Twenty-one years ago, a girl from The Bronx got the courage to step to the open mic at the famed Nuyorican Poets Café in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and share her lyrical magic.
Caridad de la Luz, also known as La Bruja, has been a staple in the New York City spoken word scene since, and after recently starring in the sold-out off-Broadway play, I Like It Like That, the poet-actress-singer-activist doesn't appear to be slowing down anytime soon.
"I had no idea at all that poetry was going to be that thing. No clue," she told A Plus about how far spoken word poetry has taken her in life and career.
"I've always loved all forms of art. Dancing, singing. Ever since I was a little kid I was just a little performer. I would perform for my family. I would imitate people. I used to love entertaining my family."
La Bruja’s love for poetry and rhymes was immediately evident, even before she could write.
"I have a photo on Instagram where I created my own language in poetry to write before I knew how to write. You'll see a drawing of a little, bald, old man with some writing. That was me at 3 years old writing a poem about my grandfather in my secret language," she described. "I knew in my mind what I was saying about him. So much so that the bottom line is crossed out because I changed my mind about what it was I wanted to say. I was already editing myself before I could write."
Fast-forward to today and the modern-day renaissance woman, who has appeared on HBO's Def Poetry Jam, TV stints on Telemundo, Fox, NBC, and Netflix movies — like the first animated series made especially for the adult Latino viewer, Lugar Heights — came a long way from that career-defining night in 1996.
"I was a late bloomer because I didn't even know there was a culture for (spoken word poetry)," she recalled. "It was just something I did to heal myself. To release my aggression. To release what's in my heart. I loved the feeling of writing in journals."
But once the world was privy to the talent La Bruja was blessed with, there was no turning back.
Fresh off a five-month run of eight shows a week with no understudy starring in I Like It Like That — a play about the Rodriguez family living in NYC's East Harlem in the early 1970s, when music was the proudest expression of "El Barrio" — the poet-singer-actress discovered a new plateau in her career.
"My character was the revolutionary character. I played the daughter that becomes a Young Lord [a Puerto Rican nationalist group]. I was the conscience of the play," she said. "The music was very dear to my heart because that was the music my parents met dancing to. I'm a baby of that music. So, to be able to go back into the '70s and relive the time when that music was created, it was magic for me. I was paying homage to my parents' generation."
So much so that she even wore her "fashionista" mother's clothing, the only cast member to have authentic clothing from the 1970s.
"Those were her clothes that I wore. Those were her clothes from the '70s," she said proudly. "My mom's closet is like Narnia! I was so proud to be able to be dancing the music she loved, singing the music she loved, and wearing the clothes she wore."
Aside from her life on the small and big screen, and her undeniable ability to captivate audiences with live performances, La Bruja is also an activist and educator, work she holds dear to her heart.
"Years ago, I started working with an organization called Voices UnBroken and I began performing at Rikers Island, where no one ever wanted to go and do poetry," Bruja recalled. "Some of the best poems I had ever heard in my life were coming out of jail."
After developing a curriculum to educate the incarcerated on how to tap into their own inner poet, she took those lessons to schools through organizations such as the Mission Society, where she became a teaching artist, visiting schools across the nation.
Despite the opportunities poetry has created for La Bruja's life and career, she still finds a home in open mics, and is now able to share that home with others.
"I still host open mics because I believe in the power of that open space of being able to say whatever you want to say in that moment," she said. "I find it to be a very spiritual experience. That's like church to me because I remember it being my first time and how it felt to finally be able to speak the word to an audience. It was absolutely magical."