(Allow an average of 2-3 weeks for the arrival
of prints. Giclee prints are special-ordered and will take around
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13 x 19" inch print on
watercolor paper, $40:
Archival Giclee Print, approx
Bright Puerto Rican Red
Piri Thomas: Soul Rebels series
Acrylic, oils, collage on Masonite
76 " x 19"
Piri Thomas was born in El Barrio/ East Harlem in 1928
to a Cuban father and a Puerto Rican mother. His coming of age in the
streets of El Barrio is recounted in his groundbreaking book Down These
Means Streets. When I first saw Piri, it was around 1996 at Cornell
University when I was an student. He was invited to speak on campus. I
arrived at the event and was one of about 200 students of color packed
into the space. When Piri took the stage, I saw the strongest looking
Puerto Rican man with white hair I had ever seen. He was tall and his
voice was even taller. He spoke poetically, with his arms outstretched
and the wide sleeves of his white tunic, glowing radiantly against his
brown skin like open wings. His street slang of the 40's, 50's, 60's through
today put you in this timeless, time warp where age did not matter and
experience did not matter because we were all the same and we in the audience
were just as tall and as strong as he. It was during that presentation
that he completely tore apart the term "minority". As a Puerto
Rican woman on a college campus, you hear that wherever you go.I have
not used that term since and feel refreshed to not think of myself as
After graduating Cornell I moved to Philadelphia to work at Taller Puertorriqueño,
Inc. At Taller's bookstore I had purchased Piri's spoken word/ word songs
CD "Sounds of the Streets". That CD became my Greyhound Bus
soundtrack for trips back home to NYC. I remember the first time I put
my headphones on as the bus was pulling out of the Philadelphia Greyhound
station. By the time we were somewhere in New Jersey a particular poem
came on, which began with the words "To my heart, to my heart".
I expected to hear a love poem. But among the first images conveyed, were
those of a "dream where the walls are painted bright Puerto Rican
red". As an artist I thought, Wow, I never considered colors in that
way. Later on, the poem talks about the streets, gangs, violence, self-esteem
and pride. Sitting on the bus that day, I listened to the words carefully,
I'm gonna be what I want to be
I ain't gonna believe what they want me to be...
I ain't gonna be afraid, I ain't gonna be ashamed...
And I'm gonna scream, I'm a Rican! Puerto Rican!
T o my heart, to my heart, Punto!
Suddenly it all made sense. It was a
love poem: love for oneself and having to prove yourself to no one but
yourself, your heart. I remember getting all teary eyed on the bus, carrying
that poem in my heart ever since. When it came time to paint Piri Thomas,
there was no doubt in my mind about what the color scheme would be (bright
Puerto Rican red) or which of his words would appear alongside his image.
I even kept that as the title of this painting.
As a Soul Rebel Piri used his own experience with the rough life of the
streets, incarceration, addiction, to relate to youth and others going
through the same struggle. He uses his words to heal and doesn't write
to glorify his own experience but to create an outlet for others. He takes
his empowering messages to young people on campuses, in prisons and on
the streets teaching us in his own words: "I'm gonna keep looking
upward, and I ain't gonna let them make me look down."
Visit Piri's site at www.cheverote.com.
© Copyright 2005-09, Yasmin Hernandez.
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