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HOMENAJE: A Tribute to Victor Hernández Cruz

I get an urgent message from poet Dr. Nancy Mercado that she is having dinner with the great American, Neo-Rican and Nuyorican poet Victor Hernández Cruz at Casa Adela in Loisaida with two other literary icons and that I better get my scrawny Puerto Rican ass down there, so I can photograph him for the HOMENAJE exhibit. Hurry, she texts.

I forget where I was, but for the sake of this story, I had just finished digging a ditch or helping a bitch. Deliver her puppies, that is. So, with nothing but copper and dust in my jeans, I tuck stray gray hairs up into my pañuelo head rag, I swish some water in my mouth, me doy un baño de pájaro, wash my hands, and rush to get down before the literary circus leaves town. Ninety minutes later, Nancy makes an appearance.

“Oh, they not here yet?” She asks as I just look at her.

I have been played. You see, to Puerto Rican people, everything is an emergency, and because everybody is late, the wrong time IS the right time. @#$%&!.

Before I can even think of a smartass retort, I swear, there was a spotlight and organ music and in do come the Three Magi: poet Victor Hernández Cruz, biographer David Henderson, and writer Steve Cannon. I was witnessing a gathering of a tribe. That’s a literary reference, mi gente.

Victor and the kings are more interested in introducing their pipas to some good food. It’s a reunion. Victor now lives in Morocco with his family, so his visits to New York are rare. The food and drinks flow and there are so many conversations that Casa Adela is now the Madison Square Garden of the Lower East Side. For some reason, I never heard a word Victor said.\

For the next 90 minutes—for the sake of this story, everything takes ninety minutes, okay?—this is how the conversation goes at Casa Adela: I ask Victor a question; Steve asks another that is not necessarily on topic; David gives a long, thoughtful response while I cut up Steve’s food for him; Nancy laughs loudly giving a peseta worth of information; and, I see my question walk out the door battered and bruised as Victor continues to eat his rice and beans.

Ninety minutes later, I’ve had enough of all this confusion, and I knock the uneaten buttered bread off the table, kick over a chair, and scream, “Now, wait a minute, @#$%&!! Let me get at least one question answered here, @#$%&!!”

No, that’s not true. What had happened was that the party left Casa Adela and moved to Steve Cannon’s house, and if I wanted to get the interview or even a good photo, I had better bring my scrawny Po’Rican ass over there, says Nancy in person.

We get to the house and the wine and cigarettes flow, the party gets bigger, and I get some really lovely photos of Steve.

Ninety minutes later, as I finally do make my way out, I swear a small little dog runs into the house. I’m looking and looking, but I can’t find the damn dog, and no, it’s not the one I was helping before all this revolú started. David sees me searching, and asks if I saw the ghost dog, the one only Steve can really see.

As I walk down the streets of the Lower East Side, I’m just now beginning to breathe after that 90-minute hurricane that was my introduction to Victor Hernández Cruz, the first Latino to be honored by Life Magazine as one of America’s greatest poets. With over a dozen books published, honors including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Griffin Poetry Prize, I finally hear his answer. I hear his words from his poem, “Problems with Hurricanes.”

The campesino takes off his hat—
As a sign of respect
toward the fury of the wind
And says:
Don't worry about the noise
Don't worry about the water
Don't worry about the wind—
If you are going out
beware of mangoes
And all such beautiful
sweet things.”

I take off my pañuelo as a sign of respect. I hear you now. Here’s to you, Victor Cru’.


© Ricardo Muñiz. Published by permission in Centro Voices on 19 February 2016.