Piri Thomas (born Juan Pedro Tomas in East Harlem, N.Y., on Sept. 30, 1928), the Latino Caribbean writer who tackled racial issues in the coming-of-age memoir Down These Mean Streets, died Monday of pneumonia at his home in California. 

Thomas was a pioneer of "Nuyorican" literature, the poetry and prose produced in the wake of a massive emigration of Puerto Ricans to New York in the 1950s. His work was heavily informed by racism, which he experienced in the outside world and also his home with his father, who Thomas said favored his light-skinned children.

At 20 he found himself in Sing Sing prison after a robbery and a shootout with police. He'd completed a manuscript of Mean Streets by the time he was released. When the book was published in 1967, sociologist Lewis Yablonsky wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "Piri Thomas screams back at a world that walked on him," "and the sounds are clear, clean and worth hearing."

Thomas' work also includes two novels: Savior, Savior, Hold My Hand (1972) and Seven Long Times (1974), as well as a short-story collection, Stories From El Barrio (1980). He has been featured in films including the PBS documentary "Every Child Is Born a Poet."

He is credited with influencing a younger generations of Latino writers, such as Dominican-American novelist Junot Díaz, whose The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

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From the Chicago Tribune:

"Thomas was one of my most important influences," Díaz told The Times in an email. "He was the first Latino Caribbean writer I encountered who wove the U.S. Latino experience into a larger American conversation that engaged both white supremacy and the African American experience.

"He was a brilliant memoirist, and few could match his lyricism or his unadorned, demolishing honesty."

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"He was at the vanguard of mainstream Puerto Rican literary achievement in the U.S., along with Esmeralda Santiago, Miguel Algarin, Pedro Pietri and Jesús Colón," said Daniel Gallant, executive director of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, an arts organization in New York City that Thomas helped found in 1973 …

Although best known for his memoir, Thomas was also a poet who gave exuberant readings of his work on college campuses and in prisons, where he held writing workshops and shared with inmates his hard-won life lessons.

Read more at the Chicago Tribune.

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