Culture 2021

An Oral History of Miguel Algarín’s Spoken Word

“The thing which I admired and respected most about Miguel was his uncompromising ferocity and his truthfulness – neither of which he had to work at.”

by

“Not tonight but tomorrow
when the light turns the peach
tree green and the Earth sprouts
its young leaves looking to repeat
the magical mystery tour of
photosynthetic conversion of light
and moisture into life—”
          —From “Not Tonight but Tomorrow,” by Miguel Algarín 

“A new day needs a new language or else the day becomes a repetition of yesterday. Invention is not always a straightening up of things. Oftentimes the newness disrupts. It causes chaos.” —Miguel Algarín, from the introduction to Nuyorican Poetry: An Anthology of Puerto Rican Words and Feelings


The Legacy of Miguel Algarín 

As one of the founders of the Nuyorican literary movement, the impact Miguel Algarín had on the Lower East Side has been significant. 

“Our community has to celebrate and remember its icons, because many times our contributions to NYC tend to get erased and forgotten,” says Elena Martinez, co–artistic director at the Bronx Music Heritage Center. 

“Nowadays the phrase at the Cafe is ‘everyone is Nuyorican’ — but we can’t forget our pioneers who created the institutions. Miguel was the founder of what has come to be called Nuyorican literature, the space that would be that genre’s home, and even coined the word ‘Nuyorican,’ with its different spelling, as a nod to the Puerto Rican diasporic experience. We opened doors in so many spheres: education, politics, music, art, among others, for the many Latino groups who would come after.” 

Algarín had one foot in the world of academia, as a leading Shakespearian scholar, and the other foot in the streets of Loisaida. “By honoring him, we celebrate his legacy and Puerto Rican culture here in New York City and beyond,” Martinez adds. 

Nuyorican Poets Cafe writer Edwin Torres remembers fondly how Algarín brought him to Rutgers yearly, to perform at his classes. “Miguel was as passionate in his teaching as he was in his life, I remember how he would take my class performances and connect my sonic-body-lingo poetics to whatever Shakespeare he was teaching that moment, and bring not just clarity to the students, but possibility … a sort of flesh-induced possibility within the language, at least that’s what I was absorbing through his gifts for vibration … an honoring of the air around the poem. He gave me permission to embody my words as extensions of my physical self. I will always hold on to that subtle bit of giant-ness!”

Torres believes Algarín was aware of community as “something bigger” than the Cafe. “He knew the safe space created for the arts would be a door for the future. Something I think we hold on to during times of upheavalor lockdownthat search for community in the arts.”

For the Voice, Susan Hornik talked exclusively
with Algarín’s peers about the depth of his legacy:

George C. Wolfe, Hollywood and Broadway director: “The thing which I admired and respected most about Miguel was his uncompromising ferocity and his truthfulness — neither of which he had to work at. They just were. And most gloriously of all, he created a home for artists and made them feel like it was theirs. What a blessed human being.”

Rome Neal, Nuyorican Poets Cafe board member: “As a theater producer, Miguel’s body of work that he produced in the ’90s was a major accomplishment for the Nuyorican Poets Cafe theater movement, which had much to do with Black theater and had him bestowed with a Larry Leon Hamlin Producer’s Award at the 2001 National Black Theatre Festival. I truly missed those days when Miguel ran his Cafe and brought a certain spirit to his creative home, which gives it today’s foundation that will continue his legacy for years to come. Miguel was not only a King, but he was a Kingmaker!”

John Howard-Algarin, NYC judge and Algarín’s nephew: “Miguel frequently mentored young artists in whom he saw potential, and could be ruthless in his drive to get them to fully unleash their talents. In the early days, it was not surprising for an actor under his tutelage to physically attack him after receiving one of his surgical verbal tirades, as he would push them to their limits. One actor attacked him with a barstool. It was always love when the final product emerged, polished for consumption.”

 Eddie Conde, musician: “As a young, up-and-coming musician, I played congas and backed Miguel up while he performed. He would ask me to lead the rumbas and rumberos in a jam session, to entertain the Cafe and get the house flowing. I was always impressed with his ability to understand my instrument’s rhythm to poetry — this was exceptional. He would incorporate the percussion into his poetry, slowing to explode into the soul of the listener.”

 Evelyn McDonnell, former Village Voice writer: “More than three decades after I first stepped through its doors, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe remains the most open-hearted, joyous, collaborative, community-driven, and innovative arts space I have known in my entire culture journalism career. In the years in which I visited often — from its reopening through the ’90s — it was without pretense or affect. Conceived and directed by a coalition of artists and writers, it could be chaotic and unpredictable. But I never did not have a good time there. Its spirit of generosity and experimentation was embedded in its name — the reverse colonial identity of the Nuyorican — and stemmed from its original creator, the boisterous and brilliant Miguel Algarín.

“So many great artists, writers, and musicians made the Cafe their home: Paul Beatty, Steve Cannon, Sekou Sundiata, Lois Elaine Griffith, Pedro Pietri, Mike Tyler, Bob Holman, Tracie Morris, Dana Bryant, Edwin Torres, Reg E. Gaines, Willie Perdomo — I could go on and on. The Nuyorican was the hangout I fantasized I would find in the city when I was growing up in a small town, and it exceeded my imagination. I was exposed to so much creativity and new ideas, it opened my mind. The Nuyorican truly changed my life. Thank you, Miguel.”

Willie Perdomo, professor and Nuyorican Poets Cafe poet: “If you were a young Puerto Rican poet in New York City in the early ’90s, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe was the mecca; that’s where I found my lineage and tradition. Miguel’s anthology, Nuyorican Poetry, gave me a framework for outlaw poetics. And being a part of the Cafe’s book, Aloud — that put a movement on a literary and cultural map. It was (and still is) an important historical document.

“He gave me a blueprint for what it means to be an outlaw poet and the role that vernacular plays in decolonized poetry. Ultimately, poetry was a survival tool if you were Nuyorican.”

Aileen Reyes, poet and painter:Miguel came in and validated my work despite my being a ‘street poet,’ which is often used to describe many self-taught artists who didn’t study in an academic setting. He helped me have even more confidence in the power of my voice and discover the many ways I could use it.”

Ron Cephas Jones, Emmy Award–winning actor (This Is Us): Miguel Algarín (Shakespearean scholar, literary professor, critically esteemed poet, writer of books, urban Griot, community leader, friend, and mentor to many) — “YOU were the pot where all the hip beans and all the hip rice came to mix / The skillet that simmered the sauce / that dripped spicy sensual soothing / your perfect pitch tonality that draws us warmly to your bosom / FatherSonHolyNuyoricanSpirit / Opening your arms drawing us into your artistic temple the in-crowd called “THE CAFE” / 3rd between B&C is the beat street tonight baby! Bring your book cause we slammin’! Days blend into nights into days / into haze / we spit fire like dragons spit wordplay / he say she say they say we say / mold words like clay / on your stage we be brave / we stand and deliver / Quiver at salsa soul hips / fragrance of multi-colored roses / we dance and dance and dance and dance and dance and dance and dance the night Aaaawwwwaaaayyyy!!!!!! / YOU Gave us a Temple to be FREEEEEE!!!!! / I remember loving to laugh with you / to laugh with you / I cried some too / But laughed with you (more) / oh! How we laughed / Romeo & Julio too / Hahaha!! . . . I’m crying now / longing to laugh with you again / longing to be embraced by your Brotherly Hugzz again / Beatnik Bronx Loisaida Alphabet City Griot Guru / …


Dael Orlandersmith, poet and playwright: “
His influence was a fluidity of language— where street images and literary images could marry. I also got introduced to writers that I knew either very little or nothing about. Like any true writer, Miguel   emphasized/damned near screamed, ‘READ, READ AND READ SOME MORE!’

“Miguel also said to do a character, which I developed for a solo project called ‘Blind  Louie,’ which eventually was performed at American Place Theatre. He encouraged me, saying, ‘Keep going with this, more, Dael, more.’ I performed this as a work-in-progress at the Cafe and got an Obie Award for it.”

Bob Holman, poet: “It was Thomas Wohlfahrt, founder of the literary venue, litteraturWERKstatt, who first invited Miguel and me to Berlin. We went on the radio, reading and riffing duets from the Cafe’s anthology, Aloud. At our performance the next day there were at least six young poets, products of Black American soldiers and white Germans, who came up to us to rock their poems, often hip-hop influenced, but all Nuyorican.” 

Nancy Mercado, poet, and activist: “It’s difficult to accept that such a big part of one’s life is now gone. You’re left alone, in a daze wandering the streets, going to the restaurants and bars you used to go to together. It’s a strange and hollow feeling. Miguel was a friend during crucial times and for a long time of my life. I’ll miss our wonderful fancy dinners and discussions. I’ll miss his mischievous childlike ways; his high intellect. I’ll miss those perfect teeth he had and would flash them at me every time he’d see me.”   ❖

Highlights