By Ines Madrid
Power Malu learned two major life lessons by watching his father live and die. The first lesson came through running when he was around six or seven years old. Power would accompany his father, Luis Angel Viera, on his training runs to the East River Track. The elder Viera -- who arrived to Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1960s from Puerto Rico -- was a boxer.
Power would jog along the track with his father doing drills, and then run back to the only neighborhood he has ever called home. The LES was among several neighborhoods throughout New York City where Puerto Ricans settled after leaving the island. Power, who considers himself a Nuyorican, grew up in a neighborhood where the language, music and food kept the connection to the island alive.
When his dad arrived, he lived on Allen and Eldridge Street. He then met his mom, Nereida Rodriguez Jimenez, who had also moved from Puerto Rico, and lived on Essex and Grand. After they were married, they settled in the Masaryk Towers to raise their three children.
“The impact and contribution of Puerto Ricans in New York and the United States goes as far back as when they enlisted to fight in World War II,” Power said. “My parents came here looking for work and opportunities as many did after them.”
The elder Viera supported his family by being a boxer during Power’s formative years. His father’s dedication to boxing, running, and overall fitness was a defining building block for Power, whose many titles include: director of special events and programming with Overthrow Boxing gym, captain of the urban running crew Bridgerunners, artist, activist, and unofficial LES historian.
“By watching my dad work on his craft, I really saw the benefit of being active, and following your calling, regardless of what others want you to be,” Power said. “He was my biggest supporter.”
That love for and dedication to fitness - mixed with his hosting skills perfected at SOBs in New York, performing with The Roots, and writing for MTV’s Lyricist Lounge - helped Power learn how to command a crowd, prompting his uncle to give him the first part of his nickname. Power added Malu after an NFL player he admired, Troy Polamalu, who also used his career to fight for causes and shared the same powerful hairstyle.
From an early age, Power had a natural desire to want to make everyone feel at ease, was always eager to mediate conflicts and to provide support when needed. But if you ask him, he gets the most joy away from the spotlight, such as when he is in the back of the pack helping new runners who have dared to run with Bridgerunners for the first time.
Their weekly Wednesday runs are about conquering bridges, jumping into traffic, and crisscrossing parks. All in good fun, often with a dose of history about the neighborhoods runners find themselves in.
In his official duty as ‘the sweeper,’ Power makes it his mission to get every runner to feel welcome, appreciated, and wanted. The most important aspect of running for Power is that it is a community effort that teaches everyone that their own power to help has no limits.
“Power is a natural leader and motivator. He is the person that will start a revolution,” said Cedric Hernandez, co-founder of Bridgerunners. “Power is that selfless guy you want on your team, he cares deeply for the community, and for him running is not about speed, it is about bringing people together.”
Power first became an organizer early in his life: When New York City found itself the flashpoint for many racial issues during the 1990s, he volunteered with Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, where Power learned how to mobilize people.
As his awareness grew, he championed causes that fought injustices, as well as provided support for those whose rights were being threatened or denied. For example, on July 21, Bridgerunners and numerous New York City run crews will take part in the Run For Justice 5k. The event will fall on the anniversary of Eric Garner’s death, and bring attention to the criminal justice system.
For the last three years Overthrow has hosted a donation-based women’s only class (men are always welcome) whose profits go entirely to support Planned Parenthood of New York. The class was his idea. It was his way of channeling the despair people felt under the new administration. That need for action would show up again, as Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in October 2017.
“When the hurricane happened, I was away on tour, and seeing the destruction, how people were being treated left me feeling empty,” Power said. “I didn’t have a physical connection to the island, but I felt a spiritual connection to the people.”
Once he returned to New York, Power joined forces to assist Martin Medina of the non-profit Why not Care, to provide support to those affected by the hurricane. In addition to running the non-profit, Medina also heads the LES United Festival. Medina offers support through donations in New York. The festival provides bags with supplies and information on free services available to the community, such as after school programs, health services, immigration information, senior centers and much more. On August 25, he will host their third annual festival.
“We didn’t want people to come who were interested in taking selfies,” said Dennis Flores, founder of El Grito, who delivered two million pounds of supplies and basic necessities to the island with Power. “We wanted people who really wanted to get their hands dirty. Power has a natural ability to get people to work together. He was instrumental because we are not social workers, and we dealt with a lot of heartache by going there and delivering supplies. “
Power and Flores went to the island three times since the hurricane, and reached people in the cities as well as in the mountains. And the work for the community and the diaspora, will continue when Power opens up his community center in the LES at a space in the Masaryk Towers, Flowers said.
“Working with Power is like being in a relay race. He is happy to get the baton and be your anchor leg to get you to the finish line, all with his energy and positivity,” said Martin Medina of Why not Care.
Patty Dukes from WeRunUptown and Circa95 got a chance to experience first hand Power’s selflessness when she ran the 2019 Boston Marathon. Thanks to a connection between Bridgerunners and Clifbar, five people from New York City were given the chance to run the marathon. The goal was to connect people who would spend many years trying to earn that elusive BQ, experience the holy grail of marathons. The group also included Patricia Connelly, Kim Rodrigues and Fred Oliva.
Running Boston was a very emotional experience for Patty. As a runner with WRU Crew from Washington Heights, she had dreamed for years of running with her friend Marquita Francique. Quita passed away unexpectedly in December 2018.
“I felt when the opportunity came, it was her helping me to live our dream,” said Dukes. “Power and I decided to run it together, and he was instrumental in keeping my energy, and getting energy from the crowd, he even made a song for me when he saw me struggling. Power helps us be part of a world where we weren’t allowed before.”
That innate energy to want to help is what kept him afloat when his father committed suicide. Power only learned it was a suicide much later, and finally came to terms with it three years ago thanks to his writing, running and activism.
That’s the second lesson his father taught him: Keeping your feelings of sadness, despair, and regret inside of you will destroy you.
“My father never spoke about his feelings,” Power recalled. “But by talking to his friends, I learned that not being able to box ate him up inside. And that stigma of men not talking about feelings, of not believing there is a safe space is why I became an advocate for mental health.”
Power’s father gave up boxing after the mafia threatened his life. The elder Viera spent the rest of his life working as a building inspector, and never boxed again. The depression from giving up his dream slowly ate away at him. His father committed suicide by letting an 18-wheeler end his life. Power was 18.
Providing a safe space for people and communities dealing with trauma, families affected by incarceration, or homelessness is where Power often shines. He wants to reach as many people as he can to build stronger communities.
“All of this is fun for me,” he added. “Because I can impact people and let them know that they matter.”