yasmin hernandez welcome

Open studio at El Museo del Barrio, Sept, 2005-
Left to right: Jesus "Papoleto" Melendez
Pietri portrait in progress,
Joe Pietri (Pedro's brother)

Click here for the complete Spanglish National Anthem


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Native New Yorker Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico
Pedro Pietri: Soul Rebels series

Acrylic, oils, collage on Masonite
76 " x 19"

El Reverendo Pedro Pietri was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico in 1944. He grew up in the Grant Projects on 125th Street in Harlem where he started his poetry career, taking it to places like The People's Church and el Museo del Barrio in East Harlem, to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the Lower East Side. A poet, playwright and performance artist, he took the blows of life as a Puerto Rican and transformed them into word weapons recorded on papelitos and libritos to heal the masses. After being sent to war in Vietnam, he came back wearing black, which he did everyday for the rest of his life, vowing that he was in mourning, having died while there. His performances touched upon issues like HIV/ AIDS, US military operations in Vieques and all Puerto Rico, poverty, colonialism and others. He did so with an infectious humor that got people's attention, bringing to light the need to crticize and smash such injustices.

While researching for this painting, I was blessed with the help of Pedro's dear friend, fellow Nuyorican poet Jesus "Papoleto" Melendez, who visited the studio to share some thoughts. He recounted the story of his and Pedro's first trip together to Ponce, Puerto Rico, Pedro's hometown. Papoleto described the barrio where Pedro was born as a selva or jungle. At the time of Papoleto's visit to the studio at El Museo, the Bob Marley panel had already been installed in the lobby. He refered to that portrait and said that like Bob, Pedro had been an urban bushman. Pointing to a photo that I had pinned to the wall he described how behind Pedro, on one side, he had the jungle of Puerto Rico and how to another side was New York, the concrete/ urban jungle. And with that Papoleto layed out the concept for the painting. The color scheme also fell into place, tying in to the previous four panels (Fela, Marley, PE and Ricanstruction). Red and black represented Ponce and the green represented the jungle.

In sketching the piece I divided the panel into two parts, one for New York, one for Puerto Rico, one red and one green. Pedro had a foot in each side; he inhabited each place simultaneously. It reminded me of how he would describe himself, "a native New Yorker, born in Ponce, Puerto Rico". This is how and why I selected the title of tthe piece. It also reminded me of his legacy with El Puerto Rican Embassy, his project with fellow artist Adal Maldonado. Pedro wrote the Spanglish National Anthem for the embassy, with a comical twist on our painful experience torn between two islands. These words resonate:

I'm still in Puerto Rico
Only my body came
My strong spirit remains
Everything's still de same

Again, Pedro was referencing his being torn between two places or somehow transcending to exist in both. However we know now that his strong spirit is still in Puerto Rico. Pedro died in 2004 of stomach cancer resulting from his exposure to Agent Orange while in Vietnam. Decades ago he wrote a poem for the mother of his friend who died in Vietnam. Unfortunately that controversial war would take his life too, many years later, or more ironically, as he had predicted.

Pedro's legacy lives on in his amazing poems whose vivid imagery keep his colorful personality among us. Those same words inspired the imagery for this painting. I chose to shoot photos outside of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe to use in the piece. While there, for some reason the fire hydrant right outside the cafe caught my eye. I took photos of it and later recognized a recurrent theme in his poems. For example, "When the fire hydrants wear long dresses, It will take forever to put out a fire, on the streets where ends will never meet". (Intermission from Tuesday). Featured in the painting, the text in his hand is "Intermission From Wednesday". Below is an excerpt:

Brilliant career of a scatter brain
Who felt no pain when you jumped all the way
Up to the top of the Empire State Building
T o ask one of the employees for a match
To start a fire never to be controlled
& I will hold a press conference in City Hall
For the reward I am to receive for not
Reporting the event to the fire department....
& praise me for taking full responsibility
For a tragedy that could have been prevented
If someone had invented this country
Instead of discovering & destroying it
To call it their land & your land too
If the medication works on you.

Pedro's recurrent imagery of fire hydrants, fires and fire departments worked with my idea of incorporating the fire hydrant outside of the cafe as well as the red and black embellished, baroque el Parque de Bombas of Ponce, the most famous firehouse of all Puerto Rico. I only figured that out after all the images came together. The phone booth images are for his numerous Telephone Booth poems which he had tons of and would distribute them typewritten on tiny envelopes with a condom inside each one--part of his personal war against HIV/ AIDS. Pedro was a Soul Rebel who wrote and said shit like it was, never ever changing for anyone or anything. Whether on stage or in the street, he was always, simply, Pedro, a prophet spreading the Nuyorican gospel wherever his feet landed.

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