Finding Myself in Tato Laviera's Poetry
By: Hector Luis Alamo
Jesús Abraham “Tato” Laviera Sánchez was a poet and a playwright. He was a Nuyorican and an “AmeRícan” from the island.
He was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico in 1950 but it was in Bed-Stuy and the Lower East Side neighborhoods where he learned to get around the seedy, steaming avenues and alleyways. The Church and dancing gave him his first access to the city. Music gave him a cadence for his poetry, which he initially modeled after the work of Puerto Rican poet Luis Palés Matos. He went to Cornell and Brooklyn College but never graduated, later helping inner-city boys like him go to college as director of the “University of the Streets.”
Laviera published five poetry collections during his life, including ‘AmeRícan’ (1985), a classic in American literature. He was a teacher, a mentor, and the Puerto Rican Diaspora’s unofficial poet laureate.
He died on November 1 at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, after being unconscious for much of the year due to advanced diabetes. He was 63.
Now, I’m not a Nuyorican. I’m not from the island. But I know who Tato Laviera was. I knew his words, some of them at least, and they were enough to fill a young Boricua like me with what can only be described as swag, that kind of walking and talking and thinking and feeling which comes from an ocean of pride you’re not supposed to possess.
The poem that introduced me to Tato was “commonwealth.” I vaguely knew what the word meant at the time, but understood the lines immediately. Here was a clandestine message, written in a code that only a few souls could decipher:
“no, not yet, no, not yet
i will not proclaim myself,
a total child of any land,
i’m still in the commonwealth
stage of my life, wondering
what to decide, what to conclude,
what to declare myself.”
Not knowing what Tato looked like, I imagined an older, more experienced me, a me who’d seen shit. I imagined his spirit floating in through the open window of my bedroom to whisper secrets to me from the ceiling. He was telling me about a tiny place called Puerto Rico, about its people, spread across thousands of miles, yearning for the freedom to decide their destiny. This was my yearning too, being a broke negrito. When you’re poor, it’s not really stuff you crave, just options.
It was then I realized that the political status of the island was immutably tied to the spiritual status of its people, and the Diaspora, and of me. Like Puerto Rico, I could accept the status quo, chase the “American Dream” and be disillusioned, or I could choose my own path, one that reflected who I was and who I wasn’t (when I wasn’t lying to myself).
The title poem of ‘AmeRícan’ gave me hope that I could be a part of this experiment in liberty and humanity called “America.” In fact, Tato said I already was part of it, that we are all already part of it, just by virtue of us being here, by going to the store that makes the good sofrito, by figuring out what bar to hit up on Thursday night, by DVRing our favorite shows, by falling in love and breaking up with some fine-ass girl from Logan Square or The Bronx, by going to school, by going to work, by voting, by marching, by catching a Bulls game wearing our D-Rose gear, and by watching Titi prep the pernil. That makes me American, but it isn’t the same kind of American that other people are. I’m different, born different, made different, meant to do different things and see with eyes uniquely my own. Tato didn’t strive to be the kind of American that everyone else strived to be, and neither should I. I’m an AmeRícan, same song but remixed, that new “new generation” shit.
Tato Laviera taught me that being me is okay. It’s better than okay; it’s down as hell. I can think my own thoughts and speak my own words, on the street and in my writing, and to do otherwise would be a betrayal to him, my people, and most important, to myself. He taught me that the weird stuff about me, the stuff I think no else thinks or feels – that’s my juicy parts, that’s the stuff I should cherish and sing through grinning teeth with my head tilted back.
I’m sure his family and loved ones will miss him, but for a young guy like me who didn’t know him personally, there’s really nothing to miss. He still lives through his poetry, still whispers to me from the ceiling, urging me to celebrate the secrets of my soul.