West Philadelphia: Philadelphia’s Poet Laureate Helps Puerto Rico’s LGBTQ+ Community
When Hurricane Irma struck Puerto Rico in October 2017, Raquel Salas Rivera, Philadelphia’s poet laureate for 2018-19, wanted to help.
“I’m very close to the trans community in Puerto Rico,” Salas Rivera said. “Many went without access to medicine or their hormones after the hurricane. Some are safe now, but there are still a lot of transphobic places in Puerto Rico. They are my people, so I wanted to help them.”
With the help of their campaign partner, Allison Harris, Salas Rivera raised more than $14,000 in a YouCaring online fundraiser. With this money, they were able to purchase plane tickets for five Puerto Ricans in the LGBTQ+ community to fly them to Philadelphia. Salas Rivera helped them find new jobs and new homes until Puerto Rico was secure enough for them to go back.
“A lot of things were happening at once,” Salas Rivera said. “People lost electricity and they lost their homes. I still talk to the five people I was able to help, but most have since moved back to Puerto Rico. My goal was to really stabilize them, not give them a permanent residence here in Philadelphia. Because the change of environment can be hard.”
Salas Rivera is a non-binary and queer poet who moved to West Philadelphia from Mayaguez, Puerto Rico for graduate school and has been writing poetry since they were young. Salas Rivera’s latest novel, The Tertiary, is rooted deeply in Puerto Rico’s LGBTQ+ community and its past. Through their words, they hope to bring the community closer.
The Tertiary was dedicated to Puerto Rico. It’s written in both English and Spanish, and Salas Rivera translated it. While self-translation considered taboo for some publishers, they felt like it added a personal touch to their poetry collection. The poetry collection features the English translation on one side and the Spanish translation on the other side when the book is flipped upside-down.
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“I wanted The Tertiary to be published in both languages so that it was understandable for everyone—my people in Puerto Rico and my people here in America,” Salas Rivera said.
Salas Rivera carries around their own author copy of the book. They marked the pages with color tabs so that it’s easier to find both translations of a specific poem during public readings.
“I write all kinds of poetry, so I think my work can be for everyone,” Salas Rivera said. “Some might call my work experimental, some might call it an intersection of traditional Latin-American lyrical forms. But a lot of my poetry was written during a time of pain. I cried, and I still get choked up when I read some of it.”
As a transgender, non-binary Boricua who identifies as queer, Salas Rivera wanted to reach out to the trans community in Puerto Rico since they couldn’t physically be there with their “second family.”
“I’m really interested in creating more than inspiration with my poetry,” Salas Rivera said. “I want to create an experience. Sometimes when you tell people what’s happening, that doesn’t really do much. But if you approach it like your stance on an experience that you had, you can actually create something in poetry that allows people to feel.”
The Tertiary is an extension of Salas Rivera’s efforts to support the LGBTQ+ community in Puerto Rico. The fundraiser was only the beginning. They still work to help the LGBTQ+ community by selling political posters to help Taller Salud, a women’s health group in Puerto Rico. They also use their poetry to inspire others to help.
“The fundraiser was a way of keeping busy during a period in which we didn’t really have the space to mourn,” Salas Rivera said. “So I had this project and another project going at the same time. Helping others was my way of coping.”
-Text, images and video by Nadege Richards.