That Puerto Rican Swing


It seems everyone has a Mikey story. For me, it was the time I met him in 1985 at Neither/Nor, a seedy East 6th Street club in what used to be the heart of heroin country; his strung-out gaze was still filled with warmth and curiosity. For Leon Ichaso, it was an afternoon in Central Park. “This guy who looked like a homeless person came by, and all of a sudden we started sharing a joint with him,” says the director-screenwriter of the new biopic Piñero. “He was carrying this notebook and said he had been sleeping behind the bushes and looked totally not like the playwright that I had imagined him to be. When he left, I said to my friend, ‘Who’s that?’ and he said, ‘Miguel Piñero.’ ”

The enigmatic Piñero was the seminal Nuyorican poet-playwright; part-time gangsta character actor; Genet-inspired, polysexual prison-culture activist; mama’s boy; your friendly neighborhood junkie-hustler; and Nuyorican Poets Café cofounder Miguel Algarín’s best friend. Somehow, Ichaso had to graft the pieces together. “I had zillions of crazy Piñero stories, but at the end of the day, all I could come up with was Barfly or something,” says Ichaso. “Where’s Bukowski’s work in Barfly? Nowhere. My challenge was not just the antics of a madman but the legacy of a work that was falling through the fucking cracks.”

Ichaso dove headfirst into Piñero’s voluminous texts, and the poem “Seeking the Cause” became a live performance shot on a Lower East Side rooftop. Plays like The Sun Always Shines for the Cool and Midnight Moon at the Greasy Spoon provided the setting for Mikey’s encounters with real-life characters like Sugar and Reinaldo Povod, the girl and the guy in his life. “The movie is a 100 percent Piñero sort of work—confusion, juxtaposition, black and white flashing—all of that was trying to come close to the chaos of being Miguel Piñero,” says the director.

Ichaso, whose Manhattan Latin credentials were established in the ’80s by the salsa saga Crossover Dreams, then set out to find who could possibly play the man. After a year-long flirtation, John Leguizamo dropped out, skittish about Mikey’s sleazy side. Marc Anthony was in the mix for about a minute, but then there was Ben. Hoping to leave that squeaky clean Law & Order image behind, Benjamin Bratt kept pushing Ichaso a tape of 1992’s Follow Me Home, in which he plays a Native American painter and crackhead.

“I started to get a glimpse of what the movie could be,” says Ichaso. “He did a beautiful reading of poems for me. I brought him to Algarín’s house because I needed his approval—he has been such a partner in all of this. So Ben stood in Algarín’s house, holding Mikey’s ashes in both hands, and Algarín and Ben started chanting some African invocation together, and when it was over Ben said to him, ‘I’m so glad you approve.’ And Algarín looked at him in that way of his and said, ‘I just wouldn’t want you to fuck this one up.’ ”

So Bratt and Ichaso immediately went to East Harlem to do research. (“It’s sad about the Lower East Side,” says Bratt. “The Puerto Rican influence keeps getting pushed east and pretty soon it’s going to fall right into the river.”) They caught a Willie Perdomo reading in a lot behind the De la Vega art studio, and listened to massive doses of salsa by Héctor Lavoe and Willie Colón. “We started going to little Puerto Rican dives where nobody goes,” says Ichaso. “Sometimes we’d just sit on the sidewalk and watch people.”

One of Bratt’s fears was about being a West Coast guy, a Peruvian who grew up in Chicanolandia—could he ever get that Puerto Rican swing? But what people don’t remember is that Mikey talked like he was one-third black, one-third Rican, and one-third beatnik. A precursor of Tupac, Piñero copped the N-word a quarter century before J. Lo did, but, as Bratt observes, “He had a singsongy way of doing his poems that sometimes sounded kind of like Bob Dylan. Algarín said he would wax poetic about philosophy and politics and as a joke liked to put on a refined East Coast diction.” Even though Bratt is from a younger generation, he has a deep connection to Piñero’s era of political passion and turmoil. “When he was burning most brightly, in the early ’70s, my mom was active in the Native American movement,” says Bratt. “It was nothing for us to pile into a car and drive all over the Southwest to powwows—we lived through a takeover of Alcatraz Island for close to a year.”

It was a time that makes Ichaso light up like the boho Cubano that he is (previously, he directed a movie for Showtime about Jimi Hendrix). “Something was in the air back then and it’s never going to be the same. Those Puerto Rican Day parades with Tito Puente on a flatbed truck and everybody going crazy, running behind it. Now it’s all rehearsed and barricaded and it’s shit.” Ichaso knows that although Mikey betrayed his body, he never sold out his work. “He was so honest about his writing that he makes everyone around today look like a bunch of whores. His work, like his ashes, the way he says in the poem, is scattered around the shooting galleries, parties, and rooftops of the Lower East Side.”

Related article:

Michael Atkinson’s review of Piñero