Manuel Hernandez was born in Sleepy Hollow, New York. He completed undergraduate studies at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus in 1986 and finished a Master’s in Education from Herbert H. Lehman College (CUNY) in the Bronx, New York in 1994. He taught in the public schools in New York and Puerto Rico. He taught English in his alma mater. While at the University of Puerto Rico, he created a course, English 3285, The Puerto Rican Experience in the United States: Puerto Rican Writers in the United States. The course has been in the course catalog for over 25 years and has given birth to several culturally relevant courses at the graduate level of the Department of English at the College of Humanities. He is also the author of five books, Latino/a Literature in the English Classroom (Editorial Plaza Mayor, 2003), The Birth of a Rican (Divine Purpose Publishing, 2021) and Living the Kingdom with purpose (English and Spanish) (Divine Purpose Publishing, 2017). He founded and created an educational program called Coming to America at Osceola High School. In 2022, he published his 5th book, Every Child Coming to America.
“Are Puerto Ricans becoming Americanized? Are familiar national lifeways, traditions and markers of identity being assimilated to mainstream U.S. culture? Most observers agree that such a process is taking place…” (La Carreta Made a U-Turn”: Puerto Rican Language and Culture in the United States: Flores, Attinasi and Pedro Pedraza, Republished in Divided Borders by Juan Flores, 1993.p.157.) —Juan Flores, Divided Borders
The excerpt serves as an epigraph to a chapter in Dr. Juan Flores’ republished essay in his collection of essays titled, Divided Borders. The original essay was published in 1981. I graduated from high school that year, and I never imagined the “road less traveled” that I was about to take when I heard the legendary Tato Laviera in a crossroots-crossculture presentation at the school library where I worked as an English as a Second Language (ESL) high school teacher at James Monroe High School in The Bronx, New York in 1988. The ESL Program at Monroe invited a Puerto Rican poet, Jesus Abraham Laviera, AKA, Tato Laviera. I observed him while he got ready. Laviera was dark-skinned was medium height and had black curly hair and deep brown eyes. He dressed completely in white and looked like a “Santeria” priest. He came in the library with drums and a guitar. I was anxious to hear the poet do his thing. When he started reciting his poetry, he read verses in English, Spanish and what he called “el mixturao”. He combined music and verses. He closed his eyes as if evoking some supernatural spirit. The students loved what they heard, and I was amazed at their reaction. I identified with the themes, message and the beat, and I was curious to know who he was and to know more about his poetry. Laviera and I became friends, and he gave me a list of Latino/a writers who were writing and performing in the United States and abroad. Next day, I went to the bookstore and bought a few of the books recommended by the poet.
Constructing the Foundation of a Literary Discourse
In 1994, I was hired as an instructor of English at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus. I also became the new Assistant Director of the English Department at the Humanities College of the most prestigious academic institution on the Island of Puerto Rico. There were no courses offered on Puerto Rican and or Latino/a writers in the Department at the undergraduate level, and I started incorporating texts into the Introduction to Literature courses that I was assigned to teach as a non-tenure track English instructor. I began using short stories, essays and poetry written by United States Puerto Rican and Latino/a writers. My years of teaching in New York City had introduced me to a new literature: literature of the Puerto Rican and Latino/a experience in the United States (The Diaspora). The literature was existentially unknown in Puerto Rico. My students enjoyed stories with young adult characters as protagonists, poetry with music, beat and sound, plays with real-life dramas in them, and real-life themes that portrayed the lives of the “unskilled and inarticulate working class” (Eugene Mohr) that relocated to the United States during the decades immediately after World War II.
When I observed the glitter in their eyes after I read and sang “Boricua”, a free-spirit, free-verse poem by Tato Laviera, I knew that I had made the right decision to integrate a new minority literature into a traditional American and British literary discourse English Department. However, I was still unfamiliar with the nuances of an extremely traditional English Department and was ignorant of the forces that started to construct a wall around the encounter students had with the discovery of the thematic crossroads revealed in the literature of the Puerto Rican experience in the United States.
Reconstructing a Literary Voice
While the initial reaction to the incorporation of United States based Puerto Rican and Latino/a Literature in the classroom was euphoric, there were dissenting voices who started to raise concern about the cultural appropriateness of the so-called “Nuyorican Literature” in the academic classrooms of the Department. Much to my advantage, Dr. Eugene Mohr, Professor Emeritus, and I spent some interesting conversations about a “politically correct” strategy on how to introduce the literature without further alarming those who were already aligning opposing forces. His support granted some momentum and understanding from his peers. One of my mentors during the time suggested I coordinate and organize a symposium with the core of the writers and introduce them on Campus. The literary event took place in the College of General Studies in April of 1997. Tato Laviera, Dr. Juan Flores, Judith Ortiz-Cofer and Victor Hernandez-Cruz read poetry, discussed issues, told stories and debated identity, culture and political issues depicted in the lines, verses and paragraphs of their writings. It was an overwhelming success! The interest and curiosity about a literature that portrayed the experiences of the Diaspora in the United States mainland turned the activity into a historic event and ignited a literary trend extraporaneously.
A Diasporic Literature in the Course Catalog
In 1996, I started to work on an outline for a new course proposal for an undergraduate course titled The Puerto Rican Experience: Puerto Rican Writers in the United States. The success of the symposium paved the way, and I used it as a bridge for the construction and creation of a new literary trend in the Department. I also wrote an article for the University’s mainstream newspaper Dialogo justifying and defending the course as a valid and culturally relevant literary discourse. The course disrupted the dominant narrative of the mainstream English courses in the Department and opened a door toward the English speaking Puerto Rican Diaspora rather than the English Speaking Western Caribbean literature that dominated the discussions, debates and dissertations in the Department. The creation of the new course also coincided with the birth of the new PhD Program on the English Speaking Caribbean which excluded the voices of the Puerto Rican writers in the United States. After several months of committee sessions, curriculum meetings and extensive and often heated debates, English 3285 was approved after my PhD study proposal was denied, and my contract with the Department was not renewed.
Are you Dead?
In 2012, I received an e-mail from a very trustworthy colleague from the Department of English. She asked the question: “Are you dead?” When I read the e-mail, my colleague spoke about English 3285 becoming a requirement for English majors in Education. How did a crossroots-crossculture poetry jam session in a school in the Bronx give birth to a course in a university? How did the course “crossroots” from one college (Humanities) to another (Education)? Who decided upon its legacy without its “author” present during that time in the Department? Ernest Hemingway sums it up simply in a quote: “In order to write about life, first you must live it.” The cultural interactions and cultural immersions that came as a result of the immigration experience of those who moved, relocated or were voluntarily exiled to the United States mainland represented a livelihood depicted in the lines of the writers of the Puerto Rican Diaspora. According to Hemingway, that alone crafted its legitimacy. A quarter of a century later, The Puerto Rican Experience at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus is alive and growing at its own pace, at its own beat and at its own rhythm.