On Thursday, May 3rd, Centro hosted the premiere screening of its latest film, AmeRícan Poet: Tato Laviera (2018), which took place inside a packed auditorium on the second floor of Hunter College’s Silberman School of Social Work in East Harlem.
The one-hour documentary explores the life and legacy of Jesus Abraham ‘Tato’ Laviera, one of the leading figures of the Nuyorican movement, who passed away in 2013.
In his opening remarks, Centro Director Dr. Edwin Meléndez reminded the audience to carry on the struggle of the movement that Laviera articulated in his writing and led through his community activism.
“AmeRícan” is of course of Laviera’s best known poems, an affirmation of the Nuyorican experience grounded in the same tension that has persisted into the present: a country, the United States, at odds with the definition of who and what represents ‘America.’
An excerpt of the poem appears at the beginning of the film, as it does throughout, recited by either Laviera himself or by the numerous Nuyorican poets he has influenced. (To read the full poem, click here)
That influence is obvious in the numerous accounts provided by friends, family, and fellow poets—many of whom were also in attendance at the screening. (They later graced the stage for a group photo, see above).
Tato, moreover, is portrayed in vibrant detail via an abundance of archival footage spanning decades, from his work as a Lower East Side community activist in the 1960s and 70s to an elder Tato reciting “AmeRican” in a double-breasted suit, signature white Panama hat resting on the desk where he is seated.
The chronology of the film, however, jumps around between the many phases of Tato’s life and career, with producer Vivian Hernández. Ortiz and editor Waldo Cabrera weaving together more of an impressionistic narrative—one that includes no shortage of anecdotes, poetic fragments, clever one-liners, thoughtful critique, and so on.
Simply put, AmeRícan Poet: Tato Laviera does its best to capture the essence of the poet, to approximate the legacy of someone who, thru his writing, had done the same for many of those in attendance.
Afterwards, Ruth Ella Laviera, Tato’s daughter, addressed the crowd, with her aunt, Ruth Sánchez, Tato’s sister, by her side. She thanked Centro for the film and reaffirmed the decision to donate her father’s papers, which are on display just one floor below, at the Centro Library & Archives, as part of a new exhibit on Puerto Rican pioneers.
There was then a brief Q&A with producer Vivian Hernández Ortiz, followed by a reception.
The documentary joins a host of efforts to remember the late poet, which includes the renaming of the Red Carpet Theater at Taíno Towers in his name, a mural that adorns the side of the building where the theater is housed, and the inauguration of Tato Laviera Way (123rd St. & 2nd Avenue). Centro Press also published The AmeRican Poet: Essays on the Work of Tato Laviera in 2014.