Thomas (birth name: Juan Pedro Tomas) was born in the Spanish Harlem section of Manhattan. Thomas, who was born to Puerto Rican-Cuban parents was raised in a neighborhood where crime and violence were an everyday thing. According to Thomas, children were expected to be gang members at a young age and Thomas was no exception. Thomas was also exposed to racial discrimination because of the color of his skin and because he was Hispanic.
Thomas was involved with drugs, gang warfare and crime and he spent seven years in prison as a consequence. While in prison, Thomas thought a lot about the teachings of his mother and father. He came to realize that a person is not born a criminal. As a result of this realization, he developed a deep conviction that he should use all of his street and prison know-how to reach hard-core youths with the intention of convincing them to turn away from a life of crime.
Thomas is influential in the Nuyorican Movement and is currently working on a book entitled "A Matter of Dignity." Thomas is also working on an educational film titled "Dialogue with Society."
Thomas travels around the country as well as Central America and Europe, giving lectures and conducting workshops in colleges and universities. He is the subject of the film Every Child is Born a Poet: The Life and Work of Piri Thomas, by Jonathan Robinson, which features a soundtrack by Kip Hanrahan.
In 1967, Thomas received funds from the Rabinowitz Foundation and wrote and published his best-selling autobiography "Down These Mean Streets." In his book he describes his struggle for survival as a Puerto Rican/Cuban born and raised in the barrios of New York. It has been in print for more than 25 years. Among his other works are: "Savior, Savior Hold My Hand", "Seven Long Times" and "Stories from El Barrio"