro Pietri, Illusions of a Revolving Door: Plays—Teatro (Río Piedras, Puerto Rico: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1992).

                                                                                (34.) It might be of interest to note that several movies have captured this quality inherent to immigrant quarters. I am especially thinking of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) and of Robert De Niro’s A Bronx Tale (1993, from a play by Chazz Palminteri): in both movies, in which immigration and multi-ethnicity are explored, in all their contradictions, these architectural elements are text and context, background and foreground, private and public.

                                                                                (35.) Nicholasa Mohr, Nilda (Houston, TX: Arte Público Press, 1986), 1.

                                                                                (36.) Nicholasa Mohr, “Old Mary,” in Nicholasa Mohr, In Nueva York (Houston, TX: Arte Público Press, 1986), 3–4.

                                                                                (37.) Aurora Levins Morales, “Old Countries,” in Getting Home Alive, eds. Aurora Levins Morales and Rosario Morales (Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books, 1986), 89.

                                                                                (38.) On March 25, 1911, a fire destroyed the garment factory situated on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the ten-story Asch Building, at 23–29 Washington Place, in New York’s Greenwich Village, killing 123 women and 23 men at work there, all of them recent immigrants, fourteen to forty-three years old. Doors to the stairs had been locked by the owners, to prevent breaks, theft, and the access of union organizers, and most victims died jumping from the windows.

                                                                                (39.) Pedro Pietri, “Traffic Misdirector,” Traffic Violations, 103.

                                                                                (40.) Pedro Pietri, “Poetry (for Juan Pietri),” in Puerto Rican Obituary, ed. Pedro Pietri, 104.

                                                                                (41.) Nicholasa Mohr, Nilda, 153.

                                                                                (42.) Idem, 292.

                                                                                (43.) Nicholasa Mohr, “Old Mary,” 4–5.