John Hay Library acquires Puerto Rican playwright’s personal papers

A new collection of drafts, notes and correspondence from playwright José Rivera gives scholars a window into one artist’s process and provides new perspective on the lived experiences of Latin Americans.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — The John Hay Library, home to Brown University’s special collections, has acquired a trove of personal and professional documents from award-winning Puerto Rican playwright José Rivera.

The new collection, which includes handwritten drafts, play scripts, notebooks, correspondence, promotional materials, press clippings and photographs, gives scholars everywhere a window into one person’s artistic process and provides new perspective on the lived experiences of Latin Americans, library leaders say.

Associate University Librarian for Special Collections Amanda Strauss said Rivera’s papers bolster the John Hay Library’s performance and entertainment collecting focus. Among the library’s collections are more than 250,000 volumes related to poetry and plays from North America and the Caribbean.

“José Rivera is such an important creative voice, and this collection will allow students and scholars to understand his writing process and to see firsthand how he brings his vision to fruition,” Strauss said. “This material will be heavily used by an international audience, and I’m proud that Mr. Rivera chose the John Hay Library as his partner in preserving and making accessible his archival legacy.”

Born in Puerto Rico in 1955, Rivera moved to Long Island with his family at age 5. Though they could not read or write, Rivera’s grandparents were gifted storytellers, and Rivera said they inspired him to become a writer. In 1989, he took part in a Sundance Institute workshop led by the famed writer Gabriel García Márquez, whose magical realism the playwright later employed in his own work.

Among Rivera’s plays are the Obie Award-winning “Marisol,” which follows a professional Puerto Rican woman searching for stability in a maelstrom of chaos, and “References to Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot,” a surreal romance centered on a 27-year-old housewife awaiting the return of her soldier husband from overseas. Another of Rivera’s plays, “Sueño,” was recently performed at Providence’s Trinity Repertory Company under the direction of 2020 Brown/Trinity MFA graduate Tatyana-Marie Carlo. 

In addition to playwriting, Rivera has written the screenplays for the feature films “The Motorcycle Diaries” and “The Conquest” and for the 10-hour HBO limited series “Latino Roots.”

Patricia Ybarra, a professor of theatre arts and performance studies at Brown, said the collection of Rivera’s papers demonstrates the University Library’s commitment to diversity and inclusion in special collections.

“Bringing José Rivera’s papers to Brown will allow researchers and artists to experience the thinking, aesthetics and creative process of one of the most important and contemporary Latinx playwrights,” Ybarra said.

Avery Willis Hoffman, artistic director of the Brown Arts Institute, said she hopes the collection of Rivera’s papers will drive important conversations at Brown and beyond about how art can facilitate conversations about tough subjects.

“José Rivera’s seminal works for stage and screen have tackled some of the most pressing social issues of our time — violence, racism and misogyny, mental illness, poverty, climate change,” Hoffman said. “As we work toward the opening of our new Performing Arts Center in late 2023, new creative collaborations and ongoing engagements with artists such as José will define the powerful ways in which art makes space for exploration of challenging topics.”