This article was written for Panorama Magazine in 2010. Archiving here.
A voice is heard in the Bronx. It penetrates past the hums and rumblings of the urban city traffic and elevates above the pedestrian chatter. An artist sits relocated, dislocated from the vein of his everyday agendas in a homeless shelter — a little house of hope — La Casita Esperanza.
Nearly 2,000 miles away, in Edinburg, Texas, another voice is emerging, bursting forth from the cages within the soul where shame and self-doubt had kept it shuttered away for so long. A migrant student recalls the arduous task of the harvest season, laboring in the sun for hours. She is reminded of the textures and smells of the field. A field, a life and a labor she is no longer ashamed of due to the heartfelt words and contributions of that single-soft voice from New York City.
This inspiration to express her migrant struggle was catapulted by Tato Laviera, a poet, lecturer and mentor who works with middle-school students and undergrads across the nation from Chicago, New York, Houston and in the Rio Grande Valley. At the age of 60 he continues his work even whilst being affected by blindness due to diabetes. His attitude remains strong no matter his situation, as he endeavors to teach within the poetic discipline.
The poet, although, chose a new method when teaching these local migrant students. It was a more academic, life-altering approach than before.
He, together with Stephanie Alvarez, assistant professor of modern languages and literature at the University of Texas-Pan American, envisioned a program for migrant farmworkers to document their life’s story through creative writing.
“Migrants are shy. Rarely do they talk about their migrant experience even within their own family,” said Alvarez as she waited on the third floor of the UTPA Library for some of her students to join her. “He has the skills and talent to take that voice out,” she said talking about Lavieria.
The poet envisioned the name for the group when first hearing about the migrant toils.
“I immediately called it Cosecha Voices,” recalls Laviera after hearing about the migrant struggle from Alvarez’s husband. “Se echa. You throw it. You harvest and then [you have] the voices. I started thinking of a way to create the writing movement.”
“He touches your heart. He makes you come out and say it the way it is supposed to be without being shy or the fear of you being wrong.”
Laviera gets excited. It is those moments when his emotions are stirred that the pace of his speech picks up and one notices the passion of what he does flood out in every following word and phrase.
“I’m a poet and I’m the creative mind. But then you need the academic mind. The person who breaks it down. I broke it down into 13 moments — from the time you leave Texas to the time you come back,” Laveria created a rundown for the migrant students to follow. It was a way for the students to rewrite their histories and find their voices through the exercise. Thus far, two groups have gone through the special course in which every other week Laveria came down from New York to lend in the teaching. The bond the students have with this poet of Puerto Rican descent is one of admiration, not only for his teaching style, but personality.
“He touches your heart. He makes you come out and say it the way it is supposed to be without being shy or the fear of you being wrong.” said Annabel Salamanca, a student and president of the Cosecha Voices organization. She was meeting with Alvarez to go over plans for a fundraiser for Laviera the upcoming week. Before the meeting she sat down and shared her participation in the program.
Folding her hands, looking through her copper frames Salamanca admits that Cosecha Voices is much more like a family than just an organization. She feels a wealth of gladness to have learned a lot about herself and her peers.
“It makes you grow as a student, as a person and as an individual,” said Salamanca. “It helps me understand where I come from and where I want to go.”
Alvarez chimes in, “‘I feel like this is therapy is what they all say.” She smiles, twinkling satisfaction from her eyes. She gives a pleasant look along with a smile cherished in pride knowing that what she has helped accomplish with this group of students will forever change their lives.
“You’re no longer excluded from the rest of the normal kids,” said Salamanca, describing the feeling she felt before the program.
Palmetta Cepeda, another Cosecha Voices student, accompanying Salamanca to the meeting, agreed that it has made her more confident to talk about her experiences in the migrant fields. She is proud to be part of this heritage and delights in her family’s history. Cepeda, although not a laborer herself, did have parents whom she traveled north with to work sites in Missouri and Michigan. In her assignments for the class she wrote an homage to her parents.
“Le doy gracias a Dios por dar me padres maraviosos” she states in her presentation, “I give thanks to God for allowing me such marvelous parents.” Her words throughout the well-documented personal essay, a requisite for course completion, brought her mother to tears.
‘They cut my brain. They broke into it.’
Laviera, sitting a couple thousand miles away in a shelter situated in the Bronx, nods and smiles meditating on the words of great appreciation and fulfillment the students, he taught, have said about his course.
This heart-lifting moment is much valued by Laviera for in recent years a trifling serious of ailments, including diabetes, blindness and a minor stroke, have left this poet-lecturer homeless.
“I didn’t know where to go,” Laviera recalls the moments after leaving the nursing home where he had stayed to recuperate from a brain surgery, a result of a minor stroke he had in December just days before performing at the Albert L. Jeffers Theatre.
“When he did that show. He was not himself. He’s usually 1,000 times more energetic and sharp. He was way off that night,” said Alvarez. “He had had this minor stroke already and didn’t know it. He was already feeling the effects of it.”
A week later he was in the hospital.
He was diagnosed with water on the brain.
“They cut my brain. They broke into it. It has introduced another world to me,” said Laviera. He sat in the back seat of a taxi driven around by Miguel Peralta, a friend and supporter.
Laviera picks at a poppy-seed muffin Ruth Sanchez, his sister, bought him before leaving for work. In his cotton-white sweater he sits comfortably in the backseat explaining the surgery that put him in his current state.
“And when they cut the head and they reduced the water,” Laviera pauses to take a bite of the muffin. “They say that it affects memory and movement.”
What they said proved true. After emerging from the surgery he had difficulty coordinating his left leg. In the fragility of his circumstances he entered a nursing home.
He did not remain there for very long. He fled after two weeks.
Adjusting to life inside a nursing home was something the artist could not do. Surrounded by the presence of the aging residents, he did not feel himself.
Leaving the nursing home presented him with a whole new set of challenges, but it also brought on an alerted hope within his community.
‘That’s when I began my homelessness.’
“I didn’t know where to go,” he said lowering his head only to bring it back up sharply to continue, “that’s when I began my homelessness: when I touched the Village street. I left the Village Nursing Home — I said ‘Oh my god.’”
In that feeling of hopelessness his relatives were unable to provide a long-term stay. He had to stay close to his hospital, New York-Presbyterian, for dialysis and continuous procedures following his previous diagnosis.
He found himself a resident of La Casita Esperanza where Lorraine Montenegro, director of United Bronx Parents, felt it her duty to bring him in. The shelter serves as housing for drug-use residents afflicted with HIV/AIDS. Laviera resides there during the day and commutes to either his mother’s apartment in Manhattan at night or to another residence closer to the hospital on days, like today, before his dialysis treatment.
As the evening approached Elizabeth Garcia, his caretaker, was opening up her house to him. She lives a few blocks from the hospital, but first Laviera had to meet with Americo Casiano, a fellow poet, to discuss the details of a fundraiser to be held in late April. They’d be meeting at the shelter, first door on the right, down the fluorescent-lit hallway, a place Laviera calls his office and where he does much of his work these days.
Since his initial run-in with homelessness, things have gotten better for Laviera. After arriving at the shelter, an article in the Feb. 12 edition of the New York Times chronicled the series of events that led the poet to destitution. It helped sound an alarm within the community as people came out in great numbers from across the nation to support Laviera. A fund was set up to donate online at thepoint.com, a committee was also formed to organize events and in help the cause.
“I didn’t know it had made such a huge impact…on people in the nation and Puerto Rico,” Laviera said about the article. He took a seat beside his bed, unclasping his walking stick and setting it underneath his chair. He felt more at home. His attitude picked up and became more personal as he took time to talk about his Cosecha Voices students.
“Let me tell you something. I have never in my life met a group like Edinburg, man.” To make a forthright statement, Laviera tends to end his sentences with the word “man.”
“The mentality of that aspect of the world. They are ‘Yes sir. Yes sir.’ Not subservient. The fact that you have a lot of people there that speak all in English and are Spanish at the same time. And their eagerness as a grace to care is amazing,” his words come flowing from his heart rather than his mind. “And it wasn’t hard for me to identity myself with that wonderful movement of Hispanics, Latinos or Tex-Mex. It is an incredible noble group, man.”
Laviera especially enjoys the readiness the group of students has to learn. He says it makes it easier to teach them.
“I think there is a mantra with those people who are interconnected with the border. Between Mexico and the US — Texas. It is amazing.” He pulls his body forward and digs his hand toward the ground as to pick a fruit and then lifts it, placing it in front of his face, “The texture, the texture,” he emphasizes. “The texture of what they have gone through. Picking up the fruits and harvesting in the lowest economic force of America.”
There is no denying the pride he has for these students. His faith in them allows them to become presenters, like himself, and step up to the microphone.
“You can’t pass my course unless you go to the mic and you go public. That’s the ultimate test: the mic and the public — your speaking voice.”
He finds fulfillment in the students implanting their voices into the microphone. “That’s the goal and the gold. You give me 13 stages and you create five minutes for the mic.”
The 13 stages in order are a dissected and examined look back to where the migrants ventured from. Laviera begins listing them, with great remembrance for this special tote of information that he lists clearly:
“The night before you leave,” he begins listing, “when you leave, along the road, places you’ve visited that affected you.” He pauses a bit in the still air as the voices down the hall, beyond the hospital-green walls chatter on as distant echoes. He smacks his lips and continues, “Entering the town, arriving at your first house, the moment before going out to plant, the first moment of planting, when you went to the distribution place and planted the fruits, the first time you got paid, two experiences in school, the cultural life, and your return back home. That’s it,” he smiles.
Laviera wants the students to remember and portray the character that existed along the way. He finds that writing a paper about each stage is the best technique to help the students encounter their inner-voices.
He leans in capitalizing the point of it all, “with the migrant movement it was very important for them to see and to understand taking out a fruit from its roots” he redirects his thoughts, “ — when it was in your hands that fruit was responsible for feeding the nation.”
“You can’t pass my course unless you go to the mic and you go public. That’s the ultimate test: the mic and the public — your speaking voice.”
‘I am embarassed and humbled.’
On March 9, 2011, the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe in Manhattan held a tribute show to honor Laviera. The proceeds went to helping out the struggling poet-lecturer. A week prior, he was uncertain he’d be attending the event. But the day before he was anxious to make an appearance. He felt it was right to show his appreciation to all those who came out to support him since his troubles began.
Laviera sat in the front passenger’s seat of Garcia’s four-door sedan. She would be taking care of Laviera that night. The next day was his dialysis treatment that took up most of his afternoon from 2–5 p.m. The Nuyorican fundraiser was scheduled to start at 7 p.m.
The night time city lights reflected off the glass and onto Laviera’s face. With the red glare of the stoplight illuminating the dashboard and steering wheel, Garcia drove silently, listening to Laviera speak as he admitted how the overwhelming nature of the outpouring of support has touched him.
“I am embarrassed and humbled.”
The traffic light turned green.
“I’m embarrassed that an individual like me had to get in that situation. And I am humbled to realize that so many people shouted out attention at my plight and came out with wonderful compliments, that they are creating a moment in my honor…”
He confesses that he is “plunged in humility” by the outcome of his struggles and the realization that his writings have been studied and read by numerous amounts of people across the nation.
“I’m going [to the event] as the humblest guy, man,” with sensitive sincerity he utters, “People are coming out. They’re really coming out.”
And they did come out. The small cafe crowded over with a group of about a hundred or so people in attendance.
Stirring up the feeling within
The Nuyorican Cafe is nestled between a row of buildings in an area richly Puerto Rican.
The dim, colorfully lit interior of the cafe filled in with the talk and conversation of the night’s event. The organizer of the event, Raul K. Rios, and a handful of poets performing that night stood outside the doors chatting before the event took stage.
There was a feeling of readiness and a certain desire in most’s heart to see Laviera arrive and also possibly hear him perform. The angst of the hour could be felt as the event started without him in attendance.
La Bruja, the show’s emcee, started things off with some welcoming humor and poetry. She shared a special piece of hers with the group, dedicating it to Laviera. And then another poet took the stage where midway through her performance the claps and exaltation beckoned the attention of the show-goers to turn around toward the entrance of the cafe to recognize Laviera. With standing-applause the show paused as Laviera moved along toward the front seating reserved for him. His hand on his sister’s shoulders, as she guided him past the jubilant supporters that came out that night to help raise funds and awareness for his situation. He took a seat at a table just a couple of feet away from the stage. He raised his hands in the air and clapped along with the rest of the room until it filtered down back toward an attentiveness for the show on stage.
“Now I’m under pressure,” said Peggy Robles, the performer on stage, greeting laughs with a pulsing nerve realizing the setting had changed. He was now in the building.
The night went on with tribute poetic readings and outbursts from the crowd. A happy stir was renovating space within the room; intoxicating words flowed out the mouths of the poets grasping the listeners’ attention.
But it was not until two well-dressed Puerto Rican men took the stage that Laviera’s spirit started to break through the shell of his frail state. The men, Luisito Ayala and Sammy Tanco, were sequenced into the show as per Laviera’s and Sanchez’ request.
The charismatic duo took the stage with dominating presence and uplifting beats incorporating the audience’s participation into their act. Laviera joined in on the singing and the special moment surrounded the words as he sang the chorus to a song: “te quiero ver, te quiero ver,” singing “I want to see you, I want to see you.”
The voices and music of the two impacted a deep personable feeling with Laviera as the charming love they had for the homeless, sick poet was felt through their actions and candid affection. Coming off the stage Ayala placed the mic in front of Laviera and sang together with him, “I want to see, I want to see you.”
The love was coming full-circle in that moment. Laviera’s helping of others with his demonstrative actions was bridging the gap from unawareness to a newfound realization that all he had given of himself was a love-payment for this moment.
The singing stopped. Ayala and Tanco embraced Laviera as they headed off back into the crowd. The moment was fixed as Laviera’s emotions could be felt stirring within him. He started talking more and moving past the fragile feeling he must have felt after his dialysis treatment just a few hours earlier.
‘This is the moment’
A week prior to the event, this writer, Joshua Garza, was asked by Cosecha Voices to present Laviera with a Build-A-Bear. It had the group’s voices recorded on it, sending a special message to him. Rios, the organizer that night, made room for Cosecha Voice’s special tribute.
La Bruja took the stage inviting me up there to present the gift.
Standing there, looking out into the bright spotlight I began reading my speech.
“Through Tato’s lessons and motivations he helped them no longer doubt their abilities,” I said at one point and continued off at other times recognizing how wonderful it had been to have experienced New York City for the first time with Laviera. The tears at this point had already started rolling down Laviera’s cheeks. His sister handed him a napkin to wipe them off. And then, adding to the emotion, I presented, as a peer of the Cosecha Voices students, their gift to him.
“I cannot represent the struggle and history those migrant students have had to live through, but as their peer I offer this gift on their behalf. It’s a teddy bear with their voices recorded on it and they want to say something to Tato,” I lifted the bear-paw up to the microphone and pressed it. The voices of about four girls from the group resonated through the speakers, “Tato this is the Cosecha Voices. We love you!”
His tears linking to their struggle captured the emotion within the room. A sob was heard from where he sat. The words and the notice that they had emerged as better individuals because of him echoed the feelings of others in the room, as one poet later said after the event, “What was said about Tato during the speech was exactly what I wanted to say. He teaches by example.”
“This is the moment…this is the moment,”
And by example he taught again that night to be the humblest, most loving soul in the room, appreciating every ounce of every word poured forth that night. A moment lingered as he cried hugging the teddy bear tightly searching for the paw in his blindness to hear their voices once more.
“This is the moment…this is the moment,” he said distinguishing the elevated love he had just been bestowed with.
This, his students, the link to who he is, had bathed him in waters of humility and grace. His mood lifted and his smile glowed brighter. The sweet simple words of a genuine “I love you” swept between those seconds as the weight lifted off his shoulders.
The gift he had given out had come back, wrapped up in earnest admiration. Not through the form of a stuffed bear, but through the changed lives he helped awaken. And as the migrant students before him, he had now found a way to emerge out of his struggle with beaming optimism and clarity cured by the texture and toil of the fruit of his labor.
He too, now, has fed a nation.