Delivered April 21st, 2015
at the Cultural Equity Group town hall
The Riverside Theater, New York, NY
Panel: Equity and Diversity in Action
I am speaking to you today as a poet. As a writer and editor, an educator and events curator. I am speaking as an independent artist; moreover: as a Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Latino artist.
I believe in the utility of art—the ability of the visual, the auditory, the written—to fundamentally transform the world. Simple as that. The Puerto Rican poet Klemente Soto Velez once said that to be a poet is to master the exterior order, by mastering one’s interior order. Another way to say that is, to know the world, you must first know yourself; in another way, you must become the change you want to see. This is the essence of cultural equity: to give all artists, of all representations, the opportunity to do no less than change the world.
To bequeath this awareness of self, through the arts, is to assume the mantle of the cultural worker. A poet (and by poet, I mean in the Baldwinesque sense of creator) puts the flesh back into the syntax of written language, connects one witness or many to the rest of humanity. In communities of color, fundamental disconnections from our humanity have resulted in continued cycles of violence, poverty, and displacement, through both internal and external pathologies.
Reconnecting ourselves to our cultural traditions, to our literature and our visual art and our theater, allows us to express doubtlessly our hopes, our fears, our grievances; our desires to change the society and our selves. The cultural worker, the poet, brings communities and artists of color to the realization that theirs, too, is an American story—complicated, necessary, multilingual, and multicultural. A realization like this gives us the strength to straighten our own backs.
A Puerto Rican storyteller and librarian named Pura Belpré brought tales of Puerto Rico to children in El Barrio and the South Bronx. This is a tradition continued by the independent storyteller and historian Bobby Gonzalez—from whom I learned about Pura Belpré.
The Nuyorican Poets Café on the Lower East Side is a literary institution and multicultural theatre space, founded with the intent to bring pluralism and multilingual expression to theater and poetry. It started life in a bar. Thirty years after its founding, the project I co-founded and directed for ten years, Acentos, began operating out of a bar in the South Bronx, a stone’s throw from the Mott Haven branch of the Public Library, where Pura Belpré often held court. Acentos was a reading series, a workshop, and a literary journal (still operating today) that brought Latino/a writers from across the nation to the Bronx, and it became a respected catalyst for the current renaissance of Latino literature nationally, despite the various attempts to squash it.
And not far from El Puente, the legendary community service and educational organization founded by Luis Garden Acosta and Frances Lucerna in Los Sures (Williamsburg, Brooklyn), there is now a thriving School of Poetic Arts, run by two Boricua poets named Jani Rosado and Juan Papo Santiago. The school’s mission is to bring affordable, world class instruction in writing and performance to artists of all ages and skill levels—in direct response, I think, to Junot Diaz’s recent critique of MFA creative writing programs.
You cannot write the full history of American literature without acknowledging the contributions of Puerto Rican writers and thinkers in New York. The sustained efforts of independent artists, curators, educators, and cultural workers of color in New York City, have altered the American cultural landscape. These movements were supported by community-run, community-led institutions, from the Umbra Writers to the Harlem Writers’ Guild, the Tribes Gallery to Taller Boricua, Agüeybana Bookstore to La Casa Azul.
We have forced new conversations within the centers of American art. And those of us who continue to teach these traditions have done so, largely, on a shoestring.
If I had to tell you what cultural equity should look like, if it was a person I could speak to, I would say it should, without question, be supporting organizations and programs such as these. I can think of three ways:
1) by providing real stipends to the artists who run them, on time and with a minimum of red tape, as any arts professional would expect;
2) by respecting the contributions of artists, often lifelong and ceaseless, regardless of that artist’s seating within academia or the traditional channels of funding. I don’t know many of our elders in the Nuyorican movement who have MFA’s. But they taught us a lot. They continue to teach us a lot. They are not museum pieces. They are here, they are with us.
3) giving continued space and support to community institutions to document their contributions in written form. The quickest way to erase a people is to tear up its literature.
Cultural equity and reinvestment imagines artists as part of the community, not as recipients of charity, or as mere entertainers. Cultural equity honors the deep contributions of artists of color to the landscape of the city, and the nation. Imagine a scenario where Langston Hughes would be forced to leave Harlem due to unsustainable rent. This is the situation we are faced with. This is the situation we must correct.
We have the chance to create and teach and sustain art with our own faces visible within it. We must continue to support artists inside their communities, continue their traditions, and continue to plant the seeds of self-worth and self-awareness in our kids, who after all, are killing each other–are being killed by the thousands. We change communities this way. We change ourselves this way. But all great change must first be imagined. Let our policies here in the city support imagination for all.