Karen Jaime’s The Queer Nuyorican: Racialized Sexualities and Aesthetics in Loisaida / Jaime Shearn Coan

Exterior of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the Loisaida section of New York City.
Exterior of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the Loisaida section of New York City.

Picture via Wikimedia Commons (originally uploaded by David Shankbone). CC BY 2.5. 

Karen Jaime. The Queer Nuyorican: Racialized Sexualities and Aesthetics in Loisaida. New York: New York University Press, 2021.

Karen Jaime’s The Queer Nuyorican: Racialized Sexualities and Aesthetics in Loisaida provides an investigation of the historical and ongoing presence of queer and trans of color artists as they shape an aesthetic grounded in the home-space of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Jaime, who was also a regular host, judge, and performer at the Cafe from the 1990s through the mid 2010s, attends to the creative output of several queer and trans of color artists—Miguel Piñero, Regie Cabico, the Glam Slam participants, Ellison Glenn as Black Cracker—who traversed the stage over the years. More than a recovery project, Jaime’s intervention is captured in her proposal of the lowercase “nuyorican”: an aesthetic practice that both exists within and emerges from the uppercase Nuyorican, tied to the Puerto Rican diaspora, while also encompassing other diasporas, including Black and Filipino. In tracing her featured artists from the New York City neighborhood of Loisaida, she also opens into parallel territory frequently, showing the intersections of various scenes and genres, including Hip Hop Theater, experimental performance venues in the East Village, and drag balls. Arguing that “specific conjunctural deployments of recombination, positionality, gesturality, and orality comprise this nuyorican aesthetic as a queer and trans formation” (5), Jaime reveals the contours of a queer and trans of color aesthetic genealogy that continues to evolve transnationally.

In Chapter 1, “Walking Poetry in Loisaida,” Jaime grounds the genealogy of the aesthetic tradition she traces through the creative output of Nuyorican co-founder Miguel Piñero, who died in 1988. Central to her analysis of Piñero is a poetry chapbook he authored, which Jaime analyzes as both rooted in the geography of Loisaida and ambulatory. Piñero’s “queer poetic strut” (36), which encompasses his writing, cruising, getting high, and even his public funeral, establish Piñero as a diasporic subject who claimed the term Nuyorican within the context of the Puerto Rican-inflected cultural life of Loisaida. In this chapter, Jaime also reveals her ongoing attention to the effects of gentrification. The shifts in the Lower East Side/Loisaida are examined in a parallel light to the aesthetic and cultural shifts happening inside of the Cafe. Piñero is summoned by Jaime as a kind of queer brown godfather of the Nuyorican.

The next chapter, “Regie Cabico’s Filipino Shuffle,” bumps us into the 1990s and early 2000s, shifting our focus to the career arc of one of the more iconic names associated with the Nuyorican. Cabico is described as a first-wave poetry slammer who rose to acclaim through the Poetry Slams held at the Cafe, which were first instituted by the poet Bob Holman in the late 1980s. Jaime includes a brief comparative colonial history of the Philippines and Puerto Rico and emphasizes, following cultural sociologist Julian Go, the central role of culture in the occupation of both territories by the United States. For Jaime, Cabico’s works embody a kind of coalitional politics while also resisting claims of authenticity often associated with spoken word: Cabico is “critically embodying his position as a queer Filipino who brings racial melodrama into the aesthetic strategies of New York’s burgeoning, and largely heterocentric, early 2000s hip-hop theater era” (58). Cabico, Jaime argues, samples popular culture and remixes it, a process akin to sampling in hip-hop, ultimately offering a queer and trans of color aesthetic rooted in the Cafe before traveling outwards into the world.

For Chapter 3, “Tens Across the Board: The Glam Slam at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe,” Jaime confronts the public imagination’s tendency to figure the Nuyorican as largely heterosexual and male. The Glam Slam hybridizes two genres that were traditionally thought of as distinct—poetry slams and drag balls—thereby introducing a queer and trans of color vocabulary (e.g., ball categories) and aesthetics (e.g., corporeal gestures) to Nuyorican audiences (91). Of particular importance is Jaime’s textual analysis of the poetry performed, correcting a scholarly over-emphasis on trans people as bodies rather than writers and theorists. Returning to the thread of authenticity from the previous chapter, Jaime picks up the oft-invoked category of “realness,” writing: “realness underpins the connection between a constructed performance of self in ball culture and the performance of the assumed auto-referential identities in poetry slam” (111). In effect, The Glam Slam “perverts”1 the poetry slam by calling attention to the unquestioned masculinity that marks it through offering an alternate, and very queer, aesthetic.

The fourth and final chapter, “Black Cracker’s ‘Chasing Rainbows’: Hip-Hop Minstrelsy, Queer Futurity, and Trans Multiplicity,” takes us the farthest distance from the Nuyorican and the closest in time to the present. While the artist Ellison Glenn began at the Nuyorican, the chapter largely follows his subsequent performance and video work, made under the performance moniker Black Cracker in his current base of Berlin. Jaime describes Glenn’s work as combining hip-hop with the “racialized and queer and trans aesthetic techniques” (124) of minstrelsy and Afro-futurism. His work offers “critical corporeal critiques of the production, dissemination, and inevitable consumption of racial identity” (142). Jaime finds glimpses of the “utopian impulse” elucidated by the late performance studies scholar José Esteban Muñoz (126), in Glenn’s work, noting that it, like the work Muñoz looks to, provides “expansive queer of color futurescapes” (127).

The conclusion of The Queer Nuyorican, “The Open Room,” enacts a resistance to closure when it comes to the historiography of the Cafe, a comment to some degree on the limits of the book form, form, which, due to the nature of traditional publishing, is not able to keep evolving and accommodating new material and perspectives. Fittingly, Jaime gestures towards community archival projects and institutional audiovisual archives, in which she herself actively participates, as more capacious forms. Jaime looks as well to the limits of the archive, as exemplified in the case of Stephanie Chapman, a Nuyorican lesbian who was active in the early years of the Cafe and whose presence is poorly documented.

The Queer Nuyorican holds great value for readers interested in the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, New York City cultural history, and spoken word poetry, as well as for scholars in performance studies, queer and trans of color critique, and cultural studies more broadly. Jaime rightly does not mire the reader in the full genealogies of each discourse she invokes, or each critical term she employs. The Queer Nuyorican is a “deliberately promiscuous” text (4), a descriptor that scholar Kandice Chuh associates with interdisciplinary and insurgent scholarship;2 indeed, Jaime writes, “my critical approach is to meander” (22). At the same time, the text would also benefit from more engagement with interlocutors, especially in reference to her use of the term “diaspora.” Because Jaime is focused on queer and trans of color aesthetics, more engagement with scholars who have developed the concept of “queer diaspora,” such as Gayatri Gopinath, Martin Manalansan, Larry La-Fountain Stokes, David Eng and others, would help orient the reader to approach Jaime’s new configuration with more context.3 Jaime’s critical intervention resonates with Gayatri Gopinath’s theorization of the “aesthetic practices of queer diaspora” in her 2018 book, Unruly Visions.4 Whereas Gopinath approaches the concept of diaspora by turning to aesthetic practices, Jaime’s emphasis is on how the lived experiences of racialized queer subjects shape the aesthetic practice that she terms “nuyorican.”

What finally makes The Queer Nuyorican such a compelling text is that Jaime is one of these subjects, which is to say her own corpus is part of the living archive she analyzes. Her own aesthetic output mirrors the methodological “meander[ing]” (22) she performs critically, as evidenced in this poem, which she once performed at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe:

There are ghosts in the walls
whose lifespan
extends beyond the visible,
angels who watch and guide us

is their home,
and they want to make sure
that it is being taken care of…
This isn’t just another place
where people get on the mic
and spit.
Fake poets beware,

The Nuyorican! (168)

This poem, which addresses the central argument of the book, demonstrates the advantages of Jaime’s enmeshment with her subject matter: aesthetic practices and the theoretical frameworks we build around them are not as distinct as we may think.

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  1. This word choice borrows from the quote, “Pervert the Language,” from Marlon Riggs’s 1991 short film, Anthem.
  2. Kandice Chuh, The Difference Aesthetics Makes: On the Humanities “After Man” (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019).
  3. For a review, see Gayatri Gopinath, “Queer Diaspora,” Keywords for Gender and Sexuality Studies, edited by The Keywords Feminist Editorial Collective (New York: New York University Press, 2021), 67-70.
  4. Gayatri Gopinath, Unruly Visions: The Aesthetic Practices of Queer Diaspora. Durham: Duke UP, 2018.