Piri Thomas – USA

Linked with our presentation of ‘ … some texts of Piri Thomas‘.

He says: A child needs to find some way to express his talent, to express that he is a he, or she is a she, that we are of earth. When you start getting all these rejections, because of your color, or your tongue, or your geographic location, there starts to build up some kind of anger and rage, that should almost be alien to a child. And yet it comes so tremendously strong and ever-growing and you manage to hide it, what you are feeling, by putting on a “cara palo” expression, which means a face of wood. It has no expression so nobody can see how much you’re hurting just from the rejection, let alone the beatings. Why are you here? You shouldn’t be born. This is not your world, this is our world. (Read this long interview on In Motion Magazine).

Piri Thomas – USA

Love is not even
Giving or taking
For that leads to
counting and accountings
of “look what I did for you?”

So, verily, merrily, I say unto you,
That love is a sharing
A caring
Born of truth.
For those are the roots
From which all us children flow
. (Excerpt from his poetry ‘love is a sharing‘).

The roots of Borinquen (the original indigenous name for the Puerto Rico people) were trampled from the beginning of the European presence, where some lost sea captain who called himself Christopher Columbus landed on the island and renamed it Puerto Rico almost 500 years ago.

Columbus and the conquistadores who followed him knew only how to plunder. The natives who greeted Columbus were members of the fierce Arawaks and peaceful Tainos, who lived on the shores as fishermen. Columbus claimed their land in the name of Spain, and opened the door to Western exploiters who came in droves to colonize the island. They brought soldiers, money-hungry businessmen, priests, and opportunists, who burned with the fever only gold could cure. They brutally reduced the native population to near extinction by means of disease, slavery, cruelty, and murderous extermination. Men, women and children were set to work digging for the yellow metal, the precious gold. Black slaves were brought to the Caribbean islands in the same European-forged chains which dragged other native Africans to the cotton fields of the South of the United States. They also brought a large number of Chinese as cheap labor, one minuscule half-step removed from the bonds of human slavery. This intermingling of races began forming the cultural basis for nationhood. (Read more about on Puerto Rico, 500 years of Oppression).

Bio: Born Juan Pedro Tomás, of Puerto Rican and Cuban parents in New York City’s Spanish Harlem in 1928, Piri Thomas began his struggle for survival, identity, and recognition at an early age. The vicious street environment of poverty, racism, and street crime took its toll and he served seven years of nightmarish incarceration at hard labor. But, with the knowledge that he had not been born a criminal, he rose above his violent background of drugs and gang warfare, and he vowed to use his street and prison know-how to reach hard core youth and turn them away from a life of crime. In 1967, with a grant from the Rabinowitz Foundation, both his career and fame as an author were launched with the electrifying autobiography, Down These Mean Streets. After more than 25 years of being constantly in print, it is now considered a classic.

In his book ‘Down These Mean Streets‘, Piri Thomas made El Barrio (the neighborhood) a household word to multitudes of non-Spanish-speaking readers. A front-page review in the New York Times book review section May 21, 1967 proclaimed: “It claims our attention and emotional response because of the honesty and pain of a life led in outlaw, fringe status, where the dream is always to escape.” Savior, Savior Hold My Hand also received wide critical acclaim, as did Seven Long Times, a chronicle of one man’s experience in New York’s dehumanizing penal system. Stories from El Barrio, a collection of short stories, is for young people of all ages. Piri’s extensive travel in Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Cuba, Mexico, Europe, and the United States has also been perceptively documented in free-lance articles by him. His eye-opening experiences have contributed to a unique globalist perspective on peace and justice so necessary in these days of international problems and conflicts. Piri currently resides in El Cerrito, California, with his wife Suzanne Dod Thomas. He is working on a book entitled A Matter of Dignity (the sequel to Down These Mean Streets) and distributing his poetry with music, Sounds Of The Streets and No Mo’ Barrio Blues. He continues to speak at universities and schools and in the community throughout the United States. (Read the rest of his bio on chevrote, and much more on his Homepage).

Aother book-review of Piri Thomas (Nuyorican): ‘Down These Mean Streets’, Book Description of 30th Anniversary Edition – Thirty years ago Piri Thomas made literary history with this lacerating, lyrical memoir of his coming of age on the streets of Spanish Harlem. Here was the testament of a born outsider: a Puerto Rican in English-speaking America; a dark-skinned morenito in a family that refused to acknowledge its African blood. Here was an unsparing document of Thomas’s plunge into the deadly consolations of drugs, street fighting, and armed robbery–a descent that ended when the twenty-two-year-old Piri was sent to prison for shooting a cop. As he recounts the journey that took him from adolescence in El Barrio to a lock-up in Sing Sing to the freedom that comes of self-acceptance, faith, and inner confidence, Piri Thomas gives us a book that is as exultant as it is harrowing and whose every page bears the irrepressible rhythm of its author’s voice. Thirty years after its first appearance, this classic of manhood, marginalization, survival, and transcendence is available in an anniversary edition with a new Introduction by the author. (See on umich.edu).

And also about this same book: As stated earlier my idea was to find a novel about the ghetto of today, which would smoothly fit in with my other pieces on the present-day ghetto, the status of AAVE, and rap music as a form of expression. What I found does not match my expectations very well at all. First of all, Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets is an autobiography, not a novel, secondly, the main character, Thomas himself, is half Puerto Rican and half African American, and he grows up in Spanish Harlem, and thirdly it is set in the 1940s and 1950s. Consequently, there are only minor parts of the novel which are in AAVE, and there is nothing about Rap music, whatsoever. (Read more on eng.umu.se).

Film-review: EVERY CHILD IS BORN A POET: THE LIFE AND WORK OF PIRI THOMAS, USA, 2003, 58min, Documentary – Raised in Spanish Harlem during the Depression and a stranger in his own home because of his dark skin, Piri Thomas begins to question his identity early on. The documentary charts his troubled adolescence, imprisonment, and rebirth as a poet-activist. (See on ADFF).

Other review of the samee film: excerpt … The film traces Thomas’ path from childhood in the 1930s to manhood in the 1960s in New York City’s Spanish Harlem, El Barrio, providing looks at his parents’ immigrant experience, home life during the Great Depression and membership in barrio youth gangs. The biography also includes close-up views of his struggle to come to terms with his mixed-race identity, travels as a teenage merchant marine, heroin addiction, his notorious armed robbery of a Greenwich Village nightclub, six years in prison, his emergence as a writer and his forty-five years as an educator and activist empowering marginalized and incarcerated youths. (See more on utsa today).


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