“Softly, Puerto Rican, you ain’t alone,
Muchos están contigo and you’ve got a home….
…Flex your breath of life,
talk about your breeze
and forget you nots.
Write your say
about sidewalks dirty.
Scribble your mean message
on dingy hallway-walls.
Express your aptitude
and limit not its call.”
From “Softly, Puerto Rican, You Ain’t Alone” by Piri Thomas
On October 17, 2011, Piri Thomas, a pioneering cultural champion of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, died at the age of 83. Poet, novelist, and vocal witness to the plight of the underclass, Thomas is considered the father of a Spanglish linguistic tradition and modern Boricua letters. But more importantly, he constructed an incredible legacy on which a modern Latina/o literature was built upon.
As demonstrated in his work, racism was an important fixture in the social development of Thomas’ life. Born in 1928 in El Barrio, New York City to Puerto Rican and Cuban migrants, they gave him an anglicized name, John Peter Thomas, in an effort to assimilate the family. His mother called him “Piri” (the Spanish pronunciation of “Petey”) as a nickname. Growing-up, he battled white ethnic gangs and struggled with his skin color and West African features due to the favored treatment given to his light-skinned siblings from his father. Subsequently, he endured drug addiction, homelessness, and prison.
Much of these experiences were chronicled in his most famous work, Down These Mean Streets, published in 1967, that places front and center discussions of the systematic origins and abuses facing our communities. As a result, his autobiography not only empowered the Boricua diaspora to produce its own unique literature, but validated the new cultural and linguistic expressions that the children of Boricua migrants were developing, like Spanglish. Without a doubt, Thomas was brave to write in a form and style that did not accommodate to the expectations of the white U.S. literary establishment. In other words, he ensured that our stories had to be told from us and in the way that we tell them. Therefore, the Nuyorican Movement and contemporary Latina/o literature are products of Thomas’ tenacity and eloquent ferocity.
I remember still the awe-struck feeling of reading Down These Mean Streets in high school, deeply relating to his testimony of how dark-skinned Boricuas are devalued and the inhumanity of prison. And more importantly, my culture and my context was honored and respected in a world where we are rendered invisible or hopelessly delinquent. For many Boricua and Latina/o youth, Piri Thomas contributed to the understanding of our social context and ourselves, stimulating a sense of hope and pride for which we shall forever be indebted.