The Trickster Among Us: Pedro Pietri’s Urban Aesthetic

                                             The Trickster Among Us: Pedro Pietri’s Urban Aesthetic Marilyn Kiss

Wagner College

                                   “The Trickster is a being who tricks you out of your normal settings.”

 

        Whether he was handing out a “telephone booth poem” typed

 

on a nickel bag with a condom enclosed, pasting stickers with poems

 

in bathroom stalls in the Lower East Side, or intoning the “Spanglish

 

National Anthem” from a perch on a busy New York street corner,

 

Reverendo Pedro Pietri exercised among us the role of the Trickster

 

in his life, his poetry and his drama. For more than thirty years,

 

Pietri, with his flamboyant rhetoric, his black garb, and his personal

 

excesses, embodied a threat to mainstream thinking by proclaiming

 

the “Nuyorican” as a new entity on the planet and “Spanglish” as a

 

new language with its own uses and viability.

 

           Why Trickster? “Few myths have so wide a distribution as the one,

 

known by the name of The Trickster” that moves from its archaic origins

 

through the medieval jester to the contemporary clown.

 

           That Pietri became a Trickster-Transformer-Culture Hero is beyond

 

argument. Trying to label Pietri and his work is dangerous, however,

 

because Trickster defies classification and is actually the antithesis of it.

            What would a Trickster aesthetic born in the urban ghettos consist of,

 

then? First and foremost, it would be a street aesthetic as opposed to an

 

academic, institutionalized one. Pietri’s poetic language was the language

 

of the street, the mixed rhythms and tones of first Harlem and later the

 

Lower East Side fused with memories of his native Puerto Rico. He

 

became a cultural icon as he recited his poetry on street corners throughout

 

the city. He was belligerently ungrammatical and refused to change the

 

street language he heard around him-- undereducated Spanish, English

 

and Spanglish -- into something polished, edited and more acceptable to

 

mainstream publishing houses. He was a true activist in proclaiming the

 

legitimacy of Spanglish as the national language of the Nuyorican and

 

used it constantly in his work from Puerto Rican Obituary on. He left in

 

the scatological comments and all the expletives. His legacy includes a

 

wealth of poems typed onto envelopes or individual sheets, mimeographed,

 

photocopied and distributed through unconventional means.

 

           A Trickster aesthetic, true to the role of Tricksters across cultures,

 

would be subversive and willing to speak truth to power. Pietri’s writings

 

take on the US government, especially in its imperialistic role in Puerto

 

Rico and the Navy’s test bombing of Vieques. He addresses the grinding

 

dailiness of minimum wage jobs and the prejudice found in the workplace.

 

He often confronts police brutality and underlines the rampant inequality

 

in living conditions in New York City. His two years of service in Vietnam

 

made him anti-military and anti war.

           It is not enough just to be unconventional on the page; a Trickster

 

aesthetic would require activism on the stage of life. That was true

 

in every sense for Pedro Pietri since his alternative life style was as

 

subversive to mainstream culture as were his words. He was “out there”

 

among the people proclaiming, protesting, and prickling sensibilities.

 

Puerto Rican Obituary became a manifesto for generations of Nuyoricans.

 

           His series of telephone booth poems fill the pages with characters,

 

known and unknown, who are the mainstay of El Barrio or Loisaida, from

 

Piri Thomas and Bimbo Rivas to “all the Bodegueros/all the piragueros/

 

all the panaderos/ all the lecheros/all the congueros/all the barberos/all

 

the brujeros/all the paqueteros/all the disparateros/& all the macheteros/of

 

Spanish Harlem history/who have walked on the moon/but weren’t given

 

credit/because they failed/the post office examination”. Pietri wrote and

 

lived a Trickster aesthetic, fighting hypocrisy wherever he encountered it.

 

         Tricksters traditionally have totems and Pietri is no exception. His

 

is the lowly cockroach, associated with substandard housing, durability

 

and cunning. “Suicide Note from a Cockroach in a Low Income Housing

 

Project” is quintessential Pietri, tying street smarts, subversive politics, and

 

activism all into one. The roach is also associated with grass and when a

 

depressed cockroach asks to be cremated, it is asking to be smoked.

          No Trickster aesthetic could be complete without the ludic element.

 

Pietri’s absurdist use of language and incessant word play create an

 

idiolect that transcends the mundane in English, Spanish and Spanglish.

 

Pietri’s own biographical data is subject to ludic treatment since he states

 

that he was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, in 1898, 1943, and 1998.

 

         One of his recent projects, in collaboration with Adal Maldonado, was

 

the creation of the virtual “El Puerto Rican Embassy.” Perhaps more than

 

any other piece, this street-wise, politically subversive, and most playful

 

product of the imagination embodies a Trickster aesthetic at work, at play.

 

Complete with its “El Passport”, Pietri’s “Spanglish National Anthem” as

 

its official song, its own currency, its own stamps, newspapers and political

 

campaigns, this nation of the imagination is the epitome of a Trickster

 

aesthetic.

 

           Like the Tricksters of world mythology, Pietri inspires “vicarious

 

pleasure in watching him break the rules.” A crossroads figure who is

 

subversive, activist and playful, the Trickster helps one to “lose that burden

 

called balance” and thus to preserve society, fulfilling its ultimate function.

 

Viva el Trickster, self-proclaimed Reverendo Pedro Pietri.

Steve CannonTribes