Places that Matter

Nuyorican Poets Cafe

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Mural overview, Elena Martinez
Mural overview, Elena Martinez
Pedro Pieri portrait mural close-up, Elena Martinez
Name sign at the back of the bar, Elena Martinez
A popular forum for poetry slams
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By Elena Martinez

The Nuyorican Poets Cafe is one of New York's famous poetry venues.The Lower East Side has long been home to artists and revolutionaries, and is famous for its many generations of immigrant communities. Following World War II, due to the inexpensive housing and an atmosphere of social tolerance, the neighborhood became the East Coast home for the Beat Movement (1950 to mid-1960s) including poets and writers such as Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Gregory Corso, and Diane Di Prima. (1) At the same time that the Beats were establishing themselves, the neighborhood also became racially integrated when large numbers of Blacks and Puerto Ricans moved to New York City from the U.S. south and from Puerto Rico (among its Spanish-speaking inhabitants the neighborhood is called, Loisaida--the Spanish phonetic spelling of the Lower East Side).

The Nuyorican Poets Cafe first opened in September 1974 to provide a forum for the voices of the many poets living on the Lower East Side. Informal readings held in 1972 in Miguel Algarin's apartment became the catalyst to set-up a formal venue and create a center for poetic events, or as Algarin describes, he wanted to get everyone out of his living room.(2) The original space was at 505 East 6th Street between Avenues A and B, at a former Irish bar, the Sunshine Cafe. The writers, poets, and playwrights who were part of this scene were young new talent including Lucky Cienfuegos, Miguel Pinero, and Bimbo Rivas. Puerto Rican transplant, master poet Jorge Brandon, “El Coco Que Habla,” (1902-1995), who also lived in the neighborhood and was known as "the father of Nuyorican poetry," became a mentor to many of the young poets. Brandon had been reciting poetry on the streets since the 1940s, mixing traditional Puerto Rican forms like the decima, with urban subjects concerning New Yorkers. These young poets, the generation that came after Brandon, went on to become popular in the contemporary literary scene--Pinero's play, Short Eyes, was the first Puerto Rican play produced on Broadway (3) and also received an Obie and was awarded the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best American Play of the 1973-74 season (4); and poets such as Victor Hernandez Cruz, Sandra Maria Esteves, and Tato Laviera have published numerous books.

The mission of the Cafe as stated in the poetry anthology, Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, has been to “reveal poetry as a living art”(5), in addition to showcasing poetry in a context outside of the confines of academia. Poetry has generally been considered an elite art in this country; in Puerto Rico (where many of these young writers or their parents were from), most of the poets were from the upper class. Many of these new writers were from the working class. The Nuyorican Poets Cafe was an effort to broaden the audience and appeal for poetry. Class issues as well as themes of a political nature influenced some of the poetry. Many of the writers who were part of this scene were also part of the Civil Rights movement, the politics of the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, and protests against the Vietnam War. While universal themes of love and daily life were expressed in the poetry, a good deal of the writing was poetry of resistance and of creating an identity.