Piñero, Miguel

views updated

PIÑERO, Miguel

PIÑERO, Miguel (b. 19 December 1946;d. 16 June 1988), poet, playwright, actor.

Born in Puerto Rico, Piñero migrated to New York City with his family as a child. One of seven children, Piñero was seven when his father walked out on his mother. Life was difficult for Piñero. Growing up poor on the streets of New York and suffering from sexual abuse, he turned to drugs and became a mugger, thief, and shoplifter. Piñero was convicted of armed robbery in 1971 and was sent to the Ossining Correctional Facility (Sing Sing) for armed robbery. It was there that he met Marvin Felix Camillo, who was running a drama workshop.

The talented people Camillo found at Sing Sing would later become "The Family," an acting troupe of exconvicts of whom Piñero was the most successful. Camillo and Piñero became friends, and Camillo submitted Piñero's poem "Black Woman with the Blonde Wig On" to a contest, which it won. He was paroled in 1973.

Piñero's first and most successful play was Short Eyes: The Killing of a Sex Offender by the Inmates of the House of Detention. The play tells the story of men trapped in a prison system with its own code of conduct and laws, and how they survive. The climax of the play is the murder of Clark Davis, the incarcerated child molester. In the prison hierarchy, sexual offenders are considered the lowest of the low, and Clark's death is carried out with brutal efficiency. The character Cupcakes, youthful and handsome, is the prize desired by the love-starved men.

Short Eyes opened on 23 May 1974 at New York's Public Theater, with Joseph Papp as producer and Camillo directing. Many in the cast were members of The Family. Short Eyes won the Obie Award for best off-Broadway play of 1973–1974, and Camillo won for distinguished direction. That same year, Short Eyes won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best American play.

Piñero became friends with Miguel Algarin, another "NuYorican" poet. Together they founded the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in 1974 on Manhattan's Lower East Side. The marginalization of poor people of color, excluded from the mainstream American artistic community, served as the political focus for their creative voices. The Nuyorican Poets Cafe was born of the political radicalism of the 1960s, and the cafe has served as a laboratory for cultural and political art ever since. Piñero's poetry, collected in La Bodega Sold Dreams (1980), influenced many other artists. Piñero is cited as being a forerunner to rap and hip-hop music. In 1993, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe was recognized by the Municipal Society of New York as one of the "living treasures" of the city. It is still at the heart of poetic life in New York City.

Many of Piñero's characters blur the line between gay and straight. Paper Toilet takes place in a subway toilet and deals in part with characters cruising. Irving deals with the coming out of a closeted Jewish man—and the discovery that he and his sister have been dating the same man.

Piñero was a commercial success, writing plays and television scripts; he also appeared in episodes of the television series Miami Vice, Kojak, and The Equalizer, as well as movies, among them Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981) and Breathless (1983). In the movie adaptation of Short Eyes (1977), Piñero played the minor character GoGo.

Piñero was briefly married to Juanita Lovette Rameize (1977–1979) and adopted a son, Ismael Castro. Even with all of his success, Piñero remained a heroin addict. (He used to scalp tickets to Short Eyes for money with which to buy heroin.) He continued an on-and-off life of crime and was arrested periodically. Piñero died in New York City from liver disease in 1988. His friend Algarin led the procession in which Piñero's ashes were scattered across the Lower East Side. He then read a poem Piñero had written for the occasion of his own death.

Piñero was bisexual. Many of the characters in his plays were sexually ambiguous. However, it is doubtful that he identified in any way with the gay and lesbian community. The Latin idea of machismo, which every man is supposed to aspire to, may have caused tension in Piñero's life. The idea of being passive during sex challenges masculinity. Gay identity often takes into account both masculine and feminine roles—something that Piñero might have found objectionable.

Perhaps actor Benjamin Bratt's assessment of Piñero is the most realistic. Bratt played the complex Piñero in the film Piñero (2001) and concluded that Piñero was a sensualist: he would indulge in whatever felt good to him at that particular moment. To be labeled gay or bisexual would have had little meaning to Piñero.


Camillo, Marvin Felix. "Introduction." Short Eyes: A Play, by Miguel Piñero. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975.

Duralde, Alonso. "Unspoiled Bratt." The Advocate, issue 858, (February 5, 2002): 40–45.

Michael Handis

see alsotheater and performance.