- Arnaldo M. Cruz-MalavéArnaldo M. Cruz-MalavéDepartment of Modern Languages and Literatures, Fordham University
Initially censored, shunned, or ignored by the literary establishment, both in the United States and Puerto Rico, New York Puerto Rican author Piri Thomas’s 1967 autobiographical coming-of-age story, Down These Mean Streets, gained great visibility as a sociological document when it was first published, garnering much media attention and recognition for Thomas as a spokesman for the New York Puerto Rican community, a role that he embraced as part of his social activism. But Thomas’s work, which includes the sequel to Down These Mean Streets—Savior, Savior, Hold My Hand; a prison memoir, Seven Long Times; a book of short stories, Stories from El Barrio; and performance and poetry, would not acquire canonical literary status as founding a new U.S. Puerto Rican or Nuyorican literature until the 1980s when critics in American universities began to introduce Nuyorican literature as part of a curricular revision of the U.S. literary canon that sought to include minority literatures in American college courses. In the 1990s, Thomas’s status as a founding figure of Nuyorican literature and identity would give way to a more complex view of him as an author, as queer and feminist scholars of color began to examine the relationship of race and national and ethnic identity and belonging to questions of gender and sexuality in his writing. Thomas would then emerge as a more ambiguous, intercultural, and intersectional author, indeed as emblematic of the in-between or abject zone that the hierarchical binaries of dominant discourses of race, national, and ethnic belonging often situated Latino/as in, invisibilizing them. If in the late 1960s and early 1970s Thomas’s work became representative of the communities and subcultures whose voices were elided in American society, in the 1990s young U.S. Latino/a writers would adopt his work as emblematic of a resistant Afro-Latino otherness that could be deployed against an increasingly homogenizing version of Latinidad or Latino/a identity as a racially and ethnically unified commodity in the plural neoliberal American literary and cultural market. Since the 2000s, readings of Thomas’s work have continued to address the topic of otherness in his work, interrogating its normalization and focusing on the psychoanalytic and political issues of racial melancholia, introjection, and the status of lack in subject formation in his writing. Another trend has set about situating Thomas’s writing at the intersection between colonial and diasporic metropolitan racial formations, connecting it with Puerto Rico’s racialized literary canon, Caribbean “intra-colonial” diasporic relations, and Filipino American literature and culture. Yet another line of research has focused on the author’s narrative and performative choices rather than on his abject condition. And his performance in poetry has begun to get some well-deserved critical attention. All in all, the challenge of Thomas criticism remains the ability of scholars to establish a dialogue between the aporias and impasses that his writing is situated in (that is, questions of racial abjection and coloniality) and his skill and imagination as a writer and performer, between what he characterizes, on the one hand, as the “bullets” and, on the other, as the “butterflies” that constitute and propel his writing.