A Nuyorican Tour de Force

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Nu-yo-ri-can (ny-rkn) n. Informal

A person of Puerto Rican birth or descent living primarily in New York City.  [Blend of New York an (Puerto) Rican].  Nuyo-rican adj.

I am sitting in the Orlando Intl. Airport on a two hour lay-over to Puerto Rico. Two tables away, two Puerto Rican women – I can tell by the music of their accents – exchange recipes for losing weight. They are from the island, speaking with the informal familiarity characteristic of neighbors. They speak of their husbands, their friends, their children. One of them has a daughter that is away at school “en Masachuseh mija, ya tu sabeh, cogiendo frío”.

I flew in from Newark this afternoon and, like the now 4 million Puerto Rican ‘diasporicans’ before me and those sure to follow in this Guagua Aérea (see Luis Rafael Sanchez’s novel by the same name) revolving door of migratory patterns, I look forward to my morning pocillo (strong coffee with milk) while reading El Nuevo Dia or Primera Hora newspapers; eating tostones rellenos de camarones with una cerveza Medalla; finding someone selling pitorro rum on the side of the road on my way to Mayagüez to see my brother – the only one of the five of us that has shown no sign of moving to ‘Los Niuyores’. The youngest sibling and an agriculture student, he has no interest in participating in ‘la fuga de las mentes’ of young Puerto Rican professionals leaving the island in search of better salaries and benefits. He does benefits from knowing the quickest way of scaling a fish, canoeing a mangrove, knowing that the mango he hands me came from his backyard. He thinks globally, plants locally and scoffs at the amount of rent I will be paying for a glorified closet in Queens or Brooklyn: ¡Pero con eso pones el pronto (down payment) pa’ una casa de tres cuartos aqui!

Though I can say I had the best mojito ever in a Cuban restaurant near Columbus Circle, and I love going to my godmother’s restaurant in the LES for bistec encebollado (Casa Adela for those of you that would like to succumb to the flavors way downtown) I nonetheless daydream of drinking $2 Cuba Libres in el Callejon de la Capilla, where the Nuyorican Café – named after the original, also in the LES – is located in Old San Juan, with the percussive sounds of salsa wafting in the background like a nana to my homesickness.

Too bad I will have already been back to my life in New York when Yerbabuena’s Nuyorican Tour arrives in La Isla del Encanto on September 20th. But we are a blessed people, for whenever we get the feeling that makes us yearn for trucutá tambores, playa and Medalla, we can always catch them in the Bronx or elsewhere in the city of impromptu block parties, where salsa was born an bred, and where roots grow firmly planted, no matter where you go. One of the main differences between the roots music scenes of Puerto Rico and NY is just that, said Tato Torres, founder and musical director of Yerbabuena: “Here (in NY) you don’t need to have a reason or a permit to get the congas out and go play in the park or at someone’s house. Over there [in the island] it’s very organized, it has to be for an event, they want to know who’s playing and it’s put together weeks in advance.”

I had a chance to catch Yerbabuena’s show in Brooklyn at Public Assembly recently, when they performed with fellow Nuyorican Navegante (actually Puerto Rican-Peruvian Brooklynite). Show might not be the most fitting word: more like a spiritually experiential rumba callejera – indoors. Yerbabuena, an eight-piece ensemble, played an experimental (fusing jazz, spoken word, bachata) albeit traditional (bomba y plena) set. My friend tugged my elbow and jokingly asked: “Estás segura que no estamos en Cayey?” As in Cayey in Puero Rico, a town known for its celebrated roots music festivals.

And it’s all because these musicians have done their homework. Like a tentacled octopus of Caribbean music, every member shines both individually and as a cohesive unit. A result of the Diasporican – to use the term coined by Nuyorican poet Mariposa, a.k.a. Maria Teresa Fernández – phenomenon is that groups like Yerbabuena fly in the face of preconceived notions of what I means to be Puerto Rican, dentro y fuera de la isla. Flaco Navaja, the poet/actor and also singer of Yerbabuena, acually included a verse of Mariposa’s poem Ode to the Diasporican in one of their songs, the one that goes “no nací en Puerto Rico/Puerto Rico nacio en mi.” The personal experiences that have shaped Yerbabuena’s music are those of a generation that has integrated the parallel, sometimes intersecting lines of two cultures – “But Puerto Rico is in America now!” (West Side Story) – with a seamless interrelatedness. Though not without its dolores de parto, for sure.

Yerbabuena’s songs will stay in your head for days; The Nuyorican Tour of Yerbabuena and Navegante is not to be missed. They are opening at the Nuyorican Poet’s Café in Loisaida on Saturday September 13th and arriving at the Nuyorican Café in San Juan, Puerto Rico on the 20th of September with what is sure to be a musically spiritual experience, even for the rhythmically challenged. If you have the means and the time to be present for both shows, it will be a unique experience, as both PR and NY are the cradle that rocks their music, to the beat of los cueros. Just remember: if you are feeling so inclined, eight Medallas after the show will be appreciated as only true Boricuas know how to do. You’ll just have to beat my pitorro rum to the punch.