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New York Daily News
'El Reverendo' Just Not Ready To Leave Pulpit
By JUAN GONZALEZ
December 23, 2003
The sad news spread rapidly this weekend: Pedro Pietri, the king of Latino poetry in this town for more than 30 years, is suffering from inoperable stomach cancer.
And what a hilarious reign it has been.
Usually sporting a long black overcoat and a black bowler, with scraggly shoulder-length hair and mustache, Pietri, who was born in Puerto Rico in 1944 and served in the Vietnam War in 1967-68, sarcastically calls himself El Reverendo, the minister of the fictional Church of the Mother of All Tomatoes.
A typical Pietri poetry reading is somewhere between a vaudeville act and a Pentecostal revival. His audiences are erupting in laughter one moment and fighting back tears the next.
For those of us who came of age during the 1960s and 1970s, Pietri's epic "Puerto Rican Obituary" - with its evocation of "nervous breakdown streets/ where the mice live like millionaires/ and the people do not live at all" - still remains the single most powerful expression of the Latino diaspora in this country.
Other Pietri poems, like "Suicide Note from a Cockeroach in a Low- Income Housing Project" and his extended series of "Telephone Booth" verses have been acclaimed as first-rate examples of urban street poetry and forerunners of today's rap or slam contests.
Pietri's prolific production includes more than 20 books of poetry and plays. His work has been translated into several languages.
His last performance was Nov. 8 at Town Hall, where he participated in the 30th-anniversary celebration of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the cultural center he founded on the lower East Side with playwrights Miguel Piero and Miguel Algarn.
Three days after the Town Hall event, Pietri fell ill.
"First I couldn't hold down any food," Pedro told me yesterday.
"Then I couldn't hold down liquids. But being a hardhead, I thought it was just stomach ulcers. I didn't want to accept the truth."
He finally checked into Bronx-Lebanon Hospital, where doctors discovered a malignant tumor and immediately performed surgery. But by then the tumor had spread to his stomach.
Cancer is the latest and most serious of the physical maladies Pietri has confronted over the past few years.
Some, he is convinced, were caused by exposure in Vietnam to the herbicide Agent Orange.
"When I was in the infantry in Vietnam, we used to see the planes spraying us with that stuff all the time," Pietri recalled.
For the first 20 years after his return from the war, his health was fine.
"Then all of a sudden I came down with glaucoma, then with a bunch of skin diseases and now this cancer," he said.
His doctors are recommending radiation and chemotherapy to attack the tumor, but Pietri, always the cynical rebel, has rejected their approach.
"They did what they could, but I don't want that radiation or to have them just cutting me up again," he said.
Instead he has decided to seek alternative medical treatment next month in Tijuana, Mexico, a procedure his health insurance carrier refuses to cover.
So last week his family and his friends at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe quickly established a benefit fund to pay for Pietri's treatment in Mexico. They are asking anyone who has enjoyed his poetry to come to his aid now.
Those wishing to help can send a contribution to the Pedro Pietri Health Benefit Fund, c/o Nuyorican Poets Cafe, P.O. Box 20794, New York, N.Y. 10009.
"I'm not giving up. I'm going to kick this thing," Pietri said yesterday.
All those young Latino poets hoping to pick up the king's mantle will just have to wait, because Pedro is feeling too good to check out right now.
Woke up this morning
picked up the telephone
dialed the number of my
equal opportunity employer
to inform him i will not
be in to work today.
"are you feeling sick?"
the boss asked me
"no sir," i replied: "i am feeling too good
to report to work today.
if i feel sick tomorrow
i will come in early!"
by Pedro Pietri