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"They have forced us to be universal"
Interview with Piri Thomas,
by Carmen Dolores Hernández
San Francisco, California
March 5 and 6, 1995
CDH: I am curious about your name. It's not a Spanish name.
PT: I was born on September 30, 1928 in Harlem Hospital. You can get no more Harlem than that. It was the hospital where they sent all the little black ones, all the little brown ones; the other hospitals didn't accept them, they were for whites. When I arrived in this world they wanted to assimilate me as they did the Native Americans, who forgot their culture. They named me John Peter Thomas in the hospital. Whoever heard of a Puerto Rican named John Peter Thomas? My brothers called me Piti, my father called me Pete, but Mami called me Piri. My father's last name was Tomás.
CDH: When did your parents come to the United States?
PT: My father, Juan Tomás de la Cruz, a wonderful father, an athlete who played baseball, was born in 1907, in Santiago de Cuba. I'm half Cuban. I am Puerto Rican in spirit and soul and I also love Cuba. I don't know that much about cubanos, however, because I loved Mami so much I wanted to be whatever she was. She was from Bayamón, in Puerto Rico.
Her name was Dolores Montañez.
CDH: Did your parents meet in the United States?
PT: Well, the story is -according to family legend- that my father's parents died of yellow fever in Cuba when he was very small. He was raised in a Yankee orphanage, a Christian mission. He lived in Cuba until he was 16 and learned to speak perfect English.
He went to Puerto Rico and stayed there for a year because he wanted to come to the United States and the Jones Act of 1917 had made Puerto Ricans citizens of the United States, whether they wanted to or not. He stayed there for a year, working and learning Puerto Rican mannerisms and ways of speaking because Cubans and Puerto Ricans speak a little bit differently. Then, from Puerto Rico, my father came up here. He got himself a little apartment and since he was a baseball fan he made friends with some baseball players.
My mother's parents, on the other hand, had died and she had to work as a housemaid. Sometimes she went back to her family and her sister, Catín, looked after her. When my father came to this country in the nineteen-twenties, Catín was in New York. She was the one who met my father first. She had sent for my mother, who was suffering a lot because some of the people she worked for were terrible, abusive people. My mother passed through child abuse. But she was beautiful and her faith in God made her rise above all that brutality.
So my mother comes over to Catín's house and Catín throws a party: there were guitars, rice and gandules, roasted pig, alcapurrias and all those goodies that go where we Puerto Ricans go. Because wherever we go we bring our culture with us.
So Mami met Papi and Papi met Mami. Then love and love and love and then they were married and I was born right at the time of nine months so nobody could gossip..
CDH: And you're the oldest of seven?
PT: Yes. I count even the ones that died during childbirth because they are in spirit and they hear what I say. The ones who are still alive are myself and my sister Lillian: she was the only sister, we were six boys and a girl, but, Boy, did she know how to defend herself! If Mami knew about women's rights, this one was also women's rights or else I bite.
CDH: And you grew up in the streets of El Barrio, the ones you talk about in Down These Mean Streets?
PT: 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.
And I lived in the world of the streets and in the world of home. It was in a ghetto but when you went into my home it was so clean you could eat off the floor. In those days everybody did his part. We cleaned even the walls and my father cooked. My mother was at the vanguard of women's rights. No man is 100 % man. No woman is 100 % woman. I have learned most of my wisdoms from women, beginning with my mother. Somehow, in a woman's arms you listen. Men don't admit that. A poem: A man's gotta learn to respect a woman's dreams./ A man's gotta learn what love really means./ A man's gotta learn that it's in the whisper of love./ A man's gotta learn that it's not the angry shout./ A man's gotta learn that love is born of tender times./ Hey, a man's gotta learn just like a woman, too.
CDH: I didn't know you wrote poetry.
PT: I've written poems in Spanish too. I've never published my poetry, although there's poetry in all my books. I have an audio, Sounds of the Street, a tape and compact in which I read poetry over a background of Latin jazz. I actually don't read the poetry, I sing-song it. It's an art form of speaking. This came many years after my Aunt Angelita -who was a Pentecostal- took me to church with her. I really liked that church because I could jump around. It was there I started to get the idea of poetry and music. I had a group with three or four people and it soon grew into a thirty boys and girls choir. I wrote in the basement of the church the words to something called "Heaven Bound"
CDH: Was your family Pentecostal?
PT: My beautiful mother, Dolores Montañez, was a Seventh Day Adventist, which was the closer you could get to Jews. We didn't cook when the sun went down on Friday until the sun went down on Saturday. We didn't eat pork and we ate very healthy food.
My father was a death-bed Catholic, the only time he went to see the priest was when he was ready to kick the bucket. But I liked my Tía Angelita's church best, because we could jump and do all the good things and shout aleluya y gloria a Dios. In the other church I had to sit very quietly, with my ass getting cold.
CDH: What language did you use when you were growing up?
PT: Spanish. I began to forget it because at school they only allowed English. I could speak both, one not as good as the other because the assimilation was greater in school. I remember one or two times that I was speaking Spanish in my class and my teacher came running after me, hollering: "Stop talking that!". And I said: "Wait, that's my mother's language," and she said "Well, you are in America now, you speak English. How in the world do you think you can become President of the United States if you don't speak English?" And I tell you, I looked at that teacher and I think my eyes must have said "Well, Ma'am, you have more faith than I". That was the 1930's, they were still lynching blacks. But something the system never took away from us was our faith and our ability to laugh in spite of everything. Unfortunately some fell into depression, apathy, disappointment, despair. And since there are many ways of committing suicide, some went into drugs, like me, other began to drink, others took out their frustrations on their families and beat their wives and still others were decent people.
But my parents gave me good advice. My mother, Doña Lola, she was the word of God. When she spoke, God was speaking. When we left to go to the streets, my mother would give us la bendición "May God go with you, everything good come your way," because she didn't know if she would see us alive again. There was a lot of violence in the streets because of racism. The Italians and the Irish hated us with a vengeance. When we had to go to the store, we had to go with convoys of la ganguita for protection. And if there was a fight, the police came out on the side of the Italians and of the Irish and attacked us, who were still young boys. The first thing that impressed me was death, the second thing that made an impact on me was racism. The child knows how to read people like people read books, because chilren are born wih an instinct. I could walk into a place and my hair would stand on end: Warning, warning, warning, danger, danger, danger!
CDH: Where did you go to school?
PT: I went to public schools near my home.
CDH: Did you like to read as a child?
PT: Yes, I've read books and books and books. I've read books by the French, I've read stories from wherever I could find a book to read. I've stepped into books and I absorbed all the experiences and all the feelings that were put there by the writer's flow. And then I became him too, so there I was getting my education. How life was here, how life was there... I read Jack London and I read For Whom the Bell Tolls. And in school 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." Then afterwards, in prison, I read Frederick Nietszche, I read John Oliver Killens , I read Poe, I read Marx. I also read copies of El Diario to practice my Spanish because there were no books in Spanish in the prison and I wanted the whole feeling of getting back to my culture.
I would open up my mind with courses, I read the Scriptures, I took up Bible courses. I went into Buddhism and Confucianism and Catholicism. I was searching to see where there was a common bond. Why should one who believes in God fight against another who also believes in God but whose God's name is Allah while the other is named Yehova? In the name of God, this Earth was meant to be a paradise.
They could not conquer my mind.
CDH: Do you consider yourself a self-educated man?
PT: I merely absorbed from the greatest school of all: Earth and Life. Not just from an institutionalized building. I learned to read people like people read books. Where did those books come from if not from people writing about people? I read people without prying into their intimacy. What about that? Telepathy before telephone. My mother called me to her, I was in Syracuse and I was 15 and she was 34. She called me with her mind from a hospital room because I was in Syracuse trying to work and make some money to take back home. She said to me: "It's Mami, come." So I left the job and went to New York and when I arrived at my Aunt Angelita's house, she told me that Mami was in the hospital. I remember being with my mother in that hospital and I whispered, Mami, es Piri, es Piri , and she said, very softly, "°Ay negrito! I asked God to send you before I went." I could smell the sweetness of death and the sense of transition in that room.
CDH: Did your mother speak to you about Puerto Rico when you were growing up?
PT: When we were very young there was no TV and when we had visitors it was talk, talk and a little singing all the time. What I didn't like was that thing about not allowing us children to take part in the conversation. We had to listen from a corner, where we squatted down as if we were on a potty.
All those years at the feet of my mother and my uncle and the neighbors, I listened to them. They spoke of all the places they had come from: Fajardo, where the people are called Cariduros and San Juan and Ponce and Mayaguez and Boquerón... So as a child who is gifted in the sense of imagination, I was able to make pictures of the words of my beautiful mother, Dolores Montañez, and the rest of the family who spoke about the beautiful island. And I would say, "Ay, Mami, if it's so beautiful, what are we doing here in this fucked up place with so much suffering?" And Mami looked at me and said: "Son, if things are bad in this country, they are five times worse in Puerto Rico."
CDH: So you developed an idyllic idea about Puerto Rico?
PT: Yes, I called it the Empire of Puerto Rico. I used to ask my mother, like I said in Down These Mean Streets, "Mami, Mami, tell me, in Puerto Rico, do we come from nobility?" "No Piri," she used to answer, "We are poor but decent, bendito."
CDH: When did you first visit Puerto Rico?
PT: The first time I went to Puerto Rico I was 32. When that plane door opened and I stepped out and felt that balmy, warm breeze, it was something that I had never, ever felt in my life. I was experiencing for the first time in my life the breath of Puerto Rico caressing my cheeks, giving me a hello kiss, "Son, welcome home, hijo."
I'll tell you my feelings from my heart. I feel so strongly about the island that when I die I want my body buried in Nueva York or somewhere here and my heart taken out and buried in Puerto Rico.
CDH: Did you feel accepted?
PT: When I first went to Puerto Rico as long as I kept my mouth shut I was a Puerto Rican. When I opened it people said right away: "Oh, you're from the North!" Once I was up in the mountains, in Utuado, in a bar. I was talking in Spanish and my Spanish is really bad but I kept going. I was there talking my Spanglish and this really young, pretty girl -she looked like a Taino Indian- came up to me and asked, "Excuse me, but you come from up North, right?" And I said, "Yes, how do you know?" And she answered, "Because of the way you speak Spanish." And then she realized what she had said and became flustered: "Oh, please, Sir, forgive me, I didn't mean to offend you." I looked and her and said: "You haven't offended me, I want you to know that even though my bones were born there, in the North, my soul is from Puerto Rico. I am a boricua ." But I felt rejected. It hurt me to my soul because for so long I had been thinking of Puerto Rico, since I was a child.
I used to say to the people down there: "Can't you understand that, being bilingual, I could be a liaison between here and the States? I know their psychology, I could teach you many things."
CDH: Have you ever lived in Puerto Rico?
PT: I've lived there for two years callaíto. Sometime during the early sixties I went to work in the Psychiatry Hospital with Dr. Efrén Ramírez as his assistant. He was working with drug addicts. The philosophy was that we who had been on drugs could be a liaison to the hip society. I was a junkie, I had been through drugs: I was an expert on the situation. He asked me to talk to the patients. I was the one from the rank and files. Many people helped, like Cortijo and Mirta Silva.
I had a radio program every Sunday, The Voice of a New Race, with Dr. Efrén Ramírez. I used to interview the police and the parents of the victims. I talked to the judges in New York who were sending the young addicts to Puerto Rico. They told their mothers: "Either you send him to Puerto Rico or I put him in jail." So the parents sent their children over there and the sickness spread and they began to sell drugs on the island. And in that radio program I used to begin, with my thickest North American accent: "Gooood morning, people of Puerto Rico, this is the voice of the new race and this is Piri Thomas, at your service, speaking Spanish both with shoes on and barefoot."
CDH: Tell me about your experience in prison.
PT: Many of our brothers and sisters are in prisons. When I was there in the 1950s, in 1959, ninety percent of the prisoners were white, the rest were black and brown. Now it's 80-85% of the beautiful blacks and the beautiful browns and of course there's reds there also because we have Native Americans and there's yellow, too. All colors. In prison I learned to be a loner, but that doesn't mean I was lonely, because there were so many other loners like me. At first, when you're in prison, that's your university of hard knocks, university of no horseshit, no bullshit, it's real. And I began searching for all that was wise and things to fill my mind up to defend myself against many of the enemies that were in there. Yes, I had committed what I had committed, yes I admit that. In fact, when the bullet hit me, it turned me around. I was already rehabilitated.
I was looking for that wisdom in time, because I had so much time in that prison. Every day was like 24 hours of constant tension where you had to learn to grow eyes in the back of your head, simply because if you were not careful you would be knocked down and literally raped. And many went crazy after having been abused. I thank the beautiful flow that allowed me to grow eyes in the back of the head; and because my eyes were very weak, my ears developed tremendously, and not only that but every hair on my body became an antenna and every pore an eel.
In prison I would allow my mind to flow because I wanted to experiment. I was able to actually project, to send my mind out of the prison and walk the streets and visit the places I wanted to, and see the scenes, hear the sounds, feel the feelings, and even make love to Jenny, whom I have tattooed here in my mind. Smell her perfume. A dream emission, they called it; to me she was there. In the morning I got up and while I was walking with the rest of the men, I was humming, happy with having made such beautiful love. And a big black guy comes up to me and says: "What the hell you got to be so happy about? Don't you know you're in jail?" And I looked at him in my most exaggerated Puerto Rican accent "Hey, man, I don't know where you were last night, but me, I was making love to mi mujer." And the only thing he said to me was: "Men, you crazy!" "If I'm crazy, you better catch some, " I replied.
When I was in prison I took the wisdoms from where I could get them. One of the wisdoms was from Jesus Christ, who I got to know so tight that I called Him J.C. And J.C. was so beautiful! He said "Though I am in this world, I am not of this world." And I said "Though I am in this prison, I am not of this prison." And I learned that the most cruel prison of all is the prison of your mind...If you're free there, if you're assured there, nobody can shake you, dump on you.
CDH: In Down These Mean Streets you seemed to be torn between identifying yourself as a black man or as a Puerto Rican..
PT: Of course! Can you imagine what it is to sit down to dinner and us Puerto Ricans being what we are, a sancocho, you look around and there is my sister, white as milk, with her straight hair, a little curly, but straight. And my brother Frankie with his blue eyes, white, very white. He tossed his head and his hair just fell backwards, pacatán and I tossed my head and my hair didn't move at all because it was kinky.
CDH: So you became racially conscious at home?
PT: Yes, but in my home there were no differences. It all began when I went out of my home and began to go to school. One time the principal called me to his office and asked if Lillian Thomas was my sister and I answered "Yes, she's my sister." I was black and she was white. And he asked, "From the same mother and father?" And I said: "Yes, of course". He was stunned and looked at my sister and made her into a nigger in his mind. I lived in Long Island, where we moved after my father won in the numbers game and my mother had saved some of the money she made sewing, because she was a slave to her sewing machine. In Long Island I felt like a coffee bean in a glass of milk. Wherever I looked there were those people of the KKK. Those people were everywhere, like beans on rice.
American culture is permeated with racism. And it is growing more and more every day because you have the skinheads and the Neonazis. They are alive and now are dealing with Internet and computers to get themselves together with the Nazis that are over there in Germany and the Nazis that are in Italy.
CDH: You finally identified yourself with the African-American tradition.
PT: I don't think I opted for it. I think the whole world believed me to be a negrito. And I looked in the mirror and I saw myself a negrito, but I also felt myself to be a Latin black, a fine, clean Latin black. However, I never did like I saw someone do once. We were joining the Merchant Marine and I was filling out my Coast Guard pass and they said "Race?" and I said "Puerto Rican" and they said "Color?" and I didn't know what to say so I said "Brown." And the guy that was with me was black and he wrote 'Puerto Rican and white' because the Puerto Ricans considered themselves to be... I don't know what. In my time mothers used to pinch babies' noses to make them Caucasian in structure. It was in those days that many people used to buy some face cream that whitened the face and if they didn't have money to buy it then they cut a lemon in two and rubbed it on their faces and if they didn't turn white, they turned yellow.
But the Americans thought that anybody that was Mexican or South American, any kind of Latin ...they all were mongrels to them. When you go to them you gotta prove that you came from Juan Carlos III or IV, that you have a very pink ass..
CDH: How did you feel about all that?
PT: I'll tell you the system made me ashamed of myself, what with racism and bigotry and all that. Some of my people made me ashamed of myself with constant calling me big head, big nose, big mouth in the streets of El Barrio. That creates something in a child's mind. And I used to wonder and ask "How come Lillian is whiter than me, Ma?" It was curiosity, it wasn't because of racism or bigotry. And Mami told me that we were like a little stew. And that the English and the Swedes and the Belgians who wanted to conquer Puerto Rico and the Spanish too, they took the women without permission and that is where we come from. We are the children of rape. But we are not guilty of that. Our spirit is pure and all that mixed blood makes us a multicolored garden. But my feeling of racism gave me an inferiority complex, and one time I went and had my hair straightened. I wrote about that in Stories of El Barrio. My mother looked at me and said "Negrito, what have you done to your beautiful hair?" "Ay, Mami," I replied, "I didn't want them calling me raisin head all the time." And she said to me, "Never, never feel ashamed of who you are. I want you to know that I would not change you for five white children." And the next day I came home and I had shaved off all my hair. Since then whatever grew or did not grow on my head was mine.
You know what cured me of my identity problems? A Caucasian philosopher, his name is Popeye, the sailor man. He said: "I am what I am and that's what I am" y I thought: "That's good enough for me". I don't care how they judge me, because I don't believe in their pecking order based on color and the whole shit.
CDH: When did you begin to write?
PT: I was thirteen when I began to write. I used to write stories. But it wasn't until we moved from El Barrio to Long Island that I started in earnest. I fell in love with this English teacher, Her name was Mrs. Wright. She was very kind to me and I always respond to kindness. There were many teachers that were only interested in their paychecks and not in your welfare, so many telling us who we were, what we were, what we're never going to achieve and so many years telling us that the color of our skin was the measuring stick of our intelligence and it fell far below to the point that it was now subhuman. How can anyone say that a child, because of its color, is a minority? God is the smile on the face of a child that is not being wasted, including children like me.
CDH: Did she encourage you to write?
PT: She once asked the class to write a composition on anything we wanted. And I wrote two and a half pages of how much I loved her in my best barrio way. How I loved her most beautiful, curly, auburn hair, those hazel eyes, and how I really loved it when she came and leaned over my shoulder to look at my work because that way I could inhale all her perfume. I said, however, "I don't particularly care for your adjectives, your pronouns and your verbs 'cause I don't know what the hell you're talking about." I had failed English but I was determined to be a writer anyway.
Then when the paper came back there was a postscript in red letters. It said: "Son, your grammar is lousy. However, if you wish to be a writer, someday you will be" and then it said "P.S. We both love my wife. Signed: Her Husband." She had showed the paper to her husband and said "Look I have a love letter." So that day I learned two things: that someone had looked at me and saw that I had the beauty and the talent there to be a writer someday. That person recognized it and told me. And then the other thing I learned was never to fool around with another guy's wife because I wouldn't be so lucky next time.
CDH: Why did you want to become a writer?
PT: I chose writing because I thought it was the easiest thing to do in the world. I liked words, putting them together. I was what you would call a self-proclaimed poet laureate of my barrio in those days of the nineteen-thirties and forties and fifties. We used to play a game called "The Dozen", la docena, where you insult each other's fathers and mothers in perfect rhyme and I was so good at it, I was always getting into fights. I thought there must be an easier way to do poetry than getting into these fights.
CDH: Did you draw on your personal experience from your very beginning as a writer?
PT: I was always a storyteller. And that, of course, runs in the centuries of our people, of all people. But it wasn't until I went to prison that I finally got all my thoughts together with a clarity without restraint because for so many years I lived in such a rage that I could not even speak unless it was through my poetry or some other poetry that I was reading. I was afraid of letting the human speak freely. So, anyway, in prison I began to think and meditate within myself for long hours, going back into time and checking out where I started to go wrong. Of course, I knew where I started to go wrong: the very moment I forgot my mother's wisdoms, the wisdoms of the viejos and of the abuelos. It took centuries to gain these wisdoms, but the conquerors, the first thing they do is to destroy your wisdoms and your cultures and plunge you into a chasm of darkness. No one can escape because the conquerors don't want to conquer you physically, they want to conquer you commercially and exploitatively, they want to conquer your spirit too. It's the same kind of insatiable lust for gold that people have for power. It's an addiction. Life is all about addictions. We have to make a choice about which one you're gonna get hooked up to.
CDH: Did you write in prison?
PT: I wanted so much to say, "Burn, guerra!" Instead, the poet said: "Learn, don't burn" so that when you have to burn you know what to burn. For how can you blame all whites for what racists are doing, or blame all Puerto Ricans for what a few are doing?
CDH: Was Down These Mean Streets written entirely in prison?
PT: I started what was to be known as Down These Mean Streets and gave it a somewhat corny title: Home Sweet Harlem. It got its definitive title because somebody sent Raymond Chandler, the writer, my manuscript. He sent it back and he said "Keep writing: a man who himself is not mean, can walk down these mean streets". And I said "OK, Chandler, you're on." That's the only book that I have not named myself.
Anyway, when I came out of prison I went to work in an organization called YDI, Youth Development Incorporated. It was in New York. I worked with gang kids, telling them about my experiences. They were Puerto Ricans, blacks, cubanitos, human children. I worked with all the colors. When the gangs were warring, I was there. Many times I was in great danger because when a bullet comes it doesn't care what your name is. I said to those kids: "Look, you don't know what it's like, it's hard in there, son. Go to school; don't throw away your life. I'm one of the miracles who came out from there. There are many who are never going to get out and others who are programmed and think that they are better off inside than out. Somebody said to me once: "I have everything here: three meals a day, my own room, I don't have to pay rent or income tax and when I want sex I take hold of one of those young boys." Abnormal.
At that time I was still writing Down These Mean Streets. I was writing in New York when I was working in the bakery, I was writing when I was with those young people, I was writing in the basement of the church. It was my aunt's church and I needed a halfway house. They did not have a halfway house and I needed to be away from the pull of the streets.
CDH: Was there one particular stimulus that prompted you to write that particular book?
PT: One day in prison a friend of mine -I had very few tight friends in prison, you don't trust too much- knocked on my "door" and he said to me: "Tommy (everybody called me that because of the Thomas), read this, they wrote a book named after me." We used to call him Youngblood and the book's title was Youngblood. And it was true because that book was his life, but written by another American black who lived that same life in essence. Then I read that book and I read it so much that its pages seemed like onion skin. But there was knowledge in there. So a couple of days afterward he asked me: "What do you think of the book?" And I said, "Strong," And I looked at him and said, "You know something, Youngblood? I could write too." And I began to write. I took the paper and I remember the ceremony I went through, because I'm very symbolic in my ways.
Creativity: it's the strength, the power, it's healing. Creativity was my salvation in prison because it kept me from becoming a vegetable or a psychopath. It opened worlds up to me where I could time travel with the power of my mind because of the anguish to be free, out of that canary cage. One time they gave me a canary as a present and I had it for two or three days. Me in that cell and the canary in its cell and I got up and took the canary out of its cage and the windows across from the bars were open a little bit and I told him "Listen, I don't see the logic in this. I am here doing time and I got you doing time with me when all you want is to be free, to fly, to use those little wings of yours." And I let the bird fly but the bird got to the ledge of the window and whether he was looking behind to see if there was any danger or if he was looking at me I wouldn't know. I chose to think that he was looking to say "bye, bye" to me. And then he took off. The next day the one who gave me the canary said to me "How's the canary doing?" So I told him, I just couldn't feel right, him doing time. And the guy looked at me and said "Wow, man, you sentenced him to death because he won't be able to survive with all the wild birds that are out there." And I smiled at him, "At least he'll die free, not in a bird cage like me," I said. And I looked inside and thought 'you only got my body, you don't have my mind. And I promise you one thing: I won't serve time, I'll make time serve me. I'll educate my mind, not eradicate it. I, Piri, Thomas, will be born anew.' So I changed my name from Pete, as they used to call me, and named myself Piri, like my mother called me. I took a piece of paper and said "Paper, I'm going to tell you a story and whoever reads it is going to walk in it and hear it and feel it. Just like when you've stepped into Alice in Wonderland." And then I began to tell the paper a story and in the writing what you are doing is drawing it out of you. You can feel the conversations going on instead of hearing them. You transpose those feelings into words. I was delighted to know that it was all pouring out, except of course that I had half-way failed English and my spelling was pretty lousy, but I didn't stop. I just kept on going because, Why not invent a word by spelling it phonetically? At least you knew what it meant and later on you check Webster's Dictionary, but right now don't stop the flow. Write till it's all out and then sit and look at it and make all the corrections you need.
CDH: It's a real achievement for a first book to come out so well-rounded, with such command over the language, the action, the sense of rhythm, the way you put in all the background.
PT: I had a lot of fine editors.
CDH: How did you get the book published by Knopf?
PT: They wanted to make a film called "Piri and Johnny" about my work with the gangs and the streets and how I was peacemaker and the violence and the whole thing. One of the filmmakers was Richard Leacock. I was talking to him about my experiences and he says "Hey, you got a book there, let me talk to my friend Angus Cameron." Leacock made an appointment for me to go to see him. By this time I was married and I had one child, and I went home looking for that manuscript that I had written in prison. I couldn't find it. So I asked and was told, "Well, the kids were playing with it and I thought it was garbage so I threw it into the incinerator." I remember going into the bedroom and sitting on the bed and it was like my heart was breaking. They just killed my child. All that work, all that energy and not only that, I had done it over twice. Anyway, I sat in the bed in the room and my tears jumped out of my eyes. I was in one of those high rises and I looked out the window and I said "Wait a minute, you did it once, you could do it again." And then it was born, Down These Mean Streets. I had almost said to myself "Fuck it, the hell with it." And I didn't. I would not leave a chapter until I finished it even though it took me eight hours, ten hours, two days, three days. I would work on that chapter until I was finished. I thought that I might not get up tomorrow in the same mood so I preferred to finish it now. The anger was so great that I broke the walls and kitchen cabinets and closet doors with my hands. Then I found out that I must add humor to it. So I began to add humor. It's like a tapestry, you add to it in layers and blend it in. So I tried to blend it with warmth and gentleness and funny feelings, things that all people could relate to.
CDH: The first feeling when you rewrote it was anger, then you blended it with humor?
PT: Humor's always been important for me. If I could laugh, the demons would go away. So I had to add a little humor and then things became a little better. But getting that out of me was a catharsis. I had taken the demons and put them into it. I was writing prose, I was writing my feelings and my feelings danced like musical notes. What a lot of people don't understand is that in writing Down These Mean Streets I could not realize the psycholoical damage it would do to me by opening up Pandora's Box again and bringing back to mind all those things I had gone through.
CDH: What about the language, that wonderful language that's street language but it's also poetic and everybody can understand it.
PT: My idea was clarity without restrain. I am a medium in the sense that I pass something on so hopefully people communicate.
CDH: You use Spanish in a very effective way in that book.
PT: Yes, like art work. You know why? They said "You can't do that" and I said "What do you mean you can't do that? When you open up a book, there are French terms, and German terms: Bon soir, ma cherie, and all that so why can't I put in adiós, corazón?" Everyone knows adiós and surely everyone knows corazón. I'm a universal human.
CDH: Did you have a model for this book?
PT: There was nothing written about the streets. My editors wrote that I had created a new genre in writing where everybody speaks like themselves. Somehow I knew that if I wrote everything from my point of view, then it would be a one-man description. But I wanted the perspective of all of the other living characters and I remembered all their mannerisms.
CDH: You were one of the first Puerto Rican in the United States to write about life in the streets, you gave an impulse to ghetto literature.
PT: There were others like Jesús Colón. But mine became better known, not only in the United States but in England, Canada and now they are interested in Italy. And I believe they are also interested in translating Down These Mean Streets into Spanish. It should've been done years ago because they have translated every writer. But a lot of people have disrespected me. One time we're at this writers' place where they invited me, and I took my glass of wine and somebody came and pushed me and the wine fell on the floor and this man was standing next to me, Joseph Heller. I started to hide the wine glass and said "Let's get rid of the evidence" and he said "I don't need to get rid of any evidence." And added: "Your vocabulary is limited" and people are hearing this and I smiled and said "And so was your mother when she gave birth to you." I get tense right away; I don't want to be in that phony atmosphere. It's a plastic atmosphere. I'd rather be with the children. That's why you didn't hear so much from me. Because when people ask "What were you doing all those years?" I say, "Ask all those schools and universities and communities."
I won't use my writing to sell people out. They were interested in me doing some writing for a series about Latinos. Hollywood sends the producer and gets together all the Latinos, brothers and sisters, writers of the barrios, and I say to them before we go into the meeting: "We have to be united among us." So we went in and this guy is telling us what he wants us to do, slaps in the face and all that and I said "What you need is writers who will write about our people with their sense of dignity and the laughter that will come forth will be real. You don't have to demean persons to get a cheap fucking laugh out of it." He looked at me and he said "What we need is writers who will write what we tell them to" and so I looked at him and in my most elegant manner I said "Fuck you". I had ten cents in my pocket. I was expecting at least some of my brothers and sisters to walk out with me but I looked back and they were all there. They were so hungry they were ready to sell their sense of dignity. Nobody can take away your dignity, only you can sell it. I wasn't about to sell it.
CDH: Puerto Ricans in the United States are forging a very energetic way of writing which is hardly known in Puerto Rico. Your book is among what is best known.
PT: You know, when Down These Mean Streets came out, they invited me to go to San Germán, to a university they have there. When I went in I looked to the wall and saw all the photos they had of Spanish writers and I looked and looked because I knew we had writers in the barrios: Miguel Algarín, Mickey Piñero, Sandra Esteves and myself. So I said "Look, I don't see any of the writers of the barrios here." And someone said, "It's because you don't write in Spanish." And I said: "What? And what about those Puerto Ricans who write in French and who write in Italian?" We have them, we have intellectuals in that little island, many academic intellectuals.
CDH: The problem is that those who write in English are not generally accepted as real Puerto Rican writers. It's a very tragic circumstance because they are rejected in the States for being Puerto Rican and they're rejected in Puerto Rico for being American.
PT: That's why I wrote "we're hung up in the middle, with no place to go" They don't want us here, in the land of the Yankees and in Puerto Rico they deny us our heritage. This has been very bitter for me.
They have forced us to be universal. We now consider ourselves citizens of the world, wherever our feet are, that's our turf. Because I finally found out -as a majority of one, not as a minority because that means less than, but as a majority of one- I finally found out that we are not just geographic locations or colors or sexes or preferences. We are all earthlings, we belong to the Earth and the Universe.
I was one of those who wanted in, I spent hours practicing with my hands, trying to imitate the Puerto Rican way of speaking and the phrases they used in order to pronounce them well. I so wanted, with all my heart, to be accepted. How dare you deny me my inheritance? I survived the Yankees to be hurt so by you? I know that a lot of us over here are arrogant. But arrogance is found everywhere. It's in this country too. When I talked like that in San Germán, all my brothers and sisters stood up. They were truly sorry because they realized that we were fighting to come back to our Mother Tongue though we spoke another tongue. So my heart is pouring out to you, negrita, I've waited for a long time to talk like this to someone from the island.
CDH: Well, I think the U.S.-Puerto Rican writers could bring a breath of fresh air to island literature.
PT: Puerto Rico could be a trap for the arts because you get laid back and there's only so far you can go creatively in Puerto Rico. The only way you can really start to get it is to get out of Puerto Rico and come over here and spend the energy, or spend some time in Paris. That allows you to grow because the island can have a greenhouse effect. After a while you get into the same vaina and then what you are writing is fluff. You're not writing about life and life, if you please, is all about feelings, good, bad or indifferent. If you haven't got the feelings then you are torpid. You have to keep creatively charging yourself. I have to tell you there are people in Puerto Rico who love me but the feeling is that I needed the drive that I had been breastfed on. I needed the milk of being in the barrios of New York. But I want to go back to Puerto Rico from time to time.
CDH: Do you relate to these other Puerto Rican writers in the United States who have also written about the ghetto?
PT: I've met a lot of the brothers but I know them all in my heart.
CDH: Has it been easy for you to publish after Down These Mean Street's success?
PT: The ones who are having trouble are these young writers, young brothers and sisters, because they are telling them "Piri Thomas wrote Down These Mean Streets so that's all had." Don't take that. You can write thousands of books on Tarzan and the Apes, you can write thousands of books on Lone Ranger and Tonto, why can't you think there are a couple million of experiences here, if not more? The system behavior-modified us to make us feel less than. I am so proud of the puertorriqueño here and in Puerto Rico because I love both of them.
CDH: Do you plan a sequel to Down These Mean Streets ?
PT: The sequel is going to be called A Matter of Dignity, and I'm working on it now. I have notes and feelings and chapters. What I need to do is finish a CD I'm making and then find a place to go in order to write. Usually I go into Puerto Rico quietly, into Rincón or Boquerón, callaíto .
In the book I am going to the very beginning, to what I did not include in Down These Mean Streets. I will go farther. A Matter of Dignity is that one book that I really put out so that children will know what happened to that young man from Down These Mean Streets. Did he curl up and die? No, he ain't never stopped.
CDH: You are now working on setting your poetry to music on cassettes and CD's. Since when?
PT: Oh, it's been years. I'm at the vanguard in these experiments in creativity. I always thought to myself "Why is it that only the lyrics can be married to music? Why not the poetry of the spoken word?" So in the 1960s and 1970s here and there, I would get together with the brothers and sisters of music and play and extend the flow. And my way of doing it, there was a flow going at that time called "Da, Da" which means street flow. Creations without hesitations. I would do the poetry and then the musicians would listen to me. My words to them became musical notes because all humans were born, as children, as musical instruments. We talk, we sing, we flow. Then they would lay the music and they would play and I would weave myself in between their music so that it would be a blend.
I had listened to our songs and our singers. We grew up with all that energy. Because of other commitments -I had to earn a living, I had children and so on- I would do it for my own enjoyment, my own joy, my own feelings. Finally I found the right time and the right energy, because everything comes at its own time, you can't be impatient with destiny.
CDH: What kind of music is it?
PT: It's the blending of drums from Africa and bongos and guitars from Spain and our aguinaldos. All these conglomerations and manifestations coming out in the form of what we are as puertorriqueños or better yet said, borinqueños 'cause that was our first name.
I have as many sides to me as any human has. And I like this side much better that allows me to create and takes away my sorrows and the pains of my youth and brings back only the beautiful memories of my mother smiling, Doña Lola: "Mira, que negrito más famoso." And I can reach out and touch my mother. So I got together with Greg Landau, an electronic genius who is also an anthropologist. He's a professor and he loves music. His father is a poet and he himself has lived in Nicaragua and in Cuba. Landau became my music producer in San Francisco. I said: "I want to do blues rhythm, I want to do jazz, I want to do African beats, and above all I want to do the salsa of my streets, of the ghettos, of Llorens Torres."
CDH: Does he compose the music?
PT: The music is actually born of this collaboration. It's very special, very spiritual: it's like telepathy before telephones. We feel each other. Then I do the poetry by myself carrying my own rhythm. Then they listen. My words become music to them and then they flow out their sounds and feelings, because it's all about feelings. So we're tuning our feelings.
Give me the first note and that is my beat. Give me something like BAM, BAM, BAM, BAM, BAM [he marks a rhythm with the words] and I begin: Bullets flying, children dying, mommies crying, papis crying too. CRACK, CRACK, CRACK, CRACK. Oye, Angelina, ¿qué tú haces en una esquina vendiendo tu dignidad? Oye Wito, ¿qué tú haces con ese pito, don't you know you're only seven years old? Oye, brothers, oye José, what you doing with that gun? Oye Juan, with that gun? That's el hijo de Doña Lola con esa ametralladora que es un Uzzie, can't be choosy 'cause it killed five other children today. BAM, BAM, BAM bullets flying, children dying, mother crying, yes, papis crying too.
We meet, we talk and the atmosphere gets charged. And we begin to play. I recite the poetry and they listen to it and begin with the music. It's creation without hesitation. It's like New Age music We're working now on our third CD. Our first one was called Sounds of the Streets. The sequel to it was going to be called Street Beat but it's been used already; it's not out yet, we're thinking of a name. Then the third CD is Creations without Hesitations.
CDH: Who produces those CD's?
PT:. We have a company called Cheverote Productions. My wife is vice-president and I am president. The word "chévere" is an African word that means "great", or good, grande, bueno. And if "chévere" means great, then cheverote and cheverota mean the greatest. Critics are saying this is the answer to rap, it's got style and class.
CDH: When did you move over here to San Francisco?
CDH: Because of the music?
PT: No. I had to get out of New York. It was giving me an emotional burnout with all the hypocrisy and the problems. I underwent many attacks. When my first book came out, many in Puerto Rico didn't like it. One time, the wife of a very important man from the Puerto Rican government came up and said: "Oh, Piri, why did you write Down These Mean Streets ? It makes us look bad." And I said: "I'm not presenting you, I'm presenting us, who live here in the belly of the whale. We're out here fighting our hearts out and you, instead of looking at us as brave warriors, you look at us with contempt. We went through the most brutal assimilation process of the spirit and the mind and we rose above it."
When Down These Mean Streets came out it was a new genre. Then it rose to be a classic in my own time. Puerto Rico never opened its arms to it. Those who invited me were the poor. Some of the bureaucrats who came to see me wanted me to help them but I told them: "You are never going to accept us, who come from the barrios. You want us for your party but we are going to fight for independence on our own because you reject us."
CDH: I understand you have also worked in films.
PT: I've worked in two films. The first one was when I was working with the gangs. It was called Piri and Johnny. Johnny was Juan Maldonado, a Puerto Rican kid. And then we worked in one called The World of Piri Thomas. I did narrations on other films. After I learned enough about filming I went and filmed the riots, the Harlem riots, but they gave me no credit. We are working on a film right now, called Oye, familia.
CDH: Where is it being filmed?
PT: It's being produced in the barrios where I grew up. I did poetry from the rooftops, from the backyards, from the street corners. I am very well known in my barrios and very highly respected. I am very much loved.
CDH: Who's financing Oye, familia?
PT: Jonathan Robinson. He's a young filmmaker. Most of the people I'm working with are young people. I am working with Pete Resto on a film. He's a young Puerto Rican born in los barrios de Nueva York. He's to the Puerto Ricans in the filmmaking energy what Spike Lee is to the black brothers.
CDH: You wrote a play once, right?
PT: Yes, I wrote a drama, Las Calles de Oro (The Golden Streets ) which Miriam Colón directed many years ago and I am refining it now with another young playwright to bring it back to the theaters. I received great acclaims but me, I was going so fast that I didn't stop to see it produced and then I got involved in the Civil Rights movement and it's very hard to write on horseback. But I was retaining the experiences.
CDH: Your writing seems to be mainly autobiographical.
PT: Oh. yes. I am tuned. I don't know how to write fiction but anything that has happened can be written. What I utilize is poetic license sometimes in setting it up, because I am an artist. You have to set up a sense for a climax and a feeling and a flow. I have the outlines for a book called Sailing, Sailing Over the Barrio Main. I was in the Merchant Marine once, on a Greek ship under the Panamanian flag.
CDH: How did you feel when your books -especially Down These Mean Streets- became such a tremendous success? It was a first for a Puerto Rican writer within the American literary mainstream.
PT: The first thing I did was remember what my mother's spirit said to me. "You accept the accolades, the honors, the recognition, you accept it in the name of the children." It's very hard for those who had nothing to all of a sudden get something. And many go mad. They think: 'I am so much better than everybody else." Never forget where your ombligo comes from. I never have. Yo soy del Barrio. What I have I owe to my mother. When I was in prison, I made a silent promise to her, I promised: "Everything you wanted me to be, I'm going to be."
Carmen Dolores Hernández was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She has a Doctorate in Spanish Literature and has written two books on topics related to this subject. She has taught Spanish literature at the University of Puerto Rico. For 15 years, Ms. Hernández has contributed to San Juan's largest newspaper, El Nuevo Día, as a journalist specializing in literary matters. She is now working on a book of interviews with Puerto Rican authors in the USA.