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Sistema de Información Científica
Red de Revistas Científicas de América Latina y el Caribe, España y Portugal
Sin Miedo (Para Lolita)
by Yasmín Hernández (2003). Acrylic on Canvas, 36" x 18". Collection of
Luivette Resto-Ometeotl and Jose Ometeotl. Reprinted, by permission, from Yasmín Hernández.
Puerto Ricans have made their presence felt in U.S. society. Nonetheless,
the Anglocentric historical narrative of the North American nation has been
oblivious to their productive and creative lives and those of other ethnoracial
minorities. This exclusion did not change in any significant way until the civil
rights struggles of the 1960s and ‘70s, when Puerto Ricans and other Latinos began
to gain increased visibility as active participants in U.S. socioeconomic, political,
and cultural life. Three major factors that account for this increased visibility
are the establishment of the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños in 1974; the
emergence of Puerto Rican Studies as an area of academic inquiry at several higher
education institutions in the City University of New York (CUNY), the State
University of New York (SUNY), and Rutgers University of New Jersey systems;
and the creation of numerous civic, cultural, political, educational, professional,
and grassroots organizations that focused on community needs and concerns,
and on promoting different aspects of Puerto Rican life. This essay provides a
comprehensive overview of the creative endeavors of U.S.-based Puerto Rican
writers and artists, especially since the 1970s, but with some required background
information on cultural activities reaching into the nineteenth- and early
twentieth-century Puerto Rican presence in the U.S. metropolis. Connections
between Puerto Rico and the United States began much earlier than the Spanish-
Cuban-American War of 1898. They can be traced back to the early 1800s and
intensified through the course of the century.
Spanish-Language Newspapers
The nineteenth-century commercial relations that developed between the
Spanish island colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico and the United States facilitated
the flow of island workers and political
. These émigrés included liberal
and separatist political and intellectual leaders escaping the repressive Spanish
colonial authorities back on the islands. The expatriate Antillean population
settled in several U.S. cities, including New York, Philadelphia, Boston,
New Orleans, Tampa, and Key West. The flow of émigrés intensified after 1868,
when both islands mounted armed rebellions against the Spanish and claimed
their independence. The early
constituted by these émigrés established
migratory patterns of settlement that were to be followed by other immigrants
coming from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and other Caribbean and Latin American
[ 50 ]
nations almost a century later. Of particular importance in these pioneer
communities were the Spanish-language newspapers that began to be published
in the early 1800s. These newspapers played a key role in keeping émigrés abreast
of the political developments in their native countries and in fostering a sense
of collective purpose, namely support for the liberation of Cuba and Puerto
Rico. Thus they played an important role in fostering Cuban and Puerto Rican
nationalism from abroad, away from the colonial oppression that liberal reformists
and separatists experienced back on the islands (Poyo 1989; Meléndez 1996).
The Spanish Crown had limited the access to the printing press in most of its
New World colonies, including the Spanish North American frontier. The absence
of the printing press in these territories lasted until the early 1800s, limiting the
circulation of books and newspapers. But despite these conditions, the printing press
was available in the British colonies, and, in fact, it has been argued that newspapers
and Creole printer-journalists played a key role in promoting the liberal ideas that
fueled the American Revolution (Anderson 1983). After the wars of independence
spread throughout the Spanish colonies, during the years between 1808 and 1830,
many political émigrés sought refuge in several U.S. cities and established their own
printing presses to fight Spanish domination and foster the independence of their
respective countries.
(1865–1867) WAS
Up to the first part of the twentieth century, Spanish-language newspapers were
the most important creative outlets for writers, intellectuals, and community leaders
to express their ideas about the future of their nations and communities. Thus,
at first, the expansion of a Spanish-language press in the United States was a
function of the Spanish and, later, Mexican control of a portion of the North
American territory and, subsequently, of the growth of several colonias hispanas
that emerged in different parts of the continent. So far, the oldest Spanish-
language newspaper that has been identified is
El Misisipí
, first published in
1808 in the city of New Orleans (Kanellos and Martell 2000). Newspapers like
La Gaceta de Texas
El Mexicano
appeared in Texas in 1813 to advocate for
Mexican independence. In Philadelphia, Félix Varela, a Cuban separatist priest
forced into exile by Spanish authorities, began publishing
El Habanero
in 1824
to promote that island’s struggle for freedom. New York’s
El Mensajero Semanal
(1828–1831) and
El Mercurio de Nueva York
(1828–1831) also focused on Antillean
[ 51 ]
independence. Francisco P. Ramírez initiated
El Clamor Público
(1855–1859) to
denounce the injustices perpetrated against Hispanics, including the frequent lynch-
ings of Mexicans, after California became part of the United States. The Spanish-
language press also played a significant role in New Mexico, particularly after the
Mexican-American War (1846–1848) and the U.S. takeover of half of Mexico’s
territory. The displacement from their native land and injustices endured by the
Hispanic population are recorded in these newspapers (Meyer 1996).
Many of the writings first published in Spanish-language newspapers also reached
Creole intellectual audiences in the countries of origin. Several decades after the
emergence of the earlier newspapers,
La Voz de la América
(1865–1867) was founded
in New York by Puerto Rican and Cuban separatists. Another important newspaper
promoting the islands’ independence was
La Revolución
(1869–1876), which attracted
the collaboration of several intellectual leaders, including Puerto Rican patriots
Ramón Emeterio Betances and Eugenio María de Hostos.
The arrival of Cuban patriot José Martí in New York City in the early 1880s
solidified the Antillean separatist movement and generated the necessary support
for the second Cuban war of independence (1895–1898). Martí founded the Partido
Revolucionario Cubano (PRC) and the newspaper
(1892–c. 1898), which became
the principal forum for the cause. The administration of
was in the hands
of Sotero Figueroa, an Afro-Puerto Rican typographer and journalist. Both Martí
and Figueroa wrote many articles, editorials, and biographical profiles for
[ 52 ]
about the independence struggles and future of their native countries, and the many
personalities who had dedicated or given their lives to the fight for freedom.
The New York-based
drew the collaboration of many intellectuals, creative
writers, and political leaders from the islands and other Spanish-speaking countries,
including writings by Puerto Rican separatists Ramón Emeterio Betances and
Lola Rodríguez de Tió. Another Puerto Rican typographer and journalist émigré,
Francisco “Pachín” Marín, revived the separatist newspaper
El Postillón
which he had published in Puerto Rico before he was exiled by Spanish authorities.
Marín also wrote for
La Gaceta del Pueblo
(c. 1892), another New York newspaper.
Members of the Sección de Puerto Rico of New York’s PRC started the short-lived
(1898). Pharmacist Gerardo Forrest was another Puerto Rican
separatist involved in journalism. He founded the newspaper
Cuba y Puerto Rico
(1897) before deciding to join the rebels fighting in Cuba. No extant issues of these
newspapers have been located to date.
In addition to newspapers run by leading intellectual and political expatriates,
a few working-class newspapers also appeared, especially those initiated by Cuban
and Puerto Rican
coming to the United States in the late 1880s to
work in the many factories and workshops established in Tampa (Ybor City),
New York, Philadelphia, and Key West. The tabaqueros(as) were one of the most
enlightened and militant sectors of the working class, since it was common practice
for them to pay for a lector who came daily to the tobacco factories to read from
newspapers, classical literature, and from major social, economic, and political texts
from around the world. Hence the tabaqueros(as) shared a strong social and political
consciousness, and this is reflected in the unions they created, the solidarity shared
in their labor struggles, and in the many writings by tabaqueros that appeared in
workers’ newspapers. The newspaper
El Yara
(1878–?) represented the voice of
working-class separatists in the largest Cuban community located at the time in
Key West. Other working-class newspapers included New York’s
El Mulato
a staunch defender of the abolition of slavery, and the radical separatist newspaper
El Pueblo
(c. mid-1870s) (Poyo 1989; Meléndez 1996).
Working-class perspectives also were represented in early twentieth-century
newspapers such as
(1927–1931) and
Nuevo Mundo
(1928–1930), published in
New York City.
was initially edited by Alberto O’Farrill, an Afro-Cuban
dramatist and actor, and then purchased and edited by Bernardo Vega, a Puerto Rican
tabaquero. Vega migrated to the United States in 1916 and remained in the country
for several decades. In the 1940s he began recording his experiences as a Puerto Rican
migrant, but the manuscript of his memoirs did not reach the public eye until after
more than a decade after his death. Vega was to provide one of the most valuable and
detailed descriptions of the pre-World War II New York Puerto Rican community
in his
Memoirs of Bernardo Vega
(1984 [1977]). Relying on many anecdotal accounts,
contains detailed descriptions of some of the trails and tribulations of
working-class migrants and highlights the contributions of numerous organizations
and individuals to the community during its early stages of development.
Also from Cayey was Puerto Rican community activist and writer Jesús Colón,
a frequent contributor to
and to several other community and workers
newspapers, including those affiliated with socialist and labor organizations.
Colón published hundreds of short stories and articles in newspapers and magazines
during the more than five decades he lived in New York. He arrived in 1918.
Some of them were later collected in the volumes
A Puerto Rican in New York
[ 53 ]
[ 54 ]
and Other Sketches
The Way It Was and Other Writings (
1993), and
Lo que
el pueblo me dice (
2001). In these writings, Colón provides numerous anecdotal
accounts of the diverse experiences, survival struggles, and concerns of working-
class migrants. Working-class perspectives of Puerto Rican life in New York City
were also recorded by his brother Joaquín Colón in his manuscript
Pioneros en Nueva
York, 1917–1947
(2002), another rescued manuscript published almost four decades
after the author’s death. The importance of these writings is unquestionable since
they provide a record of a migrant community struggling for economic survival and
against the racial and social injustices they confronted in the wider society.
An important publication in New York during the 1930s was the
Revista de Artes y
(1933–1939), founded by Puerto Rican feminist activist Josefina (Pepiña) Silva
de Cintrón. This monthly magazine circulated widely in the professional sector of
New York’s Spanish-speaking community and in several Spanish-speaking countries.
fostered a panethnic sense of
within the United States by
advocating for the maintenance of the Spanish language and Hispanic heritage.
Its intellectual and literary focus attracted the collaboration of many well-known
writers from different Spanish-speaking countries, including Puerto Rican authors
Clotilde Betances Jaeger, María Más Pozo and Pedro Labarthe. The publication paid
special attention to women’s issues and community concerns.
In the 1940s Spanish-language newspapers continued to play an important role for
Spanish Civil War exiles in New York City and for the increasing number of Puerto
Ricans coming to the city during the early years of the Great Migration. Two of the
best known were
Pueblos Hispanos
(1943–1944), founded by Puerto Rican nationalist
poet Juan Antonio Corretjer, and
(1946–1949), started by Spanish exiles.
These publications also fostered a sense of hispanismo based on what were perceived
at the time to be common political causes: condemning fascism in Spain and other
parts of Europe, and U.S. colonial domination in Puerto Rico; and denouncing
racism against Hispanics and the exploitation of their labor in U.S. society.
The writings of Latinos(as) from many different nationalities were also promoted
in these publications. Bernardo Vega, for instance, wrote a series of articles about
Puerto Rican migration to the United States for
Many Puerto Rican nationalists sought refuge in New York City during these
years in order to avoid the repressive measures of Puerto Rico’s colonial government.
Among the most prominent writers were Corretjer; his wife Consuelo Lee Tapia,
who helped administer and occasionally wrote for
Pueblos Hispanos
; feminist and
nationalist poet Julia de Burgos, a regular columnist for the newspaper; and avant-
guard nationalist poet Clemente Soto Vélez, also a regular contributor to New
York’s Spanish-language press.
There is no doubt that the Spanish-language press in the United States represents
one of the most valuable sources to understand how the Puerto Rican and other
Latino communities evolved, the issues of interest to particular localities and groups,
and how these groups saw themselves in relation to the Spanish metropolitan
power, their countries of origin, and the United States. Newspapers kept U.S.
Puerto Rican and other Latino communities abreast of what was happening in their
native countries as much as they contributed to their adaptation process into Anglo
American society. They were important outlets for community businesses and
organizations to advertise their services, and played a key role in the publication of
literature. Although some Spanish-language newspapers are still published in most
of the U.S. Latino communities, by the mid-twentieth century they had stopped
[ 55 ]
being an important source for the publication of creative writing. Authors wanting
to publish their works had to rely on publishing houses, and very few of these
mainstream companies had any interest in the U.S. Latino experience or Latino(a)
writers. Self-publishing was another option used by some authors to get their work
out to the reading public during this period.
The Civil Rights and Ethnic Revitalization Movements
and Contemporary U.S. Puerto Rican Literature
Although Puerto Ricans were referred to as “newcomers” (Handlin 1959) to the
United States during the Great Migration years, the postwar massive influx was
only a continuation of a presence that had started more than a century before.
But because they were ethnic and racial minorities at the lower end of the
socioeconomic ladder, the status of Puerto Ricans, Chicanos, and other Latinos(as)
is far from similar to that of the average US citizen. Thus their striving against
racial and socioeconomic inequalities and for political empowerment has been an
integral part of their presence in U.S. society. These struggles intensified after the
1960s civil rights movement. Chicanos and Puerto Ricans, along with African and
Native Americans, fought for equality and engaged in revitalizing and asserting their
ethnic identity in order to better enable themselves to face the pervading racism
and segregation that afflicted U.S. society. Social, educational, and political struggles
in later decades have involved other Latino groups, such as Cubans, Dominicans,
Colombians, and most Central and South American nationalities.
The ethnic revitalization process undergone by ethnoracial minorities during
the civil rights’ years was aimed at ridding themselves of the negative self-image
and stigma that came from their marginal status. The search for and reconstruction
of a denied positive identity led to an explosion of activism, the emergence of
grassroots and professional organizations, and new cultural expressions.
Literature, music, and the visual arts represented a collective way of manifesting
shared ideological struggles and solidarity among groups of color, and for
underscoring the distinctiveness and originality of these social movements,
which attracted the support of students and intellectuals, as well as members of
the various communities. Latino cultural and political activism found expression in
publications such as
El Grito: Journal of Contemporary Chicano Thought
, which began
publication in 1968, and its counterpart
The Rican: Journal of Contemporary Puerto
Rican Thought
, first published in 1971. These journals provided a forum for pertinent
political and social debates, and introduced the work of Puerto Rican and other U.S.
Latino writers, artists, scholars, and activists. Other journals, such as the
The Americas Review
Bilingual Review
Third Woman
CENTRO Journal
opened new Latino-focused outlets for creative expression
and critical analysis. Most of these journals are firmly established and continue to
provide publishing opportunities to Latino(a) authors, including Puerto Ricans.
They filled a major publishing void at a time when most U.S. mainstream publishers
ignored the Latino market. More recent journals, such as the
Latino(a) Research
Review (LRR)
Latino Studies
are expanding the range of opportunities for
promoting Latino(a)-focused scholarship.
No other artistic movement has drawn more attention to the U.S. Puerto
Rican experience than the one associated with the founding of the Nuyorican
Poets’ Cafe. Before it began to be used by these particular groups of poets, the
term Nuyorican (an adaptation from the phrase New York Puerto Rican) and its
variations (Newyorican, Neorican) carried negative connotations.
The term was
used frequently by island Puerto Ricans to distance themselves from what they
perceived to be the underprivileged lives of their poor migrant compatriots in the
U.S. metropolis. The word Nuyorican also carried the underlying assumption that
U.S. Puerto Ricans were mostly from New York, a situation that has changed
significantly since the 1980s with the gradual geographic dispersion of Puerto Rican
migrants to other U.S. urban and suburban localities.
Established in 1975, the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe was the idea of writer Miguel Algarín
and a concept that originated from frequent
or artistic gatherings at his home
(Turner 1991). Located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan (promptly baptized Loisaida
by these poets, who adapted the neighborhood’s English name into Spanish), the Cafe
was aimed at providing an alternative stage for unknown poets to share their work
with public audiences. Plays also were frequently performed at the Cafe, and several
of the Nuyorican poets became accomplished performance artists and playwrights.
These writings and performances served an important consciousness-raising function
and fostered a sense of community among Puerto Ricans. Poets Miguel Algarín and
Miguel Piñero proudly adopted and popularized the term Nuyorican as a way of giving
legitimacy and drawing attention to what it meant to be a product of a marginalized
diaspora. Like Chicanos, the Nuyorican sense of identity was born out of the oppression
and survival experiences of working-class migrants in a racist and ethnocentric U.S.
society. This critical view of the United States, however, did not deter these writers from
also being critical of their own heritage. Their relationship with Puerto Rico was often
problematic and full of contradictions. The island was the land of their parents, but these
authors were born or grew up in the various barrios of New York and other major cities,
experiencing racial strife and socioeconomic disadvantage, and were influenced by their
contact with other Latinos, African Americans, mainstream Anglo American society,
and the English language. Thus they were also different from those Puerto Ricans born
and raised in Puerto Rico.
Through their readings and performances at the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe writers
such as Algarín, Piñero, Pedro Pietri, Sandra María Esteves, Tato Laviera, and José
Ángel Figueroa, to name only a few of the more prominent, first introduced many
[ 56 ]
of the works that years later made them some of the best-known names of the
Nuyorican literary movement. Like most Latino authors they write primarily in
English, but occasionally in Spanish or a mixture of both languages. Their so-called
“Spanglish” includes frequent code switching between English and Spanish,
or adapting English words into the Spanish language (Acosta-Belén 1975;
Aparicio 1988). For the most part, these writers learned Spanish at home or in
the urban barrios without much formal instruction, and learned English in the
schools and the surrounding environment.
The publication of
Nuyorican Poetry: An Anthology of Words and Feelings
edited by Algarín and Piñero, introduced some of these young poets to the reading
public and provided a cultural and political context for the Nuyorican literary
experience. Algarín defined the cultural and linguistic essence of this new artistic
movement as a Spanish-English interchange that “yields new verbal possibilities,
new images to deal with the stresses of living on tar and cement” (1975: 12).
This was an assertion of both the innovative nature of their work and their different
experiences as products of a Puerto Rican diaspora. Almost two decades later
Algarín coedited with Bob Horman the anthology
Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican
Poets’ Cafe
(1994). The introduction to the volume describes the origins and evolution
of this institution into a broader artistic stage, where Puerto Rican and other young
writers of many different nationalities continue to introduce their work at the Cafe’s
notorious poetry slams.
[ 57 ]
The concept of “street poetry” or “outlaw poetry” was coined early on by
Nuyorican poets to underscore their attempts at producing consciousness-raising
writings that reflected the lives of working-class migrants and their alienating
experiences of poverty, racism, internal colonialism, and second-class citizenship
in the streets of the inner cities. Algarín was among the earlier authors to release
individually authored poetry collections with
Mongo Affair
(1970). The late Pedro
Pietri was another pioneer. He published one of the most critically acclaimed
Puerto Rican Obituary
(1973), and produced a recording of the poems
in this collection, confirming his commitment to reach the masses through oral
performance and dramatization. Piñero released the collection
La Bodega Sold
(1980), reaffirming his connection with the streets and his Lower East Side
community. Sandra María Esteves, who is also a graphic artist, was one of the few
recognized women poets within the Nuyorican movement with the publication of
Yerba Buena
(1980) and
Tropical Rains
(1984). Esteves’s identity quest is closely linked
to liberation from the lingering effects of colonialism and an affirmation of the inner
power of women. Another Nuyorican poet to achieve recognition was Tato Laviera,
with his powerful collections
La Carreta Made a U-Turn
(1981), and
(1985). Many of Laviera’s poems centered on the construction of U.S.-
based Puerto Rican identity and celebrate the cultural, linguistic, and racial hybridity
that takes place within the context of the diaspora:
We gave birth to a new generation
AmeRícan salutes all folklores,
european, Indian, black, Spanish,
and anything else compatible (“AmeRícan,” 1985: 94)
Moreover, as a Puerto Rican mulatto, many of Laviera’s poems frequently emphasize
his African roots, since this heritage tends to be marginalized within his own culture:
un negrito melodía he came along,
improvising bomba drums on dancer’s feet,
choral songs, sonero heat, snapping hands,
sweat at ease, melodía sang,
he sang like this:
se queda allí, se queda allí, se queda allí, es mi raíz
(“bomba, para siempre,” 1981:
Besides the Nuyorican poets, there are other leading U.S. Puerto Rican poets
who have achieved wide recognition. Víctor Hernández Cruz was a pioneer and
continues to be one of the most prolific and widely read authors. The impact of his
work on mainstream audiences is validated by his inclusion in
magazine’s 1981
list of best American poets. Some of his poetry collections include
Rhythm, Content, and Flavor
(1989), and
(2001). Hernández Cruz’s poetry is characterized by his frequent use of Spanish,
Taíno, and African cultural and historical references, and the recreation of different
musical forms. The author himself has stated that as a writer he likes to explore
cultural differences, affirm the various historical roots of the Puerto Rican people,
and experiment with sounds and imagery (Hernández 1998). Another leading poet,
Martín Espada, is a winner of an American Book Award for his collection
Imagine the
[ 58 ]
Angels of Bread
(1996) and of a PEN/Revson Award for
Rebellion is the Circle of a
Lover’s Hand
(1990). More recent works include
A Mayan Astronomer in Hell’s Kitchen:
(2001) and his collection of essays
Zapata’s Disciple
(1998). Espada has been
praised for his mastery of the poetic craft, which he combines with a strong sense
of social justice and compassion for the poor. Many of the author’s poems reflect
a strong political and social consciousness, but this does not take away from his
masterful use of imagery and the syncopated rhythms of his verses.
Younger New York poets, such as María Teresa (Mariposa) Fernández and Willie
Perdomo have also drawn critical attention. Fernández’s “Ode to the Diasporican”
(1985) is a collective affirmation of a Puerto Rican identity shared by those Boricuas
born or raised in the United States. It also introduces another term to differentiate
the experiences of island Puerto Ricans from those born or raised in the United
States. The poet reclaims her Puerto Rican heritage as a way to define her own place
within U.S. society:
Some people say that I am not the real thing
Boricua, that is
Cause I wasn’t born on the enchanted island
Cause I was born on the mainland
North of Spanish Harlem
Cause I was born in the Bronx…
What does it mean to live in between
What does it take to realize
That being Boricua
Is a state of mind
A state of heart
A state of the soul
Perdomo, known as a slam poetry performer at the Nuyorican Poets Café and
other settings, is the author of the collections
Where a Nickel Costs a Dime
Smoking Lovely
(2003), in which he captures the “rhythms of the streets” in his
powerful oral renditions of his work. Both publications include a CD of the author’s
poetic performances.
Compelling autobiographical novels by U.S. Puerto Rican authors began to
be published in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The genre of the
a narrative that captures the experience of growing up in America, has been a
common feature of all ethnic literatures. Some of the pioneering examples of these
poignant narratives are
Down These Mean Streets
(1967) by Piri Thomas, its sequel
Saviour, Saviour Hold My Hand
(1972), and
Seven Long Times
(1974). As a Puerto Rican
mulatto, Thomas’s autobiographical narratives exposed from a male perspective the
self-destructive effects of the racism and the socioeconomic marginality endured
by Puerto Ricans in New York, and their struggles to survive. After spending
seven years in prison for his involvement in an armed robbery to support his drug
addiction, writing provided Thomas a creative outlet to denounce social and racial
ills and to inspire younger generations to overcome the negative forces that for a
time derailed his own life.
For Puerto Ricans and other Latino(a) writers, artistic creativity is an effective way
of exposing the effects of racial and social oppression and promoting social change.
The working-class origins of many of these writers, as well as the nature of their
[ 59 ]
literary themes, placed them in a position to represent “the voices of the voiceless,”
articulating the experiences and struggles of their own families and respective
communities. Other well-recognized male narratives include Edward Rivera’s
(1982) and Abraham Rodríguez’s
Boy Without a Flag: Tales of the South
(1992) and the novel
(1993). Rivera tends to use satiric humor
to illustrate how a Puerto Rican youngster and his family cope with the conflicts
that arise from their interactions with the school system and mainstream society.
Rodríguez narratives echo the anger and violence of ghetto life found in the works
of Piri Thomas. He is, however, from a younger generation of Puerto Ricans still
dealing with an environment of hardship, despair, and survival.
Many works about growing up experiences were written by women.
Female writers
found a sense of solidarity in the international women’s movement of the 1970s and ‘80s
and in the writings of other women of color. The writings of Puerto Ricans and U.S.
Latinas in general reflect an increased consciousness of the different layers of oppression
they experience based on their ethnic, racial, gender, and class subordination within
their respective Latino cultures and in the wider society (see Acosta-Belén 1992).
Some women authors are critical of
and expose heterosexist gender roles within
their own families and communities, and how these have contributed to their oppression
and affected different generations of women. These writers also underscore the ways in
which some women break away from traditional roles, in addition to exposing the racism
and exclusion they experience as members of U.S. society.
There is a legacy of poignant narratives by women authors that are worthy
of mention. A leading prose fiction writer is Nicholasa Mohr. Her first
semiautobiographical novel
(1975) and her short story collections
El Bronx
(1975), In
Nueva York
(1977), and
Rituals of Survival: A Woman’s
(1985) have made her one of the most recognized and anthologized Puerto
Rican prose fiction authors. Another well-recognized writer, Judith Ortiz Cofer,
drew critical praise for her novel
The Line of the Sun
(1989), a fictional account of
the experiences of her childhood commuting between her native Puerto Rican
hometown of Hormigueros and Paterson, New Jersey. A prose fiction writer and
poet, Ortiz Cofer also authored the short story and poetry collections
Silent Dancing:
A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood
(1990) and
The Latin Deli
and the novel
The Meaning of Consuelo
(2004), among other works. These two authors
also have made important contributions to the children’s and young adults’ reading
market, providing Puerto Rican and other Latino(a) youngsters with writings where
they can see themselves and their communities in a more positive light.
The name of Esmeralda Santiago was added to the list of prominent prose fiction
authors after she published the autobiographical novel
When I Was Puerto Rican
(1993), and brought fresh insights to the cultural straddling that characterizes the
migrant experience from the perspective of a child turning into an adolescent.
The success of Santiago’s first novel led to the sequel
Almost a Woman
which was made into a movie for public television. One of her latest novels,
The Turkish Lover
(2004), documents a more mature and tumultuous stage in the
author’s life during her college years. In most of these narratives by Puerto Rican
women authors, the protagonists are empowered by their own creativity and by
forging a record of their respective families’ survival struggles and their own coming-
of-age experiences as the offspring of migrant parents. Writing allows them not only
to validate these experiences, but also to overcome the shattering social forces that
limit the progress of their respective communities.
[ 60 ]
A groundbreaking book for Latinas and other women of color was
This Bridge
Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color
(1981), edited by Chicana authors
Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. A few years later, Moraga coedited with Ana
Castillo a Spanish edition of this anthology under the title
Esta puente, mi espalda:
Voces de mujeres tercermundistas
(1988), aimed at a Spanish-speaking audience.
Two well-known Puerto Rican authors are included in these anthologies: Rosario
Morales and Aurora Levins Morales. A few years later, the unusual pairing of two
talented writers who happen to be mother and daughter yielded the volume
Home Alive
(1986). In this collection, the two authors reveal the multiple oppressions
confronted by women and emphasize the birth of a new liberating cultural synthesis:
I am what I am
A child of the Americas.
A light-skinned mestiza of the Caribbean
A child of many diaspora, born into this continent at a crossroads,
I am Puerto Rican. I am U.S. American…
We are new…
History made us…
And we are whole.
(1986: 213)
A feminist outlook is also at the core of Levins Morales’s subsequent works,
(1998a) and
Medicine Stories: History, Culture, and the Politics of Integrity
(1998b), in which the author combines her skills as a historian, storyteller, and poet
to give voice to the oppression experienced by women and other colonized groups.
Sexuality became another important dimension of women’s oppression,
especially for Latinas. In this regard Moraga’s and Anzaldúa’s writings were at the
vanguard in breaking down the heterosexist barriers and affirming a lesbian identity
within Latino culture. The anthology
Compañeras: Latina Lesbians
(1987), edited by
Puerto Rican scholar Juanita Ramos, also broke new ground by introducing some
of the writings and testimonials of women marginalized because of their sexual
orientation, paying particular attention to the myriad of social and cultural forces
that perpetuate their oppression. The collection
The Margarita Poems
(1987), by
Puerto Rican poet and literary critic Luz María Umpierre, is another important
contribution to challenging conventional heterosexist norms.
A new female voice in Puerto Rican prose fiction is Marta Moreno Vega, author
of the autobiographical narratives
The Altar of My Soul
(2001) and
When the Spirits
Dance Mambo: Growing Up Nuyorican in El Barrio
(2004). An Afro-Puerto Rican,
Moreno Vega emphasizes the transformative influence of
in her spiritual growth and in strengthening her ties to family and community.
They also give testimony of how in the diaspora certain cultural traditions are kept
alive and passed along and take on new meanings for the younger generations.
There are several Latino(a) writers currently residing in the United States or
who have spent some portion of their lives here in the past and have achieved an
international reputation throughout Latin America and other parts of the world.
Most of their writings tend to focus on the particular social and political conditions
of their native countries and not necessarily on the (im)migrant experience.
They write primarily in Spanish, although it is common for their works to be
translated into English or other languages. In a few cases, their degree of Spanish-
English bilingualism allows them to write in either language or be their own
[ 61 ]
translators. One of the best examples of this crossover writing is Puerto Rican
author Rosario Ferré. Ferré became an acclaimed author throughout the Spanish-
speaking world, after the publication of her short story collection
Papeles de Pandora
The Youngest Doll
, 1990) and her novel
Maldito amor
Sweet Diamond Dust
, 1988).
This writer has lived intermittently in the United States and currently resides in
Puerto Rico. In 1995 she published
The House on the Lagoon
, her first novel written in
English. The author then proceeded to rewrite the novel in Spanish. She followed a
similar approach in her second English novel
Eccentric Neighborhoods
Another prominent Puerto Rican writer frequently “commuting” between
the island and New York is Luis Rafael Sánchez, author of the internationally
acclaimed novel
La guaracha del Macho Camacho
Macho Camacho’s Beat
, 1976).
But it is in his collection of stories and essays
La guagua aérea
The Airbus
, 1994),
in which Sánchez combines his mastery of language and humor to put a human
face on the migrant experience, and illustrate the many ways in which Puerto
Ricans adapt and modify their back and forth journey between the cultural
worlds of the island and the metropolis.
OF THE 1920S TO THE 1940S AND,
Performing Culture
Theater is another genre that has played an important cultural and social role within
the community. Beyond being a popular source of entertainment, it has fostered
a sense of community and is an effective consciousness-raising tool. Most plays
emphasize various facets of the life and cultural heritage of the different Latino
groups. In his pioneering study
A History of Hispanic Theater in the United States:
Origins to 1940
(1990), Nicolás Kanellos documents this prominent aspect of the
[ 62 ]
cultural life of various Latino communities, and brings to light a long tradition of
dramatic performance and writing that remained neglected for many years.
The history of Puerto Rican theater in the United States is linked to a long
professional and working-class tradition in this genre, one that dates back to the
second half of the nineteenth century and flourished especially in New York City
[ 63 ]
Ponce Massacre
by Yasmín Hernández (1997). Oil/collage on canvas, 34” x 51”.
Reprinted, by permission, from Yasmín Hernández.
during the decades of the 1920s to the 1940s and, again, since the 1970s.
Kanellos notes that New York was an important “model in solidifying diverse
Hispanic nationalities on the stage” (1990: xv). As the largest Latino group in the
city, Puerto Ricans held their presence on the stage as writers and performers.
Kanellos was able to identify several published and unpublished plays by Puerto
Rican and other Latino(a) writers that reflect some of the issues concerning the
various Latino nationalities during the earlier stages of community development,
and attest to the level of cultural activity taking place in these localities.
There are several plays that stand out in reflecting the social and political concerns
of the New York Puerto Rican community during the early decades of the twentieth
century. These include Gonzalo O’Neill’s
Pabellón de Borinquen o bajo una sola bandera
(1929) and
La indiana borinqueña
(1922). Both plays uphold the proindependence
and antiimperialist ideals of the author, a supporter of the Puerto Rican nationalist
movement during its burgeoning years. O’Neill’s comedy,
Moncho Reyes
provides a satirical view of the Americanization policies pushed by E. Montgomery
Reily, at the time the U.S.-appointed governor of Puerto Rico. The name in the title
of the play is a Spanish adaptation of this North American public official’s name,
coined by Puerto Ricans to ridicule him. Another playwright, Frank Martínez,
authored the play
De Puerto Rico a Nueva York
(1939) focusing on migration issues.
According to Kanellos (1990), this play was performed but never published, and was
an important antecedent to René Marqués’s play
La carreta
(1953). For a long time,
Marqués’ tragic view of migrant life depicted in
La carreta
was the main point of
reference that island Puerto Ricans had about the experiences of their compatriots
in the United States.
A popular entertainment form among Puerto Rican and Cuban performers during the
1920s and ‘30s was the humorous
teatro bufo-cubano
, which combined elements of vaudeville
and African-American minstrel shows. Puerto Rican actor and playwright Erasmo Vando
was known for his contributions to this popular genre and for writing and producing
the play
De Puerto Rico al Metropolitano o el Caruso Criollo
(1928) (Kanellos 1990).
Many theater productions during the Depression years were aimed at
consciousness-raising among working-class audiences. The
teatro obrero
was a genre
linked to the labor movement that was very popular during the 1920s and ‘30s, both
on the island and the metropolis. Community organizations such as the Mutualista
Obrera Puertorriqueña regularly sponsored performances by professional companies
and provided space for amateur productions (Kanellos 1990).
A play that focuses on the exploitation of workers by the capitalist system and the
aftereffects of the Great Depression is
Los hipócritas
(1937) by Puerto Rican author
Franca de Armiño. De Armiño, a member of a tobacco strippers union in Puerto
Rico, was known for her feminist and labor activism. In 1919 she participated in the
First Congress of Women Workers. She also was president of the women workers’
suffragist organization Asociación Feminista Popular before she migrated to New
York in the late 1920s. But not much is yet known about her life and writings while
living in New York, except for the above mentioned play and a few articles published
in Bernardo Vega’s newspaper,
, and in
Nuevo Mundo
The Nuevo Círculo Dramático (1953–1960) was established in New York by
the playwright Roberto Rodríguez Suárez, director of the premiere performance
of Marqués’s drama
La carreta
in 1953. In subsequent decades, the productions
of the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, founded by Miriam Colón in 1967,
brought theater to the people of the New York barrios and offered new
[ 64 ]
opportunities to actors and playwrights. In fact,
La carreta
was the Traveling
Theater’s first major production. The Traveling Theater was initially a vehicle to
introduce the work of island writers to community audiences, but in later years
it began to showcase the work of U.S.-born Puerto Rican writers. In addition
to promoting theater activities, Colón is a very talented actor, and she has made
numerous contributions to film and television.
Under the artistic direction of Rosalba Rolón, the Teatro Pregones, founded
in 1980 and located in the Bronx, continues to promote theater “rooted in Puerto
Rican traditions and popular artistic expressions” (Newsletter Fall 1999: 1).
The company has performed all over the world and provides a stage for young
actors, playwrights, producers, directors, and musicians to flourish and be mentored
by more experienced professionals.
A few of the Nuyorican poets also made important contributions to theater.
Miguel Algarín is a major force behind the Puerto Rican Actors’/Playwrights
Workshop and the Nuyorican Theater Festival, and the author of several plays that
have been produced but not published. Algarín also coedited the anthology
The Nuyorican Poets Cafe Theater Festival
(1997). Nuyorican poet and playwright
Miguel Piñero was quite successful with his drama
Short Eyes
(1975), a work that
captures the harshness of prison life. Piñero, who had grown up in the Lower East
Side of Manhattan, had been a gang member in his youth. He became addicted
to drugs and went to prison because of his participation in an armed robbery.
A prison theater workshop introduced him to acting and writing, activities he
continued to pursue after his release.
Short Eyes
received the New York Drama
Critics Circle Award for Best American Play and an Obie Award for Best Off-
Broadway play of 1974, and was later made into a major motion picture.
The poet’s talented, tortured, and self-destructive path that shortened his
life was later reenacted in the film
Some new writers have achieved recognition in the off-Broadway theater circuit.
Worthy of mention is playwright José Rivera, author of
(1994), a futuristic
and apocalyptic dark comedy about urban violence and the breaking of male and
female stereotypes. Rivera’s autobiographical play
The House of Ramón Iglesia
was produced for television by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1986
and published three years later. Another well known U.S. Puerto Rican dramatist
is Carmen Rivera, author of
(1992), a play that challenges traditional women’s
roles and evokes the poetic rebelliousness of Julia de Burgos.
Theater and film roles for Latino(a) actors have never been abundant.
Actors constantly struggle for recognition, and most are conscious of the pitfalls
of the ethnic typecasting that dominates U.S. entertainment circles. Rodríguez
(2004 [2000]) has documented and analyzed many of the stereotypical images and
representations of Latinos(as) propagated in the U.S. media and their demeaning
effects at an individual and collective level. She notes that Latinos(as) in general still
continue being “the most underrepresented ethnic group in films and primetime
television” despite the unprecedented growth in this population since the latter
decades of the twentieth century (2004: 243).
Con la música por dentro
: Puerto Rican Salsa and Other Popular Rhythms
The mythification and yearning for the Puerto Rican homeland expressed in creative
literature is also found in some of the most popular songs written by composers and
musicians, especially those coming to the United States at some point in their lives
[ 65 ]
[ 66 ]
either for brief periods of time or a longer stay. A common phrase to describe Puerto
Ricans is to say that “llevan la música por dentro.” The popular phrase indicates the
importance of this particular genre in the sum of Puerto Rican cultural expression.
Popular songs such as Rafael Hernández’s “Preciosa,” Noel Estrada’s “En mi Viejo
San Juan,” and Bobby Capó’s “Soñando con Puerto Rico” are only a few of the best-
known examples of the nostalgia, patriotic pride, and love for the Puerto Rican
homeland expressed by those Puerto Ricans finding themselves in distant shores.
Popular music undoubtedly represents an expressive form that contributes in a
significant way to propagating Puerto Rican cultural traditions, affirming a Puerto
Rican national consciousness within the diaspora, and generating the cultural vitality
that exists between island and U.S. communities. From typical forms such as the
, the
, or the
, to the romantic
or the faster dancing
rhythms of
, musical expression is a vibrant part of Puerto Rican and the wider
Latino cultural and social life in the United States. Rap and
are new popular
forms that have captivated young audiences in recent years and reflect a whole
gamut of social, cultural, racial, gender, and sexuality issues (see Flores 2000;
Rivera Marshall and Pacini Hernandez 2009).
Folk music interpreter Manuel “Canario” Jiménez first recorded and popularized
his plenas in New York in the 1920s and 30s. For many of the performers who are
part of Puerto Rico’s popular music hall of fame, their experiences within the Latino
communities throughout the United States were important in establishing their
careers. Whether their travels outside the island were temporary or they resided in
[ 67 ]
the U.S. metropolis for long periods, Puerto Rican and other Latino performers often
shared the stage of the Teatro Hispano de Nueva York, the Teatro Puerto Rico,
the Teatro San José, the Park Palace Theater, or the famous Palladium dancing hall.
Harlem’s celebrated Apollo Theater also opened its doors to Puerto Rican and other
Latino(a) performers.
IN THE LATE 1950S AND 1960S,
For the community, music has been and continues to be more than a form of
entertainment. The creativity, visibility, and prominence of Puerto Rican performers
are important symbols for a community confronted with a constant barrage of negative
images in the press, movies, and other media (Glasser 1995; Santiago 1994). The songs
and musical styles that emerged from within the diaspora reflect a deeply rooted sense
of Puerto Ricanness, and are part of that inexhaustible repertoire of survival strategies
that migrants develop in the process of adapting to new and alienating environments.
Included among the best known early figures in New York’s musical circles were
the talented performer-composers Rafael Hernández, Pedro Flores, and Bobby Capó.
Hernández’s Trío Borinquen and Cuarteto Victoria first performed some of his most
memorable compositions in New York. The Puerto Rican homeland was central to
Hernández’s internationally known songs “Lamento Borincano” (also known as
“El Jibarito”) and “Preciosa,” both written in New York. The first song describes the
misery and despair that dominated the Puerto Rican rural landscape during the Great
Depression years, and the last one is a patriotic exaltation of the natural beauty of the
Puerto Rican homeland and its lack of political freedom.
Singer-composers Bobby Capó, Mirta Silva, and Pedro Ortiz Dávila (Davilita)
performed at different times with Rafael Hernández’s Cuarteto before they achieved
their own individual fame as composers and musical interpreters. Capó was one of
the first performers to host his own television show on a New York network.
From New York, Davilita also was a featured singer in composer Pedro Flores’
New York musical ensembles. Years later, Davilita joined Felipe (“La Voz”)
[ 68 ]
Rodríguez, becoming one of the most acclaimed duos in New York and Puerto Rico.
Raised in New York, singer Daniel Santos also made popular his unique singing
style during this period. A fervent nationalist, Santos found a less repressive political
environment away from the island.
Some of the problems confronted by black Puerto Rican artists, like
Hernández, Davilita, and Santos were caused by the segregationist practices
prevalent in U.S. society at the time. Such practices excluded these artists from
performing in some of the most prominent whites-only clubs, especially before
the 1960s civil rights laws barred segregation. Not only were dark-skinned
performers excluded from certain venues, they also were paid less than white
or light-skinned Latinos(as) (Glasser 1995).
Musicians such as Noro Morales, Tito Puente, and Tito Rodríguez are among the
pioneers of the Big Band and Mambo Kings era who entertained audiences in New
York’s celebrated Palladium dancing hall. Morales’ orchestra, which often alternated
on the stage with Glenn Miller’s, also performed on Broadway. Born in the United
States of Puerto Rican parents, Tito Puente studied at Juilliard and soon became
known for his musical experiments, in which he combined African American jazz
with Latin rhythms. He was known as “el rey del timbal” and of a new genre labeled
Latin jazz. Until his death in 2002, Tito Puente was one the leading percussion
artists and orchestra leaders in the United States and the rest of the continent,
with a musical career that spanned for more than half a century.
Tito Rodríguez and his Mambo Devils were among the first successful Puerto
Rican musical groups to entertain U.S. audiences in the late 1940s. Rodríguez came
to New York, where his brother Johnny and his trio had achieved popularity among
Latinos(as). In later years, Tito Rodríguez’s ventures into the bossa nova beat and
his heartfelt style as a singer of romantic boleros also gained him fame in Venezuela,
Argentina, and other countries.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, a new generation of Puerto Rican performers born
or raised in the United States began to revolutionize the New York Latino musical
environment and their popularity extended to the island and other parts of Latin
America. New York-born Charlie Palmieri, also a piano student at Juilliard, began to
achieve recognition with his Orquesta Siboney in the early 1950s. In 1959, he joined
Dominican flautist, Johnny Pacheco, and founded the Charanga Duboney. Using a
combination of the flute, violin, bass, and small drums, they popularized the
rhythms that turned into dancing favorites for many U.S. Latino
audiences during the early 1960s. Another Puerto Rican
, Joe Quijano,
started his own recording label, Cesta, and asked Charlie Palmieri to direct the
production of the recordings of the Cesta All Stars, a label that included some of the
most popular performers of these musical beats. Charlie Palmieri’s brother, Eddie,
made his own contributions to this new musical genre and to Latin jazz. Despite
the fact that these performers made an impact on the Latino musical world of the
1950s and ‘60s, they were not as successful in crossing over into the mainstream
U.S. market and the Billboard charts, in contrast to some of the more prominent
Latino(a) performers who achieved recognition in the 1990s and thereafter.
Born in Brooklyn of Puerto Rican parents, Ray Barreto, was the first pachanga
performer to cross over and make it to the Billboard’s list of hits with his recording
of the song “El watusi” (Santiago 1994). During the same period, Gilberto Calderón,
better known by his artistic name of Joe Cuba, also achieved success with his famous
Sexteto group for his combination of mambo and North American rhythm and blues
[ 69 ]
to create the late 1960s boogaloo craze. The
was occasionally interpreted
in English or bilingually. Ricardo “Richie” Ray, an accomplished U.S.-born Puerto
Rican pianist and graduate from Juilliard, started his career with this musical genre.
He recruited another U.S.-born Puerto Rican, Bobby Cruz, to become the lead
singer in his orchestra, which had an extensive bilingual repertoire and achieved
considerable popularity within the Latino communities.
In 1964, Johnny Pacheco created the Fania recording label and opened the doors
to many other Latino(a) performers to join the celebrated Fania All Stars, including
Puerto Rican performers Bobby Valentín, Willie Colón, and Héctor Lavoe, and
Jewish-American pianist Larry Harlow. The experimentation and fusion of Afro-
Caribbean rhythms with jazz, rock, and rhythm and blues was to be marketed by Fania
as the salsa genre, creating an unbreakable musical link between Boricuas on the island
and those born or raised in the United States. Salsa incorporated elements of the
most popular Afro-Caribbean musical rhythms—the
, mambo,
, pachanga,
son montuno
, and
. It was a term that reflected most accurately the
effervescence and
of Latino music and a marketing label that unified the diverse
musical experiences of the various Caribbean diasporas in the United States.
Unquestionably, the Caribbean rhythms of salsa have penetrated the North
American musical mainstream as demonstrated by the enormous success of many
contemporary Latino(a) performers practicing this genre, either in Spanish or
bilingually. A new wave of younger and successful salsa interpreters has emerged.
A leading singer in this genre is Marc Anthony, also a performer of ballads and
pop rock. Marc Anthony’s popularity in the United States has reached levels
similar to those achieved by other Puerto Rican pop rock performers such as Ricky
Martin and Jennifer López. Hollywood film productions, such as
Dance with Me
(1999), the former featuring ex-Menudo Robby “Draco”
Rosa, and the latter Puerto Rican singer Chayanne and the well-known African-
American performer, Vanessa Williams, reflect the growing popularity of salsa
and Latino music among U.S. audiences.
[ 70 ]
Prominent studies on salsa music (Quintero Rivera 1998; Aparicio 1999) argue
that besides its entertainment value, this popular genre provides a mirror of
social and power relations among various social strata and between the sexes.
Cultural definition and affirmation is another important component of this
music. Songs such as “Color Americano” recorded by Puerto Rican
Colón, “Buscando América” by Panamanian singer Rubén Blades, and “Latinos en
Estados Unidos” by the late Cuban diva Celia Cruz illustrate ways in which Latino
interpreters and composers use music as an instrument of social consciousness
and as a means of reaffirming a panethnic sense of Latino identity that frequently
transcends their individual national origins. In “Color Americano,” a song written by
Amílcar Boscán and interpreted by Willie Colón, some of the basic elements of this
identity are defined, emphasizing both national and panethnic connections:
Tengo el honor
de ser hispano
llevo el sabor del borincano,
mi color morenito
ya casi marrón
es orgullo del pueblo
latino señor.
Puerto Rican folkloric music, particularly those compositions reflecting the
influence of African rhythms such as the plena and the
, also has inspired
many interpreters. One of the best-known contemporary groups in this genre is
Los Pleneros de la 21, a group founded in 1983 by Juan Gutiérrez. Through their
recordings and concerts this group has revitalized Afro-Puerto Rican traditional
music within the diaspora.
Some Puerto Rican folk singers of the genre called “
la nueva trova
” [the new folk
song] became popular during the social and political activism of the 1960s and ‘70s.
This music was performed at colleges and universities, or at activities sponsored by
community organizations. Some performers shared their time moving between the
island and the United States. One of the most popular is Roy Brown. He recorded
the album,
Nueva Yol
(the title is a common Spanish colloquial adaptation of the
name New York) (1983). Earlier in his career, Brown had popularized the song
“El negrito bonito,” a song that captures some of the sadness and perils of a
destitute black Puerto Rican migrant.
Different forms of popular musical expressions continue to emerge from the barrios,
including rap, hip-hop, and reggaetón. The latter genre combines hip-hop, salsa,
and reggae. During the last several years this hybrid musical expression has reached a
popularity that extends beyond Puerto Rican borders to the United States and other
parts of Latin America. With its contagious rhyming and bass beat, the reggaetón is
one of the most successful contemporary musical crossovers, since although English
is frequently used in its lyrics, Spanish continues to dominate the genre. Interpreters
such as Daddy Yankee, Tego Calderón, Ivy Queen, along with trailblazers Vico C and
El General, are keeping reggaetón one of the most influential musical happenings of
recent years. Rap, hip-hop, and reggaetón all provide offbeat ways of understanding
the cultural, social, and racial interactions among working-class Puerto Ricans and
African Americans in the inner city. Flores (2000) argues that, “Like other Latino
groups, Puerto Ricans are using rap as a vehicle for affirming their history, language,
[ 71 ]
and culture under conditions of rampant discrimination and exclusion” (2000: 137).
There is no doubt that the participation of Puerto Ricans in the creation of these new
musical genre adds to the many other forms of bilingual creative expression coming
out of the urban barrios. Their huge popularity allows for its working-class social and
political content to reach the U.S. mainstream as much as it does a Latino audience.
The Visual Arts
Puerto Rican visual artists from the island are among the most frequent sojourners and
migrants to the United States. Because of the nature of their trade, many of these artists
have studied, resided, held exhibitions, or received recognition outside the island.
Even many of those artists based in Puerto Rico maintain a continuous exchange with
other Puerto Rican artists born or raised in the metropolis around some of the same
issues of cultural identity and resistance to assimilation found in literary expression.
The struggles and accomplishments of Puerto Rican visual artists during the
last half century usually reflect some of the same difficulties and challenges faced
by some of the earlier masters, in particular their pilgrimages to many parts of the
world seeking training or the mentorship of established foreign artists intended to
increase their chances for a successful career. The evocation of the native landscape
and traditions, and the difficult adaptation to a culturally different and unwelcoming
environment shapes the work of many Puerto Rican visual artists of the diaspora.
Efforts to promote Puerto Rican culture within the United States were part of
the charge of the the Migration Division, established in 1948 by the government’s
Department of Labor to facilitate the employment of migrants and their transition
to their new environment. The decades prior to the 1950s had witnessed the arrival
of a few Puerto Rican artists, but they worked mostly without the benefit of a
supportive artistic environment, often in isolation from each other, and their work
was, therefore, less known to the community.
According to Torruella Leval (1998), the activities of Puerto Rican artists in the
United States can be placed into three different cycles. The first, beginning in the
1950s, opened the dialogue between artists from the island and the metropolis
around cultural issues of self-definition. The second cycle took place during the
ethnic revitalization movement of the 1960s and ‘70s and focused on social protest
and community empowerment. The third one links Puerto Ricans to the cultural
debates and struggles of a growing Latino population and the wider panethnic Latino
experience within U.S. society.
A few names stand out when making reference to the most notable artists of the
pre-World War II migration period. Juan De’Prey, an artist of Puerto Rican and
Haitian ancestry, came to New York from Puerto Rico in 1929 and became known
for landscapes that illustrate a nostalgia for his native land and his mulatto racial
background. De’Prey’s style has often been compared to that of Gauguin, particularly
his portraits of children (Bloch 1978).
Prior to becoming one of Puerto Rico’s most internationally acclaimed artists,
Lorenzo Homar lived in New York in the early 1930s working as a designer for the
famous Cartier house of jewelers. Painter Rafael D. Palacios arrived in New York
in 1938 and developed a prominent career as a book illustrator and cartographer for
U.S. publishing houses. Olga Albizu was another painter achieving some prominence
in New York before the 1960s. She exhibited her work at the Organization of
American States Gallery and designed record album jackets for RCA (Benítez 1988;
Acosta-Belén et al. 2000).
[ 72 ]
Puerto Rican cultural activities in the diaspora were influenced by the cultural
and intellectual environment that began to be promoted on the island during the
1950s. Reacting to the rapid changes that were occurring in Puerto Rico during the
Operation Bootstrap years, the administration of then Governor Luis Muñoz Marín
also sponsored Operación Serenidad. This ambitious cultural endeavor was aimed
at maintaining a balance between the overwhelming North American economic
and cultural influences in Puerto Rico and the preservation of the island’s cultural
distinctiveness and traditions. Some of the government-sponsored initiatives under
Operación Serenidad included incentives in the form of scholarships, travel grants,
performances, exhibits, films, and publications that often brought Puerto Ricans
from the island to the United States to work on joint artistic projects with their
fellow compatriots. Many of these activities were coordinated by New York’s
Migration Division, then headed by Joseph Monserrat. The Division sponsored the
Oller-Campeche Gallery, which allowed many Puerto Rican artists to introduce
their work to the community. Puerto Rican fine arts in New York also were fostered
by the efforts of organizations such as the Puerto Rican Institute, directed at the
time by Luis Quero Chiesa. The presence in New York of well-known Puerto Rican
visual artists Rafael Tufiño and Carlos Osorio during this period also enriched the
diaspora’s artistic circles (Torruella Leval 1998).
Before the ethnic revitalization movement of the Civil Rights era, it was not easy
for Puerto Rican or other Latino(a) artists to make significant incursions into U.S.
mainstream artistic circles from which they were largely excluded. This situation
started to change when members of the community began to develop opportunities
for artists to train, create, and exhibit. The founding in 1953 of Los Amigos de
Puerto Rico by artist Amalia Guerrero served those purposes. For more than two
decades some of the best-known island artists came to New York to teach or learn
at Guerrero’s workshop (Torruella Leval 1998).
However, it was not until the 1960s and ’70s that those Puerto Rican artists
born or raised in the United States began to make their mark with works that
combined the images, colors, symbols, and traditions of the homeland with some
[ 73 ]
of the sobering realities of barrio life. Be it through murals, sculptures, paintings,
silkscreens, posters, or photographs, the artistic world of the diaspora began to
flourish and to capture what it meant to be Puerto Rican in a bicultural environment.
These artists also depicted the many ways in which the Puerto Rican people
struggled and endured as part of a disenfranchised U.S. working class.
During the time when some of empty spaces of the urban barrios were often filled
with graffiti, many Puerto Rican artists found creative outlets to channel their anger
and disaffection, or to celebrate and affirm their heritage through different forms
of public art. Public art provided the means for bringing a mythical Puerto Rico to
the various U.S. communities where Puerto Ricans had settled. The reproduction
of African and Taíno indigenous motifs and folkloric traditions were very popular
among these artists. According to Marimar Benítez (1988: 78), “the walls of Puerto
Rican business places, particularly those of La Marketa.
..began to blossom with
murals painted by folk artists.… Artists such as Johnny Vázquez and Millito López
painted the rural scenes they had left behind.”
A few of the best examples of public art include Rafael Ferrer’s sculpture
Rican Sun
(1979), located in the South Bronx. The sculpture brought a tropical flavor
to a sterile environment in the form of palm trees holding up a shining sun. Manuel
Vega’s mural
Playa de amor
(1988), depicted Afro-Puerto Rican dancers celebrating their
musical traditions. Nitza Tufiño was hired by New York’s Metropolitan Transportation
Authority in 1989 to create a ceramic mural at a subway station in Spanish Harlem.
The imposing mural
reproduces Taíno Indian petroglyphs in bright colors.
Marina Gutiérrez, a high school art teacher, tries to capture through her images elements
of Puerto Rican social and political oppression on the island and the United States
(Torruella Leval 1999). Among her most impressive contributions to public art is her
1996 installation of colorful suspended mobile structures that attempt to visually capture
the images of Julia de Burgos’ poetry. This installation is displayed at the atrium of the
Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center in Manhattan’s East Side.
Other artists, such as Pedro Villarini, created paintings that transported the
Puerto Rican rural landscape and traditions to the cold and colorless environment of
the city. His
El artesano en Nueva York
is a tribute to the artisan tradition of religious
woodcarvings. Curriculum materials, illustrated anthologies, posters, and the covers
of the Comité Noviembre’s annual magazine displayed the artwork of Ernesto
Ramos-Nieves, a talented artist who died of illness at a young age. The Comité
Noviembre was established in New York in 1987 to institutionalize the celebration
[ 74 ]
of the month of November as Puerto Rican Heritage Month. The Comité was
founded by the joint efforts of several community organizations, and its annual
publication was a way of highlighting the work of artists and the overall cultural life
of the U.S. Puerto Rican community.
An impressive display of the images, traditions, and dilemmas of Puerto Rican barrio
life is offered by the works of Juan Sánchez. This artist’s powerful paintings and collages
fill many public spaces and are displayed on the covers of numerous books and journals.
Jiménez-Muñoz and Santiago-Valles summarize the essence of Sánchez’s body of work:
Isn’t this part of what being Puerto Rican is all about, particularly in the U.S.:
being caught between Spanish and English, being the Caribbean/tropical hybrid in
Niuyol City’s cold wasteland, trying to negotiate between American-ness and Latin
American-ness, between “el welfare” and “las 936,” crossing “el charco” in
“la guagua aérea,” etc.? It is no accident that practically all of these are themes
which Sánchez has included (explicitly or implicitly) in recent paintings. (1995: 22)
One of Sánchez’s major works is
Conditions that Exist
. The piece embodies some of the
most compelling images and issues of the diaspora. The words Sánchez included on this
collage reveal the identity quest that is such an integral part of many U.S. Puerto Rican
cultural expressions: “¿Dónde está mi gente?/¿dónde está mi país?/ ¿para dónde vamos?.”
The few institutions established to promote artistic endeavors within the Puerto
Rican community have been quite successful in achieving their goals. Two of the leading
ones are the Museo del Barrio and the Taller Alma Boricua (better known as the Taller
Boricua), both established in New York in 1969. Founded in East Harlem by a group
of Puerto Rican artists and educators, the Museo is now a key cultural and educational
resource. In addition to its many rotating exhibits, education programs, and publications,
it holds a permanent collection. Artists Martha Vega, Rafael Montañez Ortiz
(also known as Ralph Ortiz), and Hiram Maristany are among the founders of this
institution. The Museo’s 1973 exhibit “The Art Heritage of Puerto Rico,” a joint
initiative with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, afforded the opportunity for a large
collective exhibit of a whole gamut of artistic expressions, including Taíno
other stone and ceramic crafts,
wood carvings, classical and modern paintings,
posters, silk screens, and sculptures. Since then, the Museum has sponsored numerous
exhibits by Puerto Rican and other Latino(a) artists, and many other cultural activities.
Worth mentioning is the 1978–1979 exhibit, “Bridge Between Islands,” aimed at
fostering connections between Puerto Rican artists from the island and the diaspora.
Founded by Puerto Rican artists Marcos Dimas, Carlos Osorio, Manuel Otero,
Armando Soto, Adrián García, and Martín Rubio, the Taller Boricua is a center for
community art education in East Harlem. Nonetheless, a large number of the most
talented Puerto Rican artists, both from the island and the United States, have spent
time working there. The Taller provides a setting for artists to work and exchange
ideas and the artwork produced at this workshop often explores the roots of what it
means to be Puerto Rican, especially by emphasizing Taino and African symbols and
traditions (Torruella Leval 1998).
New York Puerto Rican writer and artist, Jack Agüeros, a member of Los Amigos
de Puerto Rico and a former Director of El Museo del Barrio, supported the work
of Latino(a) artists through the establishment in the mid-1970s of Galería Caymán
in Soho. This gallery later became the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art
(MOCHA). Other artists, such as James Shine, have supported the artistic activity
[ 75 ]
of Latinos(a) in New York as a member of the New York State Council for the
Arts (1988–1998). Shine is the owner of an extensive collection of Puerto Rican art
posters, which he often lends out to schools and universities.
In Philadelphia, the Taller Puertorriqueño, founded in 1974, has played a role similar
to New York’s Taller Boricua. It is a community-based cultural education organization
that houses a cultural awareness program, a gallery, a bookstore, and a museum collection
and archives. Chicago’s Juan Antonio Corretjer Puerto Rican Cultural Center (PRCC)
has been instrumental in maintaining the vitality of the Paseo Boricua, considered “the
cultural and economic heartbeat” of the city’s Puerto Rican community. The Paseo is the
site of an impressive architectural display of two steel Puerto Rican flags that run across
Division Street. The Paseo is also the site of a
and numerous murals, including
of Flags
by Puerto Rican artists Gamaliel Ramírez and Eden Star Padilla. This particular
mural depicts a crowd waving Puerto Rican flags and surrounding the Puerto Rican
nationalist patriot Lolita Lebrón, who is holding the flag that became a symbol of the
Lares insurrection of 1868. The PRCC supported the development of the Institute of
Puerto Rican Art and Culture (IPRAC), an organization that supports a whole range of
activities promoting Puerto Rican artistic and musical expression.
From 1988–1996, the Institute of Puerto Rican Affairs, headed by Paquita Vivó,
maintained a lively cultural presence in Washington, D.C. The Institute sponsored
art exhibits, concerts, lectures, conferences, and publications. It was associated with
the island-based Fundación Puertorriqueña de las Humanidades, itself sponsored by
the Washington-based National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
The arrival of the Internet made room in cyberspace for the disseminating the work
of Puerto Rican visual artists. This new generation of experimental artists is represented
by the work of photographer and visual artist Adal Maldonado. He cofounded with
Nuyorican writer Pedro Pietri the website
El Puerto Rican Embassy
in 1994, although
artist Eduardo Figueroa is responsible for the original concept developed in the website
El Spirit Republic de Puerto Rico
(see Maldonado and
Pietri expanded upon the original concept by creating a Puerto Rican “passport,”
appointing Ambassadors of the Arts, writing a Manifesto, and a “Spanglish” National
El Puerto Rican Embassy
is described by its founders as a “sovereign state of mind,”
an ironic take on Puerto Rico’s “unsovereign” political status. Maldonado’s collection of
Out of Focus Nuyoricans
, is also displayed on this website, and it is described
[ 76 ]
as a collection that “expresses the political and psychological conditions of the Puerto
Rican and Nuyorican identity” ( 2). It is clear from this
website that political and cultural issues related to the colonial subordination of Puerto
Ricans continue to be as important to both island and U.S.-based Puerto Rican artists.
More than ever artists are using the Internet to display and promote their work.
Through her website, Soraida Martínez, the creator of what she calls “Verdadism”
or a philosophy of truth, describes her style as “a form of hard-edge abstraction in
which paintings are juxtaposed with social commentaries.” Martínez has made the
following comments about her painting
Puerto Rican Stereotype: The Way You See Me
Without Looking at Me
Throughout my life I have met lots of people that have never experienced meeting
or getting to know a Puerto Rican woman. I have had some people admit to me their
feelings on what they though a Puerto Rican woman looked and acted like.
Puerto Rican
Stereotype: The Way You See Me Without Looking at Me
is a satirical painting based on
the false information given to me by the media and other life experiences. (1992)
New York is not the only art scene for Puerto Ricans. The presence of acclaimed
painter Arnaldo Roche Rabell in Chicago, an artist who, like many others, travels
back and forth between the island and the metropolis, is characteristic of the cultural
straddling that is so much a part of the migrant experience and that brings so many
different kinds of cultural explorations or “Rican-constructions” around identity
In 1984, Roche Rabell was the first Puerto Rican to receive the Lincoln
medal from the Governor of Illinois. Almost half a century earlier, another Puerto
Rican artist, Rufino Silva, made his mark in Chicago where he was on the faculty of
the famous Art Institute for many years (Benítez 1988).
Another prominent Chicago-based Puerto Rican artist is Bibiana Suárez,
a graduate of the Chicago Art Institute and a faculty member at DePaul
University. Juan Sánchez describes Suárez’s work as “a conflictive plebiscite of
the mind” which “illuminates the cultural, social, and political friction of [her]
spiritual, human, female, and Puerto Rican state of mind” (1991: 1–2). The artist
herself states that her work attempts to create “a metaphorical sense of place,
...not in Puerto Rico, not in Chicago, but my own island” (1991: 1).
In Orlando, Puerto Rican artist Obed Gómez has become a leading figure with his
distinctive style and colorful images that recreate the Puerto Rican musical spirit and
the island’s countryside and urban traditions (see Often described
as “the Puerto Rican Picasso,” Gómez’s work has been featured in several of the city’s
publications, and his work has also been showcased throughout the state of Florida.
Born in Puerto Rico, Miguel Luciano received his college education in the United
States and his public art work and gallery exhibitions have made him a well-known
visual artist within the diaspora. He is regarded as one of the most innovative artists
of his generation. Many of his works rely on a combination of visual media that uses
commercial product labels, historic publications, graffiti, and other popular images,
often subverting them to convey powerful social and political messages about different
aspects of Puerto Rico’s colonial status, and the Puerto Rican experience on the island
and in the metropolis (see
The work of visual artist Yasmín Hernández provides one of the best examples
of how Puerto Rican artists in the United States continue “haciendo patria desde la
metrópoli.” In her website (, she classifies her work in
[ 77 ]
three categories: the political, cultural, and spiritual, all underlying a fundamental
belief that “creating from the ‘margin’” is in itself “a very political space.” Although
born in Brooklyn, Hernández’s work
is deeply influenced by Puerto Rican history.
She often recreates historical events or political figures from old photographs (e.g. Ponce
Massacre, photographs of some of the martyrs of Puerto Rican
For some island Puerto Rican artists, New York and many other U.S. communities
are only another stop made by the “airbus” that connects the island with the
metropolis. Thus, it is difficult to fully understand their body of work without
this important dimension. Antonio Martorell is one of those frequent commuters
(2000). Miguel Luciano.
Acrylic on canvas, 72" x 72".
Collection of Jose Vidal and Jay
Smith. Reprinted, by permission,
from Miguel Luciano.
Uncle Kola
(2003). Miguel Luciano.
Acrylic on canvas, 72" x 72".
Collection of Ian and Bahia Synott.
Reprinted, by permission,
from Miguel Luciano.
[ 78 ]
enriching the life of the U.S. Puerto Rican communities with his impressive mixed-
media installations and performances—often combining art, theater, and literary text.
He recurrently installs exhibits at U.S. colleges, galleries, and museums. His exhibition,
Blanca Snow in Puerto Rico
, held at New York’s Hostos Community College Art Gallery
in 1997, is one of his most impressive contributions to the community’s cultural life.
Moreover, with the collaboration of theater director, Rosa Luisa Márquez, both artists
have traveled to many U.S. universities to engage students in the process of writing,
staging, and acting in performances that rely on the students’ own creativity and talent.
Crossing Over: Being Bilingual in America
In Puerto Rico, it is often said by those who oppose statehood or independence
that, because of its relationship with the United States, the island shares the best of two
worlds. This statement is based on the more than usual exposure of Puerto Ricans to the
Anglo American culture and the English language, and their holding of U.S. citizenship,
all of which make it easier for some Puerto Rican writers and artists to cross over into the
U.S. market. The same can be said of many U.S. Puerto Rican writers and artists trying to
reach out to Spanish-speaking audiences in Puerto Rico and other countries. The latter
view their cultural straddling and affirmation of their Puerto Rican identity as indications
of their resistance to assimilation into the Anglo American mainstream that marginalized
them, and as a way of denouncing existing racial and social inequalities.
Since the 1990s many of the writings by U.S. Puerto Rican and other Latino
authors are being translated into Spanish, and distributed and marketed throughout
Latin America and Spain. A few U.S. Puerto Rican authors also write in Spanish or
bilingually, and in the 1940s and ‘50s literary figures, such as Jesús Colón and Julia de
Burgos, occasionally wrote in English despite the fact that Spanish was their native
language. But this kind of crossover writing is not the norm within Latin American
or North American literature, although it is becoming quite common in the growing
field of U.S. Latino literature, confronting both critics and readers with the perennial
question of where to place these literary works. Are they part of U.S. or Latin
American literature, or are they now unequivocally part of both? Without doubt,
the increasing Latino(a) presence in U.S. society and the transnational dynamics
at work in the Americas during the era of globalization is producing new and
provocative realities of culture contact and hybridity that are challenging old
literary canons and models of immigrant assimilation.
Artistic crossovers are also demonstrated by the unprecedented success of
bilingual Puerto Rican performers Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, and Jennifer
López, along with other Latino performers, such as Gloria Estefan, Cristina Aguilera,
Enrique Iglesias, and Shakira, to mention a few. Their ability to sing in Spanish and
English and the cultural hybridity reflected in their musical interpretations is more
than just an exotic marketing ploy to sell a product to the North American public.
It is rather a sign of how the people of Latin American and the Caribbean—Puerto
Ricans included—are now “invading the invader,” turning the spaces where they
migrate into their own by bringing their cultural heritage and language into their
creative endeavors, and making their presence felt in the rest of U.S. society.
Concluding Remarks
Puerto Rican writers and artists are actively engaged in issues related to their own
histories, cultures, and identities, their relationship and interaction with the U.S.
[ 79 ]
mainstream culture, and their place in North American society. This endeavor
involves the task of reconstructing and documenting their presence as well as
rescuing the neglected elements of their native culture. They often emphasize the
indigenous or African cultural roots, which in the past were overshadowed by the
emphasis given to the Hispanic heritage, and challenge traditional boundaries on
issues of gender and sexuality. Moreover, at different historical periods, including the
present, cultural production within the diaspora has contributed to the growth and
vitality of Puerto Rican cultural nationalism.
Literature is one of the most effective ways to represent the cultural and historical
experiences of minority groups, and Puerto Ricans are no exception. There is now
a well-defined and recognized corpus of literary works, and an increasing number of
anthologies that, in addition to their artistic merit, have become major sociological
sources to learn about migrant experiences and the process of adaptation to U.S.
society. This body of literature captures the writers’ straddling of two different
cultures and languages, and many aspects of the cultural and historical relationship
between Puerto Rico and the United States.
Affirming their national identity as Puerto Ricans or a wider panethnic identification
as Latinos(as) often provides most authors, musicians, performers, and visual artists
a sense of solidarity based on the historical exclusion and prevailing inequalities they
collectively experience, in addition to denouncing specific social, racial, educational,
or political conditions. At the same time, the proximity and interactions that Puerto Ricans
and other Latino groups share with their particular countries of origin, and the ongoing
transnational migration patterns that characterize some of these groups continues to
invigorate their individual sense of national and panethnic identities, and challenge
the cultural borders of both U.S. society and their respective ancestral homelands.
[ 80 ]
Some portions of this essay first appeared in Chapter 4 of Acosta-Belén et al.
(2000). The information has been revised and updated.
The terms Neorican and Nuyorican have been frequently used to identify Puerto
Ricans born or raised in the United States, although at the beginning they carried some
negative connotations. Traditionally, ethnic groups in U.S. society identify themselves
by a hyphenated version of their nationality and the term American (e.g. Mexican-
American, Cuban-American). However, historically, Puerto Ricans have rejected this
form of identification. Thus there is not a single generalized rubricthat as of yet identifies
U.S. Puerto Ricans from those on the island. The acceptance of the term Nuyorican has
been limited to a particular group of writers and artists, although it has been occasionally
used to refer to U.S. Puerto Ricans in general. Puerto Rican and Boricua are still the
most frequently used terms to identify Puerto Ricans on the island and abroad.
Some of the Spanish translations published include:
Cuando era puertorriqueña
(New York: Vintage, 1994),
El sueño de América
(New York: Vintage, 1997), and
Casi una mujer
(New York: Vintage, 1999) by Esmeralda Santiago; and the novel
La línea del sol
(Río Piedras:
Editorial Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1999), and the collection of poetry and narrative,
Bailando en silencio
(Houston: Arte Púbico Press, 1997) by Judith Ortiz Cofer.
In 1999, the theme of the annual Christmas musical TV show and videotape
sponsored by the Banco Popular de Puerto Rico was
Con la música por dentro
(San Juan:
Banco Popular, 1999).
A musical competition between
—those who favored salsa music—and
—those more involved with rock music—was promoted by Puerto Rico’s media
for many years. This separation in musical tastes was also a separation along class and
racial lines. The cocolos or
were usually dark-skinned and from the working
class. The term cocolo is commonly used in New York by Latinos to refer to African
Americans. See the documentary film
Cocolos y Rockeros
by Ana García.
La Marketa is a produce market located in Spanish Harlem. The place recreates
the concept of a traditional Plaza del Mercado or produce market in Puerto Rico.
The term “Rican-constructions” was coined by visual artist Juan Sánchez as the
title of one of his exhibitions.
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