¡Que te cante—yo tambien!*A Tribute To Tato Laviera
Tato Laviera’s debut collection, La Carreta Made a U-turn, was published in 1979, the first book published by Arte Público Press. Over 30 years later I sort of stumbled onto this collection, not realizing how big it would be to my growth and trajectory as a writer. It was my junior year of college and I was just starting to take myself more seriously as a poet, to dedicate myself to the work. A professor of mine had lent me his copy of Martín Espada’s Imagine the Angels of Bread and City of Coughing and Dead Radiators, and in my search for more of Espada’s work in the Vanderbilt library, I found Laviera’s debut. To this day I’m still not quite sure why I picked it up. Maybe it was the cover, something intriguing about a stray shopping cart holding a drum, guitar, and straw hat. Maybe it was Laviera’s picture on the back—the mere idea it inspired of reading a book by a Puerto Rican author that looked like me. What I do know is that from the moment I picked it up I was fascinated. From “para ti, mundo bravo” to “declamación” I felt something I hadn’t felt since picking up The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes in high school: I felt seen. I felt represented, like my life could be the stuff of poetry.
When I first read La Carreta Made a U-turn I was moved by Laviera’s celebration of the African roots in Puerto Rican and Latinx cultures, and the connections Laviera made between different Afrodiasporic cultures. I was especially drawn to “the salsa of bethesda fountain,”** in which Laviera details the African roots of salsa music and speaks of the meeting of Afro-Latinx and African-American cultures. He equates the bomba and plena of Afro-Puerto Rican Ismael Rivera to the soul songs of Marvin Gaye; “a blackness in spanish” he calls the former's, “a blackness in english” the latter's. Most notably, he ends the poem by bringing the two together, in case it wasn’t clear what he was doing in the poem: “did you say you want it stronger? / well, okay, it is a root called africa / in all of us.”
It wouldn’t be right to reduce Laviera’s celebration of Afrolatinidad and blackness to just the content of his work. Each time I revisit “the salsa of bethesda fountain” I’m captured by its music, set up by the almost-refrain that leads off the first four stanzas as well as the seamless way in which Laviera works the little bits of Spanish he includes in the poem (and aside from the fourth stanza, where a few lines are written in Spanish, it really is just a few words here and there). That musicality enhances the experience of a poem that centers itself around music as a uniting factor across the African diaspora.
But Laviera does more than this to center blackness’s place in Puerto Rican culture and Latinidad more broadly. A stanza of this poem I continually come back to is the second, in which Laviera invokes the figure of Miguel de Cervantes and compares salsa music to his magnum opus, Don Quixote:
the internal soul of salsa is like don quijote de la mancha classical because the roots are from long ago, the symbol of cer- vantes writing in pain of a lost right arm, and in society today, the cha-cha slow dance welfare
In many of my early interactions with this poem, this stanza perplexed me. It’s the only stanza of the poem that doesn’t explicitly try to connect salsa music to its black roots or a diasporic sense of blackness. And yet the thing that kept calling out to me in this stanza is that break between the fourth and fifth lines, the breaking apart of Cervantes’s name. Obviously there are a number of ways to consider that break. Perhaps Laviera was trying to keep the lines a consistent length on the page (though that notion is also challenged by lines later in the poem that extend to a similar point on the page this fourth line would with the name unbroken). Perhaps Laviera is using the page to represent Cervantes’s lost arm. But I see a defiance in this stanza and in those lines particularly. First in equating salsa (once looked down upon because of its black roots) to Don Quixote, a seminal text not just in Spanish culture but in Western literature. Second in splitting the name of Cervantes, often dubbed the father of the Spanish language. In one stanza and one line break, Laviera disrupts power dynamics, calling into question just how important the European influence on Puerto Rican and Latinx cultures. This is enforced later in the poem when Laviera insists “permit me to say these words / in afro-spanish.” He calls upon Cervantes’s legacy and language, but makes it clear that his tongue is not precisely that of Cervantes; Laviera’s Spanish is a black Spanish, a Spanish that gives birth to bomba and plena and feeds into salsa music. This spirit of defiance and celebration is consistent in Laviera’s work, and runs through this debut collection.
Growing up with a Puerto Rican father and African-American mother, I wasn’t always sure how to claim these identities. My parents always encouraged me to fully embrace both cultures, but at times it didn’t always feel like I could. Moving between different groups in my hometown of Seattle often meant having to downplay one identity for me. At times folks tried to police which my identity, either explicitly (“you’re not really black”) or through a strange defense of their own identity (“I’m just regular black”). In Laviera’s work I found a home. I found a space in which I no longer had to move around or be in-between. And for that, Tato, I thank you. Gracias, poeta.
Que descanse en paz.
*Title taken from Grupo Afro Boricua’s bomba rendition of Rafael Hernández’s “Lamento Borincano”**Laviera, Tato. “the salsa of bethesda fountain.” La Carreta Made a U-turn. 2nd ed., Arte Público, 1992, 67-68.