By Clarisel Gonzalez
When Stephanie Alvarez told Nuyorican poet Tato Laviera she wanted to publish a book on his work, he loved the idea and immediately stepped in to help. He suggested that she bring his good friend William Luis to the project to help make the book a reality.
Alvarez and Luis joined forces as editors and The AmeRican Poet, Essays on the Work of Tato Laviera was born. The anthology, which took years in the making, is a collection of 13 essays, an introduction and a foreword by 15 established and emerging scholars. Throughout the process, the editors counted on the feedback and support Laviera, who passed away last year, gave them.
On April 29, Centro proudly hosted a Meet the Author with the editors at Hunter College’s 68th Street Campus to celebrate the launch of the book, which is a testimony of Laviera’s legacy from scholars who respected his work and loved him.
About 80 scholars, poets, artists, community leaders, activists, students and several of Laviera’s family members, including his beloved sister Ruth, attended.
A longtime Centro friend and supporter, it was Laviera’s dream for Centro to publish the book and the editors agreed it was the perfect match because as he once said we need to support our centers working to preserve this history. Centro published the book this spring just as Laviera wanted.
Alvarez said she is grateful to Laviera, his sister Ruth and Centro for pushing the editors to complete the project and described him as a “deep intellectual.” Alvarez said, “Love is a common theme in all of his work.”
At first the idea for the anthology was to publish a collection of essays that had been previously published on Laviera’s work, but the editors decided there was a need for new scholarship on his work, an idea that Laviera embraced.
They were moved with the quality of the contributions they received. “Every contributor admired Tato and loved him,” Alvarez said, adding that they believe in his craft. She called Laviera “a genius of the letter.”
Luis said that many cycles of Laviera’s poetry and other writings mirrored the many cycles of his life. “Tato has been an inspiration in terms of his work, his poetry, his life and his presence,” Luis said, adding that community was an important word for him. The anthology serves as a way for the community to “reflect on his poetry, his life and his contributions to us,” he said.
Known as a Nuyorican poet, Laviera is more appropriately celebrated in the book as an AmeRícan writer of a national and international prominence who American students will be exposed to in their schoolbooks for generations to come.
Alvarez thanked Centro for publishing the book, for its mission to preserve heritage and history and for giving writers an outlet. The editors commissioned seasoned and up-and- coming scholars to submit essays that discuss diverse aspects of Laviera’s life and work.
Besides the essays, the book includes five published collections of Laviera’s poetry and12 written and staged plays. A highlight of the book is a testimonio, which is a collection of interviews Laviera conducted at different times in English, Spanish and Spanglish, four unpublished poems and the play King of Cans. The book also includes a collection of photos of key moments in Laviera’s life such as one of him holding the finished manuscript of his La Carreta Made a U-turn (1979).
The essays cover Laviera’s many years of political, social, literary and healthcare activism. They also include such themes as Laviera’s use of language to his relationship to writers from the island such as Luis Palés Matos and Luis Muñoz Marín and to writers from the United States such as Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman and to his Afro-Latinoness and his love and use of music, sound and rhythm.
Vanessa Y. Perez Rosario, assistant professor of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Brooklyn College and author of Becoming Julia de Burgos: The Making of a Puerto Rican Icon(University of Illinois Press 2014) said she is impressed with this anthology commemorating Laviera’s life and appreciated the editors for pushing for additional scholarship on his work. Calling it a “timely book” and an “act of love,” Perez, who served as commentator at the event. The book is user friendly and would be a wonderful resource for teachers in the classroom.
Poet Miguel Algarin, the co-founder of the Nuyorican Poets Café and retired Rutgers University professor of English, who attended the event, said he was always impressed with Laviera’s presence. “There was one and only one Tato Laviera,” he said.
Edwin Meléndez, Centro director, said Laviera and his sister Ruth have been instrumental in not only getting Centro to publish the book but also in making sure that Laviera’s legacy is preserved by contributing his papers to the Centro Library and Archives for future generations to enjoy. “This is just the beginning,” Meléndez said, adding that Centro is committed to sharing Laviera’s many contributions and is currently working on a documentary project.
The book is available for
purchase at the Centro Store