COLUMN: Understanding each other through art

Surrey and White Rock’s vibrant scene shares insight, too

While planning our recent trip to New York City, I knew I wanted to get a feel for the ‘real’ N.Y.C.

Real can be hard to define, especially of such a diverse city. People go to New York for all kinds of reasons: to shop in luxury stores on 5th Avenue where one can purchase a $30,000 handbag from Louis Vuitton, or to taste the world in one city, or to explore famous landmarks like the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and the bridge in Central Park.

But for this writer, the real New York had to be found in the voices of artists who share their lived experiences via poetry.

With the help of a newfound app and my old friend Google, I came across Nuyorican Poets Café situated in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. This gathering space for poets, actors, comedians and musicians is an institution of the Nuyorican art movement in New York City that originated in the 1960s by people of Puerto Rican descent.

Nuyorican is a portmanteau of New York and Puerto Rican, and is a term used to describe people who have ties to the island but are culturally different from the island-born Puerto Ricans. It’s also the name of the type of Spanish spoken by this group of people.

The Nuyorican art movement grew out of neighbourhoods such as Loisaida (the Nuyorican pronunciation of Lower East Side), East Harlem, Williamsburg and the South Bronx, and became a means of expressing the strife of this marginalized community.

I knew I would trade any shopping experience or a walk among really tall buildings for a poetry slam in this venue any day.

I had to step out of my comfort zone to get there – literally.

At this point, we’d only been in Manhattan for under a day, so we couldn’t even pretend to understand the public transportation system. My husband and I decided to walk the 40 minutes from Little Italy to our destination, armed only with Google Maps and limited data, eyeing the fading light as the day drew to a close.

We arrived at the entrance just as the sun set and took our place in line, an hour and a half before the show was to start. When a lineup starts that early, you know you are in for something great.

The long walk (made longer by the fact we got lost twice) was completely worth it; in fact, it was the highlight of the trip for me. I found New York in the voices of the poets: African-American, Puerto Rican, mixed race, gay, non-binary. The frustrated, the hopeful. The tired and strong.

In the poetry, I found resilience. I found pride. And once I exhaled, I found myself in the lines and verses of complete strangers.

Even without having lived what they have, art created that bridge for me to meet them halfway and try to relate or empathize. And the experiences I couldn’t connect with became a space to just listen and accept someone else’s truth.

It was powerful and it was exactly what I had come for.

When we go where the artists are, we are bound to see, hear, and feel the pulse of a place.

Surrey and White Rock have a vibrant arts scene (just flip a few pages in this publication to find the section of the same name). We have theatre and jazz, poetry and visual art. We live amongst authors, artists and musicians with stories to tell. Stories make up who we are, and who we are makes up our greater community.

The narratives may be different from our own; some may be relatable and others, not by a stretch. But as a collective, we are built on these stories, piled up from generation to generation, crossing cultures and languages and paradigms.

This summer, make it a point to check out an artist event and discover more of where you live.

Taslim Jaffer writes on multicultural issues for Peace Arch News.


Mahogany Browne hosts a Friday Night Poetry Slam in New York. (Taslim Jaffer photo)

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