Writer / poet Piri Thomas, author of the urban autobiographical classic Down These Mean Streets, died October 17, 2011. His was one of several leading voices that helped define the Nuyorican generation and literary movement of the 1960s-70s – Puerto Rican authors and poets born and raised in NYC ghettoes.
Piri was born and raised in El Barrio (Spanish Harlem), protected by a strong and loving Cuban-Puerto Rican family but also surrounded by intense poverty, racism, and discrimination. In a 1995 interview with Carmen Dolores Hernández, Piri recalled:
“Yes, and what I noticed first when I came into my age of awareness -it left quite a trauma on me- was death. All around me I constantly heard fire engines because people were burning up in those old apartments, that were old when we Puerto Ricans got to them in the early 1900’s. The violence, the sirens, the police cars and the stories that you heard and the brutalities that you saw led you to arrive at the conclusion that we didn’t need police protection, what we did need was protection from the police.” (http://www.cheverote.com/reviews/hernandezinterview.html)
Like many Latinos of his generation and since, Piri was forbidden to speak Spanish in school. Like so many New York Puerto Ricans, he learned about an idyllic Puerto Rico through the stories of his mother, huddled in a cold New York apartment. The oldest and darkest child in a multiracial Caribbean family, Piri faced a brutal racism outside the home that his white-skinned siblings did not know. Piri grew up to become a teenage gangbanger and junkie. He was arrested during an attempted armed robbery, and sentenced to 15 years in jail. He served 7.
Trailer for Every Child Born a Poet
Like Malcolm X, jail time became a period of reflection and education for Piri. He had long been a voracious reader, and recalled that in his early school years …
“… I had this beautiful, kind teacher introduce me to this beautiful, kind librarian in the 110th street library and I begged her to let me take out books from the library and they gave me two books to take out every time. I found that it wasn’t enough for me. I gobbled them up right away. Then I went to the library and got two books again but this time I picked three and put them under my jacket. I was coming out the library pregnant and I would walk in pregnant again. Years later, when my book Down These Mean Streets became a success, I was invited to a conference in Connecticut on censorship because they were censoring my book along with others. I heard someone call me “Mr. Thomas” and I readily recognized her as the librarian that was letting me get away. And she said “I was that librarian and I knew that you were taking those books and Oh! I was so glad because you were reading. I was more glad that you were bringing them back.” (http://www.cheverote.com/reviews/hernandezinterview.html)
Piri began writing his classic Down These Mean Streets while still in jail, and finished it after his release. It was published in 1967 by Knopf. He wrote numerous autobiographical works, short stories, and poems, but remains best known for his gritty blockbuster début. Thank you, Piri – Rest in Peace / Que en Paz Descanse. Punto.
Here are some books, DVDs, & websites for learning more about Piri Thomas and early Nuyorican literature:
Thomas, Piri. Down These Mean Streets. New York: Vintage Books, 1997. ISU LIB: General Collection F128.9 P8 T366d
Thomas, Piri. Savior, Savior, Hold My Hand. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972. ISU LIB: General Collection F128.9.P85 T5.
Thomas, Piri. Seven Long Times. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974. ISU LIB: General Collection HV9468 .T55
Thomas, Piri. Sounds of the Streets. Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street Press, 2005. (ISU LIB owns but for the life of me I can’t grab the URL today)
Thomas, Piri. Stories from El Barrio. ISU LIB: General Collection PZ7 T366s
The World of Piri Thomas (Official Website). http://www.cheverote.com/ Accessed Oct. 21, 2011.
Hernández, Carmen Dolores. Puerto Rican voices in English: Interviews with writers. Westport, Conn. : Praeger, 1997. ISU LIB (ebrary ebook): http://site.ebrary.com.proxy.lib.iastate.edu:2048/lib/iowastate/docDetail.action?docID=5005024
Mohr, Eugene V. The Nuyorican experience: literature of the Puerto Rican minority. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982. ISU LIB: General Collection: PS153.P83 M6 1982
Robinson, Jonathan Meyer, director. Every Child is born a poet: The life & work of Piri Thomas. Latino Public Broadcasting. New Haven, CT: When in Doubt Productions, Inc., 2003. ISU LIB: Media Collection DVD 002 044