PLACES IN THE PUERTO RICAN HEART
by Ed Morales
[In 1990, I interviewed Eddie Figueroa for a piece I planned to publish in the Village Voice. At the time he gave me a videocassette filmed by an unknown videographer featuring highlights of a benefit event he held for his Puerto Rican Embassy project. The Hi-8 tape of the event and a series of interviews held a few months before Figueroa’s death are the primary sources for this article.]
“Twenty years ago this rumor began to spread about a revolution. It was a historical moment that changed a lot of things for the Puerto Rican people. For me it was being born again, it was learning about my mother and my father and my people. It was a moment that we were able to see ourselves in the deepest way. It was a moment of tremendous love. In that one moment everything was transformed, and then just that quickly that moment was gone.“
–Eddie Figueroa, addressing audience members at a benefit for The Spirit Republic of Puerto Rico
In April of 1990, Club Broadway, a remnant of the old cuchifrito circuit, was packed for Rites of Passage, a benefit for Eddie Figueroa. Figueroa, most famous for being the founder of the New Rican Village, a bastion of experimental, activist-inspired culture that opened in 1976, was currently pushing the idea of an embassy for his brainchild, “The Spirit Republic of Puerto Rico.” A self-styled visionary—part theatrical innovator and part street hustler—Figueroa was emblematic of what some call the Nuyorican generation.
The event drew a sizable crowd during a time when the Young Lords, a radical Puerto Rican nationalist group patterned in rhetoric and style after the Black Panthers, was celebrating its 20th anniversary. It was a moment in which the New York Puerto Rican community was looking back on its legacy of radical activism. But Figueroa, a lesser-known member of the Lords, had chosen a different path, one that focused on culture rather than politics. So it was unclear whether it was ironic or fitting when ex-Young Lord Felipe Luciano, in his rambling introduction of Figueroa, tried to describe how his concept of a “New Rican Aesthetic” was born on an East Harlem corner.
“In 1969, a group of young Puerto Rican men and women decided that we were no longer going to accept the definition that other people had of us,”said Luciano. “We were going to stop the abuse of institutions, and we decided to fight back. In that group was Eddie Figueroa. Amidst all the contradictions, and the love lost and the hurt and the pain, he came to me on a stoop one day and said, ’Felipe, what we need to do is to look at ourselves.’”
Luciano was indirectly alluding to what some felt was a fatal flaw that helped to unravel the Young Lords—de-emphasis of the personal in favor of the political. But his story was also reminiscent of a story Luciano liked to tell about how, in the late ’60s, he left The Last Poets – a group that prefigured the modern spoken word movement as well as rap and hip-hop – to focus on his Puerto Rican roots and constituency. Luciano said that Last Poet Guylan Kane took him aside one day and said, “It’s time for you to go home now.” For Luciano, going home led him to a group of young Latinos who would form the Young Lords.
Figueroa was typical of his Nuyorican generation in that he was a man of the street, a picaresque figure whose narrative combined the hustler’s pregón and the semi-intellectual air of the counterculture. He was moved by what he felt was a profound awakening of consciousness in the 1960s and 1970s, absorbing influences from New York bohemia and radical politics, but soon embarked on a deeper understanding of Puerto Rican spiritual identity. He was a strong reminder of the sociological coincidence of the U.S.’s baby boomer generation and the coming of age of the children of Puerto Rico’s Great Migration.
Drawn to the Young Lords like many East Harlem youth, Figueroa found political activism a way for him to engage in both art and activism. In an interview published in the Brooklyn Rail in 2006, film archivist Henry Medina said, “Eddie had a title, like Minister of Culture – he’d figured out that what the Lords were doing was theater in the streets.” When the Lords’ mission faltered, Eddie Figueroa decided he had to take the radical politics of the 1970s home to Puerto Rico, or the Puerto Rico he found inside of himself, and his surroundings, a rapidly tropicalizing New York. He felt that the Lords might have lost sight of who they were. They were, after all, in their early 20s, and because of the militant tone of many liberation groups of the time, they were subjected to destabilizing pressures from COINTELPRO, a government program designed to erode these groups from within.
This repression through infiltration, fomenting internal dissension and sabotage – as well as the end of the Vietnam War, a major organizing tool – had sapped the energy of much of the New Left and made it more difficult for the Lords to deliver on the sweeping social change they promised. Figueroa was disillusioned by the way the radical left promoted the primacy of class analysis over cultural nationalism and felt it had the effect of stifling creativity of its adherents.
As his participation in the Lords waned, Figueroa immersed himself in the theater, acting in Miguel Piñero’s 1974 play Short Eyes. “I played the lead when it went to Europe and I was understudy for the lead when it was on Broadway.” Figueroa looked downtown, where Piñero was helping create a scene at the Nuyorican Poets Café, for inspiration.
“There was all this energy down on the Lower East Side and so I opened up the New Rican Village there. We brought together all of the arts, with philosophy, a belief system, a dream vision, all of these things together without a business perspective–that’s what allowed the shit to fly, cause it was so fuckin’ loose. You could come in and create whatever it is that you wanted to do, man,” he said.
In addition to producing several of Pietri’s plays, as well as those of Miriam Colón (future director of the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater), the New Rican Village was the home of Afro-Caribbean music’s avant-garde. It was a virtual who’s-who of New York Latin jazz: Hilton Ruiz, Daniel Ponce, Mario Rivera, Dave Valentín, Michel Camilo, and Andy and Jerry González all cut their teeth there. Many of these players were members or guests with Manny Oquendo’s Conjunto Libre, a group famous for a kind of jazz-influenced improvisational salsa.
“It was the hottest place in town,” said Figueroa, “where the rebel forces came together in all those disciplines to take a stand for this cultural movement. I had the biggest fucking collection of anarchists down there.”
By the late ’70s, Figueroa, influenced by Gestalt psychology, Pedro Albizu Campos’s nationalist movement, and a kind of informal New Age methodology, had decided to focus his energies on self-transformation. He threw himself into presiding over a performance space designed to create cultural transformation called New Rican Village. In what is now the Pyramid Club on Avenue A in the Lower East Side, Figueroa’s great experiment was a showcase for the cutting edge in Puerto Rican theater, music, and poetry, featuring names like Puerto Rican Traveling Theater director Miriam Colón, Latin-jazz pioneer Jerry González, and poet Pedro Pietri.
An article by Marina Roseman published in a 1983 edition of the Latin American Music Review summarized some of the conceptual underpinnings of New Rican Village. “Concepts such as ‘myth and reality,’ ‘renaissance,’ and personal growth…represent central concerns of the participants of the NRV,” she wrote. Figueroa identified liberating oneself from a colonized mentality through personal transformation as a way of ’taking control of the myth-making machinery‘ that had been used by the dominant culture to subjugate Puerto Rican and other marginalized communities. Through the art and theater activities presented at New Rican Village, Figueroa hoped to fuse the traditional and contemporary aspects of Puerto Rican culture to create a new myth and reality that would house a newly imagined Puerto Rican nation.”
But Figueroa was a self-confessed lousy businessman. After a tumultuous yet artistically successful run of about four years, Figueroa had to give up the New Rican Village space. He refused to sell any interest in his ventures to outside investors, and was forced to move in and out of spaces, turning little profit. He found himself cut off from funding by a grantsmanship world he never mastered. Figueroa moved the Latin jazz scene he fostered at New Rican Village to an Upper West Side loft called Soundscape run by ethnomusicologist Verna Gillis and staged theatrical events in various locations.
As the ‘80s – a decade whose governmental policies eroded the funding sources that had supported so many of the early Nuyorican cultural and community organizations – wore on, Figueroa tried to locate his concept of a free New York Puerto Rican cultural space in the Puerto Rican Embassy, a free-floating institution that moved from venue to venue. By the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Embassy held events called Rites of Passage. The stages of the Village Gate and Club Broadway hosted Embassy benefits, which would usually feature Hilton Ruiz and Dave Valentin, poets Pedro Pietri and Jesús “Papoleto” Meléndez, and the Puerto Rican Embassy Theater Ensemble, the latter group co-directed by Figueroa, his brother Willie and Ana Ramos.
But these efforts came as Figueroa’s life was in its final stages. In 1988, Figueroa was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given about a year to live. When I visited him in the East Harlem housing project where he shared an apartment with his daughter, he came at me in waves, exploding from every direction – oozing with the fury, passion, and sentimentality of a barrio prophet. When I asked him what it meant to be Puerto Rican, his brow creased, as if he were letting me in on something.
“We are a deep, dark story. Our people are a secret unto themselves.”
Figueroa was sick, but he insisted he didn’t need medicine. He had what he called “botánica awareness,” a time-shifting worldview he got as part of growing up Puerto Rican and visiting botánicas, Afro-Caribbean pharmacies that act as dispensaries of religious medicine and counsel, serving Caribbean diaspora and those curious about alternatives to Western medicine and religion in barrios from the Bronx to Brooklyn. For Figueroa, botánica awareness was more than just organic self-healing—it was a mystic state he felt was essential to Puerto Rican culture.
I asked him what it was, exactly.
“Man, it’s the belief in magic, the belief in a multidimensional universe, the belief in simultaneous eternal time, that what we’re seeing is only a part of what it is, and that this is inside of something else, and that the real mystery, the real point of all of this is the investigation, the navigation of the self, of the heart, the spirit, because that is where the truth is.”
Figueroa’s cancer diagnosis only cemented his commitment to spiritual healing, and for a time, it worked. When I interviewed him, he had outlived the prediction of Western medicine by more than a year, convincing him even further that he was onto something.
After being told about his curtailed life expectancy, he said he was visited in his dreams by espiritistas, acolytes of his mother’s favored belief system, one that focused heavily on communicating with deceased ancestors and friends. “I was fortunate enough to be raised in a home where we believed in a world that you don’t see through your eyes, that you see through your heart when you close your eyes in your sleep,” he said.
With its focus on communicating with spirits unstuck in time, the espiritista doctrine, said Figueroa, speaks of perpetual change and transformation, of another world behind the perceptible one. “Jung calls it synchronicity,” Figueroa said matter-of-factly.
While Figueroa’s logic was as free-floating as his beliefs, the idea that the Puerto Rican psyche can contain a non-linear, non-rational component was intriguing to me. It dovetailed with an idea about bilingual/bicultural identity that was gaining traction in the ‘90s, one that I thought about while watching Jerry González introduce his Fort Apache Band at the Club Broadway Puerto Rican Embassy benefit.
“Larry Willis is on piano, this is my brother Andy on bass,” González muttered, pausing for a moment, “and I’m trying to be two people at once.” Just like González, who was referring to how he was trying to reconcile his love for North American jazz with the Afro-Caribbean traditions of Puerto Rico by playing both horns and congas, Puerto Ricans are constantly wrestling with their identity. Could Figueroa be saying that Puerto Ricans, when fully invested in their culture, can be several people at once, in several places, looking backward from the future into the past?
“New Rican is an open-ended idea to unify our identity,” Figueroa explained, “Our culture is the culture of the future…life doesn’t proceed in fuckin’ straight lines, you know.”
At the time Figueroa told me he was putting the finishing touches on a screenplay that was a kind of New Rican retelling of the Young Lords era. “Twenty years ago,” Figueroa recalled with tongue in cheek, “a revolution was announced. A revolution with all that implies. But it was just a rumor,” Figueroa insisted.
Figueroa claimed that the Lords used cultural events to merely buttress their political power rather than as the essence of cultural self-realization. And, like many artists in 20th century Socialist movements and regimes, he felt stifled by the party’s insistence that art be subordinated, regulated and censored to avoid any contradiction with “the revolution.”
“We’re asking a community to risk their lives for the revolution, and the community believes it, and the community has armed themselves, and they are ready to lay down their lives. There was a sense of a people going to fight a fuckin’ war!” he said.
“The Young Lords were able to put Puerto Rican independence back on the map again for a hot moment,” Figueroa continued, “but the characters of the screenplay at the end of the movie find themselves at the beginning of their lives, they’ve taken back their lives. External forces are no longer in control of their lives. They’re no longer colonial subjects.”
When reminded of the legacy left by prominent Young Lords members like Pablo Guzmán, Juan Gonzalez, Mickey Meléndez, Felipe Luciano, Iris Morales, Sonia Ivany, and Luis Garden Acosta, Figueroa admitted that they were essential to his development. “I love all of these people and I respect all of them,” said Figueroa, “for having shared in at least spreading the rumor of revolution, and hopefully we’re beginning a period now of healing that broken heart.”
Ironically, most of the leaders of the original Young Lords wound up sharing in Figueroa’s dream with their work in journalism, community organizing, and awareness of Latin music and other cultural production. They helped to open up a liberated space for Nuyorican self-expression that succeeding generations thrived in. On the other hand, Figueroa’s focus on Pedro Albizu Campos seemed to indirectly make up for the Lords’ imperfect involvement in the Puerto Rican independence movement, going deeper into a sense of spiritualism and culture.
Like Pedro Albizu Campos, who fused a kind of Christian morality with national pride, Figueroa strived to understand an essence of puertorriqueñidad that transcended political-economic analysis. He conceived of his Spirit Republic as a permanent solution to the colonial problem, substituting his hybrid pastiche of Eastern religion and psychology for Christianity, and an imaginary nationhood for Albizu Campos’s sense of patria.
“To be Puerto Rican is to be fuckin’ crazy,” Figueroa said without a trace of sadness or irony in his voice. “I knew I was crazy when I was a little kid. I’m talking about the effects of colonialism on the mind and then uniquely, specifically our experience here.”
Then he recited from Pietri’s “Puerto Rican Obituary”:
“To the United States we came
To learn how to misspell our name
To lose the definition of pride
To have misfortune on our side
To live where rats and roaches roam
In a house that is definitely not a home
To be trained to turn on television sets
To dream about jobs you will never get
To fill out welfare applications
To graduate from school without an education”
Pietri seemed to play a key role in Figueroa’s new direction. “After spending about thirty minutes with Pedro, the world was not the same again,” Figueroa remembered. “Shortly after, I was missing in action from the Young Lords, and Pedro and I went on with the work of building the New Rican cultural movement.”
After the New Rican days were long gone, all Figueroa had left in the last years of his life was the Puerto Rican Embassy, a cultural/educational center for the Spirit Republic of Puerto Rico, something he developed with Pietri and visual artist Adál Maldonado. The concept of the Embassy, said Figueroa, started with his studies in depth psychology as a theater student at NYU, and was reinforced by years of meditation and self-investigation.
He didn’t know it yet, but he was anticipating what many scholars and critics would eventually call the “imaginary nation,” a space where transnational identity could flourish without the need for an actual physical presence in the home country. “The Puerto Rican Embassy is a concept, it’s an idea, it’s not a physical location,” said Figueroa. “We’re dealing with concepts that are beyond geography, beyond three dimensions. With the Puerto Rican Embassy and the conception of the Spirit Republic of Greater Puerto Rico, we’re declaring our independence.”
This independence Figueroa envisioned would be beyond political independence, beyond the status debate between commonwealth, statehood, and independence. “The spirit republic is a free place. So we can do away with plebiscites and voting, because the only person that you should be voting for is yourself. To win this we don’t need weapons, this is the weapon that’s going to win,” he said, pointing to his heart. “The revolution is here, man.”
Figueroa, like many of his generation, could not escape the awareness of the historical moment he lived through, one that gave rise to a new sense of Puerto Rican identity. It was not bound to the island, to the Spanish language, to the perhaps unfairly designated ay bendito passivity of the original migrants. Ironically, by moving to the center of the colonial power, Puerto Rican migrants had literally given birth to children who could openly reject it, from every street corner of El Barrio, Loisaida, Williamsburg, and the Bronx. Figueroa had a deep need to keep that moment alive, and, with the Puerto Rican Embassy and the Spirit Republic, he thought he’d found a way to spark an eternal flame of spiritual resistance.
At the benefit at Club Broadway, Pedro Pietri gave voice to Figueroa’s Spirit Republic, locating it in a space that wasn’t physical, and didn’t exist according to the material conception of linear time.
“Welcome to the twenty-first century,” he read from his poem.
“The ’90s are over, the ’80s never came
It’s never too late to make plans for the past if the future is to have a present
The past is your future lover who you must, will, and shall invite to dinner in the town you were born in
Even if you were born somewhere else, you were born there
Within reach of that tropical beach where you practice what you preach naturally so help you the climate
And even though some of you have sworn to never again return, at the end of your performance as a human being
You will learn that you have never left the town that has kept you alive for so long”
Eddie Figueroa died in 1991, and in many ways, his memory has faded into obscurity. But as long as that imaginary Puerto Rican nation that he helped free from its original borders continues to thrive, none of us have lost contact with his spirit quite yet.
The Nuyorican imaginary has always needed its hardcore class analysis, its unrelenting nationalism and its poets and dreamers. I can only imagine Eddie would have wanted it all to mix together somehow and go on forever.
(Originally published here. Thanks to Libertad Guerra, Yasmín Ramírez, and Yamila Sterling for their input.)