So please when I die…
don’t take me far away
keep me nearby
take my ashes and scatter them
thru out the Lower East Side –- Miguel Piñero, “A Lower Eastside Poem”
Miguel Piñero used his platform as a writer, who hailed from the tough inner-city streets of New York City, to help those around him who found it difficult to help themselves. His understanding of life in an urban ghetto made it possible for him to understand the desperation that existed there and that desire for something more that would improve one’s life. His work is littered with references that speak of a need to help those around him. In his poem “La Bodega Sold Dreams,” Piñero expresses the wish to be a poet whose words possessed the kind of power that could almost crash “thru walls of steel & concrete erected in minds weak & those asleep.” The understanding of the conditions that produce poverty, and the part they play in the creation of the criminal mind, drove his work and his desire to help others seek a better way of life. Evident in his work is his position as a poor man from one of New York City’s toughest neighborhoods, as a Puerto Rican migrant attempting to find his place and true identity within American society, and as a man who has done much that is wrong but who uses his work to somehow help and elevate others.
Whilst Piñero struggled with crime and drug addiction as a young man, he for a time joined the Young Lords, who were initially a Puerto Rican turf gang founded in Chicago in the early 1960s. By the end of the Sixties, the Young Lords became a civil and human rights movement, not dissimilar to the Black Panther Party, with chapters springing up in differing cities in the United States. They called for neighborhood empowerment and Puerto Rican self-determination along with Latino unification in the struggle to free Puerto Rico. The New York City chapter separated in the early 1970s to form the Young Lords Party. The Young Lords supported the independence of all Latino and oppressed nations. This form of organising had a direct effect on those who lived within the differing neighborhoods of New York City. Groups like the Young Lords were instrumental in the development of a kind of pride that saw many searching for ways to assert their cultural difference.
Many of the principles that guided the Young Lords became evident in Piñero’s work. From his first successful literary work, “Black Woman with the Blond Wig On,” right through to poems like “Perhaps Tomorrow”, Piñero warns against blindly living for things that have no intrinsic value and pleads that one searches for that which matters like that of self-empowerment and love. Piñero wanted those who read his work, saw his plays and knew something of him to realize there could be something more to life other than despair, poverty, oppression and need. There was more if we embraced our true identities and were not ashamed of the skin we were in. The Young Lords may not have altered the road that Piñero was on as a teenager, but they nevertheless shared the same desires with regard to the uplift of Puerto Ricans and other oppressed people.
The success of Piñero’s work lay in his ability to address issues and concerns that society was indifferent about and to break through preconceived notions that at times made it impossible to be open-minded and embrace difference. Many of his poems and some of his plays were bilingual, written in both English and Spanish, and were an expression of his Puerto Rican heritage and Hispanic pride. Although the characters in his plays seemed to represent the kind of seedier element Piñero tended to associate with, he created them in a way that made them appear first as people and then as criminals, junkies and prostitutes. A key part of Piñero’s legacy is the impact his work had, particularly on the stage, in altering stereotypes associated with his own Puerto Rican people and those who found themselves as outcasts from society. Fiona Mills writes in “Seeing Ethnicity: The Impact Of Race And Class On The Critical Reception Of Miguel Pinero’s Short Eyes” that Piñero’s work was designed “to inspire ‘ethnic pride’ in Latino/a audiences as well as to shatter stereotypical representations of Latino/as for middle-class Anglo-American theatregoers that renders it an important and essential part of American theater.”
Piñero’s ability to bring the realities of the street to the stage at a time when it was nearly almost unheard of made him innovative and very gifted. He mentions in a 1974 interview with the New York Times writer Nat Hentoff that he wanted the kinds of people who read the Times to come and see his plays as these were the people he was trying to reach through the content of his work. Piñero says in the same interview that he spoke to a woman who walked out of a performance of his play Short Eyes at New York’s Public Theater because it was, in her words, “brutal” and “disgusting.” Pinero explained to her that she was, along with all the other taxpayers, responsible for the brutality that existed amongst the underclass in society. As a taxpaying citizens, it was their “responsibility to know what’s going on in the government, in the school district. To find out why kids are beaten up by teachers, why there’s so much dope in school. It’s their money that’s causing Attica, Auburn, all the prisons and what goes on inside of them.”
Piñero — or “Mikey,” as he was known — was eternally drawn to his community in New York City and the difficulties found there. He opened his apartment to at-risk Puerto Rican youths and became a mentor for them, helping them write and also instilling in them a sense of Puerto Rican, or better still, Nuyorican pride. He was a direct influence on the careers of many Latino and Latina writers. When Piñero moved to Los Angeles for a short period, he created The One Act Theater Festival which showcased his plays Guntower, Paper Toilet and Cold Beer. Many of his plays were showcased within the community in New York City as opposed to on Broadway. Piñero identified himself as a Nuyorican and was driven by the agenda of those who wanted, much like himself, to make their experiences as Puerto Ricans known.
Piñero’s efforts to uplift and elevate the consciousness and social circumstances of his people were echoed in the Nuyorican Movement. The movement itself came out of late-1960s and early-1970s New York City and was a cultural and intellectual movement involving poets, writers, musicians and artists who were of Puerto Rican descent living in or near New York City. The movement originated in areas like that of Loisaida, East Harlem and the South Bronx “as a means of validating the Puerto Rican experience in the United States, especially for poor and working class people who suffered from marginalization, ostracism, and discrimination.”
In an effort to catapult Nuyorican expression and to create a space where it could thrive, Piñero, along with fellow Nuyorican writers Miguel Algarin and Petro Pietri, created the Nuyorican Poets’ Café in New York City’s Alphabet City, also known as the Lower East Side. This was the place where poets and other creative people met to share ideas and perform their work. The Poets’ Café became a place where Puerto Ricans could feel that their agenda was important; their issues could be openly addressed and expressed. The freedom that existed there to tell one’s story and to educate was like no other. This would be part of what Piñero would leave behind to tell of his time here.
Miguel Piñero died on June 16, 1988 at the age of 41. His play Every Form of Refuge Has Its Price, which he was working on for the Public Theater, was never completed. Throughout his life, Piñero fought difficult circumstances which led him to do unforgivable things, but he always sought to somehow help others reach for more. His gift was the ability to overturn opinion and do what was never expected of someone like him — a Puerto Rican kid hellbent on destroying their life. In his mind he was always plain old Mikey who could never quite escape the Lower East Side. His work remains that part of his legacy that speaks of a man conflicted — eternally caught between right and wrong but always yearning for something more.
“Sometimes I drift away in dreams of yesterday. But men like me are never free.” — Miguel Piñero, “The Lower East Side Is Taking”
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.