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Nancy Mercado, poet and leader in Nuyorican movement, joins previous esteemed winners, such as Toni Morrison and Isabelle Allende

Nancy Mercado
Nancy Mercado says her poetry, suffused with reflections on social justice and environmental responsibility, has taken on new urgency in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. 
Photo: Richardo Muniz

"Prose is great, but long winded. It’s magical how [with poetry] you put the words together and they can create imagery. It’s very visual."
 
– Nancy Mercado

Poet Nancy Mercado was surfing online shortly after midnight one evening last August when she learned – to her astonishment – that she had won the 2017 American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement.

At least, she thought she’d won.

“I saw the article from The Washington Post, and when I opened it, I didn’t believe it was me. There’s an editor by the same name who works for Scholastic Press, and at first, I thought it might be that one they were talking about. We have an ongoing joke.”

Only when the Rutgers alumna scrolled down, affirming that this year’s honor was going to a “key figure in the Nuyorican movement,” did skepticism turned to joy.

“Nuyorican,” a marriage of the terms New York and Puerto Rican, refers to members of the diaspora from Puerto Rico who make their home in or around New York City. Mercado has been a guiding light in the movement for decades, most notably as a widely published poet and as the editor of the Nuyorican Women Writers Anthology, published by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College.

A 1982 Rutgers graduate with a major in studio art and art history, she has taught American literature for 20 years at Boricua College, an independent liberal arts college in New York City.

This recent award, sponsored by the Before Columbus Foundation, puts Mercado in stellar company. Previous winners have included Toni Morrison, Isabel Allende and Don DeLillo.

Her poetry, long suffused with reflections on social justice and environmental responsibility, has taken on new urgency in the aftermath of the devastating hurricane that struck Puerto Rico in September.

“My brother and his family live there, and my aunts who are in their 80s. I’ve yet to hear from one of my cousins, who lives in the mountainous regions of Penuelas,” Mercado says.

Many members of the Puerto Rican community in Manhattan are giving benefit readings and collecting funds that go directly to grass roots organizations on the island. One of her students travelled to help with the rebuilding effort.

Mercado says she uses poetry to incite people to take action to repair the world. She serves as assistant editor at Eco-Poetry, an online journal featuring poetry and commentary dealing with climate concerns, global warming and respect for the biosphere.

On the PBS News Hour special, “America Remembers 9/11,” which aired on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks, Mercado read from her poem “Going to Work,” expressing a yearning for what she and her fellow New Yorkers lost that day and commenting on their newly transformed world:  

On their daily trips 
Commuters shed tears now
Use American flags
Like veiled women
hide their sorrows
Rush to buy throwaway cameras
To capture your twin ghosts

Mercado says she’s enchanted by the power of poetry to capture the most profound emotions in the fewest words. “Prose is great, but long winded,” she says. “It’s magical how you put the words together and they can create imagery. It’s very visual.”

Nancy Mercado
Nancy Mercado at a recent book signing.
Photo: Courtesy of Nancy Mercado

Mercado grew up in a poor family. Her father immigrated to New Jersey from Puerto Rico as a migrant worker in the early 1950s; her mother followed later with Nancy’s older brother.

Born and raised in Atlantic City, she came to Rutgers. Soon after, student demands led to the establishment of a Puerto Rican Studies Department (now part of the Latino and Caribbean Studies Department).

Under the guidance of Maria Canino, who helped establish and chaired the department, and Canino’s successor, Miguel Algarin, a co-founder of the Nuyorican Poets Café in the 1970s, Mercado explored her ethnic heritage through a variety of prisms.

“These mentors helped me understand my history, my political situation, why my parents were here,” she says looking back. “They opened the world to me.”

Now Mercado is opening that world to future generations, not only with poems, plays and short stories, but also via a previously unexplored medium for her: a coloring book.

The Three Sisters recounts the story of siblings who came to the Bronx from Salinas, Puerto Rico, as youngsters, rising to prominence in the fields of education, the arts and community activism. The Casita Maria Center in the Bronx conceived of the project to infuse children of the community with the women’s pioneering spirit.

The binding thread in the tapestry of Mercado’s work is her zeal to leave her world a better place than she found it.  

“I don’t have children, but I do have nephews and nieces,” she says. “So it’s important to me to try to preserve what we have. It’s a terrible feeling to me to think that humanity might be responsible for the destruction of the earth.”