Cultural Remittances, New Poetry, and Emering Identities
By Juan Flores
In recent years there has been a notable and unprecedented literary rapprochement between the Island and the Puerto Rican diaspora in New York, particularly among the generation of young writers who have emerged since around 1990. A widely shared sense of the compatibility and convergence between the two social realities finds particularly forceful expression, for instance, in the writings of “Gallego,” the young poet José Raúl González, who is perhaps the prime example of cultural remittances in contemporary Puerto Rican poetry. Gallego’s programmatic poem “Nantan-Bai,” in which he explains the inspiration for his own writing efforts, includes the lines: “Escribo porque también viví en la ciudad de nuevayol,/ porque también allá se están matando porel crack./ Porque también allá se están matando porla heroina,/ porque también allá existen cárceles,/ porque enlas cárceles de allá también hacen tiempo/ cientos de puertorriquenos….”
Seen thus “from below,” from the vantage of the street, Puerto Rico and New York are like mirror images of one another, each having the same scenes of addiction, incarceration, alienation and everyday violence as the same oppressive conditions of marginality bear down on the neighborhoods. The word “nuevayol,” always in this colloquial Puerto Rican spelling, is a constant in Gallego’s poetic world, an integral part of everyday life in the impoverished Puerto Rican neighborhoods. Among his best-known poems, in part because it was used by reggaetón superstar Daddy Yankee in one of his most popular songs, is “Chamaco’s corner,” a vintage Gallego rendering of the “boyz in the hood” scene; the guys (“los chamacos”) talk about everything when they hang out, including inevitably, about “nuevayol”: “Los chamacos hablan de política, de trucos,/ de salsa vieja, de nuevayol, de grafitis, de las mámises,/ de los camarones que anoche les violaron los derechos.”
When Gallego tells his story, he recounts how his stay in New York as a teenager was life-defining for him, and that the Nuyorican poets were a source of inspiration, helping him identify as a writer. In his poem “Y latina” he writes, “Y la poesía me cayó de un building en Nueva Yok/ en una noche del verano del noventicuatro,” and in his life-tale he identifies Nuyorican poet Pedro Pietri as the most important influence on his work. He saw in Pietri a different way to create and present poetry, and a model for the figure of the “poète maudit” that he himself was to become in the literary scene on the Island. Even his writing style often bears the clear imprint of Pietri’s unmistakable ironic twists and uncanny understatement, as for example in the following stanza from “El grito”: “Anoche soñé que un huracán arrancó el Capitolio/ y que fue a parar al Central Park, en Nueva York,/ soñé que los deambulantes/ que fueron a Vietnam/ jangueaban frente al Hospital de Veteranos,/ que mi vecina se divorciaba/ y su esposo pedía una orden de protección/ contra sí mismo.”
Despite Pietri's influence, Gallego's main personal contacts from the diaspora were his contemporaries, particularly Willie Perdomo and Mariposa (María Fernández), both of whom have emerged as groundbreakers of what might be termed the “post-Nuyorican” generation of the 1990s. Gallego has hung out with them and others, reading, touring and exchanging a lot of lessons and laughs. Their age and historical context is after all closer to that of Gallego than were those of Pietri, Algarín, Pinero and others, as is their sense of the relation between “nuevayol” and the Island. With Perdomo he shares the street-wise conversational style and reflectiveness, while Mariposa’s most famous lines, “no nací en Puerto Rico,/ Puerto Rico nació en mí,” from her signature poem “Ode to the Diasporican,” beckoned his retort, as articulated in his new book,The *&#?! Map: “No nací en Nueva York,/ Nueva York nació en mí.” The dialogue, the syncronicity, the reciprocity are all remarkable, such that at times it feels as though the diaspora and the Island constitute a single fabric of contemporary poetic expression.
What unites Gallego and other young Island poets with their counterparts in the diaspora more that with the original Nuyoricans is, among other historical specifics, the formative presence of hip hop. Aside from the lyrical style and performative delivery, hip hop is in many ways the cultural backdrop, the zeitgeist of the generation of the 1990s and into the new millennium. The emergence of rap, and its arrival and incorporation on the Island as of the early 1990s, set the tone for much of the new creativity of the period, whether the writers are especially taken with all of hip hop’s stylistic trappings or not. It has become the air the young writers breathe, in a way that could not have been the case among the Nuyoricans of the 1970s, even though they are often regarded as precursors.
Gallego himself remains something of an exception, of course, one of the few poets who is both outside of the traditional “lettered” circle of the national literature and has also published several books to a generally positive critical reception. He can name a few more, but not many, who share to some degree his creative project of writing socially critical poetry in the manner of the Nuyoricans. But he is hopeful, and confident, that change is under way, an optimism he gains in part from his role as MC for the open mic sessions at the significantly named Nuyorican Café in Old San Juan. There, usually on Sunday nights, he introduces many of the aspiring new writers, younger than himself, writing and performing in the same vein, and sharing a poetic scene that differs in significant ways from the literary salons and recitals, and the lofty rhetorical declamations, of earlier generations of writing on the Island. The air at the Café is filled with a new sensibility, one that is clearly and explicitly nourished by the example of the ongoing Nuyorican cultural movement, which in the Island context constitutes a standing challenge to the traditional idea of what poetry is, and what being Puerto Rican is.
One of Gallego’s best-known contemporaries, the poet Guillermo Rebollo-Gil, has complemented his dynamic poetic output with an analysis of these changes. Writing in 2004, Rebollo-Gil offers an extensive study of the writings of two New York poets, Pedro Pietri and Willie Perdomo, which he titles “The New Boogaloo: Nuyorican Poetry and the Coming Puerto Rican Identities.” After a thoughtful and very knowledgeable assessment of the work of each poet, Rebollo-Gil concludes with a reflective chapter, “The Coming Puerto Rican Identities.” He notes, and has himself experienced, the “increased exposure of Islanders to Nuyorican works,” and it is clear that the resulting “clash” involves more than poetic styles or modes of performance but extends to concepts of cultural and national identity: “Traditional Island identity constructions are beginning to collide with Nuyorican formulations of Puerto Ricanness and may very well lead Islanders to question their long held views.” This “de-centering of Puerto Rican identity,” as exemplified by the young writers on the Island turning more to their Nuyorican counterparts than to the canonical and even contemporary Island authors, implies an alternative philosophy and aesthetic, which the author characterizes as more “liberatory and multicultural” than the official cultural ideology. The “new vision of the Puerto Rican” based on the Nuyorican aesthetic allows for more positive interaction with other racial/ethnic communities, a “race-conscious revision of Puerto Rican history” that gives adequate due to the Black Island experience, a “more nuanced view of colonialism,” and generally a more open, critical and “people-centered approach to political and social change.”
These are bold and wishful claims, of course, which perhaps pay inadequate heed to the less salutary aspects of the diaspora cultural package, or to the dynamics of change within Island society and culture. But the shifts underway in the Puerto Rican poetic landscape are no doubt serious, especially because they are motivated by the youth, and are also clearly part of a larger cultural “de-centering” engendered in some significant way by the new kinds of interaction with the diaspora experience. The work of young poets like Gallego and Guillermo Rebollo-Gil, publications like the bilingual student journal Tonguas, and the scene at the Nuyorican Café and other venues around the Island, show that the diaspora is now serving as a source of cultural innovation rather than a mere receptacle or extension. The contemporary poetic scene demonstrates that the “from below” cultural remittances arriving to the homeland, rather than being embraced in paternalistic fashion or dismissed as alien or inferior, are beginning to challenge the dominant values and philosophic orientations that prevail across the political spectrum.
Juan Flores is Professor of Latino Studies in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University. His books include From Bomba to Hip-Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity. This article is abridged from author’s forthcoming book, The Diaspora Strikes Back: Caribeño Tales of Learning and Turning (Routledge, 2008).