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Nuyorican Poet Pedro Pietri 1944-2004

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Pedro Pietri died on Wednesday at the age of 59. We hear him reading his work in 1968, and Democracy Now! co-host Juan González reads Pietri’s epic poem “Puerto Rican Obituary.”

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AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. The famed Nuyorican poet Pedro Pietri died on Wednesday at the age of 59. He was born in Puerto Rico. His family moved to Harlem in the 1940s. He would go on to become New York City’s — one of their best poets capturing what it was like for Puerto Ricans to live in New York. In the 1970s, he helped start the legendary Nuyorican Poets Cafe on the Lower East Side. He wrote more than 20 books of poetry and plays. His best-known work was the epic poem “Puerto Rican Obituary.”

We turn to a documentary about the group Young Lords, where Pedro Pietri is, the beginning, reading from this poem, “Puerto Rican Obituary.”

PEDRO PIETRI: They worked
They were always on time
They were never late
They never spoke back
when they were insulted
They worked
They never went on strike
without permission
They never took days off
that were not on the calendar
They worked
ten days a week
and were only paid for five
They worked
They worked
They worked
and they died
They died broke
They died owing
They died never knowing
what the front entrance
of the first national city bank looks like

Juan
Miguel
Milagros
Olga
Manuel
All died yesterday today
and will die again tomorrow
passing their bill collectors
on to the next of kin
All died
waiting for the garden of eden
to open up again
under a new management
All died
dreaming about america
waking them up in the middle of the night
screaming: Mira Mira
your name is on the winning lottery ticket
for one hundred thousand dollars
All died
hating the grocery stores
that sold them make-believe steak
and bullet-proof rice and beans
All died dreaming hating and waiting

Dead Puerto Ricans
Who never knew they were Puerto Ricans
Who never took a coffee break
from the ten commandments
to KILL KILL KILL
the landlords of their cracked skulls
and communicate with their latin souls

Juan
Miguel
Milagros
Olga
Manuel
From the nervous breakdown streets
where the mice live like millionaires
and the people do not live at all

AMY GOODMAN: Pedro Pietri, reciting his poem “Puerto Rican Obituary” from the film from Third World Newsreel, El Pueblo se Levanta. I now turn to my co-host Juan González, who yesterday, after the program, remembered his friend Pedro Pietri, talked about his legacy and recited his whole poem, “Puerto Rican Obituary.” This is Juan.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A call Wednesday night from Pedro Pietri’s sister Carmen late that night that she just had word that brother Pedro had died, Pedro Pietri, the Puerto Rican poet, the — probably the most important Latino poet in this country in the last 30 or 40 years. I’ve known Pedro for quite a while. We first met back in 1969 at the — when I was in the Young Lords and he had just returned from Vietnam. He was actually a member of the First Spanish Methodist Church in East Harlem, the church that the Young Lords occupied, that we took over in 1969, in protest demanding better services from that church to the Puerto Rican community. And Pedro supported us in that endeavor even though it created a big rift within his own family. All of his family had been members of the church for a long time, and his sisters and brothers went through a wrenching experience battling their own brother, as well as the Young Lords, in that situation. And over the years, he was an inspiration to many Puerto Rican activists as his reputation grew, as his poetry expanded and got known throughout the world. He published numerous books of poetry. He was really the founder of the New York Puerto Rican poetry renaissance of the '60s and ’70s. And we're all going to miss him tremendously. He was a great inspiration to many people.

And just in honor of him, I’d like to read his real epic poem, the one that set off the Puerto Rican poetic and literary renaissance in New York. It’s called “Puerto Rican Obituary.”

They worked
They were always on time
They were never late
They never spoke back
when they were insulted
They worked
They never took days off
that were not on the calendar
They never went on strike
without permission
They worked
ten days a week
and were only paid for five
They worked
They worked
They worked
and they died
They died broke
They died owing
They died never knowing
what the front entrance
of the first national city bank looks like

Juan
Miguel
Milagros
Olga
Manuel
All died yesterday today
and will die again tomorrow
passing their bill collectors
on to the next of kin
All died
waiting for the garden of eden
to open up again
under a new management
All died
dreaming about america
waking them up in the middle of the night
screaming: Mira Mira
your name is on the winning lottery ticket
for one hundred thousand dollars
All died
hating the grocery stores
that sold them make-believe steak
and bullet-proof rice and beans
All died waiting dreaming and hating

Dead Puerto Ricans
Who never knew they were Puerto Ricans
Who never took a coffee break
from the ten commandments
to KILL KILL KILL
the landlords of their cracked skulls
and communicate with their latino souls

Juan
Miguel
Milagros
Olga
Manuel
From the nervous breakdown streets
where the mice live like millionaires
and the people do not live at all
are dead and were never alive

Juan
died waiting for his number to hit
Miguel
died waiting for the welfare check
to come and go and come again
Milagros
died waiting for her ten children
to grow up and work
so she could quit working
Olga
died waiting for a five dollar raise
Manuel
died waiting for his supervisor to drop dead
so he could get a promotion

Is a long ride
from Spanish Harlem
to long island cemetery
where they were buried
First the train
and then the bus
and the cold cuts for lunch
and the flowers
that will be stolen
when visiting hours are over
Is very expensive
Is very expensive
But they understand
Their parents understood
Is a long non-profit ride
from Spanish Harlem
to long island cemetery

Juan
Miguel
Milagros
Olga
Manuel
All died yesterday today
and will die again tomorrow
Dreaming
Dreaming about queens
Clean-cut lily-white neighborhood
Puerto Ricanless scene
Thirty-thousand-dollar home
The first spics on the block
Proud to belong to a community
of gringos who want them lynched
Proud to be a long distance away
from the sacred phrase: Que Pasa

These dreams
These empty dreams
from the make-believe bedrooms
their parents left them
are the after-effects
of television programs
about the ideal
white american family
with black maids
and latino janitors
who are well train—
to make everyone
and their bill collectors
laugh at them
and the people they represent

Juan
died dreaming about a new car
Miguel
died dreaming about new anti-poverty programs
Milagros
died dreaming about a trip to Puerto Rico
Olga
died dreaming about real jewelry
Manuel
died dreaming about the irish sweepstakes

They all died
like a hero sandwich dies
in the garment district
at twelve o’clock in the afternoon
social security number to ashes
union dues to dust

They knew
they were born to weep
and keep the morticians employed
as long as they pledge allegiance
to the flag that wants them destroyed
They saw their names listed
in the telephone directory of destruction
They were train to turn
the other cheek by newspapers
that mispelled mispronounced
and misunderstood their names
and celebrated when death came
and stole their final laundry ticket

They were born dead
and they died dead
Is time
to visit sister lopez again
the number one healer
and fortune card dealer
in Spanish Harlem
She can communicate
with your late relatives
for a reasonable fee
Good news is guaranteed
Rise Table Rise Table
death is not dumb and disable—
Those who love you want to know
the correct number to play
Let them know this right away
Rise Table Rise Table
death is not dumb and disable
Now that your problems are over
and the world is off your shoulders
help those who you left behind
find financial peace of mind
Rise Table Rise Table
death is not dumb and disable
If the right number we hit
all our problems will split
and we will visit your grave
on every legal holiday
Those who love you want to know
the correct number to play
let them know this right away
We know your spirit is able
Death is not dumb and disable
RISE TABLE RISE TABLE

Juan
Miguel
Milagros
Olga
Manuel
All died yesterday today
and will die again tomorrow
Hating fighting and stealing
broken windows from each other
Practicing a religion without a roof
The old testament
The new testament

according to the gospel
of the internal revenue
the judge and jury and executioner
protector and eternal bill collector
Secondhand [bleep] for sale
learn how to say Como Esta Usted

and you will make a fortune
They are dead
They are dead
and will not return from the dead
until they stop neglecting
the art of their dialogue—
for broken english lessons
to impress the bosses—
who keep them employed
as lavaplatos
porters messenger boys
factory workers maids stock clerks
shipping clerks assistant mailroom
assistant, assistant assistant
to the assistant’s assistant
assistant lavaplatos and automatic
artificial smiling doormen
for the lowest wages of the ages
and rages when you demand a raise
because is against the company policy
to promote SPICS SPICS SPICS
Juan
died hating Miguel because Miguel’s
used car was in better running condition
than his used car
Miguel
died hating Milagros because Milagros
had a color television set
and he could not afford one yet
Milagros
died hating Olga because Olga
made five dollars more on the same job
Olga
died hating Manuel because Manuel
had hit the numbers more times
than she had hit the numbers
Manuel
died hating all of them
Juan
Miguel
Milagros
and Olga
because they all spoke broken english
more fluently than he did

And now they are together
in the main lobby of the void
Addicted to silence
Off limits to the wind
Confine to worm supremacy
in long island cemetery
This is the groovy hereafter
the protestant collection box
was talking so loud and proud about

Here lies Juan
Here lies Miguel
Here lies Milagros
Here lies Olga
Here lies Manuel
who died yesterday today
and will die again tomorrow
Always broke
Always owing
Never knowing
that they are beautiful people
Never knowing
the geography of their complexion

PUERTO RICO IS A BEAUTIFUL PLACE
PUERTORRIQUENOS ARE A BEAUTIFUL RACE
If only they
had turned off the television
and tune into their own imaginations
If only they
had used the white supremacy bibles
for toilet paper purpose
and make their latino souls
the only religion of their race
If only they
had return to the definition of the sun
after the first mental snowstorm
on the summer of their senses
If only they
had kept their eyes open
at the funeral of their fellow employees
who came to this country to make a fortune
and were buried without underwears

Juan
Miguel
Milagros
Olga
Manuel
will right now be doing their own thing
where beautiful people sing
and dance and work together
where the wind is a stranger
to miserable weather conditions
where you do not need a dictionary
to communicate with your people
Aqui
Se Habla Espanol
all the time
Aqui you salute your flag first
Aqui there are no dial soap commercials
Aqui everybody smells good
Aqui tv dinners do not have a future
Aqui the men and women admire desire
and never get tired of each other
Aqui Que Pasa Power is what’s happening
Aqui to be called negrito
means to be called LOVE

And thank you to Pedro Pietri for all your great contributions to our people.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan González, reading Pedro Pietri’s famous poem “Puerto Rican Obituary.” Pedro died on Wednesday night of stomach cancer. He was flying back from Mexico, where he was seeking alternative treatment. He died en route.

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