Chicago Literary Hall of Fame Logo

Salima Rivera

4/25/2001 - 4/25/2001

Inducted in 2018

During those years when Salima Rivera juggled a carnival of roles that included mother, activist, poet, and organizer, the bedroom door of her Pilsen apartment warned in bold writing, “Do Not Disturb.” Her work, it was understood, was important. Swathed in the ambiance of sandalwood, propped pillows, and a bookshelf displaying a broad range of intellectual and spiritual interests, Rivera wrote thoughtful and powerful poems that would scatter about the literary landscape and eventually, against all odds, come to be considered among the enduring works of her era. She also activated bold and desperately needed ideas to combat social injustice and create institutions that would give the Latino artist community the kind of support that appeared unlikely to come from anywhere else.

“She was always writing in her journals,” said her oldest daughter, Kayla Gonzalez. “She was one to get gangs involved in murals to get them off the street. She was very active with the Mexican Cultural Center. She was in the street with picket signs. Translating. She was out there.”

Rivera is associated with Pilsen, in part due to the fact that her most recognizable poem is named after the neighborhood, but she made camp all over Chicago.  The apartment building at 1439 W. Taylor in Little Italy served as her childhood home, the place in which she first expressed her artistic side as she sang and cooked around the house, and eventually showed proclivity for words as a student at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School.
Perhaps it was preordained that Rivera would eventually take up serious issues, like politics, race, gender equality, and even loneliness. The eldest daughter of Luis and Florentina Rivera was born in the small coastal town of Isabela, Puerto Rico, but arrived in the U.S. that same year. Her father took employment at the Anaconda Copper Mining Company in Salt Lake City, but within two years a strike forced him to move his family to Chicago. The day the Riveras moved into that Taylor Street three-flat, the funeral home that occupied the lowest level moved out.

“We were moving in when they were moving the coffins out,” said Salima’s older brother, Jaime. “The dead were leaving and the living were coming in.”

Jaime who, like his sister, was active in the literary scene of the late 60s and 70s, said Salima was “a constant mover.” A partial list of her residences includes not only Little Italy and Pilsen, but Humboldt Park, Kenwood, Bronzeville, and more. Maybe Rivera’s exposure to such a range of people and places emboldened her work. She charmed, bullied, and willed her way into neighborhood bookstores, coffee shops, and universities, where she would whisper out her romantic poems and bang out her politically-charged pieces. All the while, she made more artist friends, and continued to do what could be done to get her expanding circle of Latino writers heard.  

“It was difficult for Latino artists in Chicago,” said Jaime. “There weren’t many venues. We had to start creating our own. Salima became one of the preeminent organizers in the Latina community.”

Scholars now credit Rivera with having played a vital part in Chicago’s Latino literary renaissance of the 1960s and 70s. She founded, alongside her mentor and future Chicago Literary Hall of Fame inductee David Hernandez, foundational Latino literary workshops Los Otros Poetry Collective and La Taller. These early collectives demanded a space and recognition for Chicago Latino writers, enabling later authors, like Ana Castillo and Sandra Cisneros, to gain national acclaim. Rivera later was also involved in Galleria Quique, a salon at the home of Cisneros’ brother. In her most active decades, Rivera worked with many community organizations, including Casa Aztlán, Movimiento Artístico Chicano, the Westtown Concerned Citizens Coalition, and, for her last twenty years, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. Rivera was one of the literary stars of The Association of the Latino Brotherhood and then Taller, which she, Hernandez, and a few others founded in the wake of the Puerto Rican Division Street uprising against Puerto Rican marginalization and police violence in 1966.

Rivera published and performed her poetry throughout Chicago for more than 30 years. She established a reputation as a top poet through her broad inclusion in literary journals and anthologies that included Third World Woman, ECOS (including early work by Cisneros and Castillo), Emergency Tacos (again with Cisneros) and Power Lines: A Decade of Poetry From Chicago’s Guild Complex (Tia Chucha Press). Rivera’s work was featured in a section of the special Chicago “Nosotros” Spring 1977 issue of Revista Chicana-Riqueña.

“No one should be fooled by Salima Rivera; her poetry is not marginal poetry, only marginalized poetry in literary historiography, underappreciated by literary critics,” said Juana Goergen, who edited the posthumous collection of Rivera’s poetry, It’s Not About Dreams. “Perhaps this is due to the fact that her poetry appeared in anthologies and/or literary journals, at a time when literary criticism validated only the work of poets who had published books.”

Rivera established herself as a visual artist as well as a poet, but was largely self-taught. Typical of Puerto Rican women of her generation, Rivera did not pursue formal education extensively—after her years at Crane Technical and Richard Vocational High Schools, she briefly took classes at Columbia College. That visual training, especially as a graphic designer, manifests itself in strong poetic imagery.

“Salima wrote longingly about the roots of the tropical Ceiba tree, but her own roots were set deep beneath Chicago’s asphalt,” said Julie Parson Nesbitt, in the supporting statement for her 2015 CLHOF nomination. “Salima’s work is passionate, unapologetic, erotic, political, and profound. Her poems excavate her often-conflicting identities as Puerto Rican, Chicagoan, woman, and artist. They vary in poetic polish, but they are always unforgettable.”

According to critic Marc Zimmerman, who nominated Rivera for the CLHOF in 2016, “In the 1980s and ’90s, living on the near West Side with her husband, Mexican artist Oscar Moya, and their son, she was probably the first Chicago Rican writer to deal with many Mexican as well as Puerto Rican, feminist and nationalist themes, and for these reasons, as well as others, a very essential figure in the history of the Latino cultural emergence of the 1970s.”

Rivera’s status as an influential and important Chicago poet has been recognized in a variety of ways. The interdisciplinary artist Nicole Marroquin created a silkscreen entitled Salima Rivera and Her Poem that is on exhibit at Triton College. Rivera is one of four legendary Puerto Ricans depicted in the “Pierce Street Legends Mural Project,” which was unveiled at a ceremony in West Humboldt Park on Sept. 29, 2018.  In the fall of 2014, the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture featured Rivera, along with Hernandez, in a presentation commemorating her pioneering efforts as a poet and activist.

Poet, feminist, cultural activist, Latino institution builder

Broken glass glitters
like old discarded jewels
under harsh street lights
turning vacant lots
into treasure chests of debris.

         from Rivera’s “Pilsen”

The Chicago Literary Hall of Fame’s mission is to honor and preserve Chicago’s great literary heritage.
The Chicago Literary Hall of Fame is a federally registered 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization. Donations are tax deductible. © 2023 Chicago Literary Hall of Fame

Hannah Jennings Design