I met Tato Laviera around 1980. For all the decades I knew Tato, I can honestly say he always had a smile and positive things to tell me. When I told him I was working on my first manuscript of poems, he immediately gave useful advice on ways in which I might arrange my book. Without being critical, he took his time to sit with me, to constructively and lovingly guide me.
Tato was a pioneer of the Nuyorican Literary Movement; not only employing English and Spanish languages in his work but mixing the languages themselves to create Spanglish; an innovation in the 1970’s. His first collection of poems was published in 1979. Not simply tackling the publishing industry in the United States; maneuvering around these cartels to get his works published, but doing it as a Black Puerto Rican man in English in New York City, USA. Proud of who he was Tato recited his work with the flair that greats like Juan Boria; a leading Afro Puerto Rican figure in the genre known as Poesía Negroide,* performed. His spoken words spun from his mouth with rhythmic beats as he swayed and moved his arms in sync. He spoke with exuberant power and certainty. He was a show; driving his audience to heights of excitement much like a dancer is driven by the drum.
Tato authored four volumes of poetry and a dozen or so plays. Born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, he migrated to New York City with his family at the age of nine. Although he attended colleges, he graduated from the streets of the Lower East Side; the place that made him a poet. Through his community work, he witnessed up close and partook of the harsh conditions in his community. Conditions of poverty and racism fueled his insight and propelled the penning of his poems. The love he had for his people, for his culture will always beam from the pages of his books.
Luckily, we also have Tato on video; witnessing him perform his poetry is crucial for understanding his work in its entirety. Seeing him on video, one gets a notion of the grandeur that was Tato Laviera. Gratefully, I knew the poet. He was my friend and a mentor. Leaving Tato’s memorial, while traveling with a group of writers on the subway I expressed, “how fortunate I am to have known such giants.” One of the younger writers in the group replied, “Knowing anybody doesn’t make you smarter.” Well, I demand to differ. Knowing and sharing a friendship with such writers as Tato Laviera, Pedro Pietri, Piri Thomas and Wanda Coleman has given me a real world education that rivals all the theoretical knowledge I received at any one of the three universities I graduated from.
I return to my fear; how do we continue the work begun by such vanguards and can we do this if we’re so callous with one another? One distinct trait that made Tato Laviera and the other writers I’ve mentioned, so exceptional was their un-pretentiousness; their ability and genuine willingness to help other writers, to share their experiences, their knowledge and their lives with younger writers. I hope we’ll be able to do the same; to continue the work begun without the selfish and self-centeredness that categorizes our 21st century world.
Books by Tato Laviera:
La Carreta Made a U-Turn (Houston: Arte Público Press, 1979)
AmeRícan (Houston: Arte Público Press, 1985)
Enclave (Houston: Arte Público Press, 1985)
Mainstream Ethics-Etica Corriente (Houston: Arte Público Press, 1988)
Mixturao and Other Poems (Houston: Arte Público Press, 2008–09)
* Poesía Negroide or Black Poetry is a genre of poetry characterized by the use of African vocabulary and its musicality. Themes addressed include the life of the Antilles Black slave.
First published in KONCH Magazine edited by Ishmael Reed