Piri Thomas, revered as an icon of New York City’s East Harlem neighborhood (El Barrio) and author of Down These Mean Streets, was honored last weekend by fans and fellow artists at the Museo del Barrio. Thomas passed away last year, and was known for infusing terms like cheverete! (fantastic) and punto! (period) into New York’s Spanglish lexicon, and for positioning East Harlem’s Nuyorican (New York/Puerto Rican) experience on the map. Down these Mean Streets and other works told a story of a community that is rich in cultural heritage but conflicted by an identity caught between New York and Puerto Rico. Prior to discovering his writing and story-telling talents, Thomas discovered another passion while incarcerated: uplifting at-risk youth through poetry and the written word.
Spanning several generations and backgrounds, Thomas’ admirers lined up patiently to commemorate his life alongside poets, activists and authors including author Junot Díaz, poet Emmanuel Xavier, poet Lemon Anderson, fiction author Willie Perdomo, poet Martín Espada, former Young Lord Party activist Felipe Luciano, and former director of El Museo Marta Moreno Vega. Speakers recounted their experiences of meeting Thomas for the first time and discussed how Thomas’ style influenced their work. Some of the artists read from Thomas’ collected works while others delivered writings of their own that spoke to Thomas’ character. Lemon Anderson read excerpts from the script of his play, County of Kings, and Xavier read an adaptation of Down These Means Streets that described his experience as a gay man.
After the artists delivered their heartfelt dedication to Thomas, a panel featuring Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, editor Marcela Landres and Felipe Luciano discussed contemporary challenges facing Latinos in the U.S. and Latin American ethno-cultural literature. Much of the discussion revolved around Tucson, Arizona, where HB 2281 (which went into effect in January 2011) prohibits schools from offering courses at any grade level that advocate ethnic solidarity or cater to specific ethnic groups. Much of the Latino literature canon has been banned from schools, including Martín Espada’s 17-book collection. The panel concluded that the exclusion of these books is a clear extension of the discriminatory immigration laws that have taken hold in Arizona, Georgia, Alabama, and elsewhere. Ultimately, laws like HB 2281 drive a wedge between American literature and Latino/Latin American literature, and call into question the concept of equality for all regardless of their nationality.
It’s been 45 years since Thomas’ work injected the Nuyorican identity into mainstream literature and shed light on how issues of race and ethnicity play out in the United States post-World War II. The panel discussion concluded that half of a century later this country is still grappling with this same issue of what/who is or is not American.
Though they may fall under the genre of Latino or Latin American literature, the works being banned and their authors represent the American experience in its fullest and should be recognized as such, punto! Achieving this would be the best way of honoring the memory of Piri Thomas.