Afro-Latin@ Writers and Scholars: Piri Thomas

[by Meredith Wiggins]

In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month
(September 15 – October 15), the HBW Blog will be featuring short weekly
posts on Afro-Latin@ writers and scholars.  Today, we feature Nuyorican writer and poet Piri Thomas.

In a 1998 interview with In Motion Magazine, Piri Thomas said that he was inspired to begin writing when, as a child, he noticed that “The stories on the radio were about Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, and Terry and the Pirates, but there was never one story about Pancho, or Maria, or Jose.”

His own name reflected that tension.  Born Juan Pedro Tomas, his name was soon anglicized to John Peter Thomas–a change he didn’t care for, opting to go by Piri, his mother’s nickname for him.  That sense of racial and cultural isolation haunted the late Thomas (1928-2011), a poet, novelist, and memoir-writer born to a Puerto Rican mother and Cuban father in the Spanish Harlem section of New York City.  Issues of racial, ethnic, and national identity permeate Thomas’s works, including,  most famously, his 1967 memoir Down These Mean Streets.  


In Down These Mean Streets, Thomas relates his experiences growing up as the sole dark-skinned child (“a coffee bean in a sea of milk,” he called himself) in a family of seven brother and sisters, feeling rejected even by the Cuban father whose darker skin and African features he shared.  Longing to be accepted by the harsh street culture of the barrio, he fell into drug usage, robbery, and gang membership, eventually ending up in prison for wounding a police officer.

It was during the seven years he spent in prison that he re-discovered his talent for writing, using “the Flow” to write the first draft of Down These Mean Streets while still incarcerated.  The book, he said in the Afterword to the 30th anniversary edition, “exploded out of my guts in an outpouring of long suppressed hurts and angers that had boiled over into an ice cold rage….always the pain from the pressure of fear brought about by racism.”

After leaving prison, Thomas became one of the leading lights among Nuyorican writers, helping to found the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and publishing work that “helped to open the doors of the publishing and academic worlds to numerous Latino authors,” said Daniel Gallant, NPC executive director, in Thomas’s obituary by the L.A. Times.  Staking a claim in this literary tradition–indeed, helping to establish its existence–allowed Thomas to celebrate his Puerto Rican heritage and claim a space for his “negrito” self in a manner that had been denied to him as a child seen by American culture only as Black, never Latino.

Thomas summed up his ideas about the possibilities of writing for expanding one’s life in a 1976 New York Times editorial entitled “The Right to Write and to Read.”   Harshly rebuking those who sought to have his work removed from school curricula, he wrote, “[T]he horrors of poverty, racism, drugs, the brutality of our prison system, and the inhumanity towards children of color are still running rampant.  So let the truth be written by those who have lived it, to be read by those who didn’t.”

Piri Thomas wrote his truth so that we might read it.  For this, we are truly grateful.