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