"Here I was with $60 one day and all of a sudden somebody was giving me $15,000 . . . . I was being asked to lecture at Princeton, at Rutgers, at Pratt Intitute. Here I have no education whatsoever and I am working as a mentor to . . . top students . . . . What the hell am I doin’ here?"
—Miguel Piñero to Leroy Aarons in People, November 14, 1977
Miguel Piñero was a real-life outlaw who developed what he called an “outlaw” aesthetic in his poetry and plays. While imprisoned at Sing Sing, he wrote the first drafts of his award-winning play Short Eyes, which would greatly influence realism on the American stage and television. Piñero was also one of the creators and promoters of a Nuyorican (New York Puerto Rican) literature that he and other writers popularized through readings and performances at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on New York’s Lower East Side.
Born on December 19, 1946, in Gurabo, Puerto Rico, Piñero migrated with his parents (Miguel Angel Gomez Ramos and Adelina Piñero) to New York City and was raised on the Lower East Side, where he attended public schools and became involved in street life at a very early age. Piñero grew up to be the leader of one of the most powerful gangs in New York, and became an astute and dangerous criminal. At age thirteen, he was sentenced to three years in prison for theft; by age fifteen he had become a heroin addict; at age twenty-four, he was sent to New York State Prison at Ossining (Sing Sing) for armed robbery.
At Sing Sing, Piñero was influenced by African American jailhouse poets, and he began writing and reciting poetry. During his last term in prison, he enrolled in Clay Stevenson’s theater workshop. It was then that Piñero began writing his revolutionary play Short Eyes. Upon his release, he joined a theater company made up of ex-convicts, The Family, where he further developed the play. Short Eyes was produced by the company’s director, Marvin Felix Camillo, at the Riverside Church, where it was discovered by New York Shakespeare Festival producer Joseph Papp, who gave the play an off-Broadway premiere. Critics hailed Piñero as a bright new face on the theater scene and saw the play as brutally realistic. It went on to win the prestigious New York Drama Critics’ Award for Best American Play of the 1973–74 season.
The success of Short Eyes effectively launched Piñero’s career not only as a serious playwright but also as a script doctor specializing in street dialect for such television police dramas as Kojak, Baretta, and Miami Vice. It was, more than anything else, Piñero’s ear for the vernacular that rang true in his plays and screenplays and that became the model for hundreds of writers who followed in his footsteps. He also turned his attention to full-length drama, writing television movies and episodic shows for TV programs, including Miami Vice. Piñero also became a stock actor in crime dramas on television, contributing an extra dose of realism and his real-life experience to the shows. In Hollywood, his producers and directors exploited his considerable talents, using his language and insight as models for creating the stereotypes of street people and Hispanics that are often projected into America’s living rooms.
It was during this period of success that Piñero married (1977) and divorced (1979) Juanita Lovette Rameize, but not before the couple adopted a son, Ismael Castro.
Piñero’s plays develop an aesthetic of the streets and of life seen from below—from the vantage point of the outlaw, the individual who lives outside established society and its laws. He created dramas about the criminal underworld, about prostitutes and pimps, about homosexuals and other marginalized denizens of the big city. Short Eyes, in fact, was a play about the hierarchy in prison, where a child molester is supposedly considered the lowest of the low . . . .
As a successful American artist, Piñero had the potential to ascend to the upper class, but he rejected mainstream values and its measures of achievement. He continued his life as a street urchin and outlaw, as an alcoholic and drug addict, and as a bisexual adventurer, until those roles resulted in his early demise. Piñero died at age forty-one of cirrhosis of the liver.
Nicolás Kanellos,* from The Hispanic Literary Companion (Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1966)
In addition to New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, Miguel Piñero (1946–1988) won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best American Play of the 1973–74 Season, an Obie Award (1974), and the Drama Desk Award of 1974, all for Short Eyes (Hill and Wang, 1975), and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for 1984.
*Professor Nicolás Kanellos has given us his permission to use this excerpt from his book.