Miguel Antonio Gomez Piñero (peen-YEHR-oh) is an important member of the Nuyorican (New York and Puerto Rican) literary and political movement that crystallized in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s in New York City. Born in Puerto Rico, Piñero moved to New York City with his parents when he was four. His father, Miguel Angel Piñero, abandoned the family four years later, and Piñero subsequently experienced the poverty, marginalization, and crime of New York’s lower East Side. Piñero remained devoted to his mother, Adelina, as his poems and opening dedication to Short Eyes (“El Cumpleaños de Adelina” by Miguel Algarín) reveal.
At an early age, Piñero fell victim to his harsh environment: he began “hustling” and taking drugs and soon entered the world of petty crime that was to shape his future. A truant, shoplifter, and drug addict by his teenage years, Piñero never graduated from junior high. He was convicted of armed robbery at age twenty-four and was sent to Sing Sing, the notorious New York prison. Ironically, it was in prison that Piñero experienced his literary awakening, thanks to a theater workshop established at Sing Sing by Clay Stevenson. Like that of most Nuyorican authors, Piñero’s experience as a marginalized Puerto Rican in America was to become the source for much of his literary output.
Through Stevenson’s prison workshop, Piñero began his first and most recognized play, Short Eyes. In addition, while still in prison he came into contact with Marvin Felix Camillo, actor and activist, who had formed The Family, an acting troupe of former inmates, and who encouraged Piñero’s writing and acting. Out of prison, Piñero worked with Camillo and The Family to develop Short Eyes for performance. The play moved from its opening in the Riverside Church to Off-Broadway, to the Public Theater with the help of producer Joseph Papp, and finally to the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Piñero received an Obie Award and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best American play.
Piñero’s success in playwriting put him in contact with the thriving Puerto Rican literary and political community. In the mid-1970’s, as a member of the Nuyorican artistic community, Piñero cofounded the Nuyorican Poets Café with Miguel Algarín and edited a volume of Nuyorican poetry with Algarín as well. After a return to Puerto Rico, Piñero in his work also reflected the displacement of the Puerto Rican experiencein America: He and his fellow artists felt accepted neither in their native land nor in their land of adoption, and such alienation is a major tenet of Nuyorican literature. Like the dialogue of his characters, his poetry–and the poetry of the Nuyorican Poets Café–was characterized by oral performances of it, as poets performed their works in an apparently improvisational style, reflecting the influence of the Beat poets, of Puerto Rican street culture, and of the emerging African American rap and hip-hop styles. Piñero continued to write and see his plays performed, but none were to have the success of Short Eyes.
In 1977 Piñero wrote the screenplay and performed in the film version of his play Short Eyes. From the early 1970’s into the 1980’s, he began a long series of guest-starring appearances in television and cinema. Most notably, he played a series of drug smugglers and ne’er-do-wells in such television series as Miami Vice (1984), The Equalizer (1985), and Kojak (1973). On film, he appeared in Breathless (1983), Exposed (1983), and Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981).
In addition to working in Hollywood, Piñero also taught writing at Rutgers University and received a Guggenheim Fellowship for playwriting in 1982. Such activity and influence in his ethnic and literary community could not help in his battle against addiction, however, and Piñero continued to struggle with drugs and alcohol. Never married, Piñero had a series of serious relationships with both women and men, and an intense, although nonsexual, relationship with fellow Nuyorican poet Algarín. Piñero died in 1988 of cirrhosis of the liver.
Piñero’s Short Eyes remains his most successful and enduring contribution to American playwriting and reveals his primary concerns with ethnic and racial alienation in the United States, the all-controlling power of violence, and the hope of individual triumph against such terror. In addition, it offers a window onto the language–a mixture of Spanish, English, street language, and profanity–that in many ways embodies the world of New York’s lower East Side, where Nuyorican literature developed and thrived. His later works, although virtually ignored by literary critics, reveal Piñero’s continued focus on the language, alienation, and perseverance of his community. Despite his close dealings with the New York and Hollywood elite, Piñero remained rooted in his lower East Side, Nuyorican experiences.
In December, 2001, Piñero, a film of the author’s life directed by Leon Ichaso, opened in limited release and prompted renewed interest in the author and actor, particularly in his poetic performances. The film had the support and cooperation of Piñero’s friends and family. Actor Benjamin Bratt’s performance as Piñero, particularly in his “performance” of Piñero’s poems at the Nuyorican Poets Café, suggests the intensity and immediacy of his poetry as performance that mere readings of Piñero’s work cannot impart.