Frances Negrón-Muntaner is an award-winning filmmaker, writer, curator, scholar and professor at Columbia University, where she is the founding director of the Media and Idea Lab, and founding curator of the Latino Arts and Activism Archive at Columbia’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. She also served as the director of Columbia’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race from 2009-2016. Among her publications are: Boricua Pop: Puerto Ricans and the Latinization of American Culture (CHOICE Award, 2004) and The Latino Media Gap (2014), the most comprehensive examination to date of the persistent marginalization of Latinos in English-language mainstream media. Her films include Brincando el charco: Portrait of a Puerto Rican (Whitney Biennial, 1995), Small City, Big Change (2014) and War for Guam (2015).
Read below for a Q&A with Frances!
Visible Poetry Project (VPP): How did the video come about?
Frances Negrón-Muntaner (FNM): In 2001, I was shooting a film about the struggle to evict the US Navy from Vieques. In the middle of the process, 9/11 happened. As many others, I worried that the attack would make it impossible for the people of Vieques and their supporters in New York (and elsewhere) to continue pressuring the US government for justice. So, I went to New York to see if, and how, 9/11 had changed things.
During one of our shoots, I ran into the Nuyorican poet Abraham Jesús “Tato” Laviera in East Harlem. I had met Tato in 1995 at the University of California, Berkeley. I was there showing my film Brincando el charco: Portrait of a Puerto Rican as part of a conference organized by professors Julio Ramos and Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel titled “Displacing Citizenship/La condición puertorriqueña.”
We started talking and Tato asked me what I was doing. I explained the project and he said, “I have a poem on 9/11, do you want to hear it?” And I said, yes, of course. So, he spoke the poem on the spot. Tato’s performance was very dynamic, and I thought the poem captured how many felt at the moment. I asked if we could record it again in a less noisy setting where we could also design the lighting, perhaps a studio. We found an inexpensive space and asked the musician Tato Torres to join us on the drums. In retrospect, we captured one of the most pristine recordings of Tato Laviera’s art.
VPP: What is the importance of this poem?
FNM: The original poem, titled “Innocence (to 9/11),” is unique in at least two ways. On the one hand, it is different from most texts in Tato’s corpus. Many of his poems are about the Puerto Rican experience, creatively mix Spanish and English, and reflect on transcultural identities. But, as he tells in the video’s opening interview, 9/11 shifted his thinking. He started to view himself not only as a Nuyorican or “AmeRícan” as he once wrote, but as an American too. This is reflected in how he speaks from (and to) a collective “us” and uses only English.
On the other hand, while the poem is different from others in Tato’s canon, it is still distinctively his and unlike much 9/11 discourse in emphasis, point of view, and texture. While he embraces unity, Tato is critical of policies that use events like 9/11 to undermine civil liberties, promote racial profiling, and discriminate against Muslims and immigrants. Aware that New York is a global city and the US part of an interconnected humanity, Tato understands the attack as not simply against a nation or the west but, as he puts it, “the world.” In other words, the poem shows Tato carving English differently in more than one sense as he seeks to grasp a complex global juncture.
VPP: Why release the video now?
FNM: I always wanted to release the recording with part of the interview and a creative treatment of 9/11 images and sounds, but I did not have the funds to work steadily on it. So, a few Columbia students who worked with me in the Media and Idea Lab would devote time to the video whenever possible. One of those students was Michelle Cheripka, founding executive director of Visible Poetry Project. Michelle was the first student to envision how the piece could be edited.
About two months ago, Michelle reached out to see if I wanted to participate in the project by completing the video. I thought that it was the perfect opportunity to finish it. I asked Elisabetta Diorio, who currently works with me at the Lab, to take a look. She built on what Michelle had done and resolved the piece’s structure and tone. Then, I asked editor Mike Vass to give it a final touch.
For years, Tato would call asking me if the video was completed. Sadly, Tato passed away in 2013 and was not able to watch the finished film. But I am happy that it is finally available and that we can still make a contribution to expanding the diversity of voices reflecting on 9/11 and connecting new generations to Tato’s work, and one of New York City’s most vital cultural creations: Nuyorican poetry.