a storytelling edited by Raymond R. Beltrán
I have to admit that when I received a chain letter from the Nuyorican Poets Café, I hadn’t the faintest clue who Pedro Pietri was. I hadn’t read the book Puerto Rican Obituaries, or any other world-renowned plays or poems he’s written, The Masses Are Asses, Traffic Violations, or Invisible Poetry. Although, the Nuyorican culture he helped to create is a name that stands firm in the ground of poetic minds across the world.
The letter said that this man, Pedro, is struggling with a tumor in his stomach, one side effect related to the exposure to Agent Orange, while serving time as a draftee in the U.S. Army during the climax of the Vietnam War. The letter read that after surviving exploratory surgery at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center last month in New York, Pedro sought out holistic healing at Oasis of Hope Hospital in Playas de Tijuana, México, no more than thirty minutes from my neighborhood in National City.
In hitching a ride across the border with Calaca Press to visit Pedro in hopes of raising his spirits and interviewing him for a story, I came across a man whose experience and whose story helped to create a Nuyorican culture, not far from the Chicano experience in the past and in the present. In fact, they parallel. To ask questions and to receive answers was not a problem. The problem was writing his story in a way that you, the reader, would understand him. In wrestling with words, I’ve come to the conclusion that only Pedro, El Reverendo de La Iglesia de Tomates; Pedro, product of Operation Boot Strap; Pedro, Nuyorican Poet; Pedro, Spanglish Metaphor Consultant of the Latin Insomniacs Motorcycle Club Without Motorcycles; Pedro, Young Lords Poet-Laureate; Pedro, honorary member of the Royal Chicano Air Force; Pedro, a person who won’t let anyone determine his fate, and only Pedro, has the right to tell his story. In conclusion, the following is only an attempt at that story, through an interview from Oasis Hospital, and only after a careful editing process. Meet one of the original Nuyorican Poets, Pedro Pietri, in his own words ...
It was in New York City where I was trying to cure myself, thinking I was a physician, and suddenly, I couldn’t hold food. So, I asked my brother and sister to take me to the hospital, and it was at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center where the bad news happened. They did a CAT scan, then they did exploratory surgery, and they found the cancer. That’s when they cut me up and got scared, sewed me up and sent me home, so I could waste away.
So, I come out of recovery, and this jerk came into my room with crushed pieces of paper, and one of those crushed pieces of paper was my medical record. They told me, ‘What you have is incurable.’ I told them, ‘What you have is incurable.’ They were making it real hopeless, you know? And that isn’t the approach. It’s by being positive. That can heal. They made it like life was over, so, I called Papoleto to the Intensive Care Unit, because I refused to stay there. Papo came with the suitcases and everything. I don’t know how much time they gave me to live, but I gave them the same time to live also. At least that way, I can rest in peace. That was the beginning of the end, and the saddest time in my life.
To take you back, I was born in 1898, during the climax of the Spanish/American War. I say 1898 because that was the year that the U.S. invaded Puerto Rico, the year when they colonized us. Now, I was born again in ‘44 to my mother in Ponce, Puerto Rico and again in ’47, at the age of three, when my folks migrated to New York City through the epic of Operation Boot Strap. We’re all part of the casualties of the Inquisition, the American Inquisition.
I also say I was born in 1949, because that’s the day I went to the first theatre with my grandfather, who felt deceived by Operation Boot Strap and committed hara-kiri, but I don’t think it was suicide. He was killed by the system that deceived him, the system that made him sell his land in Borinquen. What happened was the disillusion. The voices in his head were of the Central Intelligence, compelling him to sever his jugular vein. Think about his friends. There’s nobody to talk to, nobody to communicate with, and there’s nothing to go back to, but the industrialization of the island that had deceived so many people. So, that was the first theatre I went to, at Monje’s Funeral Parlor, in a brown suit. Actually, that was my first teaching, or my first awareness of Puerto Rican history. Puerto Ricans die and go to a Puerto Rican funeral parlor. And Monje was a ghoul; he looked like a ghoul. How you going to have the name Monje, and be a proprietor of a funeral parlor? You’ll scare the customers away, but he didn’t scare us away.
There were five of us, four guys and one girl. My elder brother had a heart attack, and my younger brother went joyriding one night, and I haven’t seen him since. So, there’s a total tragedy, because then there were only three of us. So then, we went back to Monje, and we kept going back to Monje for other people. Every week there was a different funeral, and after a while, I said, ‘Let me just stay dressing in black.’
Now, when we came to New York City, they sent us to public schools, introducing us to the Nuyorican culture. I graduated with a general diploma, thinking I was going to become a General in the army, ended up as a private. I failed the post office exam thirteen times after high school, and after failing all these examinations, the last thing I was going to do was make a career out of earning minimum wages. ‘Come to the land of milk and honey,’ they say, but they didn’t mention the endless dog sh you keep steppin’ on, going to the welfare department, going to look for a job. You step into reality; you step in dog sh. You step into church; you step in dog sh, especially.
Now, before I was drafted to the army, they said I was incapable of adjusting to military discipline, and I celebrated it. Then the Vietnam War escalated, and they said, ‘You’re okay! There’s nothing wrong with you! You’re not crazy!’ So, they send the freaks to the front, and that’s why my prize is the fondest memories of that country, and being an accomplice to assisting America in losing it’s first war ever. Because it was then I realized who the real enemy was. I was just a mercenary. So, I came back and wrote the Puerto Rican Obituary, dedicated to my mother, and that’s the Vietnam that I wrote about … go kick the ass of people who were born warriors; kill women and children first, but only after you rape them. That made no sense. So, what do I think about the war in Iraq? I don’t think about it, because the war never ended then. This is a war that’s been going on since the invasion of North America.
So, I return to New York, and there was all these radical changes going on at home with the Young Lords Party. Now, I wrote poetry before I met the Young Lords, or the Black Panther Party. Back then, I was the best poet at baptisms, funerals, birthdays, confirmations; you name it, I was there. And it was all by memory back then, in the old tradition. I met Jorge Brandon at Washington Square Park, who years later reappeared as the Saint of the Nuyorican Poetry Movement. It was his influence that made me decide whether it was poetry or suicide. We met again on Sixth Street at Miguel Algarín’s apartment, with Papoleto Melendez, Tato Laviera, Américo Casiano, Lucky Cienfuegos, the notorious Miguel Piñero, and we used to read our poems there, our first draft poems. That is the original Nuyorican Poets Café, on Sixth Street, and that’s where I come to the conclusion that the Nuyorican Movement is the First Draft Movement, because we were all very enthusiastic about reading the first draft, something that’s rarely done now.
First draft is you scribbling it on a notebook, or a paper, or a napkin and you read it there. And if you make mistakes, man, it makes the poem much more interesting and exciting, and that’s when history started being made. At the time, it was the decline of the Beat Generation, and poetry went back to the universities and became an academic thing, but here come these street poets, man, and we pushed academia out of the way and took over the scene. What this movement did was give an audience to all of our talented, the kind of poets that didn’t have an audience. Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan and the ghost of Pablo Neruda even read at the Café. We were all there because of the poetry, and it was all poetry.
The Nuyorican Movement set an alliance with the Royal Chicano Air Force, and we became honorary members, because the Chicano and the Nuyorican Movements are the same. We all suffer the same destiny and the same experience. We’ve both had our land stolen from us, our culture stolen from us. Once you have a movement, you have all these other people who want to also make history, and they start their own movements. We just needed a cultural outlet. Spanglish is not an indication of an inferior mind, but it is an indication of an imagination that should be completely fertile. You got to be brilliant, not dumb! Everybody had a different outlook, and that was good. We weren’t competing against each other. We were just sharing the interpretation of what this cultural dynamic should define. We were making history and didn’t know it at the time, and sometimes we should’ve known it. But now? Everybody knows about the Nuyorican Poets Café. I went to California, San Francisco, Chicago and everywhere I’ve been, the Nuyorican experience is still spoken about and highly praised. So, that is what this movement is about. And thirty-five years later, to let you know, it was and still is a phenomenon.
We’re still together writing poetry. We’re still not trying to impress anybody, and too, you have new generations of poetry. You have the Welfare Poets and Mariposa Fernandez. There’s people that come up to us and say, ‘You invented us.’ So, where’s the movement now? It’s where it began. It’s flourishing, and that’s futuristic.
They gave me a life sentence at Bronx-Lebanon. They sentenced me to my death, and the sad thing about it is that there are many patients there that don’t have any options. You get a month to live in and that’s it, they close the pieces and then they start radiating you, and the radiation could kill you quicker. I told the guy, ‘You know, you should get some radiation yourself, ‘cause you don’t look too good to me.’ I told him, ‘You get some radiation and if it works, then I might do it.’ So, they released me from the hospital and sent me home to die. But I refuse to die, because my destiny is a decision that only I can be solely responsible for making, and that was it. That was the first and last time I went there.
I want to get better. I am getting better, but not by following orders. I have to do my own thing. So, Papo found a place out here that’s nice. It’s private, they speak my language, and it’s legal to smoke whatever treatments you need to get the message across to that part of your spirit that conveys you to that territory of your soul, and in no time, you will be outta here. There’s no end to the phenomenon, The First Draft Nuyorican Poetry Movement.
-El Reverendo Pedro Pietri, Feb. 3, 2004