Polyphony and Portable Identities

On the Niuyorriqueña Poetry of Tato Laviera
Salvador San Juan

For the book of poems La Carreta Made a U-turn, published in 1979, the “niuyorriqueño” poet Tato Laviera would choose a breaking point in the lines of “My graduation speech”:

i think in spanish
i write in english

i want to go back to puerto rico,
but i wonder if my kink could live
in ponce, mayagüez and carolina

tengo las venas aculturadas
escribo en spanglish (…)

[I have my veins acculturated
I write in spanglish

It can be read in the second couplet of these stanzas, the suggestive phrase “tengo las venas aculturadas”. A twirl towards Cuba in its 40s will tune us into this assertion. The anthropologist and writer, Fernando Ortiz used by then the concept of “Transculturation”, notion that displays a wide series of significances/meanings in what respects to the crossing, the meeting of two or more cultures. A brief labour of exegesis will show the relation of this concept with the term “acculturation”, ideated/devised by another anthropologist, the Pole Bronislaw Malinowski. Transculturation refers both to a partial deculturation—the diminishing/diminution of one’s own cultural elements—and to a neoculturation, the assimilation of new bases that correspond to what we could call the hostess culture. What can be useful for us when going back to the idea of transculturation, is the direct reference that Ortiz proposes about the affluence of cultural imaginary, and the interweaving of these in a context of cultural confluence. The migratory facets of the poetic latinoamerican subjects, the diaspora towards the major European and North American cities, concentrate a profuse flow in artistic phenomena, where the in transit identities assume and redefine processes of their (extra) territoriality. George Steiner, in his well-spread study “Extraterritorial”, suggests both an excision of the bodies in relation to their place of belonging (what we could call, along with the author, de-territorialization), and a re-territorialization, instance where all the subjects unload and tread a new soil, fecund substrate for creation.

The relation with new artistic aspects does not necessarily go against elements, which have great value in the eyes of the native culture: on the contrary, what is manifested in various occasions, is the irruption of a multiple semiosis, the configuration of a plural zone where, in the literature, there is announced the emergency and the update of diversified ways in the appropriation and use of the language. Maybe talking about bilingualism, for example, would be retracing a path that has been explored to death. Can we, by virtue of the babelic interweave of language, talk about linguistic multiculturalism? What are we talking about when we hear and read that the subject-creator blood flows through the veins in a state of “acculturation”? And also: What reconfiguration of identities is insinuated in the literary projects that emerge in this juncture? The niuyorriqueña poetry of Tato Laviera can introduce one of the possible answers to these questions.


assimilated? qué assimilated,
brother, yo soy asimilao,
así mi la o sí es verdad,
tengo un lado asimilao.

[assimilated? What is assimilated,
brother, I am “asmilao”
“así mi la o” yes it is true
I have an “asimilao” side]

In this fragment from the poem “AmeRícan” (1985), Tato Laviera—who was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, in 1951, and who has lived in New York since the ’60s—perceives with clarity the inexhaustible stream of the languages that flowing together find a univocal state of confluence. The enlargement of the linguistic edges, the profitable adoption of a polyvalent expressive form, manifests a hybrid domain, which carries the idea of inhabiting both in Spanish and in English and rip the language from this habitat.

If, as Steiner said, to be exiled is to place yourself out of the place of belonging, to consist from another territory, implies to oscillate “as in the tight rope” (Tato Laviera), between both spheres of territory and language, turning this sign of double appropriation into the catalyzing ferment of a literature in amalgam state. There appears then a sort of articulatory toponomy, which assembles the afro-Antillian cultural tradition, Portorriqueña in this case, with the North American imaginary. In such a way that Laviera finds a numen reluctant to be digested by a prestigious language and greater extent. As we can appreciate in the following lines, also taken from “AmeRícan”:

(…) el sonido LAO era demasiado negro
para LATED, LAO no pudo ser
traducido, asimilado,
no, asimilao, melao,
se volvió una negra
palabra española

[(…) the sound LAO was too black
for LATED, LAO could not be
translated, assimilated,
no, “asimilao”,” melao”
it turned one black
Spanish word

This unruly sonority of the final LAO is subordinated to the English version, which tries to adapt a Latin voice. If, as Jorge Luis Borges said, every translation is a betrayal, there exists one level of fidelity—which appears as a provocative artistic device—in an idiomatic safeguard that, immersed in the linguistic maremágnun, still maintains a degree of apparent impermeability. Here we have one of the sharpest nods of Laviera, which makes of this impermeable figurative state a permeable mechanism, the constitutive matrix of his poetry, since he puts into play a mélange of ingredients that due to their resonant differences rub and invigorate each other. There is an operation from the roughness of the contact that in this friction, fuels the creative spark that burns the poetic heats. This polyphonic, linguistic mortar, seems to consist out of inconsistency, appears to flow through channels that a priori show—from the content—to be clogged (there is not, there cannot be assimilation), but anyway it circulates in harmony from the figure.

Let’s imagine some oil drops poured into a water recipient. We can notice the oily ingredient gathering and deriving, presumably separated from the liquid that contains it. However, both, oil and water share a similar state of matter and co-exist, still maintaining the particular characteristics of their substance. In the impure liquidity of language, the lexical substances mix each other, and this fusion develops under protection of their distinctive features, keeping their intimate nature. If something is “too black” for being assimilated, that does not mean it cannot work in harmony with the English terms.

The strategy of untranslatability, already explored almost in extenso by Latin American Vanguards of the first decades of the 20th century (remember, for example, the inevitable poem book “Trilce” that appears in 1922 under the pen of the Peruvian César Vallejo), draws a large ellipsis in the years and geography, to reappear with another spirit, after half a century later, dragging with it the emergent identities in a state of cultural conformation from the other side of the continent. To constitute within this heteroclite instance, sorting with great ease the nostalgic traps that the uprooting lays, is a task properly of the subjects heirs of a modernity that makes a permanent fluctuation in the cultural imaginary. The endless synergy of the languages in Tato Laviera (the mother tongue and what we can call adoptive one), exceeds the allowed notions of the regionalism, as he would desire the idealization and melancholy that draws from an Edenic homeland, and also transcends the ethnic or linguistic frontiers as inherent conditions of the lost nationality. The path of Laviera is one undermining from the inside the language itself, tearing apart the differences between the oral and the written tongue, postulating a territory of marginal disorder, where the popular, the stray, establishes a critical dialogue, as Pedro López Adorno says in terms of politic practice, with the American way of life.

The Argentinean scholar Enrique Foffani sketches an image for these new poets that are inscribed into a continuous swaying in the swing of uprooting. The image is the one of the snail, with its house on its back. The subject has not lost his home, he carries it on his back, he holds it and he is hold by it. Laviera transfers his identity, pulling from it, standing its weight and also he claims/requires it. He opens the doors to the voices that reach him as his own echoes, assumes an origin that at the time wraps and warms him up, but also continues interpellating him, making this seal of double belonging his most visceral impression/mark.

SALVADOR SAN JUAN is a literature teacher and journalist from Córdoba, Argentina. He also writes fiction, especially short stories, and has been published in different reviews of La Plata, Buenos Aires, such as Revista Tropos. His work as journalist includes political notes and cultural studies. Nowadays, San Juan is writing about Latin American literature.