A thief, a junkie I’ve been
committed every known sin – Miguel Piñero, “A Lower Eastside Poem”
When Miguel Piñero was eight years old his father abandoned the family, leaving him, his mother and siblings to fend for themselves. The family, unable to keep their home, was forced to leave it, move into a basement and go on welfare. It was not long before Piñero began to look for any means he could to help out the situation at home, stealing food in order for his family to eat. Piñero found it impossible to settle at school and was constantly moved through the public school system due to truancy. He was 11 years old when he received his first criminal conviction for theft and was just as much at home on the streets of New York City as he was at home with his family. Piñero’s was no ordinary life; his eyes were opened at a very early age to the realities that existed within New York City’s tough, deprived areas. He witnessed early what many did in order to survive and get by.
As Piñero grew up, he became anesthetized to the pain, deviance and criminal activity that existed in the Lower East Side — or “Loisaida,” as it was known by its predominantly Puerto Rican residents. It is as if he fed off of it, like an addiction. Piñero joined the street gang The Dragons as a young teenager. As a result of his delinquent behavior, he was sent to a juvenile detention center in the Bronx and the New York State Otisville Training School, but neither was able to deter Piñero; the streets continued to call. Piñero was hustling on the streets of New York City by the time he was 14 and was aware of what he had to do to outsmart the seasoned criminal element that existed there.
Piñero was on a nihilistic journey that would end with him being taken off the streets of his beloved Lower East Side and into the bowels of the state and its correctional system. In 1964, at the age of 18, Piñero was convicted of robbery and sent to New York’s Rikers Island prison. It was while he was in prison that he developed the drug habit that would be a problem for the rest of his life. All early attempts at getting clean failed as Piñero was continuously lured back into the clutches of heroin and other drugs. On his release from a second period spent at Rikers Island, his mother, concerned for his health, sent Piñero to Manhattan State Hospital in order for him to receive help. In 1972, at the age of 25, Piñero was convicted of armed robbery and drug possession and sent to New York’s notorious Sing Sing prison. His life had been shaped by what he had experienced at the hands of poverty and marginalisation; his response to being disregarded by society was to become a problem.
But it was whilst in Sing Sing that Piñero discovered that he was able to turn the horrors he had faced growing up into something that could educate, inform and enlighten. He had found his calling. Prison would at last provide Piñero with a legitimate hustle; he would use all that life had thrown at him to transform his. His first successful piece of writing, written in prison, was a poem entitled “Black Woman with a Blond Wig On,” which won a competition and the prize of $50. Piñero’s ability to write, along with his poetic sensibility, gave him a way out of the lifestyle that seemed intent on destroying him. Piñero understood the human character and recognized its failings. In “Black Woman with a Blond Wig On,” he writes:
“Black woman with the blond wig on
you’re living an illusion.
Think that head blanket
bought from macy’s on a lincoln sale
will make the residents of forest hills
lay out a black carpet to their blond streets”
Piñero sought to awaken those he felt were unaware of the world that surrounded them. He was aware from an early age of his position in the world he inhabited. For him, being a Puerto Rican migrant meant having to endure discrimination, segregation and injustice. His experiences made his work raw and unapologetic.
Piñero became a part of a prison writing workshop whilst in Sing Sing and, as part of this environment, wrote plays and skits. It was within this setting that he wrote his most famous work, the play Short Eyes. Piñero is mentioned by the author Lee Bernstein in his book America Is the Prison: Arts and Politics in Prison in the 1970s as being “one of the forces that sparked a dramatic ‘prison art renaissance’ in the 1970s, when incarcerated people produced powerful works of writing, performance, and visual art.” Piñero is one of the key figures in Bernstein’s analysis. The dramatic environment that Piñero found himself a part of whilst in Sing Sing had, even if it was for a short period, a therapeutic effect on him. It was here that he was able to think creatively and explore the issues and experiences that pervaded his life. His life as an unrepentant criminal, addict and sexual deviant was now the subject of what Piñero was moved to commit to paper. Within the prison system were the tools that he used to turn his life around and become a creator and voice that would empower; Piñero was at last hustling for the right reasons.
Short Eyes centers on the treatment of a suspected paedophile at the hands of other prison inmates who considered him the lowest form of life. It examines the relationships that the confinement of prison can produce. The play is the outpouring of Piñero as “the Philosopher of the Criminal Mind/ a dweller of prison time/ a cancer of Rockefeller’s ghettocide” (“A Lower Eastside Poem”). Short Eyes takes as its subject matter that which Piñero knew all too much about. Through his work with a theater workshop founded in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility called The Family, he was able, upon his release in 1973, to stage the play. The play, which was originally staged at the Riverside Church in New York City in 1974, moved to Joseph Papp’s Public Theater and later to New York’s Lincoln Center. It won many awards in that same year, including two Obies and the New York Drama Critics Award. Piñero was now a respected talent with many doors opening to him. He had run the streets of New York City, committed all manner of illegal activity and had found himself locked within the prison system, but his life was now a testament to what hard work could achieve.
Piñero’s understanding of the deviant mind enabled him to capture and detail it within his work. When he spoke about pimps, prostitutes, johns and addicts of all kinds, he knew first-hand what he was talking about. He was comfortable in this world and was more competent than most to write about it. Piñero’s literary work and success opened up opportunities for him to lecture, act and write scripts. During the second half of 1970s, he wrote a slew of plays and starred in shows like Kojak and Baretta. Today his poems can be found in numerous collections.
Once he began to write, he realized that his past was the key that would open up his future. In his Sing Sing prison cell he found something that incarceration could never hold captive: a gift that enabled him to express all that at once haunted and inspired him. He could now do it the right way.
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.