Today’s Love: Puerto Rican Writer Piri Thomas’ Words for El Barrio

The celebrated author passed away at his California home this week. He was 83.

By Jamilah King Oct 19, 2011

It’s incredibly sad to hear about the death of 83-year-old Puerto Rican writer Piri Thomas. The celebrated author, who helped influence the Nuyorican poetry scene, lost his battle with pneumonia on Monday.

I’m new to New York. Spent my first few weeks here with friends who lived in East Harlem. To be honest, I didn’t know much about the neighborhood outside of some dated references to 70’s era Puerto Rican poets. But in many ways, my first introduction was years earlier, when I picked up the Thomas’ book "Down These Mean Streets."

Though it was originally published back in 1967, Thomas’s autobiographical description of life in a working class Latino neighborhood has survived the decades. His was a gritty portrayal of the early days of drugs, gangs, and turf wars. But it was also story about the kind of love that’s required to survive.

In an interview with In Motion Magazine back in 1998, Thomas described how he came to the craft:

Writing has such a power for expression. When I was in prison, you have so much time. Even when you can’t talk with no one else in the whole world you can talk to your paper. Your feelings whether good, bad or indifferent. We call it despojo in Spanish, which means to be able to get rid of all this agony, weight inside of you. It brings clarity. That’s how I got started, writing in prison.

Thomas was also an influential figure in the Nuyorican poetry scene, and helped open a new space for Latino writers in the American literary landscape. Though he was most widely known for his autobiography, Thomas also wrote other novels, short stories, poems, and plays. His later work includes the novel "Seven Long Times" and the film "Every Child is a Poet", a film that was based on his life. You can read select poems and prose on his website.

Thomas passed away at his home in El Cerrito, Calif. surrounded by his wife, Suzie, and his six children.