Jack Agüeros, 79, a Champion of El Barrio, Dies


It is with a sad heart that we share the news of the death of Puerto Rican poet Jack Agüeros, a beloved friend of many years. Here is the New York Times obituary by David González:

Jack Agüeros was an activist. The term is concise, like his many sonnets, but it hardly captures the expanse of his life, which saw him go from a childhood in East Harlem to defending its Puerto Rican people as an antipoverty official, celebrating its culture by expanding and moving El Museo del Barrio, and memorializing its greatest poet by translating the complete works of Julia de Burgos.

Like many Puerto Rican strivers who came of age in New York City a half-century ago, he had little choice but to deploy his talent on multiple fronts.

“People underestimated him because he was sometimes plain in his projection and personality, but he was daring, a visionary,” said Eva de la O, the head of a chamber music group whose first performance, 34 years ago, was, at Mr. Agüeros’s insistence, at El Museo del Barrio. “Sometimes it looked like he was flying all over the place, but like a bird he knew exactly where he wanted to land and where he needed to plant the seed.”

Mr. Agüeros died on Sunday, at 79, at his home in Manhattan. His family said the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

Jack Ruben Agüeros was born on Sept. 2, 1934, in East Harlem, to parents who had migrated from Puerto Rico. His father, Joaquín, who had been a police officer in Puerto Rico, worked in factories and as a merchant seaman after coming to New York. His mother, Carmen, was a seamstress.

Books and reading were encouraged in their small apartment, as Mr. Agüeros recalled in “Halfway to Dick and Jane,” an essay he contributed to “The Immigrant Experience,” an anthology that came out in 1971.

“As I became a good reader they bought books for me and never refused me money for their purchase,” he wrote. “My father once built a bookcase for me. It was an important moment, for I had always believed that my father was not too happy about my being a bookworm.”

After graduating from Benjamin Franklin High School, he spent four years in the Air Force. He returned to New York and enrolled at Brooklyn College to study engineering, but a class with the English scholar Bernard Grebanier changed him. He fell in love with literature, especially Shakespeare, and writing.

He began writing plays and poems, though by the time he had graduated he was also becoming known for his community work, starting with his efforts to help at-risk young women at the Henry Street Settlement.

In the 1960s, Mr. Agüeros was part of a group of Puerto Ricans who met informally to discuss the challenges facing residents of East Harlem, the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the South Bronx and Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

In 1968, he was tapped by Mayor John V. Lindsay to be deputy commissioner of the city’s main antipoverty agency, making him the highest-ranking Puerto Rican in city government at the time.

But his tenure lasted only a little more than two months, and he was forced to resign amid reports that he had not filed income tax returns for a few years. Instead of leaving quietly, however, Mr. Agüeros began a five-day hunger strike in his office, demanding that Puerto Ricans be named to city and state boards and agencies in education and housing, and that the city hire Puerto Ricans for professional positions. He ended the protest after several days, after the city acceded to some of his demands.

Mr. Agüeros went on to earn a master’s degree in urban studies in 1970 at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Returning to New York, he went to work at a Lower East Side antipoverty program, remaining there until 1977, when he was asked to be the director of a nascent Puerto Rican museum housed in several storefronts on East 106th Street and Third Avenue.

Within months, he had the idea of moving the museum into a city-owned building on Fifth Avenue, making El Museo del Barrio the northern anchor of the city’s Museum Mile, and putting it in a better position to jockey for city funds. Expanding both the galleries and the collections, he embraced not just the local Puerto Rican community but also the larger Latin American experience.

“We are too culturally rich to force ourselves into ghettos of narrow nationalism,” he said in a 1978 interview. “El Museo now wants to embody the culture of all of Latin America.”

A decade later, clashes over financing with Bess Myerson, who led the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, resulted in his ouster by the museum’s board. He later earned a living as a grant writer. He also wrote poetry.

Martin Espada, a poet and friend, took notice of those writings and made sure they were published. Mr. Agüeros’s first collection, “Correspondence Between the Stone Haulers,” came out in 1991. It was followed by “Sonnets From the Puerto Rican” and “Lord, Is This a Psalm?”

His verse tackled issues of race, class and city life, and was delivered in a wry tone. “Jack gave those big abstractions like justice, poverty and racism a human face and distilled those issues brilliantly,” said Mr. Espada, whose father, Frank, worked closely with Mr. Agüeros for decades. “He could say in a few words what a sociologist would take 100 pages to say.”

Mr. Agüeros was married three times. Among his survivors are two sons, Marcel and Kadi Agüeros; a daughter, Natalia Agüeros-Macario; and three grandchildren.

Last year, Mr. Agüeros donated his papers to Columbia University. On Monday morning, his son Marcel said his father had long ago decided on one final donation, to an Alzheimer’s research program at Columbia University Medical Center.

“He was part of the brain donation program at the Taub Institute,” Marcel Agüeros said. “As soon as he knew he was sick, he believed he had to try and help as many others as he could. He was always the activist.”

For the original report go to


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