Back in 2004, Independent Lens aired the film Every Child is Born a Poet, a portrait of the artist Piri Thomas. Sadly, we learned that Mr. Thomas passed away last week at the age of 83. Richard Saiz, senior programming manager for the Independent Television Service, knew Mr. Thomas and wrote this appreciation.
Drugs, street gangs, crime, and eventually imprisonment consumed Thomas’s evolution from youth to adulthood. Writing probably saved his life when his autobiography, Down These Mean Streets was published in 1967 to critical praise.
He became the first Puerto Rican writer to reach such prominence in the literary world at that time. Thomas’s distinctive poetic style was the precursor to the youth poetry slams that exploded in the 1990s. Director Jonathan Robinson, beautifully captures his voice, infused with a syncopated, rhythmic style, in the documentary.
But as significant as his artistic life was, his fervent commitment to and involvement with young people — especially minority youth — was just as important. He dedicated much of his life to working with them in New York, and later in the Bay Area.
I’ll never forget the day I met Piri at a community youth center. It was remarkable that in spite of the adversity he had endured through so much of his life, he displayed such playfulness with everyone and was so attuned to the kids at the center who clearly loved him! The poetic child in Piri was very much alive.