Example of the parades of Puerto Rican migrants to New York. Photo Center for Puerto Rican Studies, CUNY, Hunter College.
The writings of the pioneers
During the first half of the 20th century, the literary production of the Puerto Rican population in the United States, which lived mainly in New York City in those decades, was quite limited. The scarcity of published literary works is not surprising, considering that in 1910 the Puerto Rican population in the United States was a little less than 2,000 people. However, it was during that decade that the Puerto Rican migration to the New York urban area marked the beginning of a new stage of continual growth, in particular after 1917, the date when Congress granted U.S. citizenship to residents of Puerto Rico and their descendants. By the census of 1920, the population had reached nearly 12,000 people and it again increased considerably by 1930 to 53,000, more than four times as many as a decade earlier. This was the preamble to a massive migration after the end of World War II in 1945 and during the following decades, which was known as the Great Migration. Since then, migration from the Island to the United States has followed a pattern of continuous and notable growth. In 2003, the Puerto Rican population in the diaspora finally surpassed that in Puerto Rico. According to the 2020 census, the Island population fell to 3.3 million and the number of Puerto Ricans in the United States rose to 5.8 million.
The increase in the migration from the Island was the main source of the Puerto Rican population’s growth in 1920 and later decades. This period, in particular, shows the transition of a relatively small Puerto Rican colony in New York City into a much larger community, fully involved in developing its own social, cultural, economic and political networks and establishing its own institutions, organizations and small businesses. During those early decades, community newspapers and magazines and radio shows in Spanish tried to promote the cultures, community ties and possible alliances among the diverse Hispanic groups to develop the wellbeing of the respective communities in New York City. At that time, Puerto Ricans were the largest Hispanic population group, followed by Spaniards and Cubans, although since the 19th century, the city has received immigrants and visitors from all Spanish-speaking nationalities, especially after the wars of independence erupted in the Spanish colonies in the Americas (1808 to 1825), except in Cuba and Puerto Rico.
From the 1860s until the beginning of the Spanish-America War in 1898, those who supported independence for the two islands, the remaining colonies of the Spanish empire in the Americas, were forced into exile and took refuge in New York and other cities in the United States and other countries. The exiles from Puerto Rico in those years became known as “the pilgrims of freedom” (Ojeda Reyes 1998). Many of them took part in the activities of separatist organizations in the New York area. The first round of Puerto Rican separatists who arrived in the city in the 1860s included, among others, two doctors, José Francisco Basora, originally from Mayagüez, and Ramón Emeterio Betances, originally from Cabo Rojo, along with a landowner from Hormigueros, Segundo Ruiz Belvis. In New York, Basora was one of the founders of the Republican Society of Cuba and Puerto Rico in 1865 and editor of the separatist newspaper “La voz de América” (1865-1867). Shortly after the arrival in New York of Betances and Ruiz Belvis in 1867, the three, along with other separatist Puerto Rican patriots, founded the Revolutionary Committee of Puerto Rico. During his short time in the city, Betances and his fellow separatists issued a call for Cubans and Puerto Ricans to work together in concert for the freedom of the islands and Antillean unity. They began raising money and seeking support to send a shipment of arms and supplies to separatists who were planning a revolution. The plot was originally planned for September 29 in Camuy, but it had to be moved up to September 23 and was launched in Lares. Called the Grito de Lares, the uprising was squashed by Spanish troops the following day, while the Grito de Yara in Cuba on October 10 marked the beginning of an armed struggle for independence known as the Ten Years War (1868 to 1878).
In the autumn of 1869, Eugenio María de Hostos, a native of Mayagüez, moved from Madrid, where he had been studying, to New York, to join the separatist movement. During his stay, Hostos published several articles in the newspaper “Revolución,” founded in 1870. In his writing, he denounced Spanish colonialism, defended his revolutionary ideas for an Antillean confederation and expressed his strong rejection of the possibility of annexation of the islands to the United States.
A second round of freedom pilgrims to the New York area during the following decades included workers in the tobacco and typography fields, as well as journalists and men and women of literature, who also joined the separatist movement and published essays and poems in the Spanish-language periodicals of the era. Between 1889 and early 1890s, typographers, journalists and writers Sotero Figueroa (1851-1923) and Francisco Gonzalo (Pachín) Marín (1863-1897) also moved to New York. Figueroa collaborated with Cuban leader José Martí to publish the newspaper “Patria,” founded in 1892 and printed in the print shop Figueroa had established in 1889, shortly after his arrival to the city. Figueroa also wrote some of the editorials for “Patria,” in addition to a series of articles about the Puerto Rican struggle for freedom. Pachín Marín, who was also a poet, published “El postillón” in New York for a while. It was a newspaper he had started in Puerto Rico that was censored by the Spanish colonial government. During the short time he lived in New York, he published some of his revolutionary poems and articles in “Patria” and “El postillón,” as well as an essay, “Inside New York: A Face of its Bohemian Life” in “La Gaceta del Pueblo” in 1892. This forgotten essay was recovered a century later.
The poet Lola Rodríguez de Tió (1843-1924) and her husband, journalist Bonocio Tió, were forced to leave the Island two times, from 1877 to 1880 and again in 1887. In the second exile, the couple settled in Cuba. They moved to New York for a while in 1892 and collaborated with the pro-independence movement, before returning to Cuba that same year. In 1895 they were forced by the Spanish authorities to leave Cuba and they again settled in the New York area, where they continued to support the islands’ struggle for freedom. Rodríguez de Tió published several of her revolutionary poems in “Patria.” Her emblematic verse, “Cuba and Puerto Rico are/Two wings of one bird/They receive flowers or bullets/In the same heart” from her poem “To Cuba” was embraced by those who promoted freedom and brotherhood for the two islands. The poet was also part of the leadership and activities in the women’s clubs that helped raise funds to send supplies to the rebel army in Cuba. Less than a year after the U.S. invasion of Cuba and Puerto Rico, the poet and her husband returned to Cuba in 1899, where they spent the rest of their lives.
Another Puerto Rican who emigrated to New York in 1891 was Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (1874-1938). As a youth, Schomburg worked in a print shop in San Juan and had friends in the artisanry circles on the Island who connected him with Puerto Rican artisans in New York City. One of those was Flor Baerga, a pro-independence cigar maker who lived in New York for several decades. He led Schomburg to join the separatist organizations and activities, including the Two Antilles Club, which he served as secretary for four years. At the end of the war in 1898 and, as a result of the separatist activities in New York, Schomburg dedicated the rest of his life to collecting and studying books, documents and artifacts of African and African-descendant cultures in the Americas and other parts of the world. In 1925, his collection was acquired by the New York Public Library, which established the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture. Schomburg published magazine articles about the cultural contributions of writers and artists of African descent in a variety of countries and promoted academic research and study of those cultures.
In this setting, Puerto Rican men and women writers produced stories, poems, essays, novel chapters, articles, and columns in the Spanish-language magazines and newspapers, which usually had very limited circulation. In general, at that time and up until the second half of the 20th century, the well-known U.S. publishing houses did not show much interest in the literature of Puerto Rican authors, or Hispanic writers in general, whether they wrote in Spanish or English, because they believed there was not a broad and lucrative market of readers interested in their writing. This was the common explanation the publishers gave for the lack of interest in literature by authors of other races and ethnicities. To a large degree, the presence of Puerto Ricans in U.S. society and their literary work were also ignored by their compatriots. The reading public of literary publications in Spanish mostly came from the professional sector, a population with high educational levels, not the migrants of the working class, who mostly came to New York during the Great Migration of the 20th century. Some of the artisanal workers organizations also published small periodicals or bulletins.
Although the Puerto Rican migration continued growing throughout the 20th century and into the new millennium, by then several generations of Puerto Ricans had been born or raised in the United States. The majority of them spoke English as their first language and their Spanish language abilities and their relationships to the Island were limited. Until the 1970s, the educational system and U.S. society in general openly promoted cultural and linguistic assimilation among the ethno-racial groups of the so-called “melting pot” of the white, Anglo-Saxon U.S. society and devalued or tried to suppress the cultures and languages of the immigrants of other races. These positions are still promoted by some sectors of the population.
The new generations of writers in the diaspora (1970 to 2020)
Literary development and the founding of Puerto Rican cultural groups and institutions entered a growth stage in the 1950s and accelerated in later decades. It was not until the 1970s, when Puerto Rican studies programs and departments were created at universities affiliated with the City University of New York (CUNY) and State University of New York (SUNY) systems and at Rutgers University in New Jersey that the literature and art of authors and artists of the diaspora began to be recognized by critics and academic scholars and be incorporated into the curricula of schools and universities. The founding of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies in 1973, affiliated with Hunter College, CUNY, began and encouraged a process of finding, recovering and disseminating the literary, artistic and historical legacies of the Puerto Rican communities in New York and other cities, as well as creating a library and acquiring numerous collections that today are part of the Puerto Rican Migration Archives.
In the various stages of its evolution, the literature of the diaspora showed different trends. As mentioned, it was not until the 1970s that the influence of the civil rights movement and the new laws approved by the U.S. Congress in 1964 aimed at protecting the rights of what were then called the minority groups led to greater awareness of related issues and a cultural movement of ethnic and racial revitalization that fully reflected the literary and artistic expressions of these sectors of the population.
The “Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Project” (also known as the Recovery Project), was begun in 1990 by prominent Puerto Rican researcher and editor Nicolás Kanellos. Kanellos, the Brown Foundation Professor of Literature at the University of Houston, was the founding director of Arte Público Press in 1979 and cofounder and editor of the magazine “Revista Chicano-Riqueña” (1972-1999). These initiatives contributed greatly to rescuing the literature of Hispanic authors who had been ignored for many years and the reprinting of works that had been inaccessible, written in Spanish or in English. Some works were published during the Spanish colonial era that began in the 16th century in the territories of North America that later became part of the United States. The Recovery Project also included literature published in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Meanwhile, Arte Público Press concentrated its efforts on promoting the publication of the first literary works by Puerto Rican, Chicano and Cuban authors who were born or raised in the United States and wrote mainly in English. They were joined, some years later, by writers of other nationalities. The development of written literature mainly in English accelerated during the 1980s and 1990s and has continued to grow since then. From the time it was founded until today, Arte Público has continued to promote the publication of literary works by new generations of Hispanic writers. The literature of the Puerto Rican diaspora is also an integral part of U.S. Latino literature and what is conventionally known as American literature.
The authors whose first works were published by Arte Público Press and other publishers began to tell their individual stories and experiences and those of their respective communities, along with the challenges, difficulties and prejudices other races and ethnicities faced in a society that favored white supremacy, the English language and Anglo culture. A large number of these writers produced important works that won prizes or critical acclaim and public popularity, which increased the interest by other, better known publishing houses in publishing their works. Another important factor that contributed to the growing interest in this new literature was the accelerating increase in the Hispanic population from the 1970s to the 2000s. In 2004, this population was about 41 million and finally surpassed the African American population. In the census of 2020, Latinos increased to around 61 million and it is estimated that number will reach about 106 million, approximately 25% of the total U.S. population, by 2050.
Since the 1990s, the term “Latino” began to become popular for identifying Hispanics. It was used officially by the U.S. Census in 2000, which has since used the category Hispanic/Latino to collectively identify the sector. The growth of this population during these decades was propelled by a high level of immigration to the United States by young people from various Latin American nations and by Puerto Rican migration. The migration from the Island increased notably during the 1980s and continued its growth in the 1990s and during the first decades of the new millennium.
The joint efforts of scholars, activists, and residents of the various Puerto Rican communities also facilitated the rescue and reconstruction of the historical and cultural legacy of the diaspora, which predates the Great Migration of the middle of the 20th century.
The recovered writings of the pioneer migrants
As a result of the collective intellectual work mentioned above, some forgotten or unknown works that documented the experiences and work of the first wave of “pioneer migrants” that settled in New York and other cities from the late 19th century into the early 20th century began to be published. The task of uncovering, contextualizing, editing and publishing the literary legacy of that period began to show up in publications in the following decades. Among the most important works of the last fifty years was the book published under the title “Memorias de Bernardo Vega: Contribución a la historia de la comunidad puertorriqueña en New York” (1977; English edition, 1983), edited by Puerto Rican writer and journalist César Andreu Iglesias, a good friend of the author of the original manuscript, a tobacco artisan from Cayey, Bernardo Vega (1885-1965). Vega arrived in New York in 1916 and lived in the city for nearly three decades before returning to Puerto Rico in the middle of the 1940s.
Two of Vega’s fellow Cayey natives, the brothers Joaquín Colón (1896-1864) and Jesús Colón (1901-1974), also landed in New York in 1917 and 1918, respectively, and participated in the founding of several cultural, social and political community organizations. Both left behind an abundant legacy of journalistic articles and diaries that present a broad panorama of the lives, experiences and work of the pioneer migrants from the Island. The legacy of Jesús Colón includes his book of stories, “A Puerto Rican in New York and Other Sketches” (1961; reprinted in 1982), a collection of essays and historical accounts, “The Way it Was and Other Writings” (1993), edited by Edna Acosta-Belén and Virginia Sánchez Korrol; and the anthology of journalism columns, “Lo que el pueblo me dice” (2001), edited by Edwin Karli Padilla Aponte. This volume contains works published in the Spanish-language newspapers of New York, “Gráfico” (from 1927 to 1928), “Pueblos hispanos” (from 1943 to 1944), and “Liberación” (in 1946), among others. Many journalistic essays and stories by Jesús Colón still remain in other community publications. The work of Joaquín Colón, “Pioneros de New York, 1917-1947” (2001), along with that of his brother, has been very important for understanding the social, cultural and political history of the Puerto Ricans in the New York City area. Jesús Colón was the only writer of that era who published many articles and reports in English. The majority of these works and others by writers not mentioned here were rescued from various newspapers and magazines in Spanish and, in some cases, in English, and compiled in anthologies, along with some works that were reprinted. Many articles by these authors can be found in the microfilm of periodicals from their era.
During the years of the Great Migration, several well-known Island writers lived in New York. Some came to study at the universities and others took refuge in the city for political reasons, whether because they were under surveillance by Island authorities for their nationalist or pro-independence affiliations or for being members of socialist or communist organizations. In those years, several writers from the Island who lived in New York wrote works in Spanish about the lives of Puerto Rican migrants. Among the best-known authors were José Luis González (1926-1996), René Marqués (1919-1979), Pedro Juan Soto (1928-2002), and Emilio Díaz Valcárcel, writers of the so-called 1950s generation in Puerto Rico. González wrote the short novel “Paisa” (1950), as well as short stories such as “En Neuva York” (1948) and “El Pasaje” (1953) and others that were collected in his book “En Neuva York y otras desgracias” (1973). Some of the author’s stories have endings that accent the desperation and the tragic circumstances of the needy migrants. The dramatic work “La carreta” (1955) by Marqués also ends in a tragic way, with the death of one of the main characters and the decision by the family to return to the island they left when they decided to emigrate to New York. The book of stories “Spiks” (1956) and the novel “Ardiente fuego, fría estación” (1961) by Soto, introduced to readers on the island the lives of alienation lived by Puerto Ricans in New York, trying to survive in an environment permeated with racial and ethnic prejudices, questioning their identity and facing conditions of poverty that battered the Puerto Rican population in that time.
In general, these authors shared a more distanced vision of the New York Puerto Rican community, as writers from the Island whose stay in the city was temporary. Therefore, they sometimes emphasized the tragic aspects of the migrants’ lives, or in some cases they reproached them for abandoning their home, their cultural values and their language. The play “La carreta,” for example, inspired Tato Laviera, one of the most outstanding Nuyorican poets, to adopt the title “La Carreta Made a U-Turn” (1979) for one of his books of poetry. The author wanted to show that for those generations of Puerto Ricans born or raised in the United States, the option of returning to the Island was not viable, as their lives were rooted in New York or other cities and, in most cases, although they had some facility in Spanish, their main language was English, in addition to varying degrees of acculturation into U.S. society.
The literature of the diaspora written in English: The Nuyorican poets
As noted, before the 1970s, most of the literature by Puerto Ricans who migrated to the United States was written mainly in Spanish, with a few exceptions. For example, poet Julia de Burgos (1914-1953), who lived in New York during the 1940s and until her death in 1953, wrote a few of her last poems in English. Journalist and community activist Jesús Colón, who moved to New York in 1917 and lived in the city until his death in 1974, wrote many articles in English and Spanish that were unknown until the 1980s and 1990s. Without question, for a long time New York City was the center of the Puerto Rican population and the literature and art of the diaspora. Literary production was boosted by the Nuyorican poetry movement. The term was popularized in the 1970s to refer to the generations of Puerto Ricans born or raised in New York. During those years, several Puerto Rican poets also emerged in Chicago and wrote for new magazines such as “The Rican,” the “Revista Chicano-Riqueña” and “Bilingual Review.” Since then, other communities have created their own names to identify with their city or place of origin or residence (for example, Chicagoricans, Orlandoricans). The term Diasporican is now used more often to collectively describe the Puerto Rican population in the diaspora in the United States.
The literature produced by the founding authors and others associated with the Nuyorican poetry movement was characterized by their tendency to focus on the diverse experiences of the Puerto Rican population and its struggles against racism, segregation, poverty and unequal treatment it received in U.S. society. The authors have emphasized questions of cultural identity, trying to define the tensions and negotiations between the Puerto Rican culture and Spanish, and a dominant society that promotes assimilation into the white, Anglo U.S. culture and the use of English. Some of those writers have been cultural explorers moving between the world of the Island and the communities of the diaspora. Others celebrate their cultural and linguistic hybridity and the differences between the Island and U.S. cultures.
In part, Nuyorican poetry also reflects the lives of adolescents and young adults — mostly male — growing up in the “mean streets” of the barrios. It was initially described as “outlaw poetry,” rooted in the experience of the streets. In stylistic terms, this group of poets often used colloquial language, characterized by a mix of English and Spanish (Spanglish), the practice of alternating between the linguistic codes of both languages (code switching), and the use of the slang and sometimes profanity of the streets to emphasize the hard realities and experiences of the marginalized communities. As a poetry movement, these authors also popularized “performance poetry”— poetry presented or read on stage ̶ often accompanied by music and scenery, aimed at captivating the live audience and bringing them into their works.
The founding poets of this movement, which arose from the literary discussion in the Lower East Side apartment of poet and Rutgers University professor Miguel Algarín, established the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in 1973. This institution still exists today in New York City. The poets of this movement also became known in literary circles after the publication of the anthology “Nuyorican Poetry: An Anthology of Puerto Rican Words and Feelings” (1975), edited by Miguel Algarín and Miguel Piñero, and when they began to publish their respective collections of poetry. Included in “Nuyorican Poetry” were some of the most recognized and prolific poets of the previous decades. In addition to Algarín and Piñero, the anthology includes poems by Pedro Pietri, Sandra María Esteves, José Ángel Figueroa, and Jesús “Papoleto” Meléndez, among others. Some of the individual works of these poets were published by recognized U.S. publishing houses; others by Arte Público Press, Bilingual Review Press, or independent presses focused on the arts. Two other outstanding Nuyorican poets from this period were Víctor Hernández Cruz and Tato Laviera. Several works by Hernández Cruz were published by U.S. publishers while Laviera’s work was mostly published by Arte Público Press.
Among other talented poets of this era who lived in the United States and cities other than New York were Martín Espada, Magdalena Gómez, Aurora Levins Morales, Judith Ortiz Cofer and Luz María Umpierre-Herrera. The work of these poets is distinguished by their feminist perspectives and focus on the diverse experiences of women and the conditions of oppression that surrounded them. In the case of Umpierre-Herrera, her book of poetry, “The Margarita Poems” (1987) was one of the precursors of LGBTQ literature by U.S. Latino authors. These poets also focused on themes of what it meant to be Puerto Rican in the U.S. society and social and racial validation of oppressed sectors, and offered anti-colonial and emancipating perspectives.
Selected poems by these authors have been included in numerous anthologies of U.S. Latino literature. Two of the best-known are “Herencia: The Anthology of Hispanic Literature of the United States” (2003) and the “Norton Anthology of Latino Literature” (2010), along with several others, including anthologies of American literature.
The post-Nuyorican period
New generations of Puerto Rican poets in New York emerged in the 1990s and subsequent decades. Poet and literary critic Urayoán Noel refers to the poetry of this period as the post-Nuyorican stage. Several of these poets have also been associated with the Nuyorican Poets Cafe or participated in its popular “spoken word” or “slam poetry” competitions that often helped propel or drag down the careers of the author-performers. In general, it is a style of poetry to be performed for an audience orally, without necessarily following traditional poetic structures or conventions. In this sense, it is often characterized as “free-form poetry,” related to the genre of “performance poetry.” Poets such as Willie Perdomo, María Teresa (Mariposa) Fernández, and Urayoán Noel, among others, have distinguished themselves in this field. A number of poets of more recent generations have transcended the New York-centric focus of Nuyorican poetry and became known for linguistic and presentation experimentation, such as Edwin Torres, author the books of poetry “Fractured Humorous” (1999), “Ameriscopia” (2014) and several other works. Meanwhile, poet Aracelis Girmay, has been recognized in U.S. poetry circles and deserves greater attention from scholars of U.S. Latino and Puerto Rican literature. Girmay was born and raised in Southern California and she has emphasized the importance of her Eritrean, Puerto Rican and African American descent in her writing. In general, her poetry has tried to emphasize the African diasporic experience and racialized identities in U.S. society. Her collection of poems, “Kingdom Animalia” (2011) was a finalist for the American Book Award and another more recent work, “The Black Maria” (2016), received the Whiting Award for Poetry.
In Chicago, Café Teatro Batey Urbano, founded in 2005, has been an important center for participants and fans of “performance poetry” in that city. Since the 1970s, the Nuyorican poetry movement has dominated the attention of critics and the reading public and has also brought attention to writers in other cities and states. One of the Puerto Rican poets and playwrights in Chicago whose work has not received the recognition it deserves was Rane Arroyo (1954-2010). This gay writer is also an example of the lack of interest scholars have taken in LGBTQ literature by Puerto Rican authors. The collection “Same Sex Séances” (2008) by Arroyo exemplifies the erotic, irreverent and defiant nature of some of his poems. In addition to writing ten collections of poetry, Arroyo wrote many theatrical works. Some were compiled in the volume “Dancing at Funerals: Selected Plays” (2010). In 2015, Arroyo was posthumously recognized with his induction into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.
Coming of age narratives (Bildungsroman)
One of the literary genres that contributed to a wave of works focused on the lives and experiences of their authors or characters in various ethnic and racial communities in New York or other urban centers were the “Bildungsroman” novels about growing up. These works became popular with some of the large U.S. publishing houses beginning in the late 1960s and on. Since then, a large number of works by U.S. Latino authors, including Puerto Ricans, have been published. In general, this genre includes autobiographical novels or memoirs and fiction based on the lives of the authors, who create characters to represent many of their own experiences.
The Bildungsroman genre launched the literary careers of some of the most celebrated writers of the diaspora. The autobiographical novels of Piri Thomas (1928-2011) “Down these Mean Streets” (1967), “Savior, Savior, Hold My Hand” (1973), and “Seven Long Times” (1974), inspired by earlier similar works by African American authors such as Richard Wright and Claude Brown, opened the way for literature from diverse ethnic and racial communities. In the case of Piri Thomas, it was the experiences of a Puerto Rican of African descent born and raised in New York during the crisis of the Great Depression that began in 1929. In his three autobiographical novels, Thomas describes his wayward youth on the mean streets of Spanish Harlem, his drug addiction, his participation in robberies and acts of violence and his sentencing to seven years in the infamous Sing Sing prison north of New York City. After he was released, Thomas focused on his rehabilitation and his desire to put his life on a productive course. He got a job in a community youth counseling agency and began to reflect on and write about the experiences of his earlier life. After becoming known as a writer, he became a motivational speaker, as well as offering dramatic readings of his poetry and other writings. One of his most popular projects was a documentary about his life, “Every Child is Born a Poet: The Life and Work of Piri Thomas” (2003).
Another Puerto Rican writer of the Bildungsroman genre was Edward Rivera (1944-2001), author of “Family Installments: Memories of Growing Up Hispanic” (1982). In this work, the author creates a fictional character to try to reconcile the two cultural and linguistic worlds of his childhood and adult life, a situation that began when Rivera was seven years old and his parents decided to emigrate to the Barrio in New York. In this work, the main character, after graduation from high school and beginning his college education, faces the illness of his father and the decision by his parents to return to Puerto Rico. Shortly thereafter, when he returns to the Island for his father’s funeral, he realizes that he feels like a foreigner in his own land and recognizes that he has become a Nuyorican.
The initial male-focused versions of the Bildungsroman genre inspired women writers to produce their own versions of their experiences, which in general were not connected to the mean streets of their communities. However, these women often showed a spirit of resilience in the face of machismo, homophobia, domestic violence and the racial prejudice of their own communities, as well as the discrimination and inequalities that afflicted the lives and identities of Puerto Ricans in U.S. society. Writers such as Nicholasa Mohr (born 1938) in her novel “Nilda” (1973), and Judith Ortiz Cofer (1952-2016) in “The Line of the Sun” (1989), created fiction novels with many autobiographical elements. Mohr was raised in El Barrio and Ortiz Cofer in Patterson, New Jersey, which at the time was one of the cities with the highest Puerto Rican concentrations in the state. In these novels, both authors introduce the challenges and trials faced by their respective characters and several generations of Puerto Rican women in the community and society around them. These perspectives come from their family lives, school days, and their transitions from childhood to adolescence and adulthood, then finally their concerns, artistic creativity and other factors that led them to their literary careers. In Mohr’s case, she worked for a while in the graphic arts and later in literature. She wrote works for adults, as well as young adult and children’s literature. Several of her books include her own illustrations. Meanwhile, Ortiz Cofer had more contact with the Island during her youth, as her father was a merchant marine and her mother often returned with her and her brother to the home of her grandmother in Puerto Rico when her father was away for months due to work. It was in her grandmother’s house in Hormigueros that Ortiz Cofer learned the storytelling art that led to her desire to become a writer. Her last novel, “The Cruel Country” (2016), autobiographical in nature, recreates the time she spent in the town of her birth during the illness and death of her mother. This was her last trip to the Island, as her life was cut short by liver cancer a year after her novel was published. The writer was the Franklin Professor of English and creative literature at the University of Georgia for nearly 30 years and in 2013 was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.
In the case of Esmeralda Santiago (born 1948), this outstanding author spent a large part of her childhood in Puerto Rico and her literary inclinations developed after her adolescence and her university studies in the United States. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she returned to the island to work for a while until she decided to move to Boston. She began writing articles for newspapers and magazines before beginning a series of autobiographical novels. The first, “When I Was Puerto Rican” (1983), relates her family life in Puerto Rico until her mother decided to move with her eleven children to Brooklyn in New York. The novel received good reviews. The sequel, “Almost a Woman” (1998) and “The Turkish Lover: A Memoir” (2004), also autobiographical in nature, tell the transition from adolescence to adulthood and the personal, educational and professional experiences that contributed to her literary development.
Even in more recent times, Puerto Rican writers have continued to write successful novels and memoirs in the Bildungsroman genre. Among the most successful is the first novel by Justin Torres (born 1980) “We, the Animals” (2018), based on the story of the author and his two brothers. Both are sons of a biracial family with a Puerto Rican father and an American mother. The brothers grow up in an environment of domestic violence and prejudices as residents of an isolated rural community in western New York state. This work was a finalist for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in literature.
Another important example are the memoirs of Quiara Alegría Hudes (born 1977), “My Broken Language: A Memoir” (2021), winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Born and raised in Philadelphia with a Puerto Rican mother and Jewish father, Alegría Hudes studied classical music composition at Yale University. She is also the author of the book “In the Heights” (2005), which served as the basis of the script of the musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda. She also wrote the script for the movie based on this work, which premiered in 2021.
The playwrights and theaters
During the first half of the 20th century, theatrical works in Spanish hit the marquees of the Hispanic theaters of Harlem, often combined with movies from Mexico, Argentina or Spain, as well as Hollywood movies with Spanish subtitles. Other sites were also made available for music and theater performances. Local artists who lived on the Island often organized tours to New York and various Latin American countries.
Another main site for theatrical and artistic performances was the Park Palace in East Harlem. It was there that Puerto Rican jazz arose during the Harlem Renaissance (in the 1920s and 1930s). Puerto Rican playwright Gonzalo O’Neill, who moved to New York in the 1920s, was one of the few writers from that time whose works appeared on the marquee of the Park Palace and other community theaters. His works “La indiana borinqueña” (1922), “Moncho Reyes” (1923), and “Pabellón de Borinquen: Bajo una sola bandera” (1934) are among the best-known. Puerto Rican feminist Franca de Armiño, a tobacco worker who was president of the Peoples Feminist Association in Puerto Rico and wrote several articles in the workers’ newspapers “Justicia” and “Unión obrera,” settled in New York in the late 1920s. She wrote a few articles in the newspaper “Gráfico,” edited by Bernardo Vega, as well as a play, “Los hipócritas” (1937). It was presented at the Park Palace and later was forgotten for more than half a century before it was recovered by researchers associated with the Recovery Project.
Motivated by a desire to bring the theater to Puerto Rican and Hispanic communities in New York City, stage, movie and television artist Miriam Colón (1936-2017), founded the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater (PRTT) in New York in 1967 in the Manhattan theater district. The PRTT became one of the best-known artistic institutions in the Puerto Rican community in the city and for more than four decades numerous works by writers from Puerto Rico and other nations have been presented on its stage. One of the first works was “La carreta” by the prominent Island playwright René Marqués, a work about the theme of the migration that was originally shown in New York in 1953, before it premiered in Puerto Rico.
The Pregones Theater in the Bronx was founded in 1979 by its artistic director, Rosalba Colón (born 1951), a Puerto Rican. Since then, it has been dedicated to promoting numerous musical and dramatic works in Spanish and in English, focused on the cultures of Puerto Rico and other nationalities in the U.S. Latino population. Four years before Miriam Colón’s death in 2017, she and Rosalba Colón decided to merge their two theatrical institutions. Since then, Pregones/PRTT have offered their performances in both theaters.
Several Puerto Rican playwrights born in the United States have won prizes for their works on Broadway. The most successful to date has been Lin-Manuel Miranda (born 1980). Miranda wrote the music and lyrics and was also the star of the Broadway musical “In the Heights,” which won the prestigious Tony Award in 2008. The script was based on a novel of the same title by Quiara Alegría Hudes. Miranda’s second big musical production was “Hamilton,” for which he also wrote the script and music and performed in for several years. The work won the Tony Award in 2015. Both have also been made into movies; “Hamilton” in 2020, “In the Heights” in 2021.
Playwright José Rivera (born 1955) has had a prolific production since the publication and success of his first dramatic work, “The House of Ramón Iglesia,” based on his own history and the story of his family as Puerto Ricans in the United States. The work was made into a movie by the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). His two dramatic works, “Marisol” (1994) and “References to Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot” (2003), received the Obie Award, given to the best off-Broadway plays. Rivera wrote the script for the Hollywood film “The Motorcycle Diaries,” based on the youth of the famous guerrilla Che Guevara. The author was nominated for the Oscar prize in the category for the best movie script of 2004.
The work “La Gringa” (1996) by playwright Carmen Rivera (born 1964) focuses on the dilemmas of a Puerto Rican in the diaspora trying to define her identity, because on the Island she is considered an Americanized gringa and not a true Puerto Rican and she is not considered a true American in the United States. The work won the Obie Award and was performed for many years. Another of Rivera’s most recognized works is “Julia: Child of Water,” based on the life of poet Julia de Burgos. The play premiered in 1999 and was published in 2014.
Before winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2021 for the book of memoirs “My Broken Language: A Memoir,” mentioned above, the renowned author Quiara Alegría Hudes also won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for her theatrical work “Water by the Spoonful.” As of 2021, she is the only Puerto Rican writer to win this prestigious prize two times. Her play, “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue” (2007), was also a finalist for the prize. Both works focus on Elliot Ortiz, a Puerto Rican solider who is a veteran of the Iraq War and returns to his family and has to deal with mental health issues caused by post-traumatic stress syndrome that resulted from his experiences in battle.
Anthologies and literary criticism
The literature of the Puerto Ricans in the diaspora has been represented in several general anthologies of authors from various countries who have distinguished themselves in the United States, especially from the countries with larger populations (Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans) and who mostly, though not exclusively, write in English. Some of the most exhaustive of these anthologies of Latino U.S. literature include “The Latino Reader: An American Literary Tradition from 1542 to the Present” (1997), edited by Harold Augenbraum and Margarite Fernández Olmos; “Divided Arrival: Narratives of the Puerto Rican Migration, 1920-1950” (2003), edited by Juan Flores; “Herencia: The Anthology of Hispanic Literature of the United States” (2003), edited by Nicolás Kanellos; and the “Norton Anthology of Latino Literature” (2010), edited by Ilan Stavans. These anthologies include a broad selection of texts by Puerto Rican writers in the diaspora. The bilingual anthology “Breaking Ground: Anthology of Puerto Rican Women Writings in New York 1980-2012” (2012), includes a broad selection of texts by women writers from various generations.
Among the critical studies of the literature of the diaspora and the works of the most outstanding authors are: “In Visible Movement: Nuyorican Poetry from the Sixties to Slam” (2016) by Urayoán Noel; “Writing Off the Hyphen: New Critical Perspectives on the Literature of the Puerto Rican Diaspora” (2008), edited by Carmen Haydée Rivera and José L. Padilla; “Kissing the Mango Tree: Puerto Rican Women Rewriting American Literature” (2002) by Carmen S. Rivera; and “Boricua Literature: A Literary History of the Puerto Rican Diaspora (2001) by Lisa Sánchez González.
Hernández, Carmen Dolores. “Puerto Rican Voices in English: Interviews with Writers”. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997.
Ojeda Reyes, Félix. “Peregrinos de la libertad”. San Juan, PR: Instituto de Estudios del Caribe/Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1992.
Author: Dr. Edna Acosta-Belén
Published: May 15, 2021
Revision: Dr. Lizette Cabrera Salcedo