"Pi&241;ero" is another Hollywood sucker punch to Latinos

Hollywood has hit Latinos with another sucker punch in this disjointed and undeveloped portrait of a psychopath. Worse than West Side Story, Badge 353 and Fort Apache, Pi?ero takes us on a walk on the wild side of hell without so much as a whisper of the rampant rumors of pedophilia surrounding this twisted, demented sociopath, whom the film celebrates as an icon of Nuyorican creativity.

Miguel Pi?ero appeared on the New York artistic scene in 1974, with the presentation of “Short Eyes,” a play he wrote in a prison workshop while serving time in Sing Sing for armed robbery. Presented first by La Familia, then Lincoln Center and Joseph Papp’s Public Theater, the play became a hit. It won the N. Y. Drama Critics Circle Award for best American play before it was turned into a movie.

The work was about someone who abused boys only to find himself in jail among prisoners who can forgive anything but. Piñero (who always told writers to write what they know, and surely knew this topic as both victim and predator) was tapped by Hollywood to write and act about crime and criminals for shows like Baretta, Miami Vice and others.

The film opens with the multilayered beats of Hector LaVoe’s salsa pulsating. The beginning scenes slice through Piñero’s black and white past with technical wizardry which masks the lack of infrastructure, stunted script and character development in the quick-paced, eye-blinking, MTV-ish frames.

We see a jive-time hustler spewing smart-alecky street rhymes in jail. We move to a troubled child, beset by poverty and incest. We then see a strung-out junkie in a dope den, pimping the talent that took him out of jail. Then we’re back to his mother, holding onto five children and calmly telling the father to leave, after witnessing his rape of her eldest son. Welcome to the avant-garde.

Actor Benjamin Bratt’s total possession of Piñero’s spirit, however, is brilliant, electrifying and shocking. Bratt breaks through his previous “papi chulo” roles, bringing Piñero to life as vividly as the heroin that danced with “Mikey” through decadent degradation and debauchery. Like a lightweight boxer, Bratt pounces and punches his posse with words heard only in the deepest and most desperate layer of urban subculture.

“I have to keep doing bad to keep the writing good,” is how Piñero justifies his anti-social behavior. But his writing was never “all that” to begin with. The topic of pedophile-as-underdog has been done many times over. “The Quare Fellow,” Brendon Behan’s play about an imprisoned child molester murdered by his fellow inmates was produced here in New York before “Short Eyes.” And while Piñero’s poetic rhetoric spoke of strength against the oppressor and society’s hypocrisy, his soul was corrupted by his total weakness and enslavement to drugs and dereliction.

There were moments of lucidity as the Puerto Rican/Nuyorican poets encounter each other. Piñero comes face to face with Puerto Rican scholars on the Island who repudiate his art and lifestyle. Piñero, the defiantly cool captive of his own dysfunction, “outs” the colonized slavery of the Island’s academia as a sanctimonious identity not their own. By contrast, the scene where Piñero’s play is presented by Papp to a packed audience is telling. In his moment of triumph, Piñero shows his ass to the world. The sun was not always shining for this cool dude.

In his sickness and arrogance, Piñero never recognized his self-described “junkie Christ” as anti-Christ. Even in death, his unholy alliance with mainstream American media once again contemptuously maligns the hard working, self-sacrificing Latino artistic community that rises above its horrific childhood traumas to create works of true literary insight, craft and artistry as legacy of our pride and courage. Understandably, sensationalized commercial films sell tickets, but for a community still invisible on the screen, marginalized in society and misunderstood by its neighbors, this is one more attempt to show only the pus-infected canker sores of a debauched existence.

On some deeper level, maybe Piñero knew he was being patronized and displayed like a curious monkey with humanlike qualities by the “cultural elite” who saw him more as freak than peer. He may be laughing right now at how, in death, he can still steal ten dollars from everyone who sees his film.

The absence of real female characters in this contorted macho nightmare flies in the face of the founding of the Nuyorican Poets’ Café. The Café was founded on the poems of Sandra Maria Esteves, one of the cultural warriors of the Nuyorican frontline never mentioned in this hallucination. Neither are other worthy soldiers such as Victor Hernandez Cruz, Papoleto, Eddie Figueroa, Tato LaViera, el Coco que Habla, et al. But it’s just as well. Even comic John Leguizamo refused to play the role after he researched Piñero’s life. ¡Vaya Juanito!

Clearly many of the new breed of poets look to the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe as an alternative showcase for literary voices that relate to our reality. And there are many who answered the calling. Piñero was not one of them. And to claim that this was the precursor to hip hop and rap when The Last Poets had already carved a role as political griots of that particular social shift in time is bogus indeed.

This is not a film to take a sensitive young artist to. Nor is it a portrait of an exemplary Latino talent that survived New York’s dark reality. This is a film that celebrates the reckless life of someone who was abused by his father, let down by his mother and everyone around him; a deviant who crashed and burned under the weight of living taking a few down with him. Some hero.

The Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund, the Institute of Puerto Rican Policy and the National Hispanic Media Coalition presented the community screening I attended. The Village Seven Theater was packed with community leaders from the arts, education, social services and politics. The applause for the movie’s spokespeople, Miguel Algarin, Giancarlo Esposito, Nelson Vasquez and Tim Williams was lukewarm.

Questions about Hollywood’s spotlight on negative Latino images and incest were glibly and smugly shrugged off or totally ignored by Algarin, who displayed the same self-delusional aplomb and cockiness as the film’s protagonist. The response was polite curiosity from the crowd. But once everyone dispersed outside, the consensus was transparent. Miguel—the emperor has no clothes.

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