Miguel Antonio Gómez Piñero was a poet, playwright and actor who was proud of his humble Puerto Rican roots. A petty criminal, Piñero rose to great heights as a result of an incredible talent he discovered whilst in prison. Although his work brought him critical acclaim and media attention, he could never shake his dark criminal past and penchant for drugs, alcohol and sexual excess.
But Piñero’s work is a true testament of triumph over adversity and is still influential today. Through his work we are exposed to the kind of realities that we may know something about but will never experience in quite the way that Piñero did. We learn about the frailties of the human character and the difficulties of escaping the past. Piñero loved his people and lived to elevate their experience. In death he remains a great street teacher from Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Just once before I die
I want to climb up on a
to dream my lungs out till
then scatter my ashes thru
the Lower East Side. — Miguel Pinero, “A Lower Eastside Poem”
When Miguel Piñero and his family left the isla bonita of Puerto Rico to travel and settle in the United States, he left behind a part of him that he would never be able to recapture but would continuously struggle to find. He left behind an innocence and tranquil beauty that Manhattan’s Lower East Side could never provide him. Born on 19 December 1946 in Gurabo, Puerto Rico, Miguel Piñero entered a country that his family believed would offer them a dream encased in prosperity, opportunity and hope, only to find that, like so many others before who had emigrated to the United States from Puerto Rico, it offered only the cruel harsh realities of poverty, lack of opportunity and discrimination.
Miguel Piñero was shaped by his early experiences, and his work is littered with references of growing up poor in an alien country that never really wanted to embrace him. He was eternally an outsider, although, as a result of the commercial and critical success of his work, he was for a time embraced and welcomed by the American establishment. What Piñero witnessed on the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side and New York City as a whole changed him irrevocably. He could never simply dream of an idyllic life that at last would give him some of the luxuries he had dreamed of without it being interrupted by the nightmare of addiction, excess, taboo lusts and nihilism. He was complex and conflicted: he wanted to bare his soul and reveal the extraordinary talent with which he had been blessed, but at the same time he was continually seduced by the demons that plagued him. The reality of drugs, pimps and seedy clubs — so very much a part of life in New York City at that time — were a constant seduction for Piñero.
“The American Dream” was problematic for Piñero, because although it offered so much, what it did in fact offer was conditional — it came at a price. Those who had left his island in search of a better existence faced a life that sought to continuously sideline who they were as citizens. There was no equality no matter how much they searched, there were no decent homes only ghettos or barrios, jobs were always menial, and the rights of people of colour always overlooked. The Lower East Side was full of shattered dreams and torment, full of “what ifs” and little else. Piñero wanted a more egalitarian system that would embrace the abilities of all no matter what, one that would not require you to exchange it for your soul.
When Piñero wrote “Seekin’ the Cause,” he was writing about the shortcomings of a soul that has fallen victim to all that seeks to destroy it. Within the poem is Piñero’s artistry, intellectual ability, political thought process and command of phrase. But I can also hear the rumblings taking place on the streets of New York City in the mid-1970s, in particular the Bronx. In his poetic style I can hear Gil Scott-Heron; in his flow are the many fledgling rappers who were coming to voice in the mid-1970s, preparing to give us what we now know as hip hop. In his lyricism I can hear the outpourings of a complicated mind influenced by the great street teachers of his day. Piñero’s poetry is reflective of the stirring that was taking place all over New York City. Uptown, b-boys, b-girls, graffiti artists, collectives, Latin funk, Latin soul, boogaloo and the sound systems are all present in “Seekin’ the Cause.” The hustle which was so real at that time is never far away.
Piñero’s style betrays a mind influenced by that which was taking place all around him. He too was finding his voice. He didn’t simply write like a poet, but engendered the style of an emcee, determined to tell his truth and reveal the true realities of the life he and so many others lived. His flow is rhythmic and resembles that of a freestyle rapper, his mind always engaged and ready for battle. His style, which is steeped in performance poetry, has its roots in 1960s Beat poetry. The essence of Beat poetry lay in the performance, often to jazz music and the act of releasing it from the confines and restrictions of traditional poetry and the page. Piñero loved the work of prominent Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Amiri Baraka. The performance and slam style of poetry that was Piñero’s and that of the Nuyorican poets was about engaging a live audience with stories, which at times were personal, that would only be effective if physically relayed to an audience. Every part of Piñero was integral to his work.
There is a beauty in “Seekin’ the Cause” that stirs the soul; you can feel every word that Piñero writes. When I saw an excerpt of the piece, which was taken from the movie Piñero, in which Benjamin Bratt plays the lead, I immediately understood Piñero. I understood his desire to tell his truth and that of the “minority experience” in New York in the 1970s. Social exclusion, poor housing and decaying violent neighbourhoods were the realities many were forced to live with as a result of government policy and neglect. These were the issues that drove him and were at the core of his work. “Seekin’ the Cause” transcends the confines of traditional poetry revealing the fragile nature of Piñero’s existence. His strength is nearly always undermined by a plethora of weaknesses. I am moved by how tirelessly he strove to impress upon the minds of those who seemed unaware of how much more they could be if only they opened their eyes.
Being able to touch people of subsequent generations through a predilection to tell the truth is revolutionary thing. Piñero’s tales of “hood life,” “ghettocide” and “gangster living” are disturbing but beautiful because they are laced with sincerity. He wanted to change things, open up people’s minds, allow them to see that a poor, Puerto Rican boy from the Lower East Side could make you listen. He did change everything, because we listened and now want to understand what drives brilliance to self-destruct.
In the second part of this series, I delve deeper into his personal life and the forces that propelled him to write. Stay tuned…
Wendy Hackshaw is a writer from London who is currently researching late-1970s New York City and the cultural and social movements that came out of that period. Her work focuses on revolutionary aspects of style, music and culture. You can follow her @deeshimmer.