Piri Thomas

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Piri Thomas
BornJuan Pedro Tomas
(1928-09-30)30 September 1928
New York City, New York
Died17 October 2011(2011-10-17) (aged 83)
El Cerrito, California
Literary movementNuyorican
Notable worksDown These Mean Streets, Amigo Brothers

Piri Thomas (born Juan Pedro Tomas; September 30, 1928 – October 17, 2011) was a Puerto Rican-Cuban writer and poet whose memoir Down These Mean Streets became a best-seller.

Early years[edit]

Thomas was born to a Puerto Rican mother and Cuban father. His childhood neighborhood in the Spanish Harlem section of New York City was riddled with crime and violence. According to Thomas, children were expected to be gang members at a young age, and Thomas was no exception. Thomas was also exposed to racial discrimination because of his Afro-Latino heritage.[1]

Thomas was involved with drugs, gang warfare and crime. While spending seven years in prison for an attempted armed robbery, Thomas reflected on the teachings of his mother and father, and realized that a person is not born a criminal. Consequently, he decided to use his street and prison know-how to reach at-risk youth, and to help them avoid a life of crime.[2]

Down These Mean Streets[edit]

In 1967, Thomas received funds from the Rabinowitz Foundation to write and publish his best-selling autobiography Down These Mean Streets. The book describes his struggle for survival as a Puerto Rican/Cuban born and raised in the barrios of New York. The book, which has been in print for 52 years, was banned in some places but also required reading, depending on the time and place.[3] He narrated the rampant racism of the pre-Civil Rights Act of 1964.[4] His other works include Savior, Savior Hold My Hand; Seven Long Times; and Stories from El Barrio.

Later years[edit]

Thomas was an influential precursor to the Nuyorican Movement which included poets Pedro Pietri, Miguel Algarín, and Giannina Braschi, who wrote of life in New York City using a mix of English and Spanish.[5][6] Thomas worked on a book titled A Matter of Dignity and on an educational film entitled Dialogue with Society.

Thomas traveled around the U.S., Central America and Europe, giving lectures and conducting workshops in colleges and universities. He was the subject of the film Every Child is Born a Poet: The Life and Work of Piri Thomas, by Jonathan Robinson, which featured a soundtrack by Kip Hanrahan.

On October 17, 2011, Thomas died from pneumonia at his home in El Cerrito, California. He was survived by his wife Suzie Dod Thomas, six children, and three stepchildren.[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Discrimination, Evasion, and Livability" by Marta S. Rivera Monclova, 2013; a dissertation on discrimination against New York Puerto Ricans as portrayed in "Down These Mean Streets" by Piri Thomas and "Yo-Yo Boing!" by Giannina Braschi.
  2. ^ Life and Flow Archived 2016-03-21 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ a b Joseph Berger, "Piri Thomas, Spanish Harlem Author, Dies at 83", The New York Times, October 19, 2011.
  4. ^ González, Christopher (2017). Permissible Narratives: The Promise of Latino/a Literature. Ohio: Ohio State University Press. pp. 75–106. ISBN 978-0-8142-1350-6.
  5. ^ "Hispanic USA: Literature, Music, and Language," Ilan Stavans; "The Cambridge Companion to Modern Latin American Culture" edited by John King, Cambridge, 2004.
  6. ^ "Charming or Frightening?/Encanto o espanto?: identitidad y nación en la novela puertorriqueña actual" by Kristian Van Haesendonck, Iberoamericana, Madrid, 2008.