“For Vieques, in solidarity”
Photo: Scott Braley
Born Juan Pedro Tomas, 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.
The roots of Borinquen (the original indigenous name for the Puerto Rico) 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 U.S. would settle into the oppression of the Puerto Rican colony, seized from a crippled Spain during the Spanish American war, a war started when the United States allegedly sank its own ship, the U.S.S. Maine, in Cuban waters. Not surprisingly, the same General Miles who led the Massacre of Wounded Knee also led the United States Army against Spain in Puerto Rico.
“As a Puerto Rican born in the United States, I had to walk a long road and make a long search that brought me, finally, to the realization of my true identity and to pride in my culture and heritage. As a child in the school system, there was not one thing relevant to my people or our history for me to learn from. Only recently have we Puerto Ricans pried loose the lid of what we are as a people. And it is obvious that for a people to know where they are going, they must first be secure in where they came from. We are humans who strive not just to exist, not just to survive, but to live as it is our right to live on this earth; knowing freedom is not just a word, but a way of life.”
In 1967, his career and fame as an author were launched with the electrifying autobiography, Down These Mean Streets, making El Barrio (the neighborhood) a household word to multitudes of non-Spanish-speaking readers. Piri is also the author of Savior, Savior Hold My Hand, Seven Long Times and Stories from El Barrio.
In addition, Piri Thomas is a poet whose work is available on CD: www.cheverote.com/cds.html.
On Wild Poppies, Piri reads Marilyn's poem “For Vieques, in solidarity”.