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Race and Mercy:
A Conversation with Piri Thomas
PIRI THOMAS WAS ONE OF THE LEADING VOICES of the 60s movement that forced the issues of race and discrimination into the minds of mainstream readers and publishers. After spending time in prison, Thomas found new clarity by reflecting on his plight as a dark-skinned, Spanish-speaking Caribbean in the United States. His first work, Down These Mean Streets, is one of the best known works about growing up Puerto Rican in New York. Originally published in 1967, it is now considered a classic and has never been out of print. In a powerful and penetrating look at U.S. society, Thomas chronicles his adolescence and early adult years by focusing on the problems faced by a working-class Puerto Rican who is trying to find his place in the racist society which rejects him.
Thomas was born in 1928 and grew up in the streets of El Barrio. While fluent in Spanish, he became a bona fide English-speaking writer because, as he puts it, "this land is my land." He lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife and daughters, and remains active as a writer and public speaker, addressing issues of racial tension and ways to bring people back together. Some of his other books include Savior, Savior, Hold My Hand (1972), Seven Long Times (1974), and Stories from El Barrio (1974). This interview took place in mid-1995.
IS: I would like to start with the topic of language. Would you reflect on your relationship between Spanish and English? What does the Spanish language mean to you and what does the English language mean to you? How close or far away are you from each of them? What do you feel for each of them?
PT: I remember with all my heart and soul the first words that I learned from Mami and Papi were all in Spanish but
Race and Mercy
as I grew up I knew that I was not speaking Spanish from Galicia or Barcelona in Spain. I was speaking the Spanish that is spoken in Puerto Rico, which I call Puerto Rican Spanish, because we kept our nuances and feelings and energies and words that came from Africa like chevere, which means great. We are a mixture of all those who conquered us over the centuries, taking our women with or without permission. We are a culmination of all that energy, but our spirit is as free as it was born to be. We are a conglomeration of manifestations.
IS: And so Spanish is the language in which you expressed your first words.
PT: SÌ, I began to go through the same process that everyone has undergone under the system, beginning with the Native Americans: the assimilation process. I remember in my own childhood in the thirties being in this school and I could not understand what the teacher was saying so much because they spoke very fast sometimes and I could not catch the words. I'd lean over to my friend saying "Jose, mire, what did the teacher say?" He would tell me and I would continue to do my homework. And so that teacher came roaring upon me and said "listen, stop talking in that language," and I said "well, I am speaking my mother's language. My mother's from Puerto Rico, I was born in this country," and she says "well you stop talking that, you have to learn English, you are in America now. After all, how else do you expect to become President of the United States if you do not learn to speak English correctly." I thought in my young heart, "my God this teacher has more faith than I have in my someday becoming President of the United States if I learn my English well enough." And the tremendous assimilation happened to me. As a child, I first had to think in Spanish to speak in English. Then, I had to think in English to speak in Spanish, because I had forgotten the language. I had forgotten the lessons that were taught in my home where my mother taught me how to read, beginning with readings from the Bible. So I've made a determined effort to regain my inheritance back to where I came from, to learn where I had come from in order to know where I was going, to be able to then recognize my true reality, the true reality of what we are in the scheme of things. I learned that we are human beings, but that there were those who believed that there were only two kinds of people on this earth: those who ruled and those who were ruled.
IS: But while we can reclaim our past through the Spanish language, we must acknowledge that Spanish is also the language used by the conquistadores in the Americas.
PT: I'm with you totally. In fact, I said it's ironic, that we who are from all the pueblos, Chile, Nicaragua, Peru, Ecuador, Cuba, Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico, all the islands, Central and South America, Mexico, are bound, blended, and held together by the language of the conqueror, whose fever for gold destroyed us physically, mentally, spiritually, and morally. They stripped away the indigenous knowledge and the religious beliefs of those they found and forced everybody into their mold which was slavery.
IS: When you talk about regaining one's own past, one's own background and heritage, you seem to imply that the way to do it is through language. I recently talked to a couple of Puerto Rican writers who are close friends and they were complaining that because they write in English in this country and are mainland Puerto Ricans, their work is almost totally ignored in the island because of the language issues. How about you? What is your situation? Is your work known in Puerto Rico?
PT: Well let me tell you, my brother, with all sincerity I agree. I went into San German, I believe, where I met beautiful people. When I walked into the lobby, the walls were covered with photographs, beautiful photographs, of all the Puerto Rican brothers and sisters, writers, poets, and all the feelings and all the energies of a Luis Pales Matos or a Julia Burgos. I looked to the walls for a picture of all of us from the Barrio and did not find one. So I asked the brother, "Why don't we have pictures of the poets and writers, brothers and sisters from El Barrio ? Aren't we all puertorriquenos ?" And he told me
Well, because you don't write in Spanish." I told him "and what about these writers who wrote in French? These ones write in French, this one could speak German" and he just looked. I added "you have to remember one of our national poets Antonio Correrjer, who said that no matter if we're born on the moon we are still puertorriquenos to our soul." And "nadie , nobody," I told him, "can take away my heritage, because I, Juan Pedro Tomas, was born from a Puerto Rican womb, boricua . Although I was born in el norte my soul is Puerto Rican." But things are so mixed up for Puerto Ricans. The only reason why I knew of Puerto Rico is because I sat in the corner and listened to the grown-ups speaking about places like Fajardo, Bayamon, and San Juan, among other places on the island. My beautiful childenergy absorbed all that information by osmosis. I finally went to Puerto Rico when I got out of prison at the age of thirty-two. My God, as that wall of green humidity enveloped me, it was like I was entering into my mother's arms. However, soon I began to see the reality of U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico--a so-called Commonwealth, that really means common for the pueblo and wealth for the latter-day carpetbaggers who enjoy a favorable tax status with the U.S. government.
IS: Let's focus on religion.
PT: I am a spiritual man. We all have a spirit--good, bad, or indifferent. I come from a family of different denominations. My father was a deathbed Catholic. He was only going to see a priest when he was ready to kick the bucket, but he was a very good man, he did not drink, he did not smoke, he was a good athlete. He believed in doing unto others as you would like to be done to yourself. My lovely mother was a Seventh-Day Adventist, she cooked on Friday before the sun went down and did not cook again until Saturday when the sun went down. We went to church on the Sabbath, we were the closest thing to the children of Israel in that sense of being. And my aunt, Angelita, my mother's sister, she was Pentecostal and I loved that church the best because you could express yourself there, with loud Alleluias and Glorias a Dios . In the others, you had to stay very quiet. In the Catholic church they spoke in Latin and I could not understand. But in the Pentecostal church, I could express myself. I began to think about God and what God was. I could not see him but they told me I could feel him, but that changed as the years went on and I made my inner journey, especially when I went to prison where you have plenty of time. I was determined that I was going to educate my mind. I was not going to eradicate it. I made inner journeys within myself, so as to judge for myself on who I was in my sense of being. I wrote it into my poetry, "To me God is a smile on the face of a child that is not being wasted." "To me God is spelled G-O-O-D, good." Every child has their own gift of energy that can make direct contact with the power force within them as well as contact with others. Everything in life has had some kind of influence on me, in one way or another. In prison, I spent time reading books on the religions of Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism. I was looking for answers in my six-by-eight by-nine prison cell.
IS: When did literature become an answer to you, a tool for salvation? Was it in prison, as you suggest at the end of Down These Mean Streets? Or was it before?
PT: Long before prison. My mother had saved some money from the sewing machine, because she used to work in the sweat shops but she also used to bring home work from the job and work until two or three o'clock in the morning, because there was no work for my father. My father came running home one day happy, because he had hit the bolita, where you play los numeros --get three numbers and you win. And with that money and what my mother had saved we moved to a foreign country called Babylon, Long Island. I went to school out there, which became a battleground for me. I was the only little coffee grain for miles around in a sea of white milk. However, I had an English teacher, whose name was Mrs. Wright. She was very kind to me, this beautiful white teacher, and I loved her energy flows. One day she asked the class to write a composition about anything we wished. And I wrote a composition on how much I loved her beautiful brunette hair and her hazel eyes and how I loved the way she smelled when she came over to look at my work. However, I did not particularly care for her pronouns and adjectives and verbs because I did not know what the hell she was talking about. Then, days later, the papers came back and she asked me to turn mine over. I'd written two and a half pages; on the half-page that was left, it said in red pencil--I remember it to this day--"Son, your punctuation is lousy. Your grammar is non-existent. However, if you wish to be a writer someday, you will be. P.S. We both love my wife," signed her husband. Someone had recognized that I had a gift, an ability to express, to share feelings through words. I believe all children are born poets and that every poet is the child and what the children need is a world that will guide them towards creativity and not towards greed.
IS: Was there ever any writer while you were at that time in Babylon or later on while you were in jail that influenced you, not in terms of the friendship that you had with her or with him, but whose book you thought was something to emulate?
PT: I loved to read as a kid. The reason I loved to read was because I was introduced by a very caring teacher to a very caring librarian on 110th Street in my Barrio. She allowed me to take out two books and I would go to the fire escape and turn my blanket into a hammock and I'd just sit back reading. I'd read whatever I found. I loved adventure stories, I loved science fiction or traveling to other universes. I loved the energies of Jack London and the white wolf and fang, everything, the feelings. Actually, I didn't have a whole lot of time to read until I went to prison, where I found out that I could create a world in my mind that would take me away from all that if I really tuned myself to books and my imagination. One night, a brother whose nickname was Young Blood knocked on my prison cell. He knocked very low and I said "Aha" and he said "Tommy, Tommy, they wrote a book with my name on it, Young Blood, you know, and, man, I want you to read it. It's by a brother man, a black brother." At that time, we were calling each other black. And he handed me the book through the bars and it was called Youngblood by John Oliver Killens. He was an attorney who was also a very fine writer, a beautiful black human being. I read the book; it had been read by so many people that the pages were like onion skin. When I finished reading it, Young Blood asked, "what'd you think of it, Tommy?" and I said "Man, it was really dynamite, you live it, the whole feeling." And I added "Young Blood, you want to know something?" and he said "yeah" and I said, "I could write too." And he smiled at me and he said "yeah I know you can, Tommy" and that's when I began to write what would one day be known as Down These Mean Streets. At that time, it was entitled Home Sweet Harlem.
IS: Race is an issue ubiquitous in your work. In fact, very few Latino writers today are brave enough to discuss it in such plain, uninhibited ways as you do.
PT: Children have a spirit of discernment and the ability to perceive and to sense and to feel and they can look at a person and see the look of contempt or the outrage or the disgust on people's faces. It is very easy for children to read people like people read books. I was one of those children. So when you ask of racism and bigotry, yes, I began at the first stage of life in the barrio. As I grew older it grew harder.
I remember the first time I went to the South with my friend Billy. I sat in the front of the bus and when the bus got to the Mason Dixon line, our driver got off and a new driver got on. Immediately, he said "all the colored to the back" and all the coloreds got up and went back and I just sat there. And he said "I want all of you colored people to go to the back" and I said "look I am puertorriqueÒo" and he looked at me and said "I don't care what kind of nigger you are" and he put his hand into his side pocket. Using the better part of my discretion and with a great nudging on my arm from Billy, because he knew we would be killed, I grudgingly but with dignity went to the back of the bus and sat for the rest of the ride staring at the back of his head determined that I would never forget this incident. And they'd call me "nigger!" and if it wasn't nigger they'd call me "spik." Racism was a horror to bear because most times it wasn't quite said. It was worse because they dug into your psyche with one little look of contempt or their nose would flare as you passed them as if they had smelled dirt. So I came to my mother enraged and feeling this, saying "mire mami, they called me this." So my mother said "listen to this, my son, I want you to learn this and remember it for the rest of your life. I want you to know that there is no one in this world better than you, only maybe better off, with money and so forth, and maybe only better off. You have your sense of beautiful dignity. Nobody can take that away. Only you can give it away or sell it, entiendes ?" My mother said, "they don't have to kill you with hatred my son, envy will suffice." Wisdom from my mother.
IS: I've heard you say that literature is useful to fight racism. But how effective can it be? Writers are also depressive types. Whenever they realize that words are simply words-- ephemeral, transient--they fall into an impossible abyss of fatalism.
PT: Words are important because they awaken consciousness and thus can inspire action. So you have to be careful how you use words because they can be bullets or butterflies. Children become what they learn or don't learn. Children become what they are taught or not taught. For thousands of years we have heard propaganda about white supremacy and "might makes right." Because if you conquer people by might, strip away their education, their beliefs, their culture, and their land, then in two or three generations their children will be in the dark ages again. We had very bright minds when we first went into their schools, because children are not born stupid. The world has no right to judge intelligence by the color of one's skin. Different colors were meant to be very beautiful just like flowers come in different and beautiful colors. Birds are different colors. And this is the struggle that we have had to wage, to allow all the colors to express their humanity through literature and the other arts to learn from each other, as a people, for we are not only geographic locations, colors, sexes, or preferences. We are earthlings who share a common bond--our humanity.
IS: When Down These Mean Streets came out, there was an immediate uproar in terms of the sexual explicitness and there were even some legal problems. When you were writing the subsequent books, Savior, Savior, and Seven Long Times, and Stories From El Barrio, did the experience of the censorship with Down These Mean Streets affect you in any conscious or unconscious way when you were writing? Were you trying, in a sense, to be more defiant and explicit or less defiant and explicit?
PT: I didn't have too much time to think about all that. I was so elated with my gift of being able to write even though the first book had almost killed me because it was such an outpouring--I almost suffered an emotional burnout. I could not stand the agony anymore. So when I wrote Savior, Savior, Hold my Hand, I wrote it more gentle. And when I wrote Seven Long Times, I was looking at it twenty-five years later, very objectively, like a scientist. But Down These Mean Streets, that was an explosion from my very soul and I will utilize part of that power in my upcoming book, A Matter of Dignity. I will have to go back to that time to relive it. Then, as my clarity of mind begins to rise, you will see that instead of rage without reason, there is now reason.
IS: Down These Mean Streets inaugurated a new awareness.
PT: Everywhere I go, people congratulate me. Over the years I've received hundreds if not thousands of letters. People have said to me, "Bro, I had never read a book in my life but this was put in my hand and it opened my soul to reading. I never finished a book in my life, hey, bro, wow!" I was writing the rage out of me but at the same time, I was writing for all of us who were living in that hell. I was not born a criminal from my mother's womb, none of us who had been into the so-called criminal activity had been born criminals from our mother's womb. We were all born very beautiful children, just like any other little babies, into a very criminal society of racism and bigotry and horror to the nth degree, not to leave out promises that very rarely, if ever, came to be. Many people do not understand that to write that book I almost blew my mind. Because I had to force myself to go back in time and feel all the feelings again which included all the agony and the pain. That book was supposed to be something to be swept under the rug and forgotten but I went and opened Pandora's Box, and out came not only the demons, but also the truths. That's why I could not leave a chapter unfinished; I would work on it three or four days straight, reliving all the emotions from that time. But once I discovered that the truth brought relief from the pain, it was wonderful. I then added humor and when you have humor you can laugh, and when you can laugh, the demons go away.
IS: And finally, let me go back to what that teacher told you when you were little, about becoming President of the United States. Did you ever consider running for public office?
PT: I'd probably be assassinated on the first day. I don't have political ambitions. I decided to devote my whole life and energy to passing on the fruits of the learning tree--wisdoms, common sense. So I've stayed with the children. It gives me great satisfaction to be doing something very beautiful that no one can take away from me--sharing with the children the message that each one of us is very beautiful, that we are not sub-species, not sub-humans, not niggers nor spiks nor minorities. We are all human beings--born of earth and the universe. Colors were meant to be simple decorations and not declarations of war.