EVERY CHILD IS BORN A POET: The Life and Work of Piri Thomas

The Poems

Nuyorican Literature

After Puerto Rico became a United States “protectorate” in the 1950s, Puerto Rican migration to New York City increased exponentially. Puerto Rican communities sprung up in Manhattan neighborhoods such as the Lower East Side (Loisaida) and East Harlem (El Barrio), Piri Thomas’ childhood stomping grounds.

Cover art for Piri Thomas’s memoir Down These Mean Streets.

Logo for the Nuyorican Poets Café.

Best known as Nuyorican, New Yorkers of Puerto Rican ancestry also define themselves as AmeRican, Borinquen, Boricua, or simply Rican. Reflecting the complex nature of the Puerto Rican diaspora, “Nuyorican” has been popularized not only as a cultural term for Puerto Ricans living in New York City, but also for Puerto Ricans living throughout the United States. Nuyorican artists and writers express this fluid identity—which transcends state and national boundaries—by employing innovative narrative forms, language and themes in their creative work.

The first wave of Nuyorican literature followed the path of other migrant literary traditions, using autobiography, testimonial prose and poetry to question and construct notions of class, culture, history and identity. Piri Thomas’ 1967 memoir Down These Mean Streets is one seminal book from this era. Other works exploring common first-generation issues such as self-definition, disillusionment and the struggles of immigration include Pedro Pietri’s 1960’s poem “Puerto Rican Obituary,” Nicholasa Mohr’s Nilda and Edward Rivera’s Family Installments.

Jorge Brandon, known as “the father of Nuyorican poetry,” began reciting poetry on the streets in the 1940s, mixing forms like the decima, a Spanish spoken-word form from the seventeenth century, with urban subjects concerning New Yorkers. The result: purely Nuyorican poetics. The Puerto Rican trova tradition, a competition of poetic improvisation, was later modified by the performances at New York City’s Nuyorican Poets’ Café. Initially established in poet Miguel Algarín’s Manhattan apartment in the early 1970s, the Café now inhabits a performance space on the Lower East Side and has remained one of the driving forces behind Nuyorican literature, serving both as a community base for local writers and artists as well as an internationally known spot for literary readings and performances by artists of all backgrounds. As Nuyorican prose and poetry further enter the literary lexicon, themes and formats have further evolved to reflect an ever-shifting city, nation and world.

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