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Professor Manuel Hernández
Essays Collection

Address: : 2012 Ernest St. Kissimmee, Florida 34741

Manuel Hernandez was born in Sleepy Hollow, New York in 1963. He completed undergraduate studies at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus and finished a Master�s in Education from Herbert H. Lehman College (CUNY) in the Bronx in 1994. He has coordinated symposiums, produced and coordinated television interviews on the literature written by Puerto Rican and Latino/a writers from the Diaspora. He has done numerous presentations, workshops and seminars on how to integrate latino/a literature in the English classroom. In 2014, he participated in a TedxTalk (Connections) at Southern New Hampshire University. He is the author of three books, , Latino/a Literature in the English Classroom (Editorial Plaza Mayor, 2003), The Birth of a Rican (Imprenta Sifre. 2008) and Living the Kingdom with purpose (Imprenta Sifre, 2013). He is a Language Arts teacher at Osceola School District in Florida.

The Legacy of Piri Thomas
By Manuel Hernandez-Carmona copyright

Piri Thomas was born Juan Pedro Tomás, of Puerto Rican and Cuban parents in New York City's Spanish Harlem in 1928. His parents wanted him to assimilate from childbirth and named him John Peter Thomas, but his mother could never pronounce Peter correctly and called him Piri. It was a struggle for survival, identity, and respect from an early age. Growing up in the mean street environment of poverty, prejudice and racism of the years immediately before, during and after World War II made a dent in young Piri’s upbringing and as a consequence served seven years of horrendous imprisonment.
With incarceration came an encounter with his roots, and he rose above his violent background of drugs and gang warfare and promised to use his street education and prison know-how to touch youth and turn them away from a life of crime. In 1967, with a grant from the Rabinowitz Foundation, his career as an author was propelled with the exhilarating autobiography, Down These Mean Streets. After more than 40 years of being continuously in print, it is now considered a classic in Latino/a literature in the United States. The literature of Piri Thomas centers on issues such as education, language, culture and racism, and it also speaks out on social concerns such as poverty injustice and assimilation.
Assimilation comes in different forms and different colors. In Piri Thomas'
short story "The Konk", a young pre-adolescent boy straightens his hair to be accepted by friends and family, but once he meets their standards, he is faced with hostility and rejection. In many ways, “The Konk” is the story of Piri’s life. In the process of assimilation and belonging, Latinos are faced with situations of race, identity and culture. As a result of his lifelong battle with assimilation, Piri fought for recognition and acceptance with a vibrant and powerful voice which his readers and audiences connected with when he read at schools, colleges and community centers.
In Down These Mean Streets, Piri Thomas made El Barrio a household word to multitudes of non-Spanish-speaking readers. A front-page review in the New York Times book review section May 21, 1967 stated: "It claims our attention and emotional response because of the honesty and pain of a life led in outlaw, fringe status, where the dream is always to escape." Nearly 45 years later, Down These Mean Streets continues to thrill and influence readers of all likes and ages. Savior, Savior Hold My Hand also received wide critical acclaim, as did Seven Long Times, a narrative of one man's experience in New York's degrading penal system. Stories from El Barrio, a collection of short stories, are for young people of all ages.
Piri's extensive travel in Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Cuba, Mexico, Europe, and the United States gave him a vision to expand and recreate with the understanding that his struggles were universal. His eye-opening experiences have contributed to an inimitable perspective on peace and justice. During the later years of his memorable life, Piri dedicated much of his time to visit young juvenile delinquents in maximum security detention centers. He believed in the power of poetry to restore and heal lives. He read poetry and spoke to troubled teens directly with no holds barred because it was a familiar territory which he knew from actual personal experience.
In Jonathan Robinson’s PBS documentary, Every Child is Born a Poet, on Piri Thomas’ lifetime work, his work is genuinely and graphically portrayed in and out of the classroom, churches and community centers and into the prison cells where he spent time to heal and later to go back to and impart by what grace he had received to others. Although during the 20th century, his work was viewed as a major literary breakthrough for Nuyorican literature, his worldwide literary outreach lifted his voice beyond the influential Nuyorican literary discourse, and today is recognized by literary critics as one of the forefathers of the Hispanic/Latino/a literary movement in the United States.
His untimely death catapults the discussion and study of the life and literary legacy of a man who was only stopped by death itself. Preachers, priests and psychologists have made internal healing a necessary process for all those interested in burying past experiences, but Piri Thomas was the embodiment of the healing process itself because he not only exposed who he was for others but allowed people to make a connection through him to help them walk forward with their lives. Piri Thomas passed away, but his legacy will live for generations to come.