The Queer Nuyorican: Racialized Sexualities and Aesthetics in Loisaida

The Queer Nuyorican: Racialized Sexualities and Aesthetics in Loisaida, by Karen Jaime. New York City, NY:  New York University Press, 2021; 275pp. $28.00 paper.

Karen Jaime’s love letter to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, a primarily spoken word venue on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, moves the reader toward an aesthetic practice aside from, but also part of, the Nuyorican identity marker. She marks the café’s history extensively in a single passionate breath, hopping from moment to movement in a stunning analysis of Loisaida, the “Spanglish version of ‘Lower East Side’ by the neighborhood’s then [the 1970s] predominantly Puerto Rican Spanish-speaking residents,” (14) as a physical, mental, and cognitive space of bicultural existence. Thus, she suggests a lowercase n for a ‘nuyorican aesthetic’ that both subscribes to the fundamentals of providing critical and cultural space for Puerto Ricans living in New York, as intended in its founding, yet also expands the framework to include other pejorative subjects interacting within that metaphoric and literal space. By keeping the word “Nuyorican” within the named aesthetic modality and lowercasing the n, Jaime signifies the expansiveness she sets out to express while also preserving respect for the primary function of the term as it relates to and ignited the Nuyorican Poets Cafe’s beginnings. The combination of acknowledging Nuyorican as a specific ethnic identity marker —and former pejorative—while simultaneously exploring the aesthetic’s capabilities to diversify and hold more stories from marginalized communities is emblematic of the entire book.

Jaime’s Introduction proposes a nuyorican aesthetic subsumed by “recombination, positionality, gesturality, and orality,” (5) as formed by queer and trans artists who have moved through the Cafe’s history not unnoticed but, rather, buried in the sea of masculinist heteronormative chronicles. It seems pertinent to acknowledge that though this book is introduced as a means of restoring a largely concealed queer history, Jaime is regularly visiting the intersection between racial and sexual identities as a celebration of the Café’s queer artists of color’s aesthetic and artistic journeys. The argument laid out in the introduction is further developed by the book’s following four chapters, which serve as case studies of Jaime’s vision of nuyorican aesthetics. Through a focus on four specific sites of racialized queer and/or trans artists who have lived and breathed the space, Jaime poses how this Nuyorican aesthetic practice supports the Café’s founding principles without reducing the place to a specific ethnic narrative.

Persuasively, the book analyzes the founding and obscured queer history of the Nuyorican Poets Café, challenging scholarship that frames the Cafe’s history in a purely heteropatriarchal context. In this, Jaime joins, or rather interjects into, the lively debate between Pedro Pietri and Bob Holman. Yet as she criticizes their debate, she claims that her scholarship “underscores the theorizations, the poetic formulations, the call-and-response interactions, and the histories and argumentation encoded in Nuyorican and nuyorican aesthetics.” (5) Oddly, she neglects to outline that debate. Perhaps she imagines a target audience of specialists who already know the context of their debate, which readers can surmise. Perhaps, the larger stakes she challenges relate to semantics more than historiography. One concept driving her argument of nuyorican aesthetics emphasizes recodification, which reinforces the survival technique of minoritized communities who reclaim terms that intend to demean and further marginalize them. Historically, she explains, the term “Nuyorican” was once used to condemn New Yorkans of Puerto Rican descent for their use of Spanglish, but co-founders Miguel Algarín and Miguel Piñero re-coded it with the Café to evoke shared identity. Recodification is further expressed, and extended in chapter two’s Regie Cabico, expressed by the way he “camps up his racialized ethnicity and his Filipinoness” (72) and in chapter four’s Ellison Glenn via their stage name and persona of “Black Cracker.” Anyone who rejects the efficacy of minoritized subjects reclaiming slurs or words that carry belittling historical connotations may doubt this crucial element of the nuyorican aesthetics Jaime analyzes. Nonetheless, most readers will laugh and recognize the activism of Ellison Glenn as Black Cracker performing their audacious poem about the homophobic and classist policies of the George W. Bush administration.

Jaime’s metaphorical imagery in each chapter effectively paints the physical space and atmosphere of the Nuyorican Poets Café, making this book riveting to read. We not only feel like we are in the room but also that we are initiated into the deep connection and love to/of the space that Jaime shares. Despite this pleasurable non-linear narrative—which proudly displays a queeronology (a ‘not straight’ timeline) to intentionally center performance experience and marginalized aesthetics—the organization of this book somewhat obscures the thesis.

Ultimately, each separate chapter operates as a love letter to its subject, while the entire volume resembles a museum, curating concealed performance history and genealogies of culture. The Queer Nuyorican has the potential to make readers hopeful for a queer future through its particular connection to the queer past. The book’s chapters, organized by artistic subjects, make for a gratifying read for specialists, as well as more general audiences, allowing for a more queer, and racially diverse, view of the field. Jaime’s intervention in performance scholarship is niche, in ways, yet also models a travelling aesthetic practice. It is easy to see how this book might supplement a course on the Nuyorican Poets Cafe or histories of hip-hop and spoken word, or even cultural diversity in the Americas. Certainly, its discourse on expansive aesthetics as a site of queer of color critique adds significance. Although her rendering of ‘nuyorican aesthetics’ might be read to pigeonhole minoritized subjects into political existence, Karen Jaime nevertheless reminds us how our bodies, and therefore identities, are implicated in performance. The Queer Nuyorican reminds us that when we analyze performance rich sociopolitical histories interact alongside the words, gestures, and bodies of respective artists; thus, the volume advances our grasp of performance’s body politics and Latinx cultural studies.

Cailyn Sales
University of Colorado-Boulder

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 35, Number 1 (Fall 2022)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2022 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center