Piri Thomas turned down an invitation to dinner at our home, but invited us, instead, to a gourmet dinner he would prepare. As we entered his apartment in San Francisco, I could understand why he chose to be interviewed in his own milieu. Surrounded by works of art, including paintings of his own, with soft classical music in the background, Piri's reminiscences and philosophy poured forth. He showed us pictures of countries he and his late wife, Betty, had visited. They had been engaged for fourteen years, and married for seven, in a warm and loving relationship. The decor is all Betty's, he told us. Plaques on the wall testified as to her scholastic achievements as a lawyer specializing in international law. "I feel her loss in every hair of my body," he once confessed. He told of shouting his rage over her passing, to the ocean, and wishing that he could follow her in death. To help ease the pain, he is writing a book about her he calls Lady Justice.
We sat only briefly in his office for a formal interview, while a huge fish, ingeniously decorated and seasoned, baked in the oven. Soon we moved to the appointed table for a continuing flow of recollections and wisdom.
I knew much about his childhood from having read Down These Mean Streets, a vivid account of life in the Harlem Barrio, New York. The language and the descriptions portrayed, with shocking realism, the struggle for survival in a brutal world. Wrote Daniel Stern in a New York Times Book Review: "A report from the guts and heart of a submerged population group, it claims our attention and emotional responses because of the honesty and pain of a life led in outlaw, fringe status where the dream is always to escape." Piri had given us a copy with the precious autograph, "To my Brother and Sister in the struggle to free all children from human bondage no matter whether it's mental, physical, economic or spiritual."
I questioned Piri as to why his parents had come to the United States. I was aware of the problems facing Puerto Ricans in an inhospitable land. Statistics show that the 2.6 million Puerto Ricans living here have an average income considerably lower than
that of any other Hispanic families, and also have a higher unemployment rate.
Piri's father, Juan Tomás, had been raised in an orphanage in Cuba by missionaries. He migrated to Puerto Rico at the age of sixteen; his intention was to enter the United States as a Puerto Rican. After all, he reasoned, Puerto Ricans and Cubans were "kissing cousins." Tired of living on colonized islands, he ventured to live "in the belly of the shark." He was brought to the United Sates by friends and dumped in Harlem at the age of seventeen. Life there was rugged. Though he was trained to be a tailor, he could only find menial jobs. He changed his name from Tomás to the anglicized, Thomas, something he would be ashamed of for the rest of his life.
Born John Thomas, the younger Tomás disliked his name, and so adopted Piri, from the word, "spirit." Though not a talkative person, his father did imbue him with an interest in Cuba and took him to political meetings to hear, among others, Vito Marcantonio, a staunch champion of justice and human rights for the poor and independence for Puerto Rico.
Piri's mother was visiting from Bayamón, Puerto Rico, when she met her husband-to-be. She was light-complexioned, Juan was dark, so their seven children ranged from fair to dark-skinned.
From his mother, Piri gained spiritual insight, but never could relate to spirituality in the context of priests or organized religion, unless it was in the sense of sharing and respect for human dignity. As an adult, he has long believed that we all need each other. He quipped on God once being spelled "Good." When someone dropped an "O", that's when all hell broke loose! His mother, a Seventh Day Adventist, wanted him to become a minister. But writing was in his blood. He always had a flair for words. Once scolded by an irate teacher for speaking Spanish, he determined to master the English language. Spanish, he knew from his parents; English, he had picked up on the streets. His mother was a great story teller, passing on to him folklore of Puerto Rico.
In protesting the removal of Down These Mean Streets from some libraries, Piri related how much the library had meant to him in his childhood. He used to spend a great deal of time in the library, borrowing the allotted two books and slipping three or four more under his coat. Through books he had learned of the world outside. He smiled shyly as he said, he "always returned the liberated books, liberating new ones in their place."
He completed his high school credits during a seven-year stretch in prison for armed robbery. Upon his release, he expressed his concern for his brothers and sisters in Harlem by working with street gangs there.
On his first visit to Puerto Rico, he drank in the beauty of the scenery, and the ugliness of colonialism. He was offered a scholarship towards a doctorate in psychology at the University of Puerto Rico. But after a few months, he found it too boring. His years in prison had been a learning experience beyond what he could learn in college. He decided that he wanted his doctorate in the art of living, rather than in academics. He worked for a time as assistant to the Director of the Hospital of Psychiatry in Río Piedras. As an ex-addict, he was able to help develop a successful program of rehabilitation for addicts.
He soon found his true calling, however, in writing. After Down These Mean Streets he wrote Savior, Savior Hold My Hand, also autobiographical, of which critic Dorothy Eastland wrote: "...throughout its pages is the author's credo: `Walk tall or not at all.' "
Surviving an upbringing in a world of racism and brutality, he could still write, "My world is really loving, despite promises that never come to be," (Eastland quotes him as saying.)
It is a tough book, yet at the same time it holds gentleness. "... a happy book, too," she continues, "for it is one of faith in the future if there is enough inner strength to face each day."
Then there was Seven Long Times, a description of his prison days. Of this critic Gladys P. Graham writes, "It recounts the loneliness, terror, shake-downs, stir-crazy days, humiliations, anger, and dull meaninglessness of his seven years in prison ... a nightmarish indictment of so-called rehabilitation, and offers ample evidence that what's happening in our prisons is criminal."
Chago was a screenplay, another critic states, "of one man's agonizing struggle to retain by fact or fantasy his rights as a human being, and his mental hold on the island of Puerto Rico as a base of identity."
There was more writing of prose and poetry, along with lecturing at universities, and giving dramatic poetry readings at Puerto Rican patriotic events in San Francisco.
Piri and Betty were in Geneva at a conference on human rights and genocide, when they learned of the August 30, 1985 invasion of homes, and arrests. He wrote to PEN Club (Poets, Essayists & Novelists) denouncing the FBI for their stormtrooper-type invasion, one of the many since the first invasion of 1898 when the United States took over Puerto Rico. He rued the United States' spirit of "Manifest Destiny" which serves as a rationale for conquest, pointing out that Puerto Rico has the same claim for independence as did the thirteen colonies. He sees that in time, colonialism will become as extinct as the dodo bird. "No country, including Puerto Rico, should be forced to bear the humiliation of its dignity on bended knees."
His ambition, he tells us, with tongue in cheek, is to be the one to accept the unconditional surrender of the United States forces in Puerto Rico—peacefully, of course!