In 1997, I had just graduated school, left Ithaca, New York and instead of moving back to Brooklyn as I had planned, I moved to Philadelphia for a position at Taller Puertorriqueño. It was my dream job where I got to create art workshops for youth around the centennial of the US invasion of Puerto Rico, on colonialism and Puerto Rican art. But homesick, every weekend I would find myself on a smelly greyhound bus back to Brooklyn. I would tune out the trip by closing my eyes and losing myself to Piri Thomas’ Sounds of the Streets which I had purchased at Taller’s own bookstore. Piri had done a presentation while I was up at Cornell. I remember him standing on a stage against the glass wall of RPU, sun pouring in all sorts of rays and Piri’s outstretched arms in his white tunic glowing in the light. Each poem was mesmerizing and each “PUNTO!” was a cue to awaken from a hypnotic dream he had kept us in.
I remember the first time I heard that line about the “cooled-down dream where the walls are painted bright Puerto Rican red.” Being taken on a NJ Turnpike journey between dream state and wokeness, between vulnerability and Piri’s “cara-palo”-ness. A profession of hardness, of grounding and bad-ass-ness. A profession of love and Puerto Rican-ness. I remember Piri flipping it at the end to the smooth ass baseline and percussion: “and I’m gonna scream: I’m a Rican, Puerto Rican to my heart, to my heart…punto!” I remember my tears streaming like the blue water of those tiny toilets on them buses.
So in 2005 when I was invited to create a series of paintings in a site-specific installation in the museum lobby for El Museo’s bienal, The S Files, I went back to those moments with Piri in the flesh, in the sun, in my headphones, in my ears, at Cornell, on a greyhound. I painted this portrait, part of my “Soul Rebels” series, and called it “Bright Puerto Rican Red”.
Praises to our fierce ancestors! Bright Puerto Rican red love light to Piri Thomas!
By the way, this is my Mercury Retrograde Retrospective where I go back and reflect on previous paintings and the fierce people who inspired them.