On Hispanic Heritage Month, the Boricua diaspora through Nuyorican literature

One way to examine the richness and complexity of the decades of Puerto Rican migration to New York City is through its artists.  Here is a look at some of the writers and poets who have left an indelible mark on the history of Boricuas in New York.

In 1967, New York’s literary world was taken by storm by Down These Mean Streets, a memoir that depicted the life of inner-city young men trapped in a vicious cycle of racism, violence, drugs and incarceration. Its author, John Peter “Piri” Thomas (1928-2011)  –born in Harlem to a Puerto Rican mother and a Cuban father—spent time in prison for armed robbery before becoming a writer.

The Boricua diaspora had been documented since the 1900s by Bernardo Vega, Jesús Colón and others, but this was the first time a Puerto Rican author writing in English became both a bestseller and a college must-read. Thomas also set the model for the redemption narrative that underlines the work of younger writers such as Lemon Andersen.

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In the next few years, a series of seminal books captured other aspects of the Puerto Rican New York experience. Nilda , by Nicolasa Mohr (1935), is a coming-of-age novel set in El Barrio during the 1940s and one of the foundations of Latina literature.  Childhood was also explored by Judith Ortiz Coffer (1952) in The Latin Deli (1993).

Poet, playwright, and community activist Jack Agüeros (1934) wrote Dominoes, a collection of short stories portraying everyday life in Spanish Harlem. Edwin Torres (1931), a New York state Supreme Court judge who as a young assistant DA participated in the prosecution of the infamous Sal “The Capeman” Agron , used his knowledge of the criminal underworld to write Carlito’s Way (1975) and its sequel After Hours (1979), which was brought to the big screen by Brian De Palma, with Al Pacino in the leading role.

Edgardo Vega Yunqué, a.k.a. Ed Vega (1936 – 2008), came to New York from Puerto Rico at 13 when his father, a Baptist minister, was called to lead a Spanish-speaking congregation in the Bronx. Dismissive both of magical realism and of what he called “ghetto novel,”  Vega wrote The Comeback (1985), Mendoza’s Dreams (1987) and Casualty Report (1991) and reached mainstream recognition with No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew It Cauze Bill Bailey Ain’t Never Coming Home Again.

Edward Rivera (1944 – 2001) is the author of Family Installments (1982) , an autobiographical account of the Puerto Rican Great Migration. Rivera was also a mentor to Abraham Rodríguez (1961, author of The Boy Without a Flag: Tales of the South Bronx and the novel Spidertown,  as well as  Junot Díaz.

In the area of poetry, in 1969 Víctor Hernández Cruz (1949) became the first Latino poet to be published by a major imprint with Snaps (Random House) . Twelve years later, Life magazine named him one of America’s greatest poets.

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But the Puerto Rican poets most conspicuously identified with the New York City are the Nuyoricans, presided by the Holy Trinity of Pedro Pietri (1944-2004),  Miguel Piñero (1946-1988), and Miguel Algarín (1941)  . They were the founders —among  others —of the Nuyorican Poet’s Café.

Pietri’s first collection of poems, Puerto Rican Obituary (1973)  is an all-time Latino classic. His playful combination of Spanglish, spoken-word poetry, social awareness, and performing art makes Pietri the embodiment of the Nuyorican movement itself.

Since his teens, Piñero had problems with the law; at 24 he landed in Sing Sing. In prison he took a theatre class and developed Short Eyes (1974), the play that launched a brief but intense career. The film Piñero recreates his life and times.

Sandra María Esteves (1948) is the Grandmother of Nuyorican poetry. Originally trained as an artist, her poems delve into her Afro-Caribbean roots, womanhood, and identity.

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Other poets associated with the Nuyorican aesthetic are Louis Reyes Rivera (1945 – 2012), Jesús Papoleto Meléndez (1950), Tato Laviera (1951), and Edwin Torres (1958). They continue to inspire the new generations of Latino writers.


Claudio Iván Remeseira is a New York-based award-winning journalist, writer, and critic. Translator of the Spanish-language on-line section of The Nation and editor of Hispanic New York, an online portal and blog on current events and culture. Editor of Hispanic New York: A Sourcebook (Columbia University Press, 2010), an anthology of essays on the city’s Latino, Latin American & Iberian cultural heritage, and winner of the Latino International Book Award in the category of Best Reference Book in English (2011).

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