Tato Laviera (b. 1951)
Contributing Editor: Frances R. Aparicio
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Give handouts or glossaries that explain local references and Spanish words; also it might be helpful to try to translate Spanish phrases and words, in order to show the unique value of bilingualism within Laviera's poetry, and the fact that most of it is untranslatable.
It would be wonderful to recite Laviera's poems aloud and to introduce them to the students as such, as oral poetry. One might also relate his poetry to the tradition of rapping in New York City. Again, students need to clarify references to Puerto Rico and El Barrio with which they might be unfamiliar. They respond to issues of bilingual education, social criticism, and language (Spanish in the United States). Discussions on how Anglo monolingual students feel when reading Hispanic bilingual poetry such as Tato Laviera's and Hernández Cruz's texts can lead to fruitful observations on patterns of exclusion and marginalization in the United States via language and linguistic policies.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Major themes are tension between Puerto Rican and Nuyorican societies and identity; language and bilingualism as ethnic identity markers; life in El Barrio; music and popular culture; denouncement of social institutions such as schools, Puerto Rican and U.S. governments, the Catholic church, etc.; major context of the history of Puerto Rican immigration to the U.S. and Operation Bootstrap in the 1940s and 1950s; presence of African-Caribbean and African-American cultures.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Laviera's poetry best exemplifies the new genre of bilingual poetry in the United States. Discuss historical context of bilingual literature in other countries, aesthetic innovation within contemporary literature, political stance, use of oral speech and traditions versus written, academic, and intellectual poetry; relate to Mexican-American poets, and to African-American poets of the 1960s and discuss the common space between the black poets and Laviera's work regarding the reaffirmation of the African heritage for both communities. How do they differ and what do they have in common?
This is poetry meant to be sung and recited. Originally addressed to the Puerto Rican community in New York and presented in the Nuyorican Café, it is poetry for the masses.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
There is a good basis for comparison with Alurista, the Mexican-American poet who was the first to publish bilingual poetry in this country. (See Floricanto en Aztlán.)
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
Study questions for Laviera would try to help students contextualize his poetry both historically and aesthetically. For example:
1. How would you describe El Barrio in New York? How does Laviera present it in his poems?
2. After reading Laviera's poems, how would you define poetry? What kind of language is appropriate for poetry? Would Laviera's work fit into your definition?
A good and challenging writing assignment is to ask students to write their own bilingual poem (using any other language they may know). Discuss problems and effects.
Paper topics would include textual analysis of one poem; a discussion of the functions of language and bilingualism, and its problems; language and ethnic identity; the functions of humor and irony.
Juan Flores, John Attinasi, and Pedro Pedraza, Jr., "La Carreta Made a U-Turn: Puerto Rican Language and Culture in the United States," Daedalus 110:2 (Spring, 1981): 193-217; Wolfgang Binder, "Celebrating Life: The AmeRícan Poet Tato Laviera," Introduction to AmeRícan by Tato Laviera, 1985, 5-10; Juan Flores, "Keys to Tato Laviera," Introduction to Enclave by Tato Laviera, 1985, 5-7; Frances Aparicio, "La vida es un spanglish disparatero: Bilingualism in Nuyorican Poetry," European Perspectives on Hispanic Literature of the United States, ed. Genvieve Fabre, 1988, 147-60.