At a bar called Nowhere in New York City's East Village, the soul of underground poetry and spoken word lives on. Charlie Vazquez' PANIC! Reading Series brings together 20 to 50 poets, writers, their friends, their families and their admirers each month to share queer ideas, queer realities and queer possibilities. The event I attended on July 28th was the first-ever LATINA PANIC!: Latina Words, Latina Power.
NYC's Lower East Side, the gritty soil that fertilized the Nuyorican Poets Café in the 1970's, retains several venues for literary and poetic exposition. Gentrification has priced out many of the writers and sterilized what was once the vibrant Loisaida of working class Puerto Ricans, punk rockers, street youth and bohemian politics (Tompkins Square Park's iconic shanty town has been replaced with dog runs), but culture-seekers still travel here from the Bronx, Harlem, Brooklyn and New Jersey.
According to the PANIC! performers and attendees I spoke to, the broader Latino/a writer community welcomes queer participation and is less concerned with identity labels compared to the non-Latino scene. Still, the focus on queer voices drew a crowd that filled the one-room, cavernous bar. Participants were diverse in terms of culture, age and life experience. There were women and men. It was easy to wax romantic for a moment, everyone getting along, everyone coming together to celebrate the beauty and the ferocity of words. It was a house party infused emphatically with cultural pride.
There were seven performers. The readings spanned a range of themes—domestic violence, sexuality, cocaine addiction, childhood memories, and the permanence of la familia, among others.
Twenty-four year old J. Skye Rivera opened with a serenade in Spanish to a girlfriend. She told me her poetry is about adolescence and love. She's starting an event called Soapbox that will host themed readings such as an upcoming show titled: "Water," a forum for poets concerned about the Gulf Coast oil spill.
Thirty-nine year old Alicia Anabel Santos was a first-time PANIC! participant who read a fictionalized memoir about a young Dominicana teetering with the seemingly impossible balance of family obligation and personal fulfillment. She said she was nervous, but after the performance she was glowing and chatting easily with the supportive crowd.
Below is a picture of Cherise Alvarez, followed by one of Cultural Activist Karen Jaime at the mic.
The NYC writing community is vast, and Latinas have a variety of outlets—the NYC Latina Writers group and El Grito de Poetas to name a few. But something special occurred this night. It swallows you amidst the laughter and excited conversations bouncing through the room.
Vazquez explains: "The fact that NYC has produced the number of queer Latinas that it has, and convening in one room, alone is a feat, as women in Latino culture have not traditionally been allowed to pursue literary/poetic pursuits as easily as men have. Communities such as the NYC Latina Writers Groups could not/did not exist in my mother's generation. LATINA PANIC! was evidence of Latina feminism at full throttle."
For more information about Vazquez and his projects: http://www.firekingpress.com.
More photos from LATINA PANIC!