Piri Thomas was born in Harlem, New York on September 30, 1928. He was the eldest of seven children. His mother is of Puerto Rican descent and his father is Cuban. Thomas' full name is John Peter Thomas. Some sources state that his parents named him Juan Pedro Tomas, but that his name was changed in the hospital to the English version of the latter. The nickname, Piri, was given to him by his mother, whom he had a very close bond with. It comes from the name of a bird called the "pirri", which is a small bird that has enough strength to wound its enemy bird by attacking its underwing.
Thomas grew up in Spanish Harlem (El Barrio) at a time when lynching was still very prevalent in the United States, so the threat of racism was very real for him and others like him. As a young boy he attended public school in East Harlem, where he was forbidden to speak Spanish. Because the assimilation towards English was greater in school, Thomas began to lose some of his ability to speak Spanish. Thomas was faced with racism at school and in his own neighborhood, where he was taunted by whites and frequently called a "nigger spic". Thomas later writes of his experiences with racism in his books and in his poetry.
In his late teenage years, Thomas began to get involved with the street life in Spanish Harlem and later found himself facing a 7 year prison sentence. In 1950 Thomas was involved in a shoot out with police when an armed robbery attempt at a nightclub went sour. He was wounded and spent time in the prison ward at Bellevue Hospital and after his case was settled he was sent to Sing Sing prison. It was during his imprisonment that he began writing what would later become his first book, "Down These Mean Streets" which was first published in 1967, and is still very well known today. Thomas said in an interview from "Puerto Rican Voices In English", a book of interviews by Carmen Dolores Hernández, that "I promised myself not to serve time, but rather make time serve me. I'll educate my mind, not eradicate it. I, Piri Thomas, will be born anew at each A.M." (179). It was this positive attitude that helped him to become what he is today.
After his release from prison, Thomas got involved in an organization called the Youth Development Incorporated (YDI). In this organization, Thomas aided young gang members in getting out of their current situations. He used his life as proof that a person can make a change towards the better. He also emphasized the benefits of attaining an education to the youths as a way to make a better life for oneself.
Thomas' works, as well as his involvement with the young, aided with his progress. After his first book "Down These Mean Streets" (1967), which was an autobiography, he wrote another autobiography called "Savior, Savior, Hold My Hand" (1972). In 1974, he wrote a prisoin memoir called "Seven Long Times" and in 1978 he wrote a book containing eight stories about his street life called "Stories from El Barrio". Thomas has also written a two act play, "Las Calles de Oro", which was produced and performed by the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater in 1972. Thomas is also a poet and has produced two CDs containing "wordsongs", which are poems set to different kinds of music.
Currently Thomas is very involved in the community. He frequently visits schools and prisons and speaks of his life and of his works. He lives in San Francisco with his wife, Suzanne Dod.
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