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Remembering Louis Reyes Rivera—The People’s Poet & a Fighter for a Free and Open CUNY

Conor Tomás Reed Mar 15, 2012

Louis Reyes Rivera—poet laureate and people’s historian of the CUNY movement—passed away in the early hours of March 3, 2012, leaving behind a legacy as vibrant as the Africana, LatinAmerican, and Caribbean communities for whom he dedicated his life to document and praise. As evident in the dozens of public remembrances that have already surfaced since his death, Rivera will be celebrated as a tirelessly principled elder and radical artist par excellence to a huge extended family in the social justice, performance, and writing scenes in CUNY and around NYC. Rivera is survived by his wife, Barbara Killens Rivera; two daughters, Abiba Deceus and Kutisha Booker; son Barra Wyn; and four grandchildren, James Booker, Akalia Booker, Quamey Venable, and Jean-Oliver Deceus. He was 66-years old.

One part bell hooks, one part Howard Zinn, one part Arturo Schomburg—and yet of an inimitable caliber all his own—Rivera “distinguished himself as a professor of creative writing, Pan-African literature, African-American culture and history, Caribbean history, Puerto Rican history, and Nuyorican literature at such institutions as State University of New York-Stony Brook, Hunter College, College of New Rochelle, LaGuardia College, Pratt Institute, and Boricua College,” writes National Writers Union member Barry Hock. Throughout his life, Rivera was honored with numerous awards, including a lifetime achievement award from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (1995), a Special Congressional Recognition award (1988), and City College of New York's 125th Anniversary Medal (1973).

Rivera’s dedication to changing—as well as documenting and performing—people’s histories was infused in the ongoing community literacy and orality programs he led at Sistas’ Place, in what he liked to call the “People’s Independent Republic of Brooklyn.” For many years he ran a four-hour writing workshop on the 1st and 3rd Saturdays, as well as “Jazzoetry” and open mic sessions on the 1st and 3rd Sundays. Moreover, for several years River hosted the WBAI radio show “Perspective,” a dynamic forum on all matters political and cultural for the people of New York. One of his students, Rich Villar, reminisced after Rivera’s death: “Documentation is a behavior I learned from him. Archive is a survival instinct he tried to teach us all.”

Rivera wrote, edited, translated, and/or published over 200 books in his lifetime, including John Oliver Killens' Great Black Russian: A Novel on the Life and Times of Alexander Pushkin, Adal Maldonado's Portraits of the Puerto Rican Experience, and Sekou Sundiata’s Free! Rivera also co-edited Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam with Tony Medina, and Bandana Republic: A Literary Anthology by Gang Members and Their Affiliates with Bruce George. Rivera’s publishing company Shamal Books released collections from some of the city’s finest poets. During this time, Rivera published four books of his own work: Who Pays The Cost (1978), This One For You (1983), In Control of English (1988 and 1992), and Scattered Scripture (1996).

Sandra Maria Estevez, with whom with Rivera and others co-founded the Nuyorican Poets Café, writes of Rivera’s own award-winning collection
Scattered Scripture, “A volume of highly crafted poems of militant and radical perspective, it is a literary masterpiece that attempts to translate history into poetry, covering the chapters missing from official renditions of history. This collection took twenty years of research to create. The first poem completed for the book, ‘(what are they doing),’ was written in 1974, and the last poem, ‘(like toussaint, so marti)’ was written in 1995. In between came all the other works as responses to his research. Scattered Scripture contains forty-one pages of notes that provide the sources and historical context for the poems, making the book complete as a poetic song, a historical document, and an instructional device.”

The Struggle for Open Admissions

Many of us in the CUNY movement revere Rivera as an active participant and chronicler of the 1969 City College of New York Takeover, during which Black and Latino students occupied campus buildings for two weeks as part of a massive city-wide student and community rebellion that directly linked social movements to higher education. This historic struggle achieved Open Admissions and the formation of an Ethnic Studies department. Within a few years, these shifts in admissions policy, curriculum content, and faculty diversity transformed CUNY to become a majority people of color university whose classrooms more consciously engaged with their histories. It took these dramatic actions for CUNY to more accurately reflect the original mission stated at its 1849 founding: “The experiment is to be tried, whether the children of the people, the children of the whole people, can be educated; and whether an institution of the highest grade, can be successfully controlled by the popular will, not by the privileged few.”

With his classmate and fellow poet Sekou Sundiata, Rivera co-founded The Paper in 1969, the first CUNY student newspaper under the control of Black and Puerto Rican students.(Photo: The Paper contributed to a growing focus on emancipatory journalism around the country by students of color to open up dialogues on- and off-campus about social change. Just one year before, activists with the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) developed the South End student paper of Detroit’s Wayne State University into “the voice of a de facto radical united front,” write Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin, in which “every progressive element on campus and in the city could get its views published.” This critical legacy is still very much alive and kicking at City College. The Paper continues to operate as a leading political and artistic forum for students of color. Rivera’s name and inspiration continue to resound in staff discussions of The Paper’s past, present, and future mission.


Rivera never ceased to engage with his political action roots at CUNY. I first had the honor to meet him at City College during a March 4, 2010 student walkout as part of a national education day of action. I had anticipated this opportunity ever since beginning my studies there in 2006 and hearing stories about him within our school’s richly subversive history. On that cold and wet day in March, Rivera came to speak with the few hundred-wide student cipher gathered outside the North Academic Center, laughing and chanting with critical purpose despite the rain that dampened our posters and banners. Less than 5 feet in height, Rivera literally embodied with his loud, steady, luminous flow of prose-poetry that we, history’s little folks, could galvanize and transform any space we occupied.  

More recently, in 2011, Rivera joined two panels that spoke to students and faculty about these histories. At a  February 22 event on “CUNY Student Strikes,” hosted by Students United for a Free CUNY, Rivera stated, “You have to be willing to challenge everything, even the assumption that you have to go to school and pay for it. Students leave either through the front door with a degree in one hand and a debt in the other or the leave through the backdoor with no degree but a debt. That makes you an indentured servant.” For many student activists in the room, these prescient remarks would bridge the over three decades-long struggle for CUNY tuition to be free again with the Occupy Student Debt campaign and debt statement-burnings at protests that arose in the fall of 2011.

Unwilling to Wait

At a November 2011 event on “Black Student Radicalism: Past, Present, and Future,” co-hosted by the Africana Studies Group and the Adjunct Project at the CUNY Graduate Center, Rivera recounted the conditions for why students of color have rebelled, noting that only 10 percent of all CUNY students were from non-European American backgrounds in 1968. He shared how the CCNY campus had become an extraordinary political realm for discussion and debate. H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael spoke to packed rooms, films like Battle of Algiers were screened in the wake of anti-colonial revolutions in Africa. Future leaders of the Young Lords Party and the Puerto Rican Student Union engaged with Black students in the Onyx Society, as well as committed anti-racist white students, to form an alliance that led them to take over buildings upon coming to the conclusion that, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., the administration’s call to “wait almost always means never.”

Rivera’s contribution electrified the room at a time when many of us in the CUNY community had become actively involved in the Occupy movement, and desired to learn how immense concrete victories had been won in the past. Kristin Moriah, Africana Studies Group Co-chair, offers these words of remembrance about the event: “We wanted to assemble a group of people who could speak to the diverse forms of activism at CUNY that often get obscured. The word “activist” tends to conjure a certain sort of white male image that doesn’t necessarily hold true at CUNY. Holding the panel was a way of refuting that and emphasizing the importance of cross-racial solidarity in student activism.”

Moriah added, “Luis Reyes Rivera had an incredible presence; he was a small powerhouse. With his flowing beard and yellow dashiki he was striking. It was impossible not to be struck by his wit, wry humor and passion for activism. He captivated everyone in the audience during his last talk at the Graduate Center. He was able to crystallize so many of the issues that concern us, especially the importance of access to a liberal arts education and the development of critical thinking skills. He wanted us to know our own history. He loved the people of New York and he believed that CUNY was worth fighting for because of these people. He was so generous with his wisdom. It was a tough act to follow.

“I think that he really came to speak to us at the right time. In so many ways, that panel was a gift. Watching the reaction of the crowd reemphasized how important it is that that link to our activist past be maintained and that the contributions of black and Latino student not be erased from our institutional history. We have a lot of incredibly talented and committed young activists at CUNY. We’re doing a lot of amazing work right now, but we didn’t invent the wheel. It’s important for us to remember that we are part of a long tradition. Even though the battles we’re facing now might seem uphill, we have faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles before AND won. There’s a great comfort in that. For me, Louis Reyes Rivera’s passing really means losing an important link to CUNY history. It’s so important that Louis and his work not be forgotten.”

A 'Bridge' Among the Underclass

Indeed, Rivera was precisely the kind of representative educator who CUNY students have continually fought to include in our schools: “I come from a peasant background (i.e., Puerto Rico), from the lumpen proletariat (i.e., urban ghetto), and from the dispossessed (i.e., of African and Amerindian descent), and I choose deliberately not to forget or forsake that there is beauty and relevance in that lineage. No shame. But no arrogance either.” He repeatedly said that he wished to be remembered “as a bridge between the various currents of the underclass.” Rivera also once clarified, “If I am an academic, it's by default. I never looked at it as teaching as much as sharing with others. Information is supposed to be part of our natural inheritance, just by virtue of our birth. What we call education is really more like being tricked and trained to meet the demands of labor.”

Rivera’s involvement in the CUNY movement represented only one of a spectacular array of his projects that could easily fill several lifetimes. Many respected, worked alongside, and learned from Rivera as an esteemed poet and performer. CCNY professor Herb Boyd writes, “At the National Writers Union, a steering committee in which Rivera was a key component called an emergency meeting and set in motion a number of ways to remember their tireless member. ‘He was intricately involved in so many activities that it will probably take a team of us to fulfill just half of what he was doing and what was on his agenda,’ said Loretta Campbell.”

Last Epic Poem

Before his death, Rivera had just finalized a 150-page epic poem Jazz in Jail, for which publication efforts are already in motion. In a Spring 2009 interview with Eric Serrano, Rivera explained its purpose: “This project began roughly seven years ago. What happens if Jazz (personified) gets busted and put in jail? For what? For trying to stand against the exploitation of music by the music industry… For trying to bring together all of the music that comes out of the Diaspora—Reggae, Samba, Mambo, Calypso, Merengue, Hard bop, Cool bop, Be bop, the Blues, Mother Blues (the mother of Jazz), Grandpa Dirge, Grandma Praise Song, Work Song, Birth Song, the Chant—into one huge convention of the music, a family reunion – Let’s discuss our condition… So I had an opportunity to pay homage to poetry and music, to show you the conditions inside a prison and inside the court room, and I could even trace the history of it.”

Because of these myriad achievements, Rivera’s legacy must be both honored and extended for more people to learn. Hank Williams, another panelist in the “Black Student Radicalism” event, argues, “Louis Reyes Rivera, known as “the janitor of history,” is the type of person who we often allow to fall through the cracks of recorded “official” history, but whose memory is passed on through the African oral tradition. In some ways, that’s fitting, because that’s how he often operated himself. Anyone who’s seen or heard his incredibly gripping poem on being in the room during Malcolm X’s assassination [“Bullet Cry”] can attest to the power of the spoken word when used by him. In 2011, he was honored at the Harlem Book Fair and said that he understood that his mastery of words and as a storyteller came with a great responsibility: that of telling the truth. This is what he did. It will get you in trouble if your concern is mainstream acclaim, but his concern was more for those who, like him, were on the underside of history. He repped us proudly and well.”

In the essay “Inside the River of Poetry,” Rivera asserted the profound stakes that guided this kind of fiercely conscientious and loving interaction within our communities. “Always there is need for song… And every human has a poem to write, a compulsion to contemplate out loud, an urge to dig out that ore of confusion locked up inside. But with the contradictions of privilege and caste, of class and gender distinctions regulating access, of those ever present distortions in textbooks with their one-sided measure of human worth, and with the culture of white man still serving as ultimate yardstick to what is acceptable as matter, not everyone is permitted to learn to read, much less to study poetry or hone the art and take the risk of putting one’s self on paper.” Rivera welcomed that invaluable risk from us all with his gentle grace, intellectual reach, and cool tenacity. May we all contribute to Louis Reyes Rivera’s memory by endeavoring to create a society that one day welcomes poetry from everyone.

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