The Agueros Archive: Preserving New York's Latino Heritage
Jack Agüeros is a poet, playwright, short story writer, translator and author of five books. He was an activist in New York’s Latino community in the 1960s and ’70s and director of El Museo del Barrio for close to a decade. Agüeros, who turns 78 on Sept. 2 and suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, can no longer write. But he will continue to inspire students, writers and literary scholars through the collection of papers, videos and photographs he and his three children, Kadi, Marcel and Natalia, are donating to the Columbia Libraries.
The collection, to be housed at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, marks the beginning of an initiative with Columbia’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race to collect papers and records of Latino artists and activists in New York. “New York has a very rich Latino cultural and political history,” says Frances Negrón-Muntaner, the center’s director and a professor of English and comparative literature. “Jack Agüeros was a pivotal figure of New York’s Puerto Rican cultural renaissance, a major movement in the city in the late 1960s and into the 1970s,” she said. “To have these materials enriches our understanding of our present and our past.”
Agüeros, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, was born and grew up in East Harlem. His mother was a seamstress and his father, a former policeman in Puerto Rico, was a merchant mariner. Much of his writing deals with the struggles of being Puerto Rican in New York, including racism and poverty.
The materials include early versions of his poems, plays and short stories; unfinished manuscripts; newspaper clippings documenting his political activities; documents and slides from his days as director of El Museo from 1977 to 1986; and videos of interviews and readings in the early 2000s. Other highlights include his research about Julia de Burgos, a great 20th century Puerto Rican poet whose poems were compiled and translated by Agüeros.
“Documenting New York is one of the many things we do and documenting that which has not previously been documented is particularly important to us,” says Michael Ryan, director of the RBML. “It’s important that a collection like this live in the context of a premier academic institution.”
The donation reflects the family’s strong relationship with Columbia and their desire to make the collection available to a wide audience. Agüeros’s daughter, Natalia Agüeros-Macario (GSAS’12), worked at Columbia’s Center for Environment, Economy and Society for three years and in May received her master’s degree in sustainability management. His youngest son, Marcel Agüeros, is a 1996 graduate of the College, did his post-doctoral fellowship at Columbia and is now an assistant professor of astronomy.
“For my family, for my dad, the fact that we have this archive, that it’s going to be at Columbia and that people will be able to use it for research and to know his work, is wonderful,” says Marcel Agüeros.
The elder Agüeros worked for a time as a longshoreman and at nightclubs in Harlem before becoming a missile instructor in the U.S. Air Force. He attended Brooklyn College on the GI Bill, planning to become an engineer, but was inspired by a literature professor and began writing. He graduated with a B.A. in English literature. Later, as a member of the first cohort of National Urban Fellows, he received a master’s degree in urban studies from Occidental College in Los Angeles.
In the 1960s, he worked with a variety of community groups in New York including the Community Development Agency, where as deputy commissioner he was the highest ranking Puerto Rican in the city’s administration and in 1968 staged a five-day hunger strike to protest the lack of Puerto Ricans in city government. In 1970, he became director of Mobilization For Youth, an organization that provided job training and placement, social services and educational programs and whose papers were already a part of RBML’s collection. As director of El Museo, he moved the museum from a Third Avenue storefront to its present location on Fifth Avenue and expanded its collection.
Although Spanish was his first language, Agüeros preferred to write in English, says his son, Marcel. While some of his early work was published in the collection "The Immigrant Experience" in 1971, his first book, "Correspondence Between the Stonehaulers," wasn’t published until 1991. He has won numerous awards for his writing, including the 2012 Asan World Prize for Poetry.
Agüeros now needs 24-hour help and attends a day program just a few blocks from the Columbia campus. Although he no longer can read and often doesn’t remember his own poems and stories, he loves music, says Marcel Agüeros, and sings along with recordings of "My Fair Lady" and "Guys and Dolls."
“My father is a larger-than-life character,” says Natalia Agüeros-Macario. “I hope this is the beginning of Columbia’s chronicling of an important piece of the history of the city in which it is located.”
This article originally appeared on the Columbia Manhattanville website.