Karen Jaime to discuss Nuyorican Poets Café in queer, political context

By F. Amanda Tugade

Dr. Karen Jaime found her voice at 22, as the words to her poem “The Open Room” first tickled the tip of her tongue. The lines of her poem contorted to the movement of her mouth, while the rhythm caused dramatic waves reverberating against the static, attentive audience. She tasted the spotlight on her lips, and smelled the scents of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York City, where she grew up. According to Jaime, it smelled like home.

The year was 1997, and the 22-year-old had a Cornell University degree in history and Spanish literature tucked under her belt. The young Latina frequented the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and deemed it her own official space. She continued to perform spoken word at the cafe for the next decade.

The Nuyorican Poets Cafe, which opened in 1973, resides in New York’s lower East Village, and “connects different pockets of people from Chinatown to SoHo,” Jaime said. Nuyoricans are New York Puerto Ricans, and the Nuyorican Poets Cafe created a shift from focusing solely on a specific identity to an aesthetic practice, said Dr. Jonathan Inda, associate professor of Latino and Latina Studies.

“Queerness has a lot of meanings, and it is a developing meaning in that context,” Inda said, adding that there is a lack of research done about the cafe in that angle.

A post-doctoral fellow at the University, Jaime will present her research on the cafe’s role as a political and racial entity at an event titled, “Queer Poetry in Loisaida: Nuyorican History, Miguelito Piñero, and an Emerging Aesthetic.” The discussion is a part of the fall 2013 Colloquium Series at the Asian American Cultural Center, and will take place Wednesday from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.

The hour-and-a-half dialogue will concentrate on how the cafe is an ethnic space for the Latino, Puerto Rican and “queer” communities. She will also discuss how the cafe cultivates an understanding of the relationship between minorities and performance. Jaime said the cafe functions as a place that uses literature and performance of spoken word to open up dialogue for minority communities.

Jaime said she defines “queer” not only as understanding sexuality, but also as a political space.

She argues that Nuyorican Poets Cafe is a “queer” space because it operates outside established norms that minority subjects inhabit — they make a “home” out of not belonging.

“What does it mean for a brown body to go on stage?” Jaime asked, adding that the cafe also highlights the lack of exposure to writers of color in mainstream literature.

Alicia Rodriguez, academic adviser and coordinator in the department of Latino and Latina Studies, said that Jaime’s topic is one that “should be out” and shared with others.

“You have to deal with (queerness) in multiple ways, from day to day and (in) the classroom,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez attended Jaime’s other discussion, which took place Thursday, Nov. 7. She noted Jaime’s ability to merge spoken word and her background into her presentation.

Ariana Ruiz, graduate student in LAS, shares Jaime’s perspective on the cafe.

“It is important for students to be exposed to these ideas, as they inform our reading practices, views and relationships to others and ourselves,” Ruiz said. She added that she will be attending the discussion Wednesday.

Amanda can be reached at [email protected]