While the disease is still in its early stages, he needs assistance with daily living. That means he needs financial assistance, too, since his application for Medicaid has yet to be approved. As a result, ten poets and writers held a benefit reading to help his children defray the costs of caring for him.
The idea for the benefit started with Martin Espada, a poet whom I have known since we met in Havana in 1999. He was there to lead a workshop. I was there to write about rafter-boy Elian Gonzalez. He must have seen the glazed-over look in my eyes when I lamented the lack of anything to read besides Granma. He gave me a book of his poetry, earning my gratitude and, eventually, my friendship.
“For years, Jack spoke for us,” said Mr. Espada, a poet who was 11 years old when he first met Jack. “Tonight, we speak for him.”
And how. The crowd attracted a curious cross section of people with roots in East Harlem, Puerto Rico (or even the Bronx, the place to which some Puerto Ricans were banished into exile, at least according to one of Jack’s poems). Edwin Torres, the former judge who wrote “Carlito’s Way’ (1975) and “Q & A” (1977), sat up front, resplendent in leather and smiles. In the back sat Dylcia Pagan, the Puerto Rican nationalist who spent almost 20 years in a federal prison for seditious conspiracy. In between these two extremes were young poets, old activists, assorted artists and local residents who have been resisting the neighborhood’s slow but steady wave of gentrification. They were the kind of people who still call the neighborhood El Barrio even as real estate types refer to it incongruously as Upper Yorkville.
Jack was there, too, chatting with friends and well-wishers. The setting itself was doubly fitting. In 1945, he attended grammar school in the red-brick building, which was then Public School 107. He later immortalized the place in a contrite “Sonnet for Miss Beausoleil,” in honor of a teacher whose honor he had offended on a dare. The building is now named for Julia de Burgos, the Puerto Rican poet whose complete works Jack translated in 1996.
Crammed into the bookends of those two events is several lifetimes of advocacy and art. In 1968, Mayor Lindsay appointed him to be the second in command at the city’s antipoverty agency. When a background check revealed he had failed to file tax returns for a few years, he was dismissed. Rather than slink away, he hunkered down on a couch in his office and began a hunger striketo protest the absence of Puerto Ricans in government. He vowed he would stay until he died (though in a nod to his cultural roots, he allowed himself coffee). The protest ended when the mayor agreed to some of his demands.
He would later go on to be one of the earliest directors of El Museo del Barrio, which at the time was the country’s only Puerto Ricanmuseum. The institution still exists, though it has since broadened its mission to include Latino and Latin American artists from different countries. More recently, he has translated the poetry of José Martí, the apostle of Cuban independence from Spain.
Since falling ill, he has been helped withthe translation by Lidia Torres, herself a young poet. She took part in Tuesday’s benefit, along with other young poets like Aracelis Girmay and Rich Villar. They were joined by older trailblazers like Sandra Maria Esteves and Julio Marzan. Jack basked in the affection, at times shouting out encouragement or a wisecrack with a flash of his killer smile.
The event raised some $3,000, which his son, Marcel Agüeros, said would be used to offset the costs of home care while they wait for his Medicaid application to be approved. Marcel said the family was grateful to those who attended the benefit, including representatives of the Alzheimer’s Association of New York, which has also given them money for emergency care. (Donations can be sent to Marcel Agüeros, Columbia Astrophysics Laboratory, Mail Code 5247, 550 West 120th Street, New York, N.Y. 10027.)
“It takes a whole network to do the care-giving,” said Marcel, who shares the tasks with his sister, Natalia. “It’s like a full-time job.”
His father now attends a day program, he said.
“He still remembers people,” Marcel said. “His personality is still fairly intact.”
So is his reputation, earned through years of community service and writing everything from short stories to psalms and sonnets. In an interview with his publisher at Curbstone Press, he saw himself as a chronicler of the working class, who refused to accept the prevailing, dismissive view of Latinos in this city and country.
“Latinos are always a minor chord in the symphony, if they are portrayed at all,” he said in the interview. “They are like a roll of the drums and then dismissed, and their depiction is not flattering when it is highlighted.”
His own literary influences ranged a lot farther than the streets of his childhood. In the same interview with his publisher, he singled out E. E. Cummings, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Charles Dickens with fondness.
“Edna St. Vincent Millay, she totally wrecked the sonnet form and made it so damn beautiful,” he said. “And I love Dickens because he mixed up the classes.”
He can talk about those writers withthe same, hip voice that betrays his East Harlem roots. That kind of authenticity, however, can confound those who would rather get their inner-city kicks laced with keeping-it-real chaos. Martin Espada wonders how someone like Jack could fly under the radar for so long, while literary fakes like Margaret Seltzerget overnight praise and dollars for a whole-cloth memoir about being raised among drug-slinging gangs in Los Angeles.
“For the wider audience, pathology is authenticity,” Mr. Espada said. “What Jack demonstrates is we are much more diverse and complex than anyone has admitted. Or that we have even admitted to ourselves.”
If anything the neighborhood of Jack’s youth was a veritable hothouse for future Puerto Rican writers, said Edgardo Vega Yunqué, a novelist who moved to East Harlem in 1952 when he was 15 years old. Among those who would go on earn success and respect were Judge Edwin Torres, Ed Rivera, author of “Family Installments: Memories of Growing Up Hispanic” (1982), and Piri Thomas, whose memoir, “Down These Mean Streets” (1967), is a classic of the genre.
Mr. Vega has been a close friend of mine from the early 1980s, when we both worked at mind-numbing day jobs that had nothing to do with writing. He has always reveled in the area’s rich culture, as well as the complexity of the city that surrounded it.
“It was a seedbed for what we are today,” Mr. Vega said. “We were a very isolated community. To the south was Yorkville and the Germans, to the west was Harlem and the blacks and to the east were the Italians. We had to defend our very small territory. Consequently, we forged an identity out of that. There was a solidarity and identity as Puerto Ricans I haven’t seen since.”
Well, he caught a glimpse of it on Tuesday night.
reserve a place for me in heaven on a cloud
with Indians, Blacks, Jews, Irish, Italians,
Portuguese, and lots of Asians and Arabs, and Hispanics.
I don’t mind if they play
their music too loudly,
or if they leave their windows open –
I like the smell of ethnic foods.
if heaven isn’t integrated,
and if any Angels are racists,
I swear I’m going to be a no-show
I have already seen hell.
– “Psalm for Open Clouds and Windows,” from Jack Agüeros, “Lord, Is This a Psalm?”