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The Next Generation Nuyoricans: An interview with the Founder of Capicu Culture

Since 1958, the Puerto Rican Day Parade has been an event that brings together several organizations dedicated to preserving and advancing Puerto Rican culture. Capicu Culture, a grassroots organization out of Brooklyn, is a multicultural arts collective inspired by the Nuyorican Poets Café. The organization hosts live events like the Capicu Cultural Showcase and has provided a cultural space for the Puerto Rican community to share their own stories and explore those of other communities. This year’s parade was the third time Capicu marched down Fifth Avenue in a float. I spoke with Creative Director Juan “PaPo Swiggity” Santiago about the organization and this year’s celebration.

Isa Guzman: How did Capicu Culture begin? What was the impetus for forming the organization for the Puerto Rican community of New York?

Juan Santiago: I have always been a poet, emcee, and a bit of a social scientist. I worked for some years at Atlantic Records and essentially found how a media conglomerate created the sense of “recording-artist cool” in music acts. This was done through artist development, public relations, graphic designers, media influencers, street teams, traditional marketing, and this thing at the time they called “new media” (which is now part of our everyday lives). What I did initially with this knowledge was create my persona “PaPoSwIgGiTy” in the most popular online chat sites by modeling traits of an emerging music artist. I started online on BlackPlanet.com in 1997, but the site where this really took off was MiGente.com in the year 2000. It worked well as I became one of the first Latino “internet celebrities,” a very new phenomenon at the time. I parlayed that over to an offline component to create a party atmosphere everywhere I went in the nightlife community. I took my online following into the real world and made sure we felt like stars. Though I was channeling this “recording-artist cool,” I was still a poet at heart that was very interested and curious about the world and our place in it. I would infuse my personal pages with poems, facts and history about Latino identity which caught the attention of one George “Urban Jibaro” Torres.

What I knew about George at the time was that he had a very popular website called Sofrito For Your Soul, which is now the longest running blog about the Latino-American experience in existence. I loved that the site already had a poetry section because George himself wrote poetry. He also had a lot of experience running college events for the Latino community as a brother of the Phi Iota Alpha fraternity. To top it off, he was also from Brooklyn and a lot of people from different spheres seemed to know this guy! For about a decade between the late 1990s and the time we started Capicu in 2007, George and I had met many times in bars and clubs trying to figure out what our true partnership would look like. He was always an early adopter of technologies and wasn’t afraid to try something new.  He would come with this thick binder of ideas for live events, many of which matched or complemented mine.

Eventually, the answer landed on our laps.  Bar manager Jose Candelario reached out to me one night on Myspace at the end of 2006. The neighborhood of Williamsburg Brooklyn was starting to get hit hard by gentrification, as we found out that the land developers that were pushing poor families out of Coney Island were now coming to the neighborhood. The bar itself had a reputation for being where all the local rappers hung out, and he wanted to change the dynamic to make it a hotspot for the artistic and intellectual Latino types. George and I agreed that this is where our collaboration would happen. On our first night (March 23rd, 2007), over 200 people attended from all over New York City, and the rest is history.

Essentially, we are a current generation of the Nuyorican Movement. There are many that believe the movement faded after the 1980s with one or two poets here and there that have popped up since. The truth is that we never left, the community is bustling with activities. We just spread out all over the city, state, country, world, and stay connected largely via the internet. We now embrace the idea of an Afro-Boricua diaspora that embraces multiple cultures, classes, genders, and faiths.

Isa: What are some of the things you do for the community? Tell us about the organization’s accomplishments.

Juan: One of the very first things we did as a collective was ask people to bring their resumes to our Open Mic, as our very first team member Lisa Centeno worked at an employment agency. When we moved over to our current home (then known as Notice Lounge, now known as EvilolivE Pizza Bar), we found new friends that were active in the community, and owner Jason Tennant introduced us to Jessica Arocho, a family coordinator at a local school in Bushwick who is now part of our team. We created a Toys-For-Tots program for years afterward called ‘Pa’l Pueblo,’ where we collected donations and toys at a special poetry event and gave out them out before Christmas at the schools to upwards of 100 children, once helping near 500 children. For many of these kids, the ‘Pa’l Pueblo toys were the only ones they received that year.

We have also supported our community by fundraising and/or volunteering for different organizations, grassroots and established. We’ve participated in the American Diabetes Association’s Feria De Salud health initiative, the CASA Ana Orphanage Project in the Dominican Republic, Better Future International relief for Haiti, and X-Mental Inc’s fundraisers for the Coalition For The Homeless. Using our online radio show, Team Capicu effectively helped match volunteers to organized grassroots efforts during the Hurricane Sandy crisis. Beyond that, we’ve done many fundraisers for artists for their specific projects as they are needed.

Our latest project is called La Sopa – The School of Poetic Arts. We started it in 2014 at Boricua College by collaboration with poet-educator Jani Rose, our Educational Director with assistance by Professor Rafael Landrón, also a poet and author. Along with being a poet that is especially attuned to visual/spatial art, Jani is a mother of four creative boys and brings a nurturing quality to our space. On board facilitators include literary activist Rich Villar whose teachings have been at the core of La Sopa; Keith Roach- former slam master at the Nuyorican Poets Café, and Hip Hop/Poetry educator Anthony Morales. Our guests have included authors Willie Perdomo, Vanessa Mártir, and Jesús Papoleto Meléndez. Currently we have an Artist Residency at the Loisaida Center, a community organization founded in the 1970s by Puerto Rican activists. This is a workshop series with a S.T.E.A.M. focus, dedicated to the empowerment of the creative as a successful entrepreneur. Our current offerings are poetry writing and performance courses, and we hope to offer a range of courses that hone writing skills and others that provide financial education. We are excited to roll out the full mission in the years to come.

Isa: This year was Capicu’s third time having a float during the Puerto Rican Day Parade. How did that come about?

Juan: Our very first time was in 2014 – I have a picture of all of our friends in front of the float saved as a screensaver on my laptop!  There were many things that helped us get there, first and foremost being that there was a new, more activist based board responsible for the parade due to allegations of mismanagement from the old board with too much of a focus on brands, exemplified in the media by the Coors Light debacle. On the new board, there were a number of poets as well that were familiar with our work carrying forth the Nuyorican tradition of poetry as Capicu, and with George’s work as a high level social media consultant.  To add to that, my own visibility received a boost as I was being honored at the Hispanicize Conference in Miami with a Positive Impact award for leadership in the arts community. It was in Miami that we came to find out the new board wanted to talk to us about moving the parade in a new direction, giving it back to the people.

Isa: In the outcry of those in the community wanting to protest this year’s parade, why did you guys feel it was necessary to take part in that celebration?

Juan: Historian Richie Blondet said it best: “The Parade is a vehicle to be used and highlight the crisis that the island faces.”  As Puerto Rican artists, our plight is what it has historically been, to be the voices and the visions that illuminate what the population is feeling. In that spirit, we had a live mural paying homage to the idea of freedom for political prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera. We had the Art Culture NYC collective marching and bringing attention to the toxic ash pollution in Peñuelas.  Capicu will continue to be present at many of the places where activists and artists are congregating to talk about how we will represent ourselves to the world.

Isa: Who were the members that were on the float? How was the experience of being right in the middle of the celebration?

Juan: To see our dream, big as life, coming down Fifth Avenue in the parade with all of these amazing talented Puerto Ricans atop? It was a surreal experience for a Brooklyn boy who used to get all decked out and go to the parade by himself for most of his teen years.

Who was on it? Team Capicu comprised of myself, George Torres, my fiancé Sue Reyes (an attorney fighting gentrification in Brooklyn), Nuyorican Poets and School of Poetic Arts team Rich Villar, Jani Rose, and Keith Roach, Nuyorican legacy poets Jesús Papoleto Meléndez and Dr. Nancy Mercado, our resident visual artist Albert “TainoImage” Areizaga who was painting the mural alongside activist muralist Ralph Serrano and Danielle De Jesus (known for painting the Lin Manuel Miranda dollar bill that went viral recently), actor Lemon Andersen (Tony-award winning playwright), actor Victor Cruz (Director of The Stockroom), actor Berto Colón of Orange Is The New Black, and of course our special guest and the Queen of the Parade, actress-activist Rosario Dawson and her family.

Isa: What was different from this year’s parade compared to the previous years?

Juan: Due to the media frenzy around the attacks that happened at the parade in the year 2000, people were scared to come out for a long time. I was actually at that parade with my family, predominantly young women. I remember mainly seeing floats with music, brands, and towns in Puerto Rico but hardly were any current Puerto Rican issues brought to light. The news reporters were almost famously non-Puerto Rican, seemed clueless, and relegated the parade to an air of light revelry while they enjoyed drinks out of a coconut. These last few years there’s been a stark difference, I’ve seen pointed political statements. In 2015, we acknowledged Pedro Albizu Campos on the 50th anniversary of his death. This year, we focused on freedom for Oscar López Rivera. The parade had marchers against PROMESA. There were themes of inclusion and education about the Afro-Boricua community, and this year, the rights of the LGBTQ community. There were even commercials about the environmental crisis on the island, I had never seen anything like it before. The energy this year was really positive, I saw more families in the crowd waving flags than in times past.

Isa: How did the tragedy in Orlando set the tone for the day’s celebration?

Juan: We were shaken to our cores and at a loss for words when the news really hit us that the biggest mass shooting in U.S. history by a civilian occurred just hours before we marched in a parade. Particularly this one, which sought to bring light to the LGBTQ community in honor of this idea of inclusion in the Boricua Diaspora. There are many Puerto Ricans in Orlando, including one of our core team members Lisa Centeno and the family of George Torres.  It really struck home for us. We were not fully aware of the facts of the tragedy until we were actually at the parade, and even then we heard only that there was a shooting at a club in Orlando. Most of us were without our usual connectivity to the internet and television, which left us confined to the moment and situation of the parade.  It wasn’t until afterwards that we got the facts about how big the tragedy was. How heinous the crime. A member of the PR parade board and fellow poet Ululy Martinez wrote a moving piece. I defer to it to give me motivation to continue doing the right thing, to stand in solidarity with our community members even more marginalized than we are.  More poets and visual artists are creating art as social response to what happened.

Isa: And finally, Is Capicu looking forward to next year’s parade? Do you hope to keep doing this in the years to come?

Juan: It was once a crime to fly our flag, punishable by no less than a decade in jail. The “Gag Law” was put in place to stop our nationalists, those that thought Puerto Rico had the right to be its own sovereign nation if it so chose. The law was repealed in 1957, our first parade happened in 1958! This is history, it meant something much bigger than ourselves. I hope that we are asked to participate in the 60th Annual Puerto Rican Parade. Three years in, it is now the customary way that we end our Spring before we take our “Nuyorican Sabbatical” in the summer to write and take care of other matters. I am hopeful that we can continue to turn things around and give the parade back to our families, it is what the original activists that organized the parade in El Barrio intended. ¡Que viva Puerto Rico!