By Carmen Williams
Eight years ago, Caridad De La Luz, then a 27-year-old Puerto Rican poet and performer, finally found her artistic voice. It was just a month after the World Trade Center attacks and De La Luz — like most New Yorkers — was still in shock. But she was also inspired. The result was one of her best-known poems, WTC, which uses only carefully crafted three-word phrases that begin with the letters W, T or C: “What’s the cause/Work to connect/Wish to change/Want to cry…Wish time could/Wash this clean…Watched the Calamity/ Weakness to Courage.”
The poem is emblematic of De La Luz’s work. Through her art, she aims to transform tragedy into hope. Known by the stage name “La Bruja“, or witch, De La Luz performed recently at Nuyorican Poets Cafe as a part of “The Sense of a Woman” musical, dance and poetry exhibition. Her rhythmic speech, passionate raps and charismatic delivery wowed the crowd. “It’s not easy being a woman,” she told the audience. “We deal with menstruation, menopause and MySpace.”
Now 36, De La Luz has been performing on the popular East Village cafe’s stage for 13 years. During that time, she has evolved from community organizer and marketing rep to actress, singer, songwriter, comedian and artist-activist. She has also used her talents to give back to the community by working with local organizations that help young people, especially young Latinas.
Born in the Soundview neighborhood of the Bronx (where she still lives), De La Luz graduated from Murry Bergtraum High School and attended the State University of New York in Binghamton. But it wasn’t until she began working as a community organizer in Hunts Point in the 1990s that she witnessed the direct impact of high rates of teen pregnancy, low educational attainment, drug abuse and STDs. After her stint as an organizer, she worked in retail marketing for Bloomingdale’s but then quit to begin a full-time artist and poet. But even as she developed her artistic side, the energetic Bronx native couldn’t forget what she had seen as an organizer. Those memories led her to start Latinas4Life, an organization that runs high school workshops around the city.
“I worked with youth before becoming “La Bruja,” she said. “but once I saw the statistics of Latinas in particular, I felt the need to create something to bring awareness about these issues from a Latina perspective.”
The numbers are indeed grim. In New York City, a third of Latinas leave high school without graduating. One in every four Latina teens becomes pregnant. And even more disturbing are the effects of these issues. Nationally, one of every seven Latinas will attempt suicide.
De La Luz believes that many of the difficulties young Latinas experience are the result of trying to balance two cultures, family roots and American identity. Research backs that up. A 1999 study conducted by the National Coalition of Hispanic Health and Human Services found that the lack of communication between daughters and mothers and the lack of information about how to deal with the conflict between old and new values was a factor in suicide attempts by Latinas.
But she thinks its possible to successfully reconcile both cultures, as she has. “I don’t think you have to choose,” she said. “You can embrace both cultures at once. Have a balance and love both sides for the ugliness and the beauty.”
Her work as a role model extends beyond Latinas4Life. “She’s very connected to the community and she’s a great representative of the Bronx,” says Victoria Sammartino, founder and executive director of Voices UnBroken, a non-profit organization that produces writing workshops for Bronx young people in foster care, as well as adults in homeless shelters and correctional facilities. De La Luz is a board member of the group and has helped with workshops. “It’s important to the participants because they know that someone who has achieved success is actually interested in them and their work,” Sammartino said. “They’re all big fans of hers and feel connected to her.”
But Latinas4Life is closest to her own journey. Through the group’s workshops, she has heard harrowing tales from young teens: tales of rape, suicide attempts and depression. De La Luz can relate because she has experienced these issues herself. She overcome bouts of depression, suicidal thoughts and date rape, the subject of her poem She: “She fought, she yelled, she lost, she fell/She left her body there and swore never to tell/She let some years pass believing she was at fault.”
“It took me 15 years to write that poem and share it,” she said. Her hope is that talking about her experiences will help others heal. “This work is transformational,” she said. “It’s about transforming lives without leaving someone behind.”
She is often emotionally drained after a workshop. “We think because they’re teenagers, they don’t deal with this,” she said. “But most of these girls have been dealing with these issues. They’re dying to pull themselves out.”
De La Luz tries to correct these issues in her own home, talking candidly about problems with her son Kelson, 11, and daughter Carina, 9. She even broaches conversations with her kids that are still taboo within her traditional culture. “The old Latina way is to not tell the truth about things like sex but when you treat it as not natural and you grow up with complexes and insecurities,” she said. “I share with my daughter the things I’ve seen.”
She and her husband, G. Bo Vasquez, a professional DJ, live next door to her parents. And she says they have no intention of leaving. She’s close to her parents and says they encouraged her to pursue her passion, even though it was an unconventional career. Her late great-grandmother sparked her desire to write poetry by teaching her poems that she would recite them in front of family members. It was a poem inspired by her grandmother in 1995 that laid the foundation for her work as a full-time artist.
“My best friend’s brother told me about Nuyorican Cafe,” she said. “The first poem I performed was so full of pride and love for my island and culture. It was like my grandmother was talking to me.”
She received a standing ovation for her performance, and eventually her poems earned her a monthly slot at the cafe. Since she first appeared on the stage, the poet has developed in many artistic areas–actress, singer, song-writer.
“The thing that’s always impressed me about La Bruja is her combination of talent,” said Daniel Gallant, the executive director of the cafe. “Last year, she did a two-week run, and every single night she had a different show. She has enough breadth of talent that different audiences know her for different reasons–comedian, actress, singer, poet.”
“Her talents match the venue,” Gallant said. “She’s developed great characters at the cafe. She has range.”
Some of those developed characters were on display this summer when De La Luz portrayed seven different family members in her play “Boogie Rican Blvd.” She said the play was meant to be entertaining, but it also served as a healing tool.
“It was a labor of love, and I hope to shop it around to other theaters,” she said.
She has also become involved in the organization LatinosNYC through her assistant, Paul Rios. He met De La Luz two years ago after he contacted her over MySpace to perform at an event for suicide awareness. LatinosNYC gives information about HIV awareness, domestic violence, suicide to the Latino community.
“I contacted La Bruja, [to perform] and on the day of the show, she showed up and did a hell of a job,” Rios said. “I admire her for what she stands for–a poet, actor, activist, hip hop artist, mother and wife.”
Rios hopes many other will get to see that talent. “I would like her to reach the skies with her talent and beyond any limits that society sets on people, especially Latina females,” he said.
De La Luz is also excited about her future. She’s working on an anthology of her work and she’s slated to release an album next month on her independent record label. She will also continue her charity work.
“I have schools lined up for this year and I want to get the organization registered as non-profit status,” she said. “I am going to continue to grow.”