We said goodbye as only we could, with poetry, music, dance and food. Almost two hundred de nuestra comunidad gathered to bid Jesús Abraham “Tato” Laviera farewell. The service, held at St. Peter’s Church in New York City, drew some of the community’s most prominent artists, poets and musicians. Many in attendance wore white, a tradition in the practice of Santeria to honor the orisha, Obatalá. Many also wore Panama hats, in honor of Tato himself, because he was rarely seen without one perched jauntily atop his head. The night began with a heartfelt message from Latin Jazz musician, Bobby Sanabria, remarking on Tato’s great love for the island of Puerto Rico. He asked us to accompany him as he whistled that familiar song of the coquí before breaking into song. Sanabria sang out in praise of Tato, calling him the “campeón del puertorriqueño negro”. Soon after, the casket was brought in, draped in the Puerto Rican flag and accompanied by those closest to the poet, including his sister, Ruth Sánchez, and daughter, Ella Laviera.
The funeral mass – conducted in Spanish – began with the padre announcing “todos somos familia, vecinos, conocidos.” Though filled to the brim with people paying their respects to Tato, it did indeed feel in many ways like a family gathering. Many gave remembrances of Tato, of his great compassion, sense of humor, kindness and love. Papa, as the extended family he helped to raise called him, was a gifted spirit. Beyond his poetry, the overwhelming impression was of the man’s sheer joie de vivre and in the easy way he was able to share it with others.
Felipe Luciano, former Young Lord and long-time friend of Tato, was one of the memorial’s main speakers. His eulogy for Tato was a powerful piece of spoken-word poetry with lines that resonated, such as “I followed you into the mysteries of Mambo music and melanin.” It alluded to the Afro-Puertorriqueñidad they both shared, a theme that figured prominently in much of Tato’s work. Another verse that lingered in the air recounted Tato’s acuity with language, and his love of both English and Spanish, “I will tell the world how you solved English crossword puzzles with a Spanglish all your own.”
Many poets were invited to read at the memorial, among them Jesús “Papoleto” Meléndez, José Angel Figueroa and María Aponte. All chose to recite snippets of Laviera’s poetry when time ran short. Papoleto – well-known in the Nuyorican community – chose to interpret Laviera’s “Commonwealth” from his book “AmeRícan.” Other speakers included María Cruz, executive director of Taíno Towers, where Tato resided from 2010 until his passing, and Nancy True, retiree director of International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT). Cruz told those in attendance The Red Carpet Theatre – the performance space at Taíno Towers – would be renamed in Tato’s honor. True recounted a humorous story of how Laviera became a teamster.
Perhaps the most touching moment of the memorial was when Tato’s daughter Ella, chose to read a letter she wrote to her father thanking him for his love, his spirit, and his encouragement. Tato’s sister Ruth, too overcome with emotion to speak, stood silently by Ella’s side, holding her hand as she read. “Your sense of love comes out in everything you do… thank you for being my father”, Ella shared with us all. Soon after, her son read from his own letter to his grandfather, telling mourners that Tato had appeared to him the day after he died, with wide-open eyes that could see. Elba Cabrera, whom Tato had dubbed the “madrina de los artes” for her long commitment to arts in the Nuyorican community, met Tato at The Association of Hispanic Arts (AHA), the organization she helped to run in the 1970s and 80s. When it came time to speak, Elba was not short on words, humor, or love. “I want you to know that Tato planned this”, she said, speaking not only of his transition on All Saint’s Day, but of the immense gathering that took place in his honor, bringing together so many of the community’s treasured personalities.
The night ended as all Puerto Rican gatherings do, with rice and beans, conversation, clasped hands and kisses on the cheek. It is said that Puerto Rican goodbyes take forever. A proper one will take you at least twenty minutes from your living room to your front door. We forget things, we come back for more gossip, we grab even more leftovers to bring home. As Tato left the church, accompanied by the beautiful sound of Santeros chanting, wailing and ringing bells, those who came to honor him salsa danced their way afterwards, then said goodbye as only Puerto Ricans can. They took their sweet time, not wanting to let go, letting the music carry them after.
“so let’s touch hands, friends and foes,
and stay together to hear each other’s
sounds just for one moment, let’s stay
tucked together, and maybe then, less
options, maybe then, hope.” -Tato Laviera, “Commonwealth”
Originally published on La Respuesta