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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Tato Laviera
(b. 1951)

Tato Laviera was born in Puerto Rico and has lived in New York City since 1960. A second-generation Puerto Rican writer, a poet and playwright, he is deeply committed to the social and cultural development of Puerto Ricans in New York. In addition, he has taught Creative Writing at Rutgers and other universities on the East Coast.

His poetry and plays are linguistic and artistic celebrations of Puerto Rican culture, African Caribbean traditions, the fast rhythms of life in New York City, and of life in general. Laviera writes in English, Spanish, and Spanglish, a mixture of the two. His superior command of both languages and the playful yet serious value he imparts to Spanglish, distinguishes his writing from others of his generation. For example, the titles of two of his books, Enclave and AmeRícan, suggest double readings in Spanish and English. Laviera’s poetry is highly relevant to the study of bilingual and bicultural issues, for in it he documents, examines, and questions what it means to be a Puerto Rican in the United States. His texts have reflected the changes and transitions that his community has undergone since the major migrations of the 1940s and, moreover, offer a paradigm of what pluralistic America should really be all about.

In La Carreta Made a U-Turn one finds forceful poems denouncing the hardships, injustices, and social problems that the poor Puerto Rican confronts in New York City: cold, hunger, high rents, eviction, drug addiction, linguistic alienation, unemployment. The second part of this collection, entitled “Loisaida (Lower East Side) Streets: Latinas Sing,” examines the issues and problems affecting today’s Latina women. This is, perhaps, one of the few instances in which a Hispanic male writer conscientiously and sympathetically addresses the conflicts of bicultural Hispanic women. Laviera concludes this book with a series of poems which celebrate African Caribbean music, both in its traditional functions as well as in its resurgence within the contemporary urban context of New York City.

Laviera has been called a “chronicler of life in El Barrio” and rightly so. His poetic language is not influenced by the written, academic tradition of poetry, but instead it is informed by popular culture, by the oral tradition of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, and by the particular voices spoken and heard in El Barrio. Gossip, refrains, street language, idiomatic expressions, interjections, poetic declamation, and African Caribbean music such as salsa, rhumbas, mambos, sones and música jíbara (mountain music), are but some of the raw material with which Laviera constructs his poems. Though published in a written format, Laviera’s poetry is meant to be sung and recited.

A central tenet to Laviera’s work is his identification with the African American community in this country. On the one hand, he reinforces the unity and common roots of blacks and Puerto Ricans: “it is called Africa in all of us.” This tendency also reflects the new multi-ethnic constitution of America which has supplanted the old myth of the melting pot. In this context Laviera’s poems are reaffirmations of his Puetroricanness, and of his community’s as a new national identity that diverges from the insular Puerto Rican. He proposes a new ethnic identity which includes other minority groups in the country. New York City becomes the space where this convergence and cultural mestizaje (mixing) takes place. While maintaining a denunciative stance through the use of irony and tongue-in-cheek humor, Laviera’s work flourishes with a contagious optimism, and his poems are true songs to the joy of living which Puerto Ricans profoundly feel despite the harsh circumstances in which they live.

Frances R. Aparicio
University of Illinois at Chicago

In the Heath Anthology
frío (1976)
AmeRícan (1985)
Latero Story (1988)

Other Works
La Carreta Made a U-Turn (1976)
Olú Clemente (theatre) (1979)
Enclave (1981)
Mainstream Ethics (1988)

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Tato Laviera
Two student essays on Laviera's work and life.

Secondary Sources

Frances Aparicio, "La vida es un spanglish disparatero: Bilingualism in Nuyorican Poetry," European Perspectives on Hispanic Literature of the United States, ed. Genevieve Fabre, 1988, pp. 147-160

Wolfgang Binder, "Celebrating Life: The AmeRican Poet Poet Tato Laviera," Introduction to AmeRican by Tato Laviera, 1985, 5-7

Juan Flores, John Attinasi and Pedro Pedraza, Jr., "La Carreta Made a U-Turn: Puerto Rican Language and Culture in the United States," 110:2 Daedalus (Spring, 1981): 193-217

Growing Up Hispanic (videorecording), 1988

William Luis, Dance between Two Cultures: Latino Carribean Literature Written in the U.S., 1997

Marc Zimmerman, U.S. Latino Literature: An Essay and Annotated Bibliography, 1992