Robert Waddell, who is working on a biography of Nuyorican Poet Pedro Pietri, has published a piece in My Latino Voice, that includes a brief interview with the late poet.
This past April marked the 6th anniversary of the death of the Patron Saint of Nuyorican Poetry, Reverendo Pedro Pietri. One is reminded that so much of his life was in two parts. The first was of the Grant Projects young man struggling to find his way in the world. The second was a fully grown man who returned from Vietnam and who had had his eyes opened.
Pietri had learned after returning from Vietnam that he had wasted so much of his life working for others and he could never allow himself to be financially enslaved working menial jobs, so he decided to become a poet, and what a poet.
As poet and playwright, Pietri distinguished himself as a writer of the Puerto Rican people who said what no one else would say and, as a dramatist, he found the humor and Absurdities of life.
Pietri’s life wasn’t like the film “El Cantante” or “Pinero.” Those searching for salacious material will have to look else where. There are no tell-alls here.
To be sure, Pedro Pietri was one of the greatest outlaw poets. He said that to know his poetry and plays was to know him. Art reflects the man; the poetry serves as an illuminating electrified pond that gives insight into who Pietri was. Examine the writing and find the man.
Pedro Pietri’s formative life was shaped by 3 widows, a dead father, a spiritualist, Puerto Rico’s most famous Madame, a mother who was an Eisenhower Republican, 3 brothers, a sister, dead end jobs, a Puerto Rican Nationalist uncle, doo-wop, Harlem streets, baseball, countless funerals and the Methodist Church.
Pedro Pietri’s most famous poem “The Puerto Rican Obituary,” goes beyond its author’s clownish nature, clad all in black assuming the funny street urchin role. Pietri’s life was one dedicated to art and theatre with roots in Puerto Rico and a solid foundation of urban New York.
Pedro Pietri was born on March 21st, 1944 in Ponce, Puerto Rico to Francisco and Petra Pietri. Pedro, the third and middle son, after Frank and Joe, came in between Willie and Carmen. Pedro Pietri was named after his maternal grandfather’s cousin Pedro Juan De Holz whose only ambition for his name sake was that Pedro could be anything, he homophobically said, except “Gay.”
Ponce, to be sure, was the birth of Pedro Albizu Capos’s Nationalist movement, the sites of the Ponce massacre and the birth place of La Plena, Puerto Rico’s national musical style. His parents were of pure peasant or jibaro stock who had migrated to the United States under Operation Bootstrap to search, like so many immigrants have in the past, for economic and personal freedom.
In the early 1940s, Francisco Pietri, who was from Juacos but was raised in Ponce, came to New York City to find work and prepare tobring his wife Petra and their five children – Frank, Joe, Willie, Pedro, and Carmen– to the United States. Pedro arrived in New York City when he was 3 years-old and the family resided in a railroad flat at 1422 Amsterdam Avenue.
His father was a tall good looking man, a swarthy Gilbert Roland type who worked as a laborer and loved his family. A traumatic moment early in Pedro Pietri’s life came right after the family moved into their apartment on Amsterdam Avenue.
Eleven months before the family moved from Ponce, Puerto Rico, Francisco Pietri, Pedro’s father, had come to the United States to find work and set up a household for his family. Pedro would immortalize the apartment in one of his poems. Francisco worked, partied on Saturday and lived for his children then, like characters in “The Puerto Rican Obituary,” Francisco would soon ironically die celebrating his reunion with his family and a New Year, 1949. Francisco worked in the kitchen at the St. Regis Hotel. Coming home from a New Year Eve’s party, Francisco had contracted pneumonia. On January 1st, 1949, Francisco felt no pain after drinking and dancing probably, came home, checked-in on his wife and children, took a shower and fell down. Petra called a neighbor who lived across the hall. Francisco was put to bed. Before the neighbor left, Petra checked in on her husband but Francisco had died. He was only 38.
“My mother said that my father had complained of pains and burning inside,” said Carmen, “It was like a walking pneumonia. He had burnt from the inside.”
“….We were between party and mourning. When my Dad died, my mother was still mourning her father. Her father had died in May and when the holidays came, the mourning gets more intense so he went partying but she spent the holidays mourning her father then her husband dies.”
This meant that Petra Pietri, Pedro’s mother, was a widow with 5 children. By all accounts, Petra was no less handsome a movie actress as Francisco but with one huge difference. While Francisco loved to party, which Pedro inherited from him, it was his mother’s pious attitude that Pedro got from her. Petra Pietri demanded her children obey her and go with her each Sunday to the First Spanish Methodist Church of East Harlem on 111th street. During church services Pedro heard his first orations and would later incorporate them into his stand-up poetry as El Reverendo.
Robert Waddell: Who were the Latin Insomniacs?
Pedro Pietri: Chalo is the patron saint of the Latin Insomniacs. I’m gonna get to that. What’s your hurry? To get to the Insomniacs, you have to learn about Chalo-osophy.
We were being brainwashed by the Methodist Church. It was like a members only church. Non-members were not looked upon highly, which meant you were not going to the same heaven we were going to. You probably were on welfare. My family had to lie about being on welfare. We pretended to be rich. People pretended they had this economic stability and they don’t. Any way, the Young Lords came in there with breakfast and lunch programs. No dinner. For dinner you were on your own.
I remember my mother coming in saying that services were being disrupted by a group of hippies. They needed a haircut, a shave and a bath. I went the following Sunday and saw Felipe Luciano and I said I know these people. And I was in full agreement to socialize in the church when the church wasn’t having their regular services. It was a big building. This was a members only or for the community and the community wanted to use it for free breakfast programs, lead poison exams, TB exams, health care, alternative health care. It sounded good on paper.
A lot of the Young Lords were not from that neighborhood and were just there because the season of the times. This is where the movement was gaining momentum; this is where history was being made. I was there before history and after history. I was going to that church since the 1947s.
I had been killed in Vietnam and returned to the church. And I had never been a fan of mind control. So every chance I have not to go to church, I won’t go. My sister goes there now and that’s just to keep the past in the future.