Nuyorican and Diasporican Literature and Culture
Summary and Keywords
The term “Nuyorican” (in its various spellings) refers to the combination of “Puerto Rican” and “New Yorker.” The sobriquet became a popular shorthand for the Puerto Rican exodus to the United States after World War II. Since the mid-1960s, the neologism became associated with the literary and artistic movement known as “Nuyorican.” The movement was institutionalized with the 1973 founding of the Nuyorican Poets Café in the Lower East Side of Manhattan by Miguel Algarín and Miguel Piñero. Much of Nuyorican literature featured frequent autobiographical references, the predominance of the English language, street slang, realism, parodic humor, subversive politics, and a rupture with the island’s literary models. Since the 1980s, the literature of the Puerto Rican diaspora has been characterized as “post-Nuyorican” or “Diasporican” to capture some of its stylistic and thematic shifts, including a movement away from urban blight, violence, colloquialism, and radicalism. The Bronx-born poet María Teresa (“Mariposa”) Fernández coined the term “Diasporican” in a celebrated 1993 poem. Contemporary texts written by Puerto Ricans in the United States also reflect their growing dispersal from their initial concentration in New York City.
The Origins of the Term “Nuyorican”
The historical origins of the term “Nuyorican” date back to the Puerto Rican exodus to the United States after World War II. Island-based author Guillermo Cotto-Thorner wrote the first novel about this exodus in Spanish, Trópico en Manhattan (1951), including a bilingual Spanish-English glossary entitled Neorkismos. Puerto Rican migration reached massive proportions between 1945 and 1965, a period that became known as the “Great Migration” from the island. Net migration between the island and the U.S. mainland peaked at more than 650,000 persons during this phase. The displacement of a large share of Puerto Rico’s population occurred as the island underwent swift socioeconomic transformations under the government-run program of industrialization, dubbed “Operation Bootstrap.” By encouraging the establishment of factories near the island’s main cities and neglecting the agricultural sector, this program pushed thousands of rural workers to urban areas, both on the island and abroad.
The first literary usage of the neologism “Neo-Rican” appeared in Jaime Carrero’s slim volume of bilingual poetry, Jet neorriqueño/Neo-Rican Jetliner (1964). Carrero’s text is staged in an airplane as a metaphorical space between two territories, languages, and cultures—those of Puerto Rico and the United States. His constant use of code switching between English and Spanish (popularly known as “Spanglish”) prefigured much of the later Nuyorican poetry. Another precursor of the Nuyorican movement was Piri Thomas’s classic memoir about a black Puerto Rican growing up in New York, Down These Mean Streets (1967).1
According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, a Nuyorican is “a person of Puerto Rican birth or descent who is a current or former resident of New York City.” The Oxford Dictionary broadens the scope to “a Puerto Rican living in the United States, especially in New York City.” Multiple variants of the toponym or demonym, including the English word “Newyorican” and the Spanish forms niuyorrican and nuyorriqueño, have been proposed to capture the hybrid identities of Puerto Rican migrants. They all imply a basic geographic, linguistic, and cultural split between Puerto Ricans living on the island and in the United States.2
The spelling of the term “Nuyorican” became the preferred one after Miguel Algarín and Miguel Piñero edited their anthology of Nuyorican poetry in 1975. They emphasized the creation of a literary language out of the everyday mixture between English and Spanish among working-class Puerto Ricans in New York City. Algarín and Piñero also elaborated a Nuyorican aesthetic, based on the multiple intersections among written texts, spoken words, and performing bodies. In addition to its literary dimensions, the Nuyorican movement had a visual arts component, especially after the establishment of El Museo del Barrio in 1969, the Taller Boricua in 1970, and the emergence of several generations of Puerto Rican artists in New York City, including Rafael Tufiño (b. 1922–d. 2008), Marcos Dimas (b. 1943), Fernando Salicrup (b. 1946–d. 2015), Nitza Tufiño (b. 1949), Juan Sánchez (b. 1954), and Pepón Osorio (b. 1955).3
Broader Meanings of the Term
Beyond its literary and artistic usage, Nuyorican became a common term of disparagement among residents of Puerto Rico, both among members of the intellectual elite and the popular sectors. In the 1960s Puerto Rican scholars began to approach the diaspora with trepidation. The work of anthropologist Eduardo Seda Bonilla is typical of a nationalist stance toward Puerto Rican migrants in the United States. In a series of influential essays originally published in Spanish during the 1970s, Seda Bonilla posed the “problem” of the “assimilation” of Puerto Ricans into U.S. society and concluded that second-generation immigrants (whom he called niuyorricans and later “Neo-Ricans”) had practically lost their cultural roots.4 Seda Bonilla was especially disturbed by the erosion of the Spanish language among Nuyoricans, as well as the negative impact of U.S. racism on Puerto Rican culture. In his original formulation of the problem, Seda Bonilla dismissed the idea that Nuyoricans who did not speak Spanish were still Puerto Ricans. For him, “the Niuyorrican is nowadays the archetypal man without a homeland.”5 From this perspective, migrants to the U.S. mainland threatened the survival of the Puerto Rican people and announced a “requiem for its culture.”6
Nuyoricans were therefore represented as an obstacle to the consolidation of a national consciousness and the growth of the independence movement on the island. Until recently, most scholars based in Puerto Rico located Nuyoricans outside the territorial and symbolic boundaries of their own national identity.7 Island intellectuals usually considered Nuyoricans to have an identity crisis or to have assimilated into U.S. culture. In either case, they generally excluded migrants from the Puerto Rican nationalist discourse as hybrid, dangerous, and contaminated outsiders.8 The main issue has been the gradual substitution of the English language for the Spanish vernacular, especially among second-generation Puerto Ricans in the United States. For instance, the renowned political scientist Manuel Maldonado Denis claimed that “our Puerto Rican brothers in the United States—above all, the more recent generations—lack basic proficiency in both Spanish and English . . . Perhaps they would be better described as ‘no-linguals’ instead of bilingual or monolingual.”9 In effect, Nuyoricans were often disregarded as “bilingual illiterates.” Even today, many local scholars and creative writers deride Puerto Ricans in the diaspora because they often cannot speak Spanish fluently or follow traditional Puerto Rican customs.
Nuyoricans have responded to such criticisms by redefining Puerto Rican national identity away from a sole reliance on the Spanish language to incorporate monolingual English speakers with family and emotional ties to the island.10 In the U.S. mainland, younger Puerto Ricans—especially those born and raised abroad—have inexorably adopted English as their dominant language. Following a well-established pattern in the United States, Spanish dominance is rapidly receding among second- and third-generation immigrants. However, many stateside Puerto Ricans are still fluent in Spanish and English and often alternate between the two languages. Thus, Puerto Ricans display a broad repertoire of language practices—ranging from Spanish monolingualism (primarily on the island) to English monolingualism (primarily in the mainland), including various degrees of bilingualism.
The Nuyorican Comes Home
A restless circulation of people has characterized postwar Puerto Rican migration, particularly between 1965 and 1980. In several years, more Puerto Ricans returned to the island than migrated to the U.S. mainland, especially because of minimum wage hikes on the island and the fiscal crisis in New York City, the historic core of the Puerto Rican diaspora. During the 1970s, net migration to the mainland reached its lowest point (less than 76,200) since World War II. At the same time, about 267,000 Puerto Ricans returned to live on the island. Among the main causes of the return flow were declining living conditions and employment opportunities in New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia, which had suffered a massive loss of industrial jobs. In addition, a warmer climate, strong family ties, the Spanish language, and a Hispanic cultural environment drew many Puerto Ricans back home.11
Consequently, the movement of first- and second-generation Puerto Ricans to the island assumed massive proportions. According to census data, the immigration of persons of Puerto Rican ancestry in Puerto Rico was statistically insignificant until 1950. Thereafter, the number of island residents originating in the United States—mostly children and grandchildren of Puerto Ricans who had emigrated after World War II—increased substantially. The 1980 census found that 6.2% of Puerto Rico’s inhabitants were born in the fifty United States, mostly of Puerto Rican parents. By the end of the 20th century, mainland-born residents of Puerto Rican origin were one of the fastest-growing segments of the island’s population. In 2016 the census estimated that 166,380 residents of Puerto Rico (or 4.9% of the island’s population) had been born in the fifty United States, mostly of Puerto Rican descent.12
Since the early 1970s, the Puerto Rican government, as well as public opinion, began to associate Nuyoricans with socioeconomic problems such as unemployment, poverty, crime, and drug addiction. The growing demand for bilingual education for the children of return migrants was only partially met with the establishment of a handful of bilingual public schools in the San Juan metropolitan area. These children often felt rejected by their teachers and other students, who stigmatized them as Nuyoricans, gringos, or simply bilingües.13 The presence of hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans born or raised abroad—with all its political, cultural, linguistic, and even pedagogic consequences—has received insufficient attention in recent research on Puerto Rico.14 Among other repercussions, the growth of the Nuyorican population raises critical questions about the island’s national identity, especially the linguistic criteria to define that identity.
An emblem of the problematic reception of Nuyoricans in Puerto Rico is Ana Lydia Vega’s well-known short story, “Pollito Chicken” (1981). The story narrates the vacation trip of a second-generation Puerto Rican woman, “Suzie Bermiúdez” [sic], to the island. The text satirically explores the psychological impact of code switching between English and Spanish on the protagonist, creating a kind of cultural schizophrenia, a neither-nor identity. On her first night at El Conquistador Hotel in Fajardo, Suzie picks up a bartender. Her Puerto Rican–born lover concludes, “That woman in room 306, you don’t know if she’s a gringa or a Puerto Rican, brother. She asks for room service in legal English, but when I make love to her, she screams her life out in Boricua [Puerto Rican Spanish]!”15 What she exclaims, rather implausibly, is “¡Viva Puelto Rico Libre!” (“Long Live a Free Puerto Rico!”). Despite the author’s humorous intentions, the serious ideological implications of her narration have been amply debated.
Vega’s story has been a constant source of friction between Puerto Rican and Nuyorican writers. Nicholasa Mohr, a Puerto Rican author born in Spanish Harlem and raised in the Bronx, has complained that Vega’s rendering of the crossover between Spanish and English was both “incorrect” and “ludicrous.” Furthermore, Mohr accused Vega of caricaturing New York Puerto Ricans and showing “disdain” and “contempt” for them. Finally, Mohr declared that Vega’s attitude toward Nuyoricans was widely shared by island intellectuals.16 While the acute tension between these two writers may be atypical, it reflects the polemical tone of academic debates about Puerto Rican and Nuyorican literature. Despite the work of professional organizations such as the Puerto Rican Studies Association and informal collaboration among scholars and students, the gap between Puerto Ricans on the island and in the U.S. mainland remains noticeable today.17
Islanders routinely dub return migrants and their children Nuyoricans, an epithet that originally referred to Puerto Ricans in New York City. As currently used in Puerto Rico, “Nuyorican” encompasses all Puerto Ricans born, raised, or living in the United States. The term often implies that Nuyoricans are somehow less “authentic” Puerto Ricans than those who remained on the island. The Nuyorican stereotype highlights the migrants’ alleged Americanization, including their way of speaking, dressing, walking, and relating to others. Island-born Puerto Ricans often perceive Nuyoricans as a different group, and Nuyoricans also tend to distinguish themselves from both island-born Puerto Ricans and Americans. Typically, islanders deem Nuyoricans as more aggressive, disrespectful, and promiscuous than themselves. In turn, Nuyoricans are likely to perceive themselves as more cosmopolitan and sophisticated than islanders.18
Today, for many Puerto Ricans on the island, the term “Nuyorican” usually evokes an ill-mannered youth who speaks Spanish poorly, dresses inappropriately, and does not follow conventional rules of conduct on the island. The Nuyorican label stigmatizes return migrants and their children as more Americanized than those who were raised on the island. Even when they mingle with second-generation Puerto Ricans, middle-class migrants from the island to the United States often express their disapproval of Nuyoricans, whom they regard as less educated and skilled than themselves.19
The Nuyorican Literary Movement
The Nuyorican stage of Puerto Rican literature in the United States began in earnest in the mid-1960s and is associated with Miguel Algarín (b. 1941) and Miguel Piñero (b. 1946–d. 1988), who cofounded the Nuyorican Poets Café in 1973 in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.20 Other key authors identified with the Nuyorican movement include its literary predecessor Piri Thomas (b. 1930–d. 2011), Nicholasa Mohr (b. 1938), Lucky Cienfuegos (b. 1941–?), Pedro Pietri (b. 1944–d. 2004), Sandra María Esteves (b. 1948), and Tato Laviera (b. 1950–d. 2013). Most of the writers who formed part of the initial phase of the movement were raised in New York City in the 1940s and 1950s, although some had been born in Puerto Rico and moved as children to the United States. Most were men of working-class background and the first of their generation to graduate from college; some were self-taught. They included poets, playwrights, and novelists, as well as journalists and essayists. Some were active participants in the countercultural movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, including antiwar protests, student organizations, and community theater performances. A few (such as Piñero, Pietri, and Esteves) were militants in the Young Lords Party, a radical youth organization modeled after the Black Panthers. Founded in Chicago in 1960, the Young Lords were later extended to New York, Philadelphia, and other U.S. cities.21
For more than four decades, the Nuyorican Poets Café has provided a key venue for public performances of poetry, music, theater, and the visual arts. It began as an informal gathering for Puerto Rican writers and artists in the living room of Miguel Algarín’s East Village apartment. After renting a former Irish pub between 1975 and 1980 at 505 East Sixth Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the organizers moved the café to its present location in a small renovated warehouse at 236 East Third Street. Its founders appropriated the term “Nuyorican,” which had previously been used as a derogatory reference to the Puerto Rican diaspora. Their basic intent was to lift the collective spirit of New York’s Puerto Rican community through poetry, art, performance, and music.
Many of the café’s original members—such as Piñero, Esteves, Laviera, and Bimbo Rivas (b. 1939–d. 1992)—made the Lower East Side neighborhood (now known as Loisaida) the subject of their literature. Much of their poetry chronicled and denounced the social decay of New York’s inner-city barrios, marked by poverty, crime, and drug addiction. One of the leitmotifs of the writing was the incongruence between the myth of the American Dream of upward social mobility and the everyday life of Puerto Rican immigrants. At the same time, Nuyorican poetry was a sign of collective affirmation amid adverse circumstances. Since the mid-1970s, the café has promoted several generations of Nuyorican poets, from the pioneering Pietri, Piñero and Víctor Hernández Cruz (b. 1949), to the more recent work of Willie Perdomo (b. 1967), María Teresa “Mariposa” Fernández (b. 1971), and Caridad de la Luz (“La Bruja,” b. 1977).
Today, the Nuyorican Poets Café is a well-established nonprofit organization that attracts an ethnically and racially diverse audience. Since the mid-1990s, the institution has distanced itself from its nationalist beginnings and adopted a more transnational approach, appealing to a multicultural set of performers and spectators. In addition to poetry slams, the café regularly features open-mic competitions, hip-hop, Latin jazz, theatrical performances, and film screenings. Many of the café’s current artists, staff members, board of directors, and audience members are not Puerto Rican, such as African Americans and Asian Americans. Cofounder Algarín still belongs to the board of directors of the institution, which remains anchored in New York’s Puerto Rican and Latino community. Because the gentrification of the Lower East Side of Manhattan has displaced many lower-class residents, the Nuyorican Poets Café is a strong symbol of the Puerto Rican presence in the neighborhood. A Nuyorican Café opened in Old San Juan in 1973, as a night club combining art, music, theater, and food, but focusing on salsa dancing rather than poetry recitals. Unfortunately, the café closed in November 2017 in the wake of the economic disaster caused by hurricane María.
Stylistic Features of Nuyorican Literature
Much of Nuyorican literature featured frequent autobiographical references, the predominance of the English language, street slang, parodic humor, realism, subversive politics, and a rupture with the island’s literary models. According to an early essay on Nuyorican writers, “Puerto Rico has not served as the experimental or cultural source of their work.”22 Oral traditions of storytelling, poetic performance, and popular musical rhythms such as bomba and salsa were common sources of inspiration. Nuyorican writers often articulated a romantic and mythical image of Puerto Rico and its African and indigenous roots.23 Some authors idealized the island as an ancestral homeland they only knew through the stories and memories of their elders. The utopian “rediscovery” of Puerto Rico often served as an emotional refuge from the harsh milieu in which poor immigrants found themselves in the United States. The actual return to the island by some Nuyorican authors, as dramatized in León Ichaso’s film Piñero (2001), proved to be painful because of their rejection by many islanders.
The Nuyorican movement was part of the civil rights struggles of blacks and other disenfranchised groups in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. Nuyorican authors shared much with other minority writers, especially African Americans and Chicanos, in their protest against racial and class oppression, ethnic affirmation, nonstandard language, and search for new forms of expression. Like the African American writers who focused on daily life in the black ghettoes, Nuyorican authors depicted the deplorable conditions of poverty-stricken barrios like the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Spanish Harlem, and the South Bronx. Their writing was often inflected by African American vernacular English, the dialect spoken by urban working-class blacks in the United States. Like many Chicano authors, Nuyorican writers tended to dwell on the geographic displacement and spiritual desolation of Puerto Rican immigrants, as well as their aspirations for justice and equality in the United States.
The Nuyorican movement defied the island-centered canon in literature, especially through its prevalent use of the English language and its creative mixture with Spanish. For years, the literary production of Puerto Ricans in the United States was not well known or incorporated into the U.S. or Puerto Rican literary canons. A large part of the problem was the bilingual texture of Nuyorican literature, making it difficult to be read in either English or Spanish. The rise of bilingual literary critics such as Carmen Dolores Hernández (b. 1942), Juan Flores (b. 1943–d. 2014), Efraín Barradas (b. 1947), Edna Acosta-Belén (b. 1948), Frances Aparicio (b. 1955), Lisa Sánchez González (b. 1963), and Frances Negrón-Muntaner (b. 1966), mostly based at U.S. universities, contributed to a greater appreciation of Nuyorican writing and its relationships to U.S. ethnic and Puerto Rican literature on the island.24
Recurrent Themes in Nuyorican Literature
The creative literature of Puerto Ricans in the United States reveals how many members of this immigrant group define themselves vis-à-vis the dominant cultures of the United States and Puerto Rico.25 As noted before, one of the outstanding features of Nuyorican poetry is the blending of the English and Spanish languages. For example, Tato Laviera’s poem “angelito’s eulogy in anger” (1982) is graphically divided into two columns, one in Spanish and one in English, which linguistically converge toward the end:
- angelito sabía todo esto
- entonces él en la perdición
- de su muerte está más despierto
- que ustedes, angelito me dijo
- todo esto. Cuando yo hablo con
- ustedes lo único que
- oigo es el score de los mets.
- (angelito knew all this
- so even lost in his death
- he’s more awake than you are
- angelito told me all this.
- when I talk to you
- all I hear is
- the score of the mets.)
This fusion of Spanish and English is typical of Nuyorican literature. Like the protagonist of Sandra María Esteves’s “My Name is Maria Christina” (1980), many Nuyorican writers “speak two languages broken into each other.”
Most Puerto Rican poets born and raised in the United States write in English rather than Spanish. The predominance of English is clear in Efraín Barradas’s and Rafael Rodríguez’s anthology of Nuyorican poetry (1980), whose editors were forced to translate many texts into Spanish and present them in a bilingual edition to Puerto Rico’s reading public. Most Nuyorican poets use Spanish sparingly, mostly for rhetorical or dramatic purposes, particularly to create an emotional impact on readers or when the cultural connotations of Spanish terms are difficult to convey in English. Esteves illustrates the latter phenomenon in “My Name is Maria Christina,” which contains two key Spanish words laden with cultural meaning:
- Our men . . . they call me negra because they love me
- and in turn I teach them to be strong . . .
- I do not complain about cooking for my family
- because abuela taught me that woman is the master of fire
The prevalent Nuyorican image of the homeland is highly problematic, often suggesting an ambivalent mixture of nostalgia and estrangement. On one hand, some Puerto Rican writers living in the United States idealize their country of origin. As Esteves asserts in the above-cited poem, “I respect their ways/inherited from our proud ancestors.” In “Puertorriqueña” (1973), José Angel Figueroa praises “borinquen’s daystar ferment,” “mild wind,” and “abysmal beauty.” On the other hand, Nuyorican authors often discard the traditional icons of Puerto Rican history and culture, such as the jíbaro—the archetypal highland peasant—as an outmoded folk hero. Nuyoricans typically find it difficult to identify with their parents’ rural and preindustrial past because they were raised in one of the world’s largest metropoles. This lack of identification with the island is striking in Miguel Piñero’s text, “A Lower East Side Poem” (1980):
- There’s no other place for me to be
- there’s no other place that I can see
- there’s no other town around that
- brings you up or keeps you down
Later, the poetic voice concludes:
- I don’t wanna be buried in Puerto Rico
- I don’t wanna rest in long island cemetery [. . .]
- so please when I die . . .
- don’t take me far away
- keep me nearby
- take my ashes and scatter them throughout
- the Lower East Side . . .
Piñero’s text is a first-person testimonial of a Puerto Rican thief and junkie from the barrio. It represents an insider’s perspective on the social problems of New York’s Puerto Rican community. A sense of desperation and futility dominates Piñero’s depiction of the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Nuyorican poetry is essentially a literature of protest and denunciation. Pedro Pietri’s classic “Puerto Rican Obituary” (1973) contains the most-often quoted lines of verse in this type of socially engaged writing:26
- They worked
- and they died
- [. . .]
- Dead Puerto Ricans
- Who never knew they were Puerto Ricans
- Who never took a coffee break
- from the ten commandments
- to KILL
- the landlords of their cracked skulls
- and communicate with their latino souls
Tato Laviera’s poems also exemplify the socially committed thrust of Nuyorican poetry.27 In “angelito’s eulogy in anger,” the poetic voice turns his rage toward his own parents, who migrated to the United States after World War II:
- and you, damned mother and father,
- sometimes I tell you,
- for letting yourselves be convinced
- by your ambitions for more money
- for stopping the planting of banana trees
- for bringing us to this damned place
The bitterness of much Nuyorican poetry largely stems from the widespread economic deprivation of New York Puerto Ricans in the postwar period. Authors of Puerto Rican descent in the United States often expressed the social marginalization and emotional alienation of an oppressed ethnic minority. Because many Nuyorican poets represented the relations between Puerto Rican and U.S. cultures as oppositional and mutually exclusive, they assumed an adversarial stance against the white, Anglo-Saxon establishment. Indeed, most Puerto Ricans are considered nonwhite by U.S. standards, and many have personally experienced racial prejudice and ethnic discrimination. Thus, Nuyorican writers joined African American poets of the 1960s in their aggressive affirmation of collective pride and denunciation of the ideology of white supremacy. In many ways, Nuyorican poetry reflects the failure of second-generation Puerto Rican immigrants to attain the American Dream through no fault of their own.
From Nuyorican to Diasporican
The current stage of the Puerto Rican exodus may be called “post-Nuyorican” because many Puerto Ricans have moved away from the New York metropolitan area, especially to central and south Florida. Today, New York is no longer the dominant nucleus of the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States. By 2016 only 12.6 percent of the nearly 5.4 million Puerto Ricans stateside were living in New York City. As the diaspora has become more scattered, regional differences have intensified and new ethnic labels have emerged, such as Chicago-Rican, Philly-Rican, and Orlando Rican.
Beginning in the 1980s, the literature of the Puerto Rican diaspora has been dubbed “post-Nuyorican” or “Diasporican” (following the moniker coined by the Bronx-born poet “Mariposa” Fernández in 1993). The 1980s and 1990s witnessed the rise of a new generation of writers of Puerto Rican origin in the United States, especially women authors such as Fernández, Esmeralda Santiago (b. 1948), and Judith Ortiz Cofer (b. 1952–d. 2016). The writing of the Puerto Rican diaspora has been increasingly extended to other urban centers beyond New York.28 It has also been translated into Spanish, published in Puerto Rico, and become more widely accepted among academic circles on the island.
Prominent literary critics (such as Juan Flores and Frances Aparicio) have used the term “post-Nuyorican” to describe the strategic move of several authors away from oppositional politics and realist aesthetics, and more in line with a pan-ethnic and transnational Latino identity.29 Some writers, such as Santiago, Ortiz Cofer, and Edward Rivera (b. 1944–d. 2001), have continued to rely on autobiographical narratives. Others, such as Mohr, Ed Vega (b. 1936–d. 2008), and Abraham Rodríguez (b. 1961), still write short stories and novels about growing up Puerto Rican in the United States. Santiago, Ortiz Cofer, and Aurora Levins Morales (b. 1954) have distanced themselves from the Nuyorican movement’s emphasis on urban blight, violence, and colloquialism. Although Morales is a feminist and anarchist, Santiago and Ortiz Cofer have assumed more moderate political positions. Some of the more recent changes in Puerto Rican writing in the United States are part of the “mainstreaming” of ethnic literature, as well as a small boom in Latino literature since the 1990s.
Contemporary Puerto Rican authors living in the United States have expressed growing interest in gender and sexual issues, in addition to ethnicity and race. According to Lawrence Lafountain-Stokes and other queer literary critics, second-generation Puerto Ricans writers and artists often engage with these issues at a greater distance from the island’s culture and Spanish language.30 The creative and critical reflection around Afro-Puerto Rican (and more generally Afro-Latino) identity has also expanded over the past decades.31
Discussion of the Literature
One of the earliest academic studies of Nuyorican literature was Efraín Barradas’s introduction to his 1980 anthology, Herejes y mitificadores: Muestra de poesía puertorriqueña en los Estados Unidos, coedited with Rafael Rodríguez. In 1998 Barradas assembled his critical essays and reviews on Puerto Rican literature in the United States in Partes de un todo: Ensayos y notas sobre literatura puertorriqueña en los Estados Unidos. In his pioneering work, Barradas argues persuasively that the literary production of Puerto Ricans in the United States forms part of Puerto Rican culture, asserting that a clear-cut distinction between the island and the diaspora is no longer valid, if it ever was. Thus, the author questions the conventional definition of Puerto Rican literature as that exclusively written in Spanish by Puerto Rican–born authors. Instead, Barradas considers Nuyorican writers as Puerto Rican, insofar as they fully assume their national origin, regardless of the language they prefer to write in. This does not mean that the poetry or narrative of the diaspora is identical to those published on the island. Barradas himself has scrutinized the paradisiacal vision of the homeland present in many Nuyorican poets, which represents a new version of the Edenic myth in Puerto Rican literature. What is required is broadening the linguistic and geographic criteria to include the emigrants and their descendants in Puerto Rico’s nationalist discourse.
The first book-length treatment of Nuyorican literature was Eugene Mohr’s The Nuyorican Experience: Literature of the Puerto Rican Minority (1982). Mohr provides a chronological, panoramic view of Puerto Rican writers in the United States since the early 20th century. The author places this literary production primarily within the context of previous immigrant writing in the United States. He focuses on the autobiographic texts of Piri Thomas and Nicholasa Mohr, while paying little attention to the Nuyorican generation of the 1960s and 1970s, apart from Miguel Piñero. Nonetheless, Mohr’s book represents a serious attempt to assess the historical trajectory and literary significance of a growing body of fiction, poetry, and theater written by Puerto Ricans in the English language.
Juan Flores was one of the shrewdest critics of Nuyorican literature and popular music. Working individually and with other scholars affiliated with Hunter College’s Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, Flores published a stream of now-classic articles, book chapters, and books between the late 1970s and early 2010s, including Divided Borders: Essays on Puerto Rican Identity (1993); From Bomba to Hip Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity (2000); and The Diaspora Strikes Back: Caribeño Tales of Learning and Turning (2008). As a literary critic, his focus was on mapping the development of Puerto Rican literature in the United States, its tensions with the island’s culture, its proximity to the African American experience and its convergences and divergences with other Latino immigrant communities. Flores was especially incisive in his analysis of the Nuyorican experience as a diasporic contact zone that straddled the English and Spanish languages, as well as U.S. and Puerto Rican literary traditions. This “straddling” character was best exemplified by the poet Tato Laviera, whose work Flores considered paradigmatic of Puerto Rican linguistic and cultural practices in the United States.
Carmen Dolores Hernández’s work, Puerto Rican Voices in English: Interviews with Writers (1997), gathers her informative conversations with Puerto Rican authors living in the United States. In the introduction to her book, Hernández proposes that the authors’ cultural affiliation does not depend on their geographic location or linguistic preferences. Rather, it depends on their resistance to assimilate into the dominant culture of the United States, particularly that of the white middle class of Anglo-Saxon origin. Hernández combats the purist vision of the Spanish language and Puerto Rican culture by recognizing the legitimacy of diasporic literature. According to the author, this literature crosses over the linguistic and cultural borders between the island and the United States, just as people, ideas, and practices constantly circulate between the two places.
Lisa Sánchez González proposes an intriguing approach in her book Boricua Literature: A Literary History of the Puerto Rican Diaspora (2001). Appropriating the term Boricua (derived from the indigenous word for the ancient inhabitants of present-day Puerto Rico), Sánchez González traces a long genealogy of writers who are not well recognized as part of the diaspora, such as Luisa Capetillo, Arturo Schomburg, William Carlos Williams, and Pura Belpré. (That list would also have to include the poet Julia de Burgos, who first moved to New York City in 1940 and died there in 1953.) According to the author, these foundational figures help explain the emergence of the Nuyorican movement during the 1970s. Sánchez González’s intellectual project is to rescue an entire body of literature that has been marginalized by the established canons in the United States as well as in Puerto Rico. In her judgment, diasporic literature should not be understood merely as an appendix to the island’s literature, but as a rich legacy with more than a century of history.
José L. Torres-Padilla and Carmen Haydée Rivera compiled a wide-ranging collection of critical essays in Writing Off the Hyphen: New Critical Perspectives on the Literature of the Puerto Rican Diaspora (2008). The essays span from historical and political incursions into early-20th-century diasporic literature to gender and sexual identity among contemporary women and homosexual writers. Torres-Padilla’s and Rivera’s introduction to their edited volume provides a useful overview of Puerto Rican writing in the United States, against the backdrop of the various historical stages of the exodus from the island since 1898. They argue convincingly that diasporic writers subvert insular notions of cultural identity as they reconstruct their bilingual, bicultural, and transnational experiences. The volume problematizes the notion of “home”—in the sense of a physical, psychological, and social space of belonging—and its literary representations. According to Torres-Padilla and Rivera, Puerto Ricans in the United States tend to write “off the hyphen,” meaning that they resist the hyphenated identities embraced by other ethnic groups (such as Mexican Americans or Cuban Americans).
To date, the most comprehensive treatment of the Nuyorican movement is Urayoán Noel’s In Visible Movement: Nuyorican Poetry from the Sixties to Slam (2014). Based on a doctoral dissertation by the author, himself a published poet, this work dwells on the canonical figures of Nuyorican poetry, such as Miguel Piñero, Pedro Pietri, and Víctor Hernández Cruz but also ponders the more recent work of Tato Laviera, Mariposa Fernández, and Willie Perdomo. Informed by contemporary debates on diasporas, performance, and identity, Noel provides close readings of literary texts in the context of the evolving cultural politics of Puerto Ricans in New York City and elsewhere. The result is an illuminating interpretation of the complex links among literary representations, social and political movements, and personal and collective identities.
Links to Digital Materials
Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, Hunter College.
De La Luz, Caridad (“La Bruja”), W.T.C. La Bruja on Def Poetry Jam.
Fernández, María Teresa “Mariposa,” Ode to the Diasporican.
Piñero (film trailer).
El Museo del Barrio, New York.
Nuyorican Café, Puerto Rico.
Nuyorican Poets Café, New York.
Pietri, Pedro, Puerto Rican Obituary.
Remezcla, an online Latino journal featuring cultural materials on New York Puerto Ricans.
La Respuesta, a digital journal on the Puerto Rican diaspora.
Santiago, Esmeralda, When I Was Puerto Rican Title Question.
Acosta-Belén, Edna, and Carlos E. Santiago. Puerto Ricans in the United States: A Contemporary Portrait. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2006.Find this resource:
Algarín, Miguel, and Bob Holman, eds. Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café. New York: Holt, 1994.Find this resource:
Algarín, Miguel, and Miguel Piñero, eds. Nuyorican Poetry: An Anthology of Puerto Rican Words and Feelings. New York: William Morrow, 1975.Find this resource:
Barradas, Efraín. Partes de un todo: Ensayos y notas sobre literatura puertorriqueña en los Estados Unidos. Río Piedras, PR: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1998.Find this resource:
Barradas, Efraín, and Rafael Rodríguez, eds. Herejes y mitificadores: Muestra de poesía puertorriqueña en los Estados Unidos. Río Piedras, PR: Huracán, 1980.Find this resource:
Carrero, Jaime. Jet neorriqueño/Neo-Rican Jetliner. San Germán, PR: Inter-American University, 1964.Find this resource:
Cotto-Thorner, Guillermo. Trópico en Manhattan. San Juan: Occidente, 1951.Find this resource:
Duany, Jorge. The Puerto Rican Nation on the Move: Identities on the Island and in the United States. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.Find this resource:
Duany, Jorge. Puerto Rico: What Everyone Needs to Know. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.Find this resource:
Flores, Juan. Divided Borders: Essays on Puerto Rican Cultural Identity. Houston: Arte Público, 1992.Find this resource:
Flores, Juan. The Diaspora Strikes Back: Caribeño Tales of Learning and Turning. New York: Routledge, 2008.Find this resource:
Flores, Juan. From Bomba to Hip Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.Find this resource:
Hernández, Carmen Dolores. Puerto Rican Voices in English: Interviews with Writers. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997.Find this resource:
Lafountain-Stokes, Lawrence. Queer Ricans: Cultures and Sexualities in the Diaspora. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.Find this resource:
Mohr, Eugene V. The Nuyorican Experience: Literature of the Puerto Rican Minority. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1982.Find this resource:
Noel, Urayoán. In Visible Movement: Nuyorican Poetry from the Sixties to Slam. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014.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:
Santiago, Roberto, ed. Boricuas: Influential Puerto Rican Writings—An Anthology. New York: Random House, 1995.Find this resource:
Torres-Padilla, José L., and Carmen Haydée Rivera, eds. Writing Off the Hyphen: New Critical Perspectives on the Literature of the Puerto Rican Diaspora. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008.Find this resource:
Whalen, Carmen Teresa, and Víctor Vázquez-Hernández, eds. The Puerto Rican Diaspora: Historical Perspectives. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005.Find this resource:
(1.) Although Thomas’s book was published before the terms “Nuyorican,” Hispanic, or Latino became popular, literary critics have traditionally considered it a “foundational narrative” for a new generation of U.S. ethnic writers, particularly of Puerto Rican origin, that emerged in the 1970s amidst the racial tensions within a multicultural society. See Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel, Coloniality of Diasporas: Rethinking Intra-Colonial Migrations in a Pan-Caribbean Context (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 107–108.
(2.) William Burgos provides an insightful discussion of the development of such terms as “Porto Rican,” Boricua, Nuyorican, and Diasporican to describe the cultural experiences of Puerto Ricans in the United States. See Burgos, “Puerto Rican Literature in a New Clave: Notes on the Emergence of Diasporican,” in Writing Off the Hyphen: New Perspectives on the Literature of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, eds. José L. Torres and Carmen Haydée Rivera (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008), 125–142.
(3.) On Nuyorican art, see Yasmin Ramírez, ed., “Puerto Rican Visual Artists and the United States,” Centro: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies 17.2 (2015). Some scholars have also linked the Nuyorican movement with the rise of popular music genres such as salsa, hip-hop, and reggaetón. See Juan Flores, Salsa Rising: New York Latin Music of the Sixties Generation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); Raquel Z. Rivera, Nuyoricans from the Hip Hop Zone (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); and Raquel Z. Rivera, Wayne Marshall, and Deborah Pacini Hernández, eds., Reggaetón (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009).
(4.) Eduardo Seda, Réquiem para una cultura: Ensayos sobre la socialización del puertorriqueño en su cultura y en el ámbito del poder, 4th ed. (Río Piedras, PR: Bayoán, 1980).
(5.) Eduardo Seda Bonilla, “El problema de la identidad de los niuyorricans,” Revista de Ciencias Sociales 16.4 (1972): 459. All translations from Spanish to English were made by the author of this entry.
(6.) The pathological representation of Puerto Ricans in New York has a strong and lingering legacy on the island. For example, as late as 1991, the prominent writer based in Puerto Rico, Rosario Ferré, claimed that Puerto Ricans in the United States were committing “cultural suicide.” She was referring to the loss of the Spanish language and the cultural roots of the children of Puerto Rican migrants. See Ferré, “On Destiny, Language, and Translation; or Ophelia Adrift in the C. & O. Canal,” in The Youngest Doll (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 153–165.
(7.) An exception to this trend was the canonical essay (originally published in Spanish in 1983) by the Puerto Rico–based writer Luis Rafael Sánchez, “La guagua aérea” (literally, the “airbus;” figuratively, the “flying bus”). Sánchez’s text suggests a decentering of the nationalist discourse on cultural identity, proposing that being Puerto Rican is not a matter of living on the island but of how a person defines herself. See Sánchez, “The Flying Bus,” in Images and Identities: The Puerto Rican in Two World Contexts, ed. Asela Rodríguez de Laguna, trans. Elpidio Laguna-Díaz (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1987), 17–25.
(8.) Marvette Pérez, “La guagua aérea: Política, estatus, nacionalismo y ciudadanía en Puerto Rico,” in América Latina en tiempos de globalización: Procesos culturales y transformaciones sociopolíticas, eds. Daniel Mato, Maritza Montero, and Emmanuel Amodio (Caracas, Venezuela: CRESALC, 1996), 192.
(9.) Manuel Maldonado Denis, Puerto Rico y Estados Unidos: Emigración y colonialismo, 4th ed. (San Juan: Ediciones Compromiso, 1984), 134.
(10.) For a classic ethnographic study of language practices in El Barrio (Spanish Harlem), see Ana Celia Zentella, Growing Up Bilingual: Puerto Rican Children in New York (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997).
(11.) A first-person biographical account of a returnee to the island is Barry B. Levine’s Reflections on a Puerto Rican Life: Benjy López. A Picaresque Tale of Emigration and Return (Princeton, NJ: Marcus Weiner, 2009). For fine studies of return migration to Puerto Rico, see Gina M. Pérez, The Near Northwest Side Story: Migration, Displacement, and Puerto Rican Families (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); and Elizabeth M. Aranda, Emotional Bridges to Puerto Rico: Migration, Return Migration, and the Struggles of Incorporation (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).
(13.) See Xaé Alicia Reyes, “Return Migrant Students: Yankee Go Home?” in Puerto Ricans in U.S. Schools, ed. Sonia Nieto (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2000), 39–68.
(14.) One of the first systematic analyses of the cultural impact of return migration on Puerto Rico was Juan Flores’s landmark work, The Diaspora Strikes Back: Caribeño Tales of Learning and Turning (New York: Routledge, 2008).
(15.) Ana Lydia Vega, “Pollito Chicken,” in Vírgenes y mártires, by Carmen Lugo Filippi and Ana Lydia Vega (Río Piedras, PR: Antillana, 1981), 79.
(16.) Nicholasa Mohr, “Puerto Rican Writers in the United States, Puerto Rican Writers in Puerto Rico: A Separation beyond Language,” Américas 15.2 (1987): 87–92.
(17.) It should be acknowledged that many Puerto Ricans in the United States remain engaged with their country of origin. More recently, they have expressed strong concerns about the island’s economic downturn. In July 2016, a group of stateside elected officials and community leaders established the National Puerto Rican Agenda (NPRA), a nonpartisan coalition focusing on the island’s current fiscal crisis.
(18.) See José Lorenzo Hernández, “The Nuyorican’s Dilemma: Categorization of Returning Migrants to Puerto Rico,” International Migration Review 33.4 (1999), 988–1013.
(19.) See Jorge Duany, “The Orlando Ricans: Overlapping Identity Discourses among Middle-Class Puerto Rican Immigrants,” in Blurred Borders: Transnational Migration between the Hispanic Caribbean and the United States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 105–134.
(20.) For a more detailed literary analysis of the Nuyorican movement and later trends in the Puerto Rican diaspora, see Frances R. Aparicio, “Puerto Rican Nationhood, Ethnicity, and Literature,” in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature.
(21.) On the Young Lords, see Frances Negrón-Muntaner, “The Look of Sovereignty: Style and Politics in the Young Lords,” Centro: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies 27.1 (2005): 4–25.
(22.) Félix Cortés, Angelo Falcón, and Juan Flores, “The Cultural Expression of Puerto Ricans in New York: A Theoretical Perspective and Critical Review,” Latin American Perspectives 3.3 (1976), 144.
(23.) Efraín Barradas, “‘De lejos en sueños verla…’: Visión mítica de Puerto Rico en la poesía neorrican,” Revista Chicano-Riqueña 7.3 (1979): 46–56.
(24.) See, for instance, Carmen Dolores Hernández, “Ausencia no debe decir olvido,” in Literatura puertorriqueña: Visiones alternas, ed. Carmen Dolores Hernández (San Juan: Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Puerto Rico y el Caribe, 2006), 291–318; Juan Flores, Divided Borders: Essays on Puerto Rican Cultural Identity (Houston: Arte Público, 1992); Efraín Barradas, Partes de un todo: Ensayos y notas sobre literatura puertorriqueña en los Estados Unidos (Río Piedras, PR: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1998); Edna Acosta-Belén, “The Literature of the Puerto Rican National Minority in the United States,” Bilingual Review 5.1–2 (1978): 107–115; Frances R. Aparicio, “From Ethnicity to Multiculturalism: An Historical Overview of Puerto Rican Literature in the United States,” in Handbook of Hispanic Cultures in the United States: Literature and the Arts, ed. Francisco Lomelí (Houston: Arte Público Press, 1993), 19–33; Lisa Sánchez González, Boricua Literature: A Literary History of the Puerto Rican Diaspora (New York: New York University Press, 2001); and Frances Negrón-Muntaner, Boricua Pop: Puerto Ricans and the Latinization of American Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2004).
(25.) Much of the discussion in the following paragraphs draws on Jorge Duany, “Hispanics in the United States: Cultural Diversity and Identity,” Caribbean Studies 22.1–2 (1989): 1–36.
(26.) Pedro Pietri’s poetry has received considerable critical attention. See, for example, Li Yun Alvarado, “Beyond Nation: Caribbean Poetics in Pedro Pietri’s ‘Puerto Rican Obituary’ and Kamau Brathwaite’s ‘Islands and Exiles,’” Centro: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies 22.2 (2010): 51–73.
(27.) For a recent appraisal of Tato Laviera’s poetry, see Stephanie Alvarez and William Luis, eds., The Amerícan Poet: Essays on the Work of Tato Laviera (New York: Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, 2014).
(28.) The volume edited by José Torres-Padilla and Carmen Haydée Rivera, Writing Off the Hyphen: New Critical Perspectives on the Literature of the Puerto Rican Diaspora (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008), contains examples of Puerto Rican writers based in Atlanta, Boston, Honolulu, and Tampa, among other places. In Defending Their Own in the Cold: The Cultural Turns of U.S. Puerto Ricans (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2011), Marc Zimmerman engages with several Puerto Rican writers in Chicago. In the conclusion to his recent book In Visible Movement: Nuyorican Poetry from the Sixties to Slam (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014), Urayoán Noel briefly analyzes the literary works of Puerto Ricans living in Chicago, Orlando, and Santa Ana, California.
(29.) See Juan Flores, “Nueva York, Diaspora City: Latinos Between and Beyond,” in Bilingual Games: Some Literary Investigations, ed. Doris Sommer (New York: Palgrave, 2003), 69–76; and Aparicio, “From Ethnicity to Multiculturalism.”
(30.) See Lawrence Lafountain-Stokes, Queer Ricans: Cultures and Sexualities in the Diaspora (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).
(31.) See, for instance, Miriam Jiménez Román and Juan Flores, eds., The Afro-Latin@Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).