Written by Victoria Cepeda
It was a brisk Saturday evening in downtown Manhattan. In the backdrop, the beams of light brightened the skyline marking the 9th year since the terror attacks on the Word Trade Center as we mourned and remembered the fallen earlier that day. However, my colleague and I were on our way to celebrate life that evening. Don Miguel Algarin, the founder of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe was celebrating his 69th birthday. We did not want to miss out on joining others that evening at the Cafe and paying homage to him in life. His contribution is nothing short of exemplary because Algarin created an outlet for many young people, particularly those of Puerto Rican descent, to have their voices heard. The mission of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe is to create a multi-cultural venue that both nurtures artists and exhibits a variety of artistic works. “Without limitation, we are dedicated to providing a stage for the arts with access for the widest public.”
Shortly after arriving at the cafe host, Papo “Swiggity” Santiago, enthusiastically welcomed us and read one of his poems in tribute to Algarin. Santiago’s introductory words were warm and full of promise of the great evening we were about to witness. He was so on the money. Pride, poetry and talent were on full display that evening and I was sitting front row taking it all in like a small child at Walt Disney.
A star studded line up of poets and performers such as La Bruja who introduced her latest CD and Simply Rob. Rob, from El Grito de Poetas, mastered the spoken word once again. His group members joined him on stage for their final act and their words truly touched me because I could relate to their plight of identity as we struggle to be Americans without giving up being Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans, Salvadorians, Latin Americans or “Caribeños”.
Then Santiago introduced Maria Isa, whose performance blew me away. The audience was truly electrified with her rendition of “No Vine Pa Matar, Vine pa Morir” her “Ode to Lolita Lebron”. It was sincere and heartfelt and none of us doubted that Isa is a master communicator and transporter of her Puerto Rican roots “con sentimiento y orgullo.” I was also elated to learn that although she is a native of Minnesota and the daughter of “Nuyorican” parents, Isa’s war cry on the stage prooved that one’s heritage, if passed down the line to our kids, is as fervent, unyielding and unrelenting as the pride felt by those living in Puerto Rico or any other Latin American nation. Prior to Isa, we were introduced to a world of color and nature in the verses read by Jani Bomba Rose. Her barefooted frame, handkerchief wrapped head, flowing skirt and big beaded necklace were reminiscent of a long gone sugar cane plantation era. For a fleeting minute I saw so many of our ancestors come to life through her words.
Roberto Plena Irizarry’s “The Plena Verse” reminded us of the many people recently arrived from Puerto Rico, or any other country, that try to adapt but in the process lose some of their “native” speech and ways of life. It was a majestic performance that followed Irrizary’s opening number as the legendary Roberto Cepeda, his wife Gloria, and other artists joined Irizarry in a contagious and rythmic plena number that had us clapping and wanting to join in on the stage. Mr. Cepeda hit those drums with the natural skill that comes from having Africa flow in his veins.
The night was not over though and out of his sleeve Santiago pulled a real surprise card for Miguel. Sitting a table away from us was Keith Roach, himself a poet, author, activist, and producer of a variety of reading series around New York City and former long time host of the Cafe read a poem from Miguel’s “Supervivencias/Survival” book. Keith also reminisced of the old days in the west coast and at one point must have said something along the lines of a private joke because Miguel laughed wholeheartedly.
In conclusion, if you are ever in the East Village, pay the cafe a visit. The experience will be life changing and those of us proud of our heritage, regardless of where we hail from, will leave happier. At the Cafe we are exposed to our roots miles away from where most of us set out from. That my friends is what makes Latinos distinct and unconquerable. We carry our ancestors with us wherever we go.
I look forward to finding out what else is in store at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe real soon.
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