Something about Bonafide Rojas sets him apart from your typical Nuyorican poet. He grows his dark-brown hair long and curly, and usually wears it natural and almost a millimeter above his shoulders. He swears by button down t-shirts, like the floral printed one he was wearing when I interviewed him, or slogan tees that make you think. He’s pale and his facial features are ambiguous; he could pass for middle eastern, or any other kind of fusion. Yet, his prose is Boricua de pura cepa and he’s a straight up New Yorker, but he’ll be the first person to tell you that he’s not Nuyorican.
“Nuyorican is a school of Poetry, as a person I’m Puerto Rican,” Rojas said.
Rojas, like many of us, first started contemplating his identity during his teenage years. Born and raised in the Bronx, he was a die hard hip-hop fan, and this led him to join the Zulu Nation, an international hip-hop awareness crew founded by hip-hop legend Afrika Bambaataa in the late ‘70s, where he was introduced to a political philosophy to call his own. At 15-years-old, he identified as a Black nationalist.
“I studied people like Malcolm [X], the Black Panthers, James Baldwin and Marcus Garvey, and then one day my sister came up to me and said, ‘You know I love that you are identifying as black, and the black American experience in New York City is very similar to ours, but you’re Puerto Rican and here are some things I want you to read.’”
The first one of these things that he read at 18-years-old was a biography on Puerto Rican nationalist Pedro Albizu Campos, who also led the independence movement. He began to understand how unique it was to be Puerto Rican, Black, and a New Yorker. Then he discovered the Nuyorican school of poetry. Willie Perdomo was the first poet he saw and met in person, shortly after his book, “Where a Nickel Costs a Dime,” was released in 1996.
“I was like wow, so you can actually write about Harlem and it’s completely fine,” Rojas said.
At the time, Rojas was a highschool drop out. Still, he managed to find a range of mentors within the Nuyorican poet community--mostly from a book entitled “Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe”---and considered himself a writer and poet at 19-years-old. Through his sister, he landed his first internship at Aspira, a non-profit organization dedicated to Puerto Rican and Latino youth development. This put him on a better path: he got his GED and learned to understand his place as a poet, a Puerto Rican,and a New Yorker and how they were all different.
“Whatever happens in the house, that is being Puerto Rican, it doesn’t have to be anything extra, any let’s try this bomba class or anything hyper cultural, no, we’re from Bayamón, my mother’s from Guánica my father’s from Santurce and that’s what it is,” he said.
Even though Rojas’ mom played salsa every sunday when she was cleaning, this isn’t how he personally manifested his puertorriquenidad. He hated salsa, and would rather listen to The Beatles, or Jimi Hendrix, or some hip-hop growing up. Listening to the Fania-All stars was sort of acceptable because he sees them as Puerto Rican futurists, but not really his thing. He’s into comic books and science fiction. They called him el gringo on his annual summer trips to the island, but for him this is still what it means to be Puerto Rican.
So what about the question of being Nuyorican?
“Nuyorican poets that came before me--Pietri, Thomas, Perdomo--these people and so many more, created this school and we’re just the next generation,” Rojas said.
Other Nuyorican poets that fall in Rojas’ generation include La Bruja and Flaco Navaja among others. Their styles are often salsa-inspired, Rojas’ is not.
“I don’t do the salsa thing. I’m a Nuyorican poet, but that’s not my thing. I embrace the Nuyorican label as an artist, and as a poet--because it is a school,” Rojas said.“The truth is that I’m Puerto Rican, and there are many ways to express that--not just by listening to our parents’ music, or going to these hyper cultural events.”
When people ask him questions about identity which is often, he enjoys breaking it down in his thick, and undeniable New York-accented English. He stresses that being Nuyorican is not a cultural identity, rather, an artistic one. At least for him. But while he explains this all--he seems so...New York.
“I’m also that. But I’m not just that,” he said. “When I travel I wear a Puerto Rican patch on my arm so that people avoid coming up to me just to ask me where i’m from,” he said.
Roja’s deep understanding of his complex identity has given him a place in race dialogue across media. In February, he was featured telling his story in a New York Times op-docs video: A conversation with Latinos about Race.
He formally founded Grand Concourse Press, named after the street he grew up on, in 2014, but has published 4 books--Renovatio, When the City Sleeps & Pelo Bueno: A day in the life of a Nuyorican poet, and Dear Continuum--under that publishing house name--since 2012. He’s also a guitar player and bandleader of the Mona Passage, a rock group based in New York City.
When Rojas takes the stage he’s funny, then delivers fire--often times about Puerto Rican history--but there is no clave, or song break in between. His cadence is bold and striking but he doesn’t go off the deep end with his rhythm. He is a true new wave Nuyorican poet. When he’s done, he makes it known that he is not gone from the venue, and constantly riffs off of other poets’ jokes to keep the mood light.
His charismatic style earned him a spot on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and a place on countless stages across New York City, including the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. He’s also been published in multiple anthologies and even in Centro’s academic journal.
Now 38-years-old, Bonafide was unwilling to disclose the name on his birth certificate. He adopted Bonafide, his artist name, after finding it in a dictionary and used the word as a platform upon which he dared to reinvent himself, in 1995, the year that he started performing.
Today, he continues to reinvent himself through his latest projects. He’s taking more frequent trips to the island and lecturing to students there with hopes of inspiring the next generation of Nuyorican poets. He’s worried that there aren’t many young people engaging in poetry the way that his generation has. This means that relocating to the island to cultivate this community is a real option for him in the future.
When he’s not doing poetry he also spends time with his 12-year-old son, who has yet to ask him about being Puerto Rican. Rojas is more than prepared to answer when he does.
Until then, they spend time walking the city and watching TV together when they get a chance to visit. Because to Rojas, this too means living the Puerto Rican experience and his poetry proves it.