It feels good to be Nuyorican
Thanks to Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama’s U.S. Supreme Court nominee, Americans may have to start wrapping their tongues and minds around a word that has nothing to do with abortion rights or the 2nd Amendment, but a lot to do with the country’s evolving ethnic and cultural profile: Nuyorican.
Referring to a person of Puerto Rican parentage or heritage born and (usually) raised in New York City, or to the culture of that group, it’s a term that the Bronx-born judge embraces proudly. The word, a phonetic hybrid of English and Spanish that’s pronounced new-yoh-REE-ken, and sometimes spelled Neorican or Newyorican, is familiar to New Yorkers, especially those connected to the culture of the Lower East Side, the South Bronx or Spanish Harlem.
But it appears to have clanked off the ears of some non-New Yorkers who perhaps were hearing the term for the first time this week. Already, bloggers are feuding about the correct spelling of the word, which the Washington Post, among other outlets, has written as “Newyorkrican,” a spelling that fails to recognize the redundant, hard-sounding “k” in “york,” which no native Spanish speaker would be likely to pronounce.
However it’s said, Nuyorican, both as a word and as a culture, is a rich blend of influences. And like any complex blend, it’s not without a few tart elements.
Arnaldo Cruz-Malave, a professor of Spanish and comparative literature at Fordham College at Lincoln Center in Manhattan, said the term originally was a pejorative coined by Puerto Ricans living on the Caribbean island to identify Puerto Ricans living in New York, the preferred destination of those who moved to the mainland during the middle part of the 20th century.
“When I was a child, no one ever said, ‘Oh, you’re moving to the United States.’ They said, ‘You’re moving to New York.’ New York was the United States,” said Cruz-Malave, who was born in San Sebastián in northwest Puerto Rico (many of whose residents actually moved to Chicago, he said).
Sotomayor’s parents were born in Puerto Rico after passage of a 1917 law that automatically conferred U.S. citizenship on island-born residents, so technically they and others like them were not “immigrants” to New York. An estimated 800,000 people of Puerto Rican descent live in metropolitan New York City.
But in the eyes of many Puerto Ricans who remained on the island, those who left during the so-called Gran migracion (Great Migration) between the 1930s and 1960s, and their children, traded their native language and culture for the adopted customs of the U.S. They were perceived to have forsaken Spanish for English, salsa for doo-wop, rice and beans for hot dogs and pizza and a dynamic centuries-old Afro-Caribbean-indigenous heritage for Anglo pop culture.
What’s more, Nuyoricans (also called neorriquenos) were often perceived by puertorriquenos as being likely to favor U.S. statehood for Puerto Rico, a hot-button issue dating to the United States’ annexation of Puerto Rico and other former Spanish territories at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898. Although Nuyorican political loyalties tended to be far more mixed, Cruz-Malave said, the stereotype persisted. Ivan Roman, the Bronx-born son of Puerto Rican immigrants who is executive director of the National Assn. of Hispanic Journalists in Washington, D.C., said that when he was growing up in Brooklyn in the 1960s and early ‘70s, distinctions between Nuyorican and Puerto Rican youth centered on matters of style and taste. “It had to do with how you dressed and what language was your primary language and what music you listened to,” he said.
In the 1970s, as New York and other U.S. cities were suffering through crime waves, crumbling social infrastructure and the economic aftershocks of soaring oil prices, a reverse migration occurred as large numbers of Nuyoricans began moving back to the island in search of jobs and housing.
Roman’s family settled in what was then a small town outside the capital of San Juan, and he and his two sisters quickly embraced Puerto Rican culture in a process of reverse-assimilation shared by others.
Meanwhile, back in New York, a cultural Nuyorican movement was underway, building on such founding texts as “A Puerto Rican in New York” by Jesús Colón. In the mid-1970s, a group of academics, artists and sundry bohemians led by Shakespeare scholar Miguel Algarin and playwright and actor Miguel Pinero, among others, established the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the East Village. (Some of their exploits are depicted in the 2001 feature film “Pinero,” starring Benjamin Bratt.) The late Latin jazz legend Tito Puente and actor Jennifer Lopez are among the New York-bred children of Puerto Rican parents whose talents merged different cultural traditions.
The cafe remains highly active today, showcasing artists of many backgrounds and promoting slam poetry and other hybrid cultural forms that reflect its dual parentage, said executive director Daniel Gallant. “For Puerto Rican New Yorkers, the cafe holds a very strong place in everyone’s identity. It harkens back to a vital juncture of those two cultures.”
Partly through demographic changes, partly through cultural shifts, Nuyoricans began to reclaim the term used to describe them and give it a positive spin, much as Mexican Americans gradually did with the term “Chicano.”
The greatest evidence that Nuyorican, both as a concept and a social reality, is now viewed positively both on and off the island may have come this week, when many Puerto Ricans cheered Sotomayor’s nomination.
Some even paid her the compliment of declaring her to be “Boricua,” a term of prideful self-identification used by Puerto Rican islanders that derives from the country’s Taino Indian heritage.
“We need to expand our view of what it is to be Puerto Rican,” Roman said. “We’re not in a box anymore.”