piri thomas

April 21, 2012

i’ve been meaning to write to you since i learned that you had your homecoming. when i read of your passing i was overwhelmed with sadness. and i wanted to write but i couldn’t. it was as if my pen needed to mourn. so i turned to my bookshelf and reached for the autographed copy of “down these mean streets.” i opened the book and skimmed through it. read a few lines and recalled that first time.

your book was the first time i read a book cover to cover in one sitting. there was something so magnetic about that book. i couldn’t put it down. i didn’t want to be interrupted. i felt hypnotized.

by this age (i was 15), i had read a few books. i was always reading. it all started with judy blume, then the babysitter’s club, then things started getting a little more mature. i read “where the red fern grows,” and “flowers for algernon” and “catcher in the rye” and then classics came in to play (pun intended) with shakespeare’s “macbeth,” et. al. And in between all of these, my grandmother would have me reading the bible to her in Spanish.

i can tell you what i liked and didn’t like about all of those books… but when i was 15 it was your book that made me want to do more than just read, i wanted to write. see piri, your book was home. literally, you where writing about my home.i found what el barrio feels like, tastes like, sounds like in each of your pages. i could relate to so many parts of it even though your book was written more than twenty years before it reached my hand. it made me both happy and sad. i was happy because i could read a book that talked to the realities of our lives but sad because that reality was still very similar to the same el barrio, when your book reached my hands.

i loved your book. even the weight of it was perfect in my hands. with every page, i turned the corners of my streets. every chapter in your book was a new-york-city block, building projects that were never projected to amount to much. there are so many beautiful stories in our documentary filmed ‘hood.

when i had the chance to meet you and hear you read in 2000, i was “star struck.”

your swag was lyrical.
to the evolution of my poetic soul.
i knew my story must be shared
because i had nothing to be ashamed of.

yes, these streets are mean, but our stories made them sweet.

you survived. i survived. we survived.
the stats were against us. but the strength of a pen
is powerful. makes you feel like you’re on the roof top of taino towers
overlooking the willis avenue bridge.

today, i light a candle to your light.
thank you for shining so bright on this earth.
you will always be un rey del barrio.

El Barrio (Spanish Harlem)

January 15, 2012

218 e. 122nd street
105 e. 107th street
123 e. 112th street
is Home.

my DominiRican blood diluted
by the salted waters of the atlantic.
abuela left her Puerto Rico:
from el caserio to the projects.

(like moving from hell’s first floor to the second)

a government “project”
called HOPE VI
revitalized ghettos for the pictures.
while section 8 has been subsidizing
our communities will to fight
since 1973.

still, here…
there is Love, and laughter and strength.

i’ve walked these streets
my streets
el barrio… mi barrio.
mis calles.

all of it my childhood playground.
i ran up and down third ave,
our shopping mall strip.
stopping at a hunded’ sixteen for that sanguich’ cubano
walking up to lo’ cuchifritos for my orchata.
the scents watering my mouth
-i salivate spanglish lyrics.

that’s the spoken word here in el barrio.
at first, a struggling tongue-twister
that with time became the last romance language.

a language of love that dances in my mouf
like a smooth socially conscious ruben blades salsa.

turning corners. hopping trains.
breaking into night pool. sitting on stoops.
chillin’ on park benches. talkin’ mierda.

i. was. home.

those streets call me by my middle name.
they speak to my soul. the music of
hector lavoe. ray barreto.
the barrio boyz.
like TKA we were “louder than love.”
blasting from cars.

the sounds orchestrated
a latin symphony.
horns, percussions, and strings
attached to our souls.
sweet music of esperanza.

on 110th and 2nd ave.
doña clara sold limbel de coco
for .25 cents from the 5th floor of her building.
you’d put your change in a bucket
she’d pull it up. put your limbel
in the bucket and lower it.
you sucked it all the way to
wagner housing.

our parents worked
and worked. and worked.
“tryina’ make a dollah’ outta’ .15cents.”
they worked magia
like Chuito the Santero.

we were a commUNITY.

the lady on the third floor
who was always watching
out the window, (the one we
called Carmen la bochinchera)
she would tell your parents on you
if you were outta’ line.

and your Tio had as much right
to whoop your ass con la correa
as your moms’.

it was only called the ghetto
because they labeled it so
but we knew this was paradise.

yeah, it wasn’t the places we saw on TV
but it wasn’t the mortar and brick that made
it what it was… it was our Love that sustained
an entire community.

now i go back… heard something
about calling it “Spa Ha.” i thought
it was a new business they were opening
that offered massages and shit like that…
pero no, they want to sell it like SoHo
to the yuppies…

you can’t gentrify a pastelillo, or an alcapurria.

what the fuck do you want to revitalize?
this place has been alive for years.

you want to create change in our communities?
go into the projects and fix my aunt’s bathroom walls
you can see the old plumbing as clear as your deceitful
intentions to “make it better” for us.

she’s been living there for more than 30 years.

change the tired kitchen cabinets
that have been storing your expired
generic canned goods that have been feeding
us poverty dressed in “good deeds.”

these roach-infested-asthma-trigerring
are a direct result of your “projected” outcome.
when instead of providing resources to a people
you gave them temporary assistance
in the form of block cheese
(we have been your lab mice for decades).

i would’ve preferred a block grant
that offered real solutions not temporary ones.


the images of mi barrio
will change drastically.

’cause starbucks coffee smells stronger
than capri’s bustelo.

but i swear…
te lo juro por mi madre,
if my fucking cuchifrito place
closes… i will round up
every botanica from 125th to 103rd
and ask the gods to burn this mutha’ fucka’ down.

this. is. my. home.

you can’t keep coming
into people’s communities
and displacing their dreams.
you delay their achievement.
you deplete them of drive.
you keep them in ghetto mentalities.

pero coño, you’ve been doing this shit since 1492…
and you do it so fucking well.

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i grow within

August 16, 2009

i’ve been here
42 days.
at first,
i called it home
this, my birth place
this air, my first breath
this sun, my blanket
this moon, my lullaby

trees climbed
knees scraped
first day of school
papi’s hugs
raggedy mun~ecas
that i ignored

i relive
these scents
these sounds
these sights

that moment

i was pulled
my seed
barely sprouting roots
in a new place
i would learn to call home
that, my growth place
that air, my second wind
that sun, my comforter
that moon, my song

monkey bars climbed
bruised knees
school daze
mami’s anger
dolls that i would keep

i relive
those scents
those sounds
those sights

that moment

i was told
“this is not your home.
this fertile soil cannot feed you.”

that seed
trying to grow roots
under the concrete floors
of the big city.

amidst droughts
cold winter days
waiting for spring
a bud sprouts
through the spaces
of the concrete
the impossible

a caribbean city flower


we learn, whether by nature or nurture
to revive and survive.

we do not assimilate,
instead we create
in the spaces where we stand.
the sounds, the scents, the sights
the places we were pulled from.
we make our own ecosystem,
as our grandmothers plant avocado seeds
into pots that will never bear fruit
and our mothers import seasonings
that loose their taste in transition
(still, the essence of their flavor
lives on our tongues).

we were created to survive.

and while neither place may be home
i can live and grow in both places.
i am mobile.
i sit at the center of my heart
and rest in my soul.

i’ve learned that my veins are my roots…
i grow within.

this and that sun are the same.
this and that moon, keep the name.

~sarahi yajaira, 2009.