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How Piri Met Piri! (A Tribute to Piri Thomas)
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Piri Thomas, the writer and poet whose 1967 memoir, “Down These Mean Streets” chronicled his tough childhood in Spanish Harlem and the outlaw years that followed and became a classic portrait of ghetto life, died on Monday at his home in El Cerrito, Calif. He was 83.
Most people who have known me from my grammar school days are aware that my nickname as a child was “Piri”. In fact, they are the only ones who still call me that. To add to the mystery, most people know me by the first name of “Peter” but my real first name given to me at birth is “Pedro”.
How did the Anglicization saga of my real name come about? Simply put, it is no different than what has transpired in the lives of millions of migrants from Latin America who, faced with the bigotry and racism that would threaten their survival and possibly stifle their children’s advancement within the American experience, adapted in the only ways possible for them. Consequently, many from the Hispanic American and migrant communities were forced to change their way of life, their culture, their way of dressing and even their names so that they and their children could be accepted and left alone to prosper and achieve the “American Dream”.
I clearly remember how it all started on my first day of school at Our Lady of Lourdes Elementary School in the West Harlem section of Manhattan. My mother (God bless her place in heaven) was attempting to introduce me to my first ever teacher, Mother Mary Eileen. My mom introduced me as “Pedro” and the nun, without hesitation, instead of correctly pronouncing my name right, said “Perro”. My mother indignantly answered that I was not a dog and, again repeated my real name. Again, Sister Eileen attempted to say “Pedro” but stumbled on the roll of the “r” and still did not get it right! At that point, my mother grudgingly informed the nun that my name translated from Spanish to English was “Peter”. The nun, in a moment of innocent but, nonetheless, racist cultural insensitivity, declared that my name would be “Peter” in her classroom. My mother exasperated but afraid to confront this teacher for fear of making me an easy target in the classroom, timidly agreed to this informal name change. Thus, was born “Peter Fontanes” aka Pedro Fontanes, six years after my actual birthday!
Coupled with the fact that my dad was also “Pedro”, it became inevitable that I would undergo another informal name change. My mother was always yelling out my name to admonish me for the countless of mischievous deeds that my brother and I perpetually engaged in. Eventually, it became annoying to my father to have to needlessly answer my mom’s retorts to her misbehaving offspring (When we were bad, we were her children but when we were good, we were his sons!). To separate my father from the repetitious warnings of inevitable corporate punishment, it was decided that I would become “Piri”. So not only was “Piri” now a new name around the house but I was also the appropriate target for the end of a leather belt that always hung conveniently from my mom’s apron.
Not to mislead the readers about my image as a young boy, I would have to admit that in comparison to other kids from my neighborhood, I was not so bad. In fact, I was never arrested nor was I ever involved with hard drugs. To their credit, my parents made it clear that I would not to see the next sunrise if I had done so. I would be remiss if I did not admit that we did engage in what, as the street punks that we were at that age would call, not so serious crimes but I was always smart enough to talk myself out of it or even get away with it from both the law and my even more dreaded parents.
Actually, my mother, being ever on the vigilante trail, even went to the local library and obtained a job for me there so I would not be hanguiando con los otros titeres de la calle! (For the linguistically challenged “Hanging with the other thugs of the streets!”)
And it was there that I met the other Piri! One slow day, I was sorting books to place them back to their proper place on the shelves when I picked up a book whose authorâ€™s name made me do a double take. The book was Down These Mean Streets! written by Piri Thomas. It was a biography of an ex drug addict and convict of mixed Puerto Rican and African American blood who eventually moved on to be a successful writer and poet. My curiosity got the best of me and I withdrew the book. That night I began to literally consume the book and because it was the weekend, I did not put it down all night and did not stop until I had completed reading it that Monday morning.
To this day, I vividly remember my excitement that a Puerto Rican named â€œPiriâ€ like me could actually write a book, and so accurately describe my life growing up in Harlem. As I turned the pages, I came across aspects of Piri™s account that closely mirrored my life. As I turned the pages, I saw my Uncle Frankie, a man of distinct African physical characteristics who was declared in his early grades a child genius and in the United States Navy a man of high intelligence, but who tragically later succumbed to a life of hard drugs and eventually dying alone on the cold floors of an abandoned building in Brooklyn. I came across Cesar, a Latino homosexual who was my neighbor and my grandmotherâ€™s close novella watching companion who was tragically gunned down by a homophobic thief. I was surprised to even come across characters who reminded me of a couple of girlfriends who ended up impregnated and abandoned by other close male friends of mine at an early age and most of them condemned to lives of hardship and, even, solitude, imprisonment and an early grave. The book was just an avalanche of memories and recapitulation of what was and what is possible for a young boy like me growing up in the â€œhoodsâ€ and the barrios of Harlem, Liberty City, Watts Chicagoâ€™s South and West Side and East Los Angeles.
The characters that eventually emerged to inspire and help Piri Thomas in escaping the mean streets alluded to in the title mesmerized me. It was clear that no man is an island and that salvation, self improvement and rebirth comes not only from within the soul but also from the hearts of others. The book left such an impression in me that I did something I had never done before. I contacted the author! To my surprise, not only was I able to locate him but he agreed to actually meet me.
The day I met him he wore that Indiana Jones that that was his trademark back then. It was not until later that he began to appreciate his African roots more and switched to the styles typical of the subcontinent traditions. We spoke at length and soon were cracking up as we recounted the book and how I related to it. It struck a bond that lasted for years. He even agreed to come to my school as a speaker. I was quite disturbed when he moved from New York City to California for I knew that it meant that I would no longer have easy access to him. I was right.
It was nearly two decades before I was to see him again. A couple of years ago, he received an award from a nationally recognized group in New York City. I was not able to attend due to a prior engagement but we scheduled a get together for cafe during a trip that I made to California. We were both happy to see each other and he joked about how large I had become around the mid-section and I retorted how viejecito pero lindo he had become. We recounted the changes that society and our community had undergone in the four decades that we have known each other. As always, I listened intensely as the man eloquently quoted his opinions and observations in that deep musically nasal toned voice. I remember fondly now how his genuine smile punctuated his dark skinned face finely sculptured by a life well lived.
As I spoke to him that afternoon, I noticed there was a difference now. Inevitably, it dawned on me that he now not only wanted to hear about me but he also valued my opinions despite the fact that we would sometimes greatly differ about issues of a political nature. I knew then that I have come of age and that this was one of the great ones from that wonderful era who had taken me by the hand and led me to the promise land.
Before parting that night, I wanted to tell him that he was indeed one of the driving forces in my having committed myself to lending a significant part of my life to bringing about meaningful and lasting changes in the world in general, but especially to those who were underprivileged and underserved. Unfortunately, I did not do it that night, Truth be told, I felt that deep down he was smart enough to figure that out. Why state the obvious? So instead we gave each other the traditional man hug and we parted ways stammering how we were going to keep in touch. That was the last time I saw him.
Today, I was notified by mutual friends that he passed quietly with his family by his side surrounded by an over abundance of love, eulogized with deep respect and adoration by countless of friends and admired by his fans all over the world. This is what he would have wanted written as the final chapter in his book of life.
Piri! Piri! You made me proud of my name! You made me proud of my people! And you made me proud to have known you. I am only sad that I never told you. Thank you, God bless you and may you now rest in peace, mi Hermano!
by Peter Fontanes