Piri Thomas, whose raw 1967 memoir inspired nascent Latino writers, has died


Piri Thomas, the author of "Down These Mean Streets," the classic 1967 memoir of ghetto life in Spanish Harlem, died Oct. 17 at his home in El Cerrito, Calif. He was 83. (Family Photo/FAMILY PHOTO)
October 24, 2011

Piri Thomas, 83, the author of “Down These Mean Streets,” the raw 1967 memoir that chronicled his coming-of-age in Spanish Harlem and inspired a generation of Latino writers, died Oct. 17 at his home in El Cerrito, Calif.

He had complications from pneumonia, his wife, Suzie Dod Thomas, said.

“Down These Mean Streets,” Mr. Thomas’s first published book, recounted his scarred childhood, his descent into drugs and violent crime, and his emergence from prison as a writer.

Once banned by libraries because of its graphic language and imagery, the book is a mainstay on high-school and college reading lists.

At the time of the book’s release, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and Claude Brown’s “Manchild in the Promised Land” had made powerful statements on contemporary black life. But few if any writers had captured Latino life in the ghetto as vividly as Mr. Thomas.

“I wanted to find out who I was,” Mr. Thomas said in a 1967 interview with the New York Times. “Man, we’re humans, too! I felt this cry in my heart.”

Mr. Thomas was the son of a Puerto Rican mother and a black Cuban father. He was dark skinned, which provoked trouble for him when he traveled to the Deep South while in the merchant marine.

In the memoir, he wrote of being in Galveston, Tex., and hiring a prostitute who refused to sleep with him until he convinced her he wasn’t black. Only after their encounter did he tell her, in no uncertain terms, that she had just slept with a black man.

He wrote of developing a “big hate for anything white.”

Mr. Thomas returned to Harlem, fell in with criminals and shot a police officer during a robbery. During the seven years he spent in prison for the offense, he began a process of transformation while earning a GED. He spoke of being energized by his education.

“When I hit the street side, I’m gonna be a first-class citizen,” he recalled thinking. “I’m gonna wail, I’m gonna work. And two thoughts in my mind I had: I could sure be the most mother-negative cat in the world, or I could be the most positive cat in the world.”

“Down These Mean Streets” was the first product of Mr. Thomas’s redemption.

“It has an undeniable power,” novelist Daniel Stern wrote in a New York Times review when the book came out. “It is a report from the guts and heart of a submerged population group, itself submerged in the guts and hearts of our cities.”

The book helped usher in the “Nuyorican” literature that began pouring forth from the Puerto Rican community in New York City in the following decades.

“You could speak to anyone who is younger,” said Jonathan Robinson, a filmmaker who created a documentary about Mr. Thomas’s life, “and they would say, ‘Piri Thomas is one of the reasons I’m doing what I’m doing.’ ”

Mr. Thomas wrote three more books, “Savior, Savior, Hold My Hand” (1972), “Seven Long Times” (1974), about his time in prison, and “Stories from El Barrio” (1978). They did not achieve the same critical acclaim or popular reach as the memoir, but Mr. Thomas remained a sought-after lecturer, including at prisons. His students called him “maestro.”

John Peter Thomas was born Sept. 30, 1928, at Harlem Hospital to Juan Tomas de la Cruz and Dolores Montanez.

“It was the hospital where they sent all the little black ones, all the little brown ones,” Mr. Thomas said in an interview posted on his Web site. “When I arrived in this world they wanted to assimilate me. . . . Whoever heard of a Puerto Rican named John Peter Thomas?”

His mother called him “Petey,” his wife said. In her Puerto Rican accent, the name sounded like “Piri.”

His first marriage, to Daniela Calo, ended in divorce. His second wife, Betty Elder Thomas, died in 1986. Survivors include his wife of 23 years, Suzie Dod Thomas of El Cerrito; five children from his marriages and other relationships; four stepchildren; and nine grandchildren.

Some of Mr. Thomas’s earliest prose showed a knack for stirring reaction. He told the Times he had once tried to woo an English teacher with a composition that went into intricate detail about her beauty.

When the woman returned his 21 / 2-page tribute, he found an unexpected note: “Son, your punctuation is lousy; your grammar is nonexistent. But if you want to be a writer, someday you’ll be. P.S. We both love my wife.”

It was signed by his teacher’s husband.

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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