Jack Agüeros: A Tribute

By Claudio Iván Remeseira | Posted October 26, 2012
 
On October 25, 2012 Columbia University celebrated the acquisition of the papers of writer and activist Jack AgüerosThis event marked the launch of the Latino Arts and Activism Archive, a joint initiative of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race and the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. The promoter of the initiative, CSER Director Frances Negrón-Muntaner, gave the opening remarks, followed by the library's Director, Michael Ryan; the poet Martín Espada; and Humberto Cintrón, a writer, former PBS host, and close friend of Agüeros. The organizers also gave me the honor of being one of the speakers; my comments on Agüeros' life and work are posted below. It was a highly emotional event: In 2004, Mr. Agüeros was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. At the end of the ceremony, Jack's children, Marcel and Natalia, thanked the numerous friends, family members, colleagues and admirers who gathered to celebrate the work and legacy of  one of the most prominent Puerto Rican New Yorkers. C.I.R.

Photo: Isaac Harris


1.


As I was taking notes for this speech, rereading Jack Agüeros’s works and reflecting on his long and plentiful career, it suddenly dawned on me that Jack’s life, his story, his legacy, is a true metonym of New York’s Latino history. Jack himself describes his personal experience of that history in his poignant and beautiful essay “Halfway to Dick and Jane: A Puerto Rican Pilgrimage”:
  “I was born in Harlem in 1934 … I am an only child … My mother, Carmen Díaz, came [from Puerto Rico] to New York in 1931 … My father [Joaquín Agüeros] had been [here] since the mid-twenties … We lived on 111th Street off Fifth Avenue … Our apartment was a three-room first-floor walk-up … It was the Depression, and work was hard to come by.” Carmen, who had dreamed of becoming an interior decorator, worked for many years as a seamstress in the Garment District. Joaquín, a former police officer described by his son as a character out of a picaresque Spanish novel, toiled most of his adult life in restaurants and factories.
   The first pages of his essay—which actually is a short, intense memoir—are filled with a detailed evocation of the apartment where Jack spent his early years, a warm, working-class household kept immaculately clean by his mother, with a Detrola radio churning out the Libertad Lamarque and Carlos Gardel tangos that Jack would learn by heart, and large Christmas and birthday parties with pasteles and lechón asado and arroz con gandules and lots of coquito to wash down the abundant food. Jack’s father would even bring in a band to play for the guests every Christmas.
   “The first seven years of my life were not too great a variation on Dick and Jane, the school book figures who … were blond and Anglo-Saxons, not migrants like the Puerto Ricans … ”
   In the 1930s and ’40s, El Barrio was a multiethnic enclave: Italians, Irish, Jews, Chinese, “some blacks” and “a sprinkling of Puerto Ricans,” in Agüeros’s words. That picture would change dramatically after World War II. Agüeros describes this change as the Fall from an Age of Innocence—the “clear and open world” of his childhood.
   “The war ended,” he says, “and the heavy Puerto Rican migration began … Into an ancient neighborhood came pouring four to five times more people than it had been designed to hold. Men who came running at the promise of jobs were jobless … The sudden surge in numbers caused new resentments, and prejudice was intensified … In our confusion we were sometimes pathetically reaching out, sometimes pathologically striking out. Gangs. Drugs. Wine. Smoking. Girls. Dances and slow-drag music. Mambo, Spics, Spooks, and Wops. Territories, brother gangs, and war councils establishing rules for right of way on blocks and avenues and for seating in the local theater. Pegged pants and zip guns. Slang. Dick and Jane were dead, man. Education collapsed. Every class had ten kids who spoke no English. Black, Italian, Puerto Rican relations in the classroom were good, but we all knew we couldn’t visit one another’s neighborhoods. Sometimes we could not move too freely within our own blocks.”
   This stark, unsentimental depiction of an unraveling community concludes with a dystopian variation on John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity theme. “[T]here was a hill on 103rd Street known locally as Cooney’s Hill. When you got to the top of the hill, something strange happened: America began, because from the hill South was where the ‘Americans’ lived. Dick and Jane were not dead; they were alive and well, living in a better place.”
   Jack Agüeros’s lifelong mission, both as an activist and as an artist, has been to demand that those living on the other side of the hill pay attention to the needs of his people, the ones living on this side, and to remove the obstacles that prevented them from reaching the better place they deserved in American life.



2.

Jack attended Public School 107—now the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center—and Benjamin Franklin High School, both in El Barrio. After four years in the U.S. Air Force, he went to Brooklyn College on the GI Bill and graduated with a B.A. in English literature. After college he would walk directly into the turmoil of the 1960s.
   During the first part of the decade, he worked as a community organizer for the Henry Street Settlement and the Neighborhood Youth Corps, as director of the Upper Manhattan branch of the Citywide Interfaith Coordinating Committee, and as a field representative for the Federal Office of Economic Opportunity.
  In 1966 the Puerto Rican Forum, led by Antonia Pantoja, established the Puerto Rican Community Development Project (PRCDP). This organization, like many others that flourished in that period, was funded as part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty. Jack Agüeros became the PRCDP’s deputy director. In that position he played a key role in the events preceding and following the 1967 East Harlem riots.
   On July 21, 1967, an off-duty policeman killed an allegedly armed Puerto Rican; this killing triggered a series of clashes between the police and groups of young men in El Barrio. Over the next few days, the violence escalated, and on the night of the 24th, thousands rioted in the streets of East Harlem and of Mott Haven in the Bronx. At daybreak, three people lay dead, dozens of stores had been looted, several cars were destroyed, and piles of garbage turned into bonfires still burned ominously on the streets.
  It was a Puerto Rican Summer of Discontent, the explosion of a cauldron of frustration and rage that had been simmering in plain sight over the past two decades, stirred by the combustible mix of poverty, inner-city decay, racism, discrimination, and police harassment. A watershed moment for the visibility of a long-neglected minority, its historical significance was captured by this New York Times headline: “Puerto Rican Story: A Sensitive People Erupts.” .
   These events were part of a larger national drama: Between 1965 and 1971, riots broke out in the Puerto Rican barrios of Chicago (1965, 1966), Perth Amboy (1967), East Harlem (1967, 1970), New Haven (1967), Passaic and Hartford (1969, 1970), the South Bronx (1970), and Camden, Hoboken, and Long Branch (1971).
   The 1967 East Harlem riots were, as Lorrin Thomas puts it in Puerto Rican Citizenship: History and Political Identity in Twentieth-Century New York City, El Barrio’s “first full-scale riots,” and the worst “disturbances” (the euphemism used in those days by the authorities) in New York City since the Harlem and Bedford Stuyvesant riots of 1964.
    Agüeros is quoted in almost every story published by the press about the events. Along with other public figures, he was from the first night on the streets trying to prevent the crisis from expanding—there were fears of a clash between Puerto Ricans and blacks, which fortunately never happened—and organizing the neighborhood for the aftermath of the riots.
   On July 28, The New York Times ran a front-page article on the harsh criticism leveled by an assembly of Puerto Rican leaders against Mayor John Lindsey. They accused Lindsey of disregarding the recommendations they had given him at a conference summoned by the Mayor himself in the spring. The article calls Agüeros—who read the meeting’s press release to the media—one of the “most vocal” critics.
   The response from the Major’s office was immediate. A statement issued in response by the Major's spokesman read, “The aspirations of the Puerto Rican community are just, and their fulfillment is imperative.”
   As part of his policy of outreach to minorities, Lindsey invited grassroots activists to participate in his administration. On April 22, 1968, Agüeros was appointed deputy commissioner of New York's Community Development Agency (CDA), the city’s anti-poverty program. For a short time, he was the highest-ranking Puerto Rican official in town.
   His stint ended abruptly a couple of months later when he launched a hunger strike to protest the mistreatment of the community by the Lindsey administration. A black and white photo by Neal Boenzi of a cross-legged Agüeros on a long armchair at his office, with his conditions handwritten on posters taped on the wall behind him, is an iconic image of the Latino civil rights struggles.
   On the fifth day, Lindsay conceded to most of the conditions, and Agüeros ended his strike.
   He went on to earn an M.A. in urban studies from Occidental College. Back in New York, he became director of Mobilization for Youth, a social service agency operating in the Lower East Side whose archives, by the way, are also hosted by this Library. 
   From 1977 to 1986, Agüeros accomplished what is generally considered his crowning achievement as a community leader: He served as director of El Museo del Barrio, which had been created in 1969 by local educators, artists, and activists with the goal of preserving the Puerto Rican cultural heritage. His tenure marked a turning point in the history of the organization, the first museum in the mainland U.S. dedicated to Puerto Rican art and culture. Among many other things, he assembled a collection of carved wooden saints from Puerto Rico, provided space to local Puerto Rican artists and writers, and started one of the most beloved of El Museo’s traditions: the annual Three Kings’ Day Parade.



3.

Agüeros’s career as a social activist would have been enough to ensure his place in the history of New York. But there is his literary work too.
   In the words of Martín Espada, “Jack Agüeros is one of the most accomplished and versatile of all Latino writers. Consider the range of his production … poetry, short fiction, translation, plays, essays, theatre criticism, journalism, scriptwriting, children’s stories. He has received grants and awards in three different disciplines—for poetry, fiction, and playwriting—which is a rare feat indeed. Yet he has not received the recognition … he deserves, either from the mainstream literary world or from the Puerto Rican literary community.”
   There are several reasons that explain this strange equal-opportunity indifference; I’ll try to hint at them later.
  Jack Agüeros wrote his first poems and plays in college, and he kept writing throughout the 1960s and ’70s while performing his public work. In an interview with Carmen Dolores Hernández for her book Puerto Rican Voices in English, he describes his literary credo: “I try to write from the point of view of a person who was raised within what is called a minority in this country … to present people as we know them, from inside, from the heart, with all the details.” This view manifests itself in quite different ways in his poetry, his short stories, and his theater.
  He wrote a dozen one-act plays—in which he combined modern, classical, and medieval elements, such as Spanish autos sacramentales—and three longer plays. One of them, The News form Puerto Rico, won the 1989 McDonald's Latino Dramatist Award. Most of his plays have been staged by the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater and other companies, but they remain unpublished.
   He also wrote TV scripts. The script for “They Can't Even Read Spanish,” a 30-minute drama produced by Joe Michaels for NBC with an entirely Puerto Rican cast (including Sesame Street actress Carla Pinza), was the first one on prime-time TV entirely written and performed by Puerto Ricans. This was probably also the first TV show videotaped on location at a Lower East Side bodega.
   The argument encapsulates the tensions of that decade: Don Luis (José Ocasio), a hardworking bodeguero, is proud and at the same time ashamed of his son’s activities in the “Young People’s Party” (an allusion to the Young Lords). The son (Alex Colon) and some friends picket the local library, demanding more books in Spanish “so the people can read about our history and our heroes.” The father is perplexed by his son’s attitude, since the son doesn’t speak Spanish. “If they don’t give me books in Spanish, I’ll never be able to read them,” the son replies.
  The show aired on WNBC TV Channel 4 on Saturday, May 8, 1971. It was supposed to be the first of four programs (the second one was written by Pancho Cintrón, who is also here tonight), but the series was discontinued. It was a long time until any Puerto Rican wrote a major TV show again.
   That same year, “Halfway to Dick and Jane” was included in Thomas C. Wheeler’s anthology The Immigrant Experience: The Anguish of Becoming American (The Dial Press, 1971). Agüeros’s literary debut could not have been more auspicious: His name headed the list of contributors, which also included, among others, the bestselling author of The Godfather, Mario Puzo, and a still little-known Pole exile, the future Nobel Prize laureate Czesław Miłosz.
   In the years that followed, Agüeros would publish his poetry and fiction in different journals and magazines and would even appear in a few anthologies of Latino literature. He also wrote theater reviews and other pieces of journalism for the Village Voice, El Diario-La Prensa, and Newsday.
   But it would take him another 20 years to publish his first book, the collection of poems Correspondence Between the Stonehaulers (Hanging Loose Press, 1991). He would publish two more poetry volumes, Sonnets from the Puerto Rican (1996) and Lord, Is This a Psalm? (2002).
   The titles of these books are self-explanatory. Agüeros the poet works mainly with two forms: the sonnet and psalms. (Sonnets From the Puerto Rican is an ironic reference to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets From the Portuguese.)
   His sonnets, Espada says, are sonnets of the street, and “their subjects are often the homeless, the exploited, the addicted, the anonymous dead.” Agüeros chose this prestigious structure, adds Espada, “to bestow dignity on undignified lives and demand respect for those usually denied that respect. How many sonnets exist in the world for the homeless of Tompkins Square Park, or for a tubercular bindery worker?”
   The psalms, on the other hand, are short, often humorous poems. In them the author talks to God, although it’s not clear whether he really believes in God or not. “There is a wry social satirist at work in these poems,” says Espada, “for the questions he asks are pointed as much at the church, or the government, or the corporate culture, or us, as they are at the inscrutable Lord.”
   Among the poets who influenced him, Agüeros has mentioned e.e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and above all, Shakespeare. Espada points out the influence of Neruda, especially in the psalms.
   Far removed from the spoken-word tradition that has dominated Latino poetry for decades, Agüeros also rejects the label “Nuyorican.” Nuyorican culture, he says, stems from “a sort of schizophrenic formation” of those who are divided between two cultures, two languages. “That doesn’t happen to me,” Agüeros told Hernández. “I had access to Spanish through the radio and because it was spoken at home, but I never learned it in formal terms … I can’t feel like a Nuyorican because I identify with many Puerto Rican things and I’m interested in the island’s culture, but I would be a liar if I said that culture has been an influence over me.”
   Another extraordinary accomplishment is his translation of the complete poetry of Puerto Rican writer Julia de Burgos (Song of the Simple Truth: The Complete Poems, Curbstone Press, 1997) and Cuban author and revolutionary José Martí (Come, Come, My Boiling Blood: The Complete Poems, Curbstone Press, 2007).
   Because of his social activism and the constant references to the dispossessed in his poems, Agüeros may seem to be a typical artiste engagé; but his literature is much more than a means to achieve the end of social justice. “In my poetry I do I lot of denunciation, but in my stories [and in his theater, I would add] I don’t think I do. In the stories I try to imply rather than explain,” he told Hernández. This is apparent in his only published collection of short stories, Dominoes and Other Stories from the Puerto Rican (1993).
   I transcribe what Kirkus Reviews said of this collection of “eight well-crafted stories”: “Agüeros offers a memorable portrait gallery of ordinary—though thoroughly individualized—Puerto Rican New Yorkers … Here are some of the expected, common images of Puerto Rican life—the men playing dominoes on the street, the young boy working in the family bodega, the hopeful entrepreneur selling food in the park—but there are more unusual characters, too, such as Vázquez, the horologist seen at work repairing antique clocks in a Greenwich Village shop. In each case, Agüeros provides enough detail (without getting bogged down in minutiae) to capture the flavor and texture of daily life. For his point of departure, he often takes a character or situation so familiar as to border on stereotype; but in his hands, these small tales lead the reader to a deeper sense of recognition. Studies of character and community in the realist mode, told with quiet humor, without sensationalism or sentimentality.”
   One point to highlight here is Agüeros’s attitude toward stereotypes, his reaction to how the “typical” Puerto Rican should behave or look. In the interview with Hernández, Agüeros adamantly dismisses what he calls the two major Puerto Rican clichés: “the man wearing rolled-up white pants, a straw hat … and a machete in his hand.” the island stereotype of the jíbaro, and its mainland counterpart, “the Ghetto-Rican, the ghetto kid, tough and with a gun in his hand.”
   Agüeros is a big admirer of 19th-century English novelists: Jane Austen, the Brönte sisters, George Eliot, and above all, Charles Dickens, he told Hernández. It is not hard to find the influence of those writers in his work, as in that of many other American writers, Latino or otherwise.
  Another, less obvious influence is that of the “local colorists,” the regionalist American writers of that period, the most important of whom is undoubtedly Mark Twain. But Agüeros also mentions two lesser-known writers who were widely popular in post-bellum America: Patrick Lafcadio Hearn, the author of very successful books on New Orleans and Japan, and Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby, the self-styled “Lait paster uv the church of the Noo Dispensashun.” (I wonder whether Pedro Pietri was somehow inspired by him too.) Petroleum V. Nasby was the pseudonym of David Ross Locke, a radical Republican and the fictional persona in whose mouth Locke would put the most outrageously racist arguments—a sort of a Jim Crow Archie Bunker.
   Those writers paid extraordinary attention to details of environment, customs, and speech. “Some of our writers now are trying to do the same for the Puerto Ricans, to give that sound, to mix in those words, that Spanglish,” Agüeros told Hernández. “I think it’s a continuity with that kind of literature. They are writing the way their people speak, like what happened with the Negro dialect at the time of the Harlem Renaissance.”
   By inserting himself in that tradition, Agüeros is not only trying to become a good American writer; he is also trying to insert his Puerto Rican characters into the great flow of American literature, to grant them full citizenship in the republic of U.S. letters. In doing so, he is vindicating the lives of the actual people who inspired those characters, justifying their rightful place in the hill.
   “While everybody is trying to find these magnificent world themes to write about, why don’t I go down to the bar on 110th Street and listen to what they are saying and write about that? That’s what Mark Twain did.”


4.

Earlier this year, Jack Agüeros was awarded the Asan World Prize, instituted by the Asan Memorial Association; previous recipients include Nicolás Guillén, Léopold Sédar Senghor and Judith Wright. In addition to this award, Agüeros received another one for his poetry and a couple of prizes as a playwright, one of them when he was still in college. By any account, this is a highly ungenerous lack of recognition of his merits.
   In the words of Martín Espada: “Despite his impressive record of accomplishment, Jack Agüeros does not rank among the most celebrated of Latino writers … In a community full of neglected writers, the neglect of Agüeros seems particularly unjust.”
   Today, that injustice is being undone.

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