Since bursting on to the literary scene with his 1967 memoir Down These Mean Streets, Piri Thomas has rightfully earned his status as one of the most revered Nuyorican writers to ever put pen to paper. Seen as a precursor to the Nuyorican poets movement that coalesced a few short years after his first publication, and even of rap music, Thomas’ work was defined by a rhythmic style that captured the colors of Harlem street slang and El Barrio’s Spanglish.
But it wasn’t only his style that was revolutionary for time: his preferred themes drew directly from his life experience growing up as a dark-skinned Afro-Latino in a racist American society, as well as his wayward youth as a gang member, drug addict, and eventual convict at the age of 21. And unsurprisingly, his raw, unapologetic window into Barrio life continues to scandalize polite society to this day.
Of course, anyone who’s familiar with Thomas’ work already knows all this, but few actually had the pleasure to see the Cuban-Puerto Rican author, activist, and social worker in his element before his death in 2011, at the age of 83. Thankfully, for those of us who missed the opportunity to experience his exuberant spirit first hand, we have the documentary Every Child Is Born a Poet to fill that gap in his tragic absence.
Screened as part of PBS’ Independent Lens documentary series back in 2003, Every Child Is Born a Poet is director Jonathan Robinson’s collage-like portrait of a man and his work. Flashing between scenes of a septuagenarian Thomas leading poetry writing workshops in a Bay Area prison, archival material of his childhood and young adulthood, and stylized dramatizations of his writings, Every Child Is Born a Poet seems to embody with its eclectic form the ebullient energy and firm conviction of one of the U.S.’ most groundbreaking Latino voices.
Thanks to Robinson’s portrait, we see Thomas as a natural born poet spinning improvised lines that seem to flow unconsciously to the rhythm of the clave. More importantly still, we see how committed Thomas was to the cause of urban education and drug rehabilition over the 50-plus years that followed his incarceration. Indeed, Robinson suggests that Thomas’ literary work cannot be viewed as separate from his lifelong social mission, product of a promise he made to not turn his back on those still struggling to break cycles of poverty and crime.
Since his death from pneumonia four years ago, Latinos in the United States have found ourselves bereft of one of our most passionate and genuine voices, but his legacy will live on forever through his work and through the many lives he touched. Every Child Is Born a Poet serves as a worthy companion to that legacy.