Algarín's most important contributions to 20th-century American poetry are his role in the development of the Nuyorican poetry movement, a group of writers and artists working in the 1960s and 1970s to establish a voice for New York Puerto Ricans, his spoken-word poetry (see poetry in performance), and his commitment to an alternative arts space that has opened the artistic community—particularly theater, poetry, and music— within the United States to artists of color. Algarín's 14 books and plays engage the mixture of his United States, Puerto Rican, and New York identities. In 1974, seeking to support fellow Nuyorican writers, along with the playwright Miguel Piñero, Algarín played host to the first Nuyorican Poets Café, originally held in his living room. The second, and current, Nuyorican Poets Café, an important site for poetry slams, opened in 1989, after an eight-year hiatus, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, Algarín immigrated to New York City with his family in 1951. They learned to negotiate the difficulties of adjusting to the United States while maintaining strong cultural and ethnic ties to Puerto Rico; this experience forms the basis for much of his work and the work of others he fosters. Algarín received a B.A. from the University of Wisconsin (1963) and an M.A. from Pennsylvania State University (1965). Although Algarín completed all of the work for a Ph.D., he refused to accept the degree because of the turbulent political climate of 1967 and the struggle for civil rights. He joined the English faculty at Rutgers University in 1971. Among many honors, Algarín has received a Bessie Award, for outstanding creative work by independent artists in dance and performance arts in New York City, and American Book Awards, an honor awarded annually by the Before Columbus Foundation, in 1981, 1986, and 1994.
In "Sunday, August 11, 1974," he writes of Latino families who, upon leaving church, "have crossed themselves and are now going home to share in the peace of / the day, pan y mantequilla, una taza de café and many sweet recollections." His infusion of Nuyorican language and experience, here demonstrated in the easy mixture of Spanish and English, and his challenge to formal poetry in his long, proselike lines, typify his work and that of many young Nuyorican poets. The gritty, urban edge of the Nuyorican Café poets relies on an audience willing to hear new voices, as Algarín explains in the introduction to Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café: "[T]he importance of poetry at the Café, is rooted in its capacity to draw in audiences ranging from our immediate working-class neighbors out for a beer and some fun to serious poetry lovers willing to engage the new poets the Café features" (18). Algarín's legacy lies in his own poetry and his vision to provide a forum for other poets and artists.
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