By Lisa Stahl
For generations, the Polish, Jewish, and Puerto Rican communities who have inhabited and redefined the Lower East Side of Manhattan have found its winding streets both a landing and rallying point. The community can wear different faces: either a place of toil and struggle, the twilight region of choice between disparate languages and customs, or a land of aspirations and promise. But to cross that line, to realize one’s potential, is a lonely journey. Something gets lost in translation: the rhythms, words, poetry, and music that inspired you. The herculean fight to overcome poverty for a sometimes unrealized promise of a better life can take a toll.
No one articulates that better than Tato Laviera, a little known but enormously important Nuyorican poet who pushed the boundaries of language, inspired the spoken word movement, and defined the Nuyorican experience. As an artist he innovated: he combined music, theater, poetry, dance, the power of dramatic contrasts and a commitment to social activism to create a new type of poetry. As both a poet and performer, he documented his own experience and affirmed his community’s worth, redefined its sense of identity.
Vivian Hernandez Ortiz, the producer and director of the documentary AmeRican Poet Tato Laviera, is an award-winning journalist, TV news producer, and documentary filmmaker. In her own words, “Being a Puerto Rican I felt very strongly I could tell his story.” Ortiz’s decades of experience as a journalist for NBC and ABC News and a senior producer for a newsmagazine program on FIOS1 informs her expert storytelling. In this compelling documentary, available on DVD, she pieces together from archived and original interviews with colleagues and family members Tato’s magic, the impact he had on his colleagues and community.
In advance of the film’s showing in the NYWIFT Member Screening Series June 25-29th, 2020, Hernandez Ortiz discussed the filmmaking process and Tato’s legacy.
First, some definitions:
Nuyorican: a Puerto Rican living in New York. Tato was one of the first to document the Nuyorican experience, according to his colleagues.
The Nuyorican Poets Café on the Lower East Side, was in part inspired by Tato’s legacy and the spoken word movement. The legendary avant garde venue describes itself as one whose artists use poetry, jazz, theater, hip-hop and spoken word as a means of social empowerment for minority and underprivileged artists.
Spanglish: the art of combining Spanish and English in original ways.
AmeRican: the name of a moving signature Laviera poem that endeavors to define the experience of a Puerto Rican growing up in New York.
What role did you play in the making of this documentary?
I was the producer and director. I hired a bilingual editor to work with me, and got a beloved Conga player from El Barrio to play his music to weave the percussion sound with the spoken word about this truly pure artist.
What inspired this documentary?
I love to tell impactful stories. It was an organic transition to go from being a journalist on news magazine shows to documentary filmmaking. The interviews with Tato, his friends, colleagues, and family members had been shelved for five or six years. When I came on the scene, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work immediately to piece together the myriad of interviews, and figure out the missing pieces. I found I had a big hole to fill. Fortunately, Prof William Luis gracefully filled that hole. I went to work piecing together a myriad of interviews and re-interviewed Tato’s sister, Ruth, to learn about his early life.
What were some of your challenges?
I was the new person, a Latina with a supervisory role working with a skeleton crew in the media unit at CENTRO [at Hunter College]. [But] I completely believed in the project and in telling Tato’s story. I am an advocate and a mentor to young men and women in our community.
How do you feel this film resonates with the Black Lives Matter movement?
Tato’s message was really about being inclusive; “he” is a “we.” Assimilation is an issue for any culture adopting to the ways of the their new homeland. You can go back home but the community you left behind may not accept you for who you’ve become. ‘Neither here, nor there’ [as Tato said]: you don’t fit in. In his unique way Tato raised consciousness. [Nuyoricans] are a people marginalized in our own culture, blended racially and culturally. In the film a local activist says she thought Tato was a better community activist than a poet. He made a great impact. He was beloved by the people. He would light up the room. His message is also inclusive. His philosophy is to grow as an individual.
What do you feel was most satisfying about making this movie?
I captured the essence of the man, through his love of the spoken word, through the lively sounds of our music, from his deep relationships with people, and his unfailing love for his Puerto Rican family.
Watch AmeRican Poet Tato Laviera any time June 25-29th as part of NYWIFT’s Member Screening Series. Then tune in to a Q&A with filmmaker Vivian Hernandez Ortiz on Monday, June 29th at 5 PM EST. Register for both now.
AmeRican Poet Tato Laviera was produced by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies/Hunter College/CUNY (Centro).
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