He was one of the first second generation Puerto Rican writers of the diaspora to publish an autobiographical novel about his experiences as a black Puerto Rican, born and raised in New York’s El Barrio (Spanish Harlem) during the years of the Great Depression. His parents met in New York. His father, Juan Tomás de la Cruz (an Afro-Cuban) gave him the name of John Peter Thomas. It was his mother, Dolores Montañez (a light-skinned Puerto Rican), who gave him the nickname of Piri.
The author never fully accepted the Americanized version of his name (John Peter). As a writer, he always used the nickname assigned (Piri, from the diminutive in English, Petey) and adopted the Thomas that his father gave him on the birth certificate. At that time, schools promoted assimilation and many people with ethnic surnames, Anglicanized or changed their names.
His first novel, “Down These Mean Streets” (1967) is an autobiographical narrative of the vicissitudes of a young Puerto Rican man growing up in the harsh streets of New York during the decades prior to the civil rights movement. That this novel was published when the U.S. nation was in the midst of those struggles is not pure coincidence. This was a period in which the country was under considerable scrutiny and besieged by social unrest because of pervasive and severe conditions of socioeconomic and racial inequality among minorities. The large U.S. publishing houses began to show an interest in the publication of autobiographical narratives by writers from diverse ethnoracial groups, focusing on their growing up experiences in the streets of the socalled urban ghettos. This genre is known as the “Buildungsroman”. Thomas’ first novel was released by a prominent publishing house. However, quite often these mainstream publishing houses asked writers to focus on the negative experiences of those victimized by poverty, were members of gangs or committed some crimes (usually drug-related or involved in robberies) and spent time in prison, which explains why many of the narratives published at the time do not offer a more multifaceted view of the life of Puerto Ricans in the diaspora.
Piri Thomas’ novels are linked to the self-destructive behavior of his youth. He was a member of a gang, developed a serious addiction to drugs, and was involved in criminal activities that led to seven years of imprisonment because of his participation in an armed robbery at a night club. These experiences and his difficult rehabilitation and search for a more productive life after his release from prison also are central to his writing. He began to write when he was still an inmate at Comstock correctional facility.
Upon gaining his freedom, he received a scholarship from the Rabinowitz Foundation that allowed him the time to revise his writings, and, shortly thereafter he published Down These Mean Streets. Thomas’ second novel, “Savior, Savior, Hold My Hand” (1972), is a sequel that covers the difficult period that followed his release from prison and his efforts to turn his life around. His third novel, “Seven Long Times” (1974), chronicles the seven years the author spent in the dehumanizing environment of the New York penal system. The novel was published in the aftermath of the fateful 1971 Attica prison riots. Four years later, Thomas published the collection of short fiction, “Stories from El Barrio” (1978). The author’s wife, Suzanne Thomas, translated his first novel into Spanish, which was published under the title “Por estas calles bravas” (1998).
Thomas has also written poems and plays. For many years he was a free-lance writer, active in the lecture circuit and discussing his work with different audiences. Many of his presentations were aimed at motivating youth. He used his own experiences to persuade young people to avoid vices and self-destructive behavior while also carrying a message of love, personal dignity, and self-affirmation. In his CD’s “Sounds of the Streets” (1994) and “No Mo’ Barrio Blues” (1996), the author recites his poems accompanied by music. Most of his plays are still unpublished. His play, “The Golden Streets”, was produced by the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, established in New York by Puerto Rican movie and TV actor, Miriam Colón in 1970. The television documentary “The World of Piri Thomas” (1968), narrated by the author, offers a dramatic rendering of the harsh realities of barrio life already portrayed in “Down These Mean Streets”, and how the author’s spirit of survival and creative power turned the mistakes of his youth into a personal triumph. Another subsequent documentary, “Every Child is a Poet: The Life and Work of Piri Thomas” (2005), sponsored by the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), focuses on the ways in which the author was able to transform his life to become the well-known writer that he is today, determined to serve his community and be a source of inspiration to the new generations.
After several years living in Puerto Rico in the urban community of Levittown, near Toa Baja, Piri Thomas and his wife moved to San Francisco. He died of pneumonia in 2011, at his home in El Camino, near the San Francisco Bay Area. He was 83 years old.
Hernández, Carmen Dolores. “Puerto Rican Voices in English: Interviews with Writers”. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1997.
September 30, 1928
Nueva York, U.S.A.
October 17, 2011
Author: Dr. Edna Acosta-Belén
Updated: February 22, 2021
Revision: Dr. Lizette Cabrera Salcedo, March 26, 2021