Pedro Pietri’s “Puerto Rican Obituary”
Pedro Pietri, was a poet and playwright who told of the experience and the struggles of Nuyoricans, urban Puerto Ricans who live in Manhattan. He died at the age 59 from Stomach cancer. Although he has a large collection of work, he is famously recognized for the “Puerto Rican Obituary.” The poem was written in 1973 and it mainly highlighted the livelihood of individuals who migrated from Puerto Rico to live the big dream in America but died before they could fulfil them. This poem was embraced by Puerto Ricans both young and old and it inspired them with feelings of pride and nationalism
This monumental poem focuses on the plight of Puerto Ricans in America, and the way that their lives and even their cultures have been influenced by America. The poem details how the people struggle to achieve the American dream, a dream rendered unrealistic to the Puerto Rican people due to the colonial system in America that discriminated against anyone not of European descent. Nonetheless, they are influenced by status symbols to sustain the economy of the country resulting in the succumbing of their souls; a fate worse than death. It follows the unfulfilled dreams of five Puerto Ricans who have immigrated to the USA with him. The hardworking people are overworked and under-compensated. They do not realize any tangible benefits in the long run. It expresses the experience of many Puerto Ricans and elicited mixed feelings including despair, rage, hope, and pride. The poem identified and resonated with the Puerto Rican community as a part of an anti-colonial project that then becomes a fully-fledged protest against the American system (Irimia 149).
In the poem he uses many literary styles that enhance the readability of the poem and help the message reach his intended audience better. He appeals to their deep sense of pride in their culture when he talks about “make believe steaks and bullet proof rice and beans”, by using this phrase Pedro refers to the way the culture is so strong that no one can penetrate that, their culture is their foundation. He also uses names that any Latino has heard before, making the poem relatable to his audience. He also talks about how some of the Puerto Ricans did not even know that they are Puerto Rican and have become assimilated in the American culture that they have forgotten their own especially those that were born in America “Puerto Ricans who never knew they were Puerto Ricans” (Appel 72-95).
The main theme of the poem is social justice. He talks of how him and five other individuals, Juan, Miguel, Milagros, Olga and Manuel came to the United States with big dreams and even bigger hopes for their lives only for them to die without fulfilling their dreams. He talks about the poor working conditions that they had to work in and even worse state of welfare. According to him the five died because of the nature of the work they were doing, the physical exhaustion and the slow but sure destruction of their souls. They were overworked, underpaid and died with debts that were later inherited by their children and loved ones. This affected the lives of Puerto Rican workers in Manhattan and shows how they were exploited by employers who were predominantly white.
The author speaks about materialism and consumerism which is depicted by the competition between the five characters. They each envied each other’s “progress “and happiness. Their envy turned into hated and they had no solidarity at all. The American dream pinned them against each other as they all competed to attain material that were deemed to be necessary to achieve this dream such as having a car. They all wanted to have that upward mobility and they dreamed of getting a rise, winning the lottery and they even wished death upon their manager to get a promotion that world edge them closer to their American dream. This competition according to Pedro is what kept them from opening their eyes and seeing the reality of the state that they are in. The people became so consumed with attaining these goals that they became blind to their current state of affairs.
In the poem, he also talks about a visitation to a reader to get a prediction on their future, the revelation that they get is about that their futures would look like if only they believed and valued themselves and their cultural heritage. It takes about how they should have seen beauty in their culture and more so in themselves. Towards the end of the poem Pedro challenges the Puerto Rican community to open their eyes, to see what around them and make a change, he talks about how different the lives of the five would have been if they had paid attention as they buried they colleagues. He tells them to tune into their real consciousness and move away from their false one. He informs them to wake up and smell the coffee and see what is happening around them, that instead of focusing on their pursuit of money and the media, they should come together as a community. The primary intention of the poem was to construct cultural consciousness among the Puerto Rican community members.
The reader is a culturally relevant figure in the Puerto Rican Community and Petri uses applies this symbol with irony to sneer at his community’s tendency to bet on the American society and the dreams it packages to them as an incentive of ensuring their daily hardships. The irony is evident in the shaping of the prototypic figure’s destiny common in death despite living different lives as a fragmented community. Instead of fighting for equity in life, they lobby silently in death. In life, they are betting stakes on the American dream. Disappointingly, they are always waiting for better working and economic conditions, but no savior appears to help them escape their desperate conditions. The future most Puerto Ricans bank on are never realized despite tolerating poverty and racism. This wishful thinking is reversed with the visitation to the readers. The beautiful illusions that encourage silence in the face of social injustice are reciprocated by the unfulfilled dreams and wishes of the dead prototypic figures. Moreover, no matter how much they try to conform, integrate, and turn the cheek, the predominantly white society does not reciprocate their enthusiasm.
Another theme that emerges in the poem is the denitrification of figures of control and social institutions such as the government, schools, church and what he refers to as “the system”. He also touches on the isolation that exists in modern-day city life, a phantasmagorical search for the truth in the illogical and the preposterous. He highlights the political position and the level of poverty among Puerto Ricans in New York. Race is also a theme that he touches on when he highlights of how people dream of attaining goals of living in white neighborhoods where the neighbors would probably lynch them if they had a chance. This went to show that they were not wanted or needed in the better parts of town and that their position in New York was in the lower East end and they were only needed to work in jobs that were beneath the white people.
The poem came was publish at a time when Puerto Ricans in New York had grown tired of the status quo and they had begun to take action and demand change. At the time Puerto Rican writer Jesus Colon had founded and movement of intellectuals such as writers, musicians, artists and poets of Puerto Rican descent who lives in New York. The movement was known as the Nuyorican Movement. The movement was founded to address the issues facing Puerto Ricans in New York. They used poetry and other artistic tools to address issues such as racial discrimination and other social injustices that happened to their people in New York. Needless to say Pedro Pietri was among the poets that joined these movements and his body of works contributed to the greater Nuyorican body of works, that was a huge part of the revolution that was happening in New York at the time. He even teamed up with a couple of other poets such as Miguel Pinero and Miguel Algarin to establish the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in 1980, on Manhattan’ Lower East Side that is now considered a landmark.
Pedro Petri’s poem was instrumental in linking social resilience to the academic resistance of the Puerto Rican community (Irimia 149). In light of the social changes that followed, pushed by a radical movement, the poem was a foundational document of Nuyorican poetry whose recent artifacts are displayed in museums celebrating the community’s heritage and culture. Described as the first document of Nuyorican poetry, it notably emphasizes the idea of a common community and shared destiny. Using repetition of the pronoun ‘they,’ it projects a collective consciousness of five prototypical figures living in a discriminative system. Like Puerto Ricans living in the USA, they each have their different stories but they all unequivocally die silently.
The poem becomes a manifesto calling for recognition and pride of the community’s identity to escape oppression. It rejuvenated pride for people who had never known they were beautiful. It calls for a riot and revolution, otherwise, they will not return from the dead. It explicitly portrays the community as an outcast and weaves different people’s misfortunes into a collective trauma that united the community for change (Irimia 150). It rejects acculturation and assimilation as the cause of death of Puerto Rica souls. Though they live, they were born dead, to remain invisible, and die silently.
In the poem, the five Nuyoricans forsake their cultural heritage and language so that they can be accepted as equals. This is not the only sacrifice required to make in America, they must endure an inferior status and humiliation from their white counterparts. References to violence and death depict the stark disregard for the community. The inhumane treatment and conditions in the community call for an outcry, a struggle to assert their identity and garner visibility that culminates into activist groups.
The Nuyorican Poets Cafe played a big role in inspiring activist groups such as the Young Lords. Founding members of the group had attended poetry sessions at the cafe and had drawn inspiration from the poets that performed at the cafe. Most of the performances were designed to spark thought and inspire activism among the attendees and the Puerto Rican community in general. During one of their group actions at the First Spanish Methodist Church, they invited Pedro Pietri to perform the “Puerto Rican Obituary.” The group was inspired by the Nuyorican movement in their work and in their philosophy, some members of the Nuyorican Movement even became Lords themselves. And even now the group has become synonymous with the movement.
The young Lords were created in 1968 in Chicago and were led by Cha Cha Jimenez, a street activist who planned the group to contest against police ruthlessness, racism and local gentrification. The group was known by their purple berets and their semi-military conduct. A year after its formation, a New York branch of the group was formed giving the group national recognition (Evangelista, 199-201). They were viewed as the less confrontational Black Panthers as they added a unique spin to revolutionary politics. The Young Lords were a rainbow coalition as they were comprised of the latinx, the black and a number of white working class radicals.
The New York group despite being prominently known and remembered was only active for three years. They had only three main events that marked their engagement, that is, the garbage offensive, where they protest about the neglect of Spanish Harlem by the Sanitation department. They littered the streets, forcing the department to pay attention to them and take action. The other two were their takeover of the Methodist Church and two brief occupation of the Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx. The hospital was famously referred to as the “Butchershop”, during their take over even the hospital staff joined in the protest and this led to the first patient Bill of Rights (Kagbo para 1-6).
The group revolutionized the identity of the Spanish community, their analysis of Latinx opened the door to academic focus on ethnic and Latino studies. In fact, it was the activism of groups like the Young Lords that in forced the creation of Puerto Rican, Latino and ethnic studies department in Universities like Columbia and New York. Their use of the term Latino was one of the first uses of the term in public and it helped gibe the term and the community a sense of identity and helped sparked the need for self-determination among the Latin community. Although the group was founded to fight for social justice for New York’s working class Latinos which was largely Puerto Ricans who were treated with contempt by the city government, their movement helped in the fight for liberation of the whole Latin community.
Pedro Pietri’s poem Puerto Rican obituary played a significant role in the revolution as it helped spark thought and inspire a sense of nationalism and patriotism. It helped bring to light the plight of the people and the way they were treated. He inspired them by letting them know how beautiful their culture was and that they needed to open their eyes to the realities of what was happening in their lives. They needed to get out of their chase of money and instead that brought division among them and instead join and work together to bring about change and fright for their rights just as other groups were fighting for their liberation. His work was also monumental in inspiring groups such as the Young Lords that brought about significant change both in New York and also in the literary word.
An interesting perspective in the poem involves time. The poet shows how history repeats itself by merging the present, future, and the past. “I stand here looking back, and now I see the present’ (Irimia 151). This is the reality presented in the New York Nuyarians Museum. Ideas are reinforced in the poem through repetition. Similarly, the movement has required resilience to outdo that persistence of yesterday’s injustice. Unlike the prototypic characters in the poem, members of the movement are unwilling to tolerate being perceived as inferior or compromising to fit in. For instance, rather than turn the other cheek and forsake their stake at equality, the women are quick to fight chauvinism in the movement resulting in a movement within a movement. Women in the organization were empowered enough to battle the organization’s misogynistic environment. The Bronx Museum documents the status quo embedded in the fight for better services and treatment. In place of the ‘Revolutionary Machismo’ tenet proposed in the first draft, they advocated take down male chauvinism and machismo (Kagbo para 17).
Indeed, ideas such as ‘Revolution machismo’ represent the rifts that the poem discusses, in this case, the disparity between men and women. It was a notable oxymoron, campaigned against by the movement’s first leader and furthered by recent artists using the same platform to champion inclusivity and diversity (Kagbo para 18). The movement furthered the discussion from the larger community to the subgroups within that were treated differently. It extended the debate from racism and oppression to gender equality. With such progress, the group was able to better integrate ideas of wholesome cultural survival and pluralism.
These developments and intolerance for any form of iniquity towards any groups of the community were facilitated by a generation radicalized by the influence of the Nayopoetry. The new generation of Puerto Ricans’ sense of responsibility was overwhelming. Having experienced a shared struggle of discrimination in various institutions, they were emotionally attached to the status quo of their community. The influence of authors, poets, and artists was crucial in morphing the protests into a nationalist party. It is therefore not surprising that they revolted, protested, and took over parts of New York City to address racism and inequality.
The poem stands out as a true manifesto; one of the first elegies to acknowledge the community’s identity at a time of crisis. It describes the ironies presented by the idea of an ‘American’ dream that is more fiction than a reachable goal for Puerto Ricans. It comes at a time when it is important to remind the community that they have been held hostage by a system that does not and will not side with them unless they force them to. It contrasts the presence brought by protesting and taking over their fate to the silent death that awaits their conformity and the likelihood that the same conditions will be experienced by their children.
Appel, Molly Dooley. “Writing Out of the Obituary: Puerto Rican Indebtedness and Poetic Learning in the Work of Pedro Pietri.” Chiricù Journal: Latina/o Literature, Art, and Culture2.2 (2018): 72-95.
Evangelista, Javiela. “The New York Young Lords and the Struggle for Liberation.” National Political Science Review19.1 (2018): 199-201.
Irimia, Monica Cristiana. “Repressed Culture and Otherness in “Yo Soy Joaquín” and “Puerto Rican Obituary”.” Radical (Dis) Engagement (2020): 144.
Kagbo, Connie. Puerto Rican radical group Young Lords retake NYC in museum exhibit. PBS (2015, September 19) Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/puerto-rican-radical-group-young-lords- retake-new-york-city-multi-museum-exhibit