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Do you remember the first book that you ever read? I still do, the first book I read was “Down these mean streets” by Piri Thomas. You should have seen the look of marvel on my face as I spoke with the Urban Jibaro and he told me that the last show Piri performed at was Capicu. My heart raced, the peach fuzz stood up on my arms and I felt proud yet sad. Proud because I have graced the same stage that Piri had graced, sad because I didn’t see it live, and unfortunately I never will.
So let’s talk about Piri Thomas and “Down these mean streets”. I think I may have been 14 years old when I first read the book, it was recommended to me by a gang unit counselor I was seeing at the time, Freddy Baez. I credit that man with being instrumental to saving my life during a very tumultuous time. The book is like a faraway memory to me nowadays, but I feel as if I knew Piri Thomas and I saw him live his life.
If you don’t already know, Piri Thomas is a legend among Latinos, but he wasn’t always one. He was once a young man living a life of gangs, violence, crime and struggle which ultimately lead him to prison. Miraculously the man later gets his life in order and goes on to become one of the most popular Latino figures in recent history. Now if that is not an amazing story, then I don’t know what is.
Coming from a Puerto Rican mother and a Cuban father, Piri was born with very dark skin. If you know anything about latinos you know that we are an eclectic mix of people. For instance, Puerto Ricans can have blonde hair and blue eyes appearing completely Caucasian, or we can look like Indians with dark straight hair and olive skin, or we can look African, and any combination thereof.
During the time when Piri was a young man (though some may argue that much hasn’t changed) racism was quite prevalent, as a dark skinned latino youth he struggled growing up. Even more troubling is that this held true even within his own home. Piri believed he was treated ill by his father because of his darker hue and flatter nose. We can all agree that racism is a difficult thing under any circumstance, but I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to experience it from your own father.
For me to try and explain all the details of this book, when I read it so long ago would be an insult to Piri and his legacy. The objective of this article is to remind (or inform) you that the book is out there, that it is amazing and if you have never read it, you need to read it.
Some people only know Piri as a poet, but he was so much more than just a poet. In “Down these mean streets” he tells the amazing story of his life. I remember being a young man, hanging out with gangs and causing trouble. This book came to me at the right time, and I cannot begin to explain the impact it had on me.
It is a must read for all latinos young and old, and an absolute must read for any fan of Piri Thomas.
Rest in peace my brother.
This post was originally written for Sofrito for your Soul.
Growing Up Bronx