Race in Down These Mean Streets

Qing Xu HCOM 345 Prof. Nava 5/2/12 Race in Down These Mean Streets “Este es un mundo brillante, estas son mis calles, mi barrio de noche, con sus miles de luces, cientos de millones de colores mezclados con los ruidos, un sonido vibrante de carros, maldiciones, murmullos de alegria y de llantos, formando un gran concierto musical (Thomas, Down These Mean Streets, 1998, p. 3)”, is how Piri Thomas describes his birthplace, East Harlem. The diversity of cultures, the vibrant street life, the passion and conflicts of everyday life and media portrayal in movies such as West Side Story make East Harlem an exciting and mysterious place.
But hidden under the dirty faces of the children is the struggle in the search for acceptance and belong, as painfully narrated by Thomas in Down These Mean Streets. In this essay I will analyze how racial identity is constructed through his story and the relationship between racism and social problems such as gangs and crime in a place like East Harlem. Piri Thomas’ parents moved to New York from Puerto Rico during the 1920s before he was born in 1928.
Piri reflects upon a hard childhood of growing up in a lower class family at the time of the Great Depression, through the cold winters of New York City, a place whose people Piri’s mother described as having snow in their hearts. But the most difficult thing of all was the racial prejudice that he had to endure because of his black skin and the confusion of his own racial identity caused by his family’s denial of their Afro-Latino heritage. One day, Piri confronted his younger brother Jose, pointing out the hypocrisy of his family’s claim to Whiteness: Jose’s face got whiter and his voice angrier at my attempt to take away his white status.

He screamed out strong: “I aint’t no nigger! You can be if you want to be…. But—I—am—white! And you can go to hell! ” “And James is blanco, too? ” I asked quietly. “You’re damn right. ” “And Poppa? ” … “Poppa’s the same as you,” he said, avoiding my eyes, “Indian. ” “What kind of Indian,” I said bitterly. “Caribe? Or maybe Borinquen? Say, Jose, didn’t you know the Negro made the scene in Puerto Rico way back? And when the Spanish spics ran outta Indian coolies, they brought them big blacks from you know where. Poppa’s got moyeto blood. I got it. Sis got it. James got it. And, mah deah brudder, you-all got it….
It’s a played-out lie about me-us-being white (Thomas, Down These Mean Streets, 1998, p. 145). Piri had always felt that he was being treated differently in the family because of his skin color. He wanted to find a racial identity with which he could feel a sense of belonging. Hoping to find out whether his skin color, his face, his hair made him a black in America even though he’s a Puerto Rican, he joined the merchant marines and traveled to the South. He came to accept that he was black after experiencing racism everywhere: on the ship, in restaurants, even in prostitution (Thomas, Down These Mean Streets, 1998, pp. 20-87). Piri’s world came crashing down when his mother died while his father was having an affair with a white woman, whose whiteness fed his father’s insecurity about his own blackness, according to Piri. Piri’s rejection toward whites came to a boiling point and he left home, joined gangs where his companions were black and took drugs. Eventually he went to prison for shooting a policeman. “Jesus, I thought, I finally shot me some Mr. Charlies. I shot ‘em in my mind often enough (Thomas, Down These Mean Streets, 1998, p. 259),” he wrote.
It was the years in prison that gave him time to really reflect and think about who he was and his own worth. In the end of the book he came out of prison back into the neighborhood that he missed so much. He fought hard to resist drugs and violence. Eventually he became a famed writer and a lecturer, and worked to steer troubled kids away from gangs and crimes. Puerto Ricans have historically been discriminated by U. S. institutions. As Angel Oquendo explains in “Re-imagining the Latino/a Race”, Puerto Ricans arrived in the U. S. as a result of U. S. mperial invasion and colonization of the island. They became one of the most impoverished groups and were “systematically perceived and treated as a conquered people (Oquendo, 1998, p. 70)” Puerto Ricans could sometimes pass as whites, like Piri’s family did. However, Piri was treated badly by the school, public transportation, workplace and the government. In an interview conducted by Ilan Stavans, he recalled that in the classroom the “teacher came roaring upon me and said ‘listen, stop talking in that language [Spanish],’ and I said ‘well, I am speaking my mother’s language.
My mother’s from Puerto Rico, I was born in this country,’ and she says ‘well you stop talking that, you have to learn English, you are in America now. ’ (Thomas, Race and Mercy: A Conversation with Piri Thomas, 1996, p. 345)” He also recalled going to the South with his friend Billy on a bus. The driver ordered all colored people to go sit in the back. When Piri tried to tell the driver that he was Puerto Rican, the driver said, “I don’t care what kind of nigger you are” and reached his hand into his side pocket.
To avoid the risk of being killed, he quietly went to the back of the bus (Thomas, Race and Mercy: A Conversation with Piri Thomas, 1996, p. 351). In a chapter of his book titled “How to Be a Negro without Really Trying,” Piri recalls another occasion where he and his fair skinned friend Louie went to a job interview for a sales position. The company hired Louie instead of him. “I didn’t feel so much angry as I did sick, like throwing-up sick,” Piri’s hatred started growing and he started to think of himself as black. “Later, when I told this story to my buddy, a colored cat, he said, ‘Hell, Piri… a Negro faces that all the time. ‘I know that,’ I said, ‘but I wasn’t a Negro then. I was still only a Puerto Rican. ’ (Thomas, Down These Mean Streets, 1998, p. 108)” When Piri and his mother applied for Home Relief, he hated the condescending and suspicious attitude of the government officials. The fact that Piri was perceived as black even though he was a Latino and that he was the only that received all the prejudice out of all his siblings, shows that U. S. society perceives all races in Black-White terms. According to Oquendo, this racial dualism is due to the prominent history of slavery and discrimination of people of African ancestry.
He explains that the division of white Puerto Ricans and black Puerto Ricans is non-existent in Puerto Rico. Modern Puerto Rican society emphasizes its African heritage (Oquendo, 1998, p. 63). Berta E. Hernandez-Truyol explains that all Puerto Ricans share the same identity: “I grew up in Puerto Rico… We were big and small, brown-eyed and blue-eyed, blondes and brunettes, but one significant factor we shared was that we were all de Borinquen. Sure, we were diverse peoples, but we were all united—we were all boricua (Hernandez-Truyol, 1998, p. 381). Because of the different social context in the U. S. , Piri were perceived differently from his siblings, which dramatically altered the course of his life. Perhaps the process of Piri becoming black can be best explained by Ian F. Haney Lopez’s theory on the social construction of race. He argues that an individual’s racial identity is constructed by interplay of chance, context, and choice. By chance he means the morphology and ancestry of a person which are not chosen by the person, i. e. skin color. Piri’s morphology is the foundation of his search of racial identity.
When his family moved to Long Island, the white children at his school taunted him for trying to pass as Puerto Rican because he couldn’t pass as white. By context, Lopez means “the social setting in which races are recognized, constructed, and contested (Lopez, 1998, pp. 9-11). ” Piri has ancestral ties to three continents: Europe, Africa, and America. Therefore to conclude that Piri is Black is unreasonable. However, in the social context of America, skin color is mostly directed associated with race. President Obama, Tiger Woods are both widely perceived to be Blacks, even though only a portion of their blood is Black.
Same thing happened to Piri. Lopez further explains that morphology and ancestry are constant, but context is inconstant and unstable and shifts in time and space. Nevertheless, context gives interpretation to morphology and ancestry, such as a person’s dark skin makes him/her Black. In Puerto Rico, Piri’s family was neither Black nor White; they suffered no prejudice based on their skin colors. But the social structure of race in New York in the 1930s is based on the racial dualism, which forced Piri and his family to define them as either Black or White.
As a result, Piri believed that he and his family were black biologically. However, he was not black because of his features but because of the interpretation of these features by the racial ideology of his society. Moreover, social ideology of race changes from place to place, as evident in his travel from “Spanish Harlem, where he was Puerto Rican, to Long Island, where he was accused of trying to pass, to the South, where he was Black (Lopez, 1998, p. 12). ” Finally, the last component of racial construction is choice, which means whether a person accepts the meanings of his morphology and ancestry given by the context.
Piri’s father not only shared the same social context with Piri, he also shared the same skin color and features. However, he chose to be white, like his son Jose. Lopez explains that choices about racial identity are heavily influenced by racial prejudice and hatred, as revealed in Jose’s claim to be White: “I ain’t black, damn you! Look at my hair. It’s almost blond. My eyes are blue, my nose is straight. My motherfuckin’ lips are not like a baboon’s ass. My skin is white. White, goddamit! White (Lopez, 1998, p. 14)! ” The social problems that Puerto Ricans face include poverty, gangs and crimes.
The “presumed solutions” to these social problems would be welfare programs, education, more law enforcement patrolling the Barrio, etc. However, new problems will arise with each of these solutions. If we provide more welfare to the Puerto Ricans, it would further drain the national budget, which is already tight in the current economic situation. It would also anger many nativists who are opposed to immigration, especially whites with lower economic status, because they might fear that the Puerto Ricans are taking their resources.
There are already many voices accusing the Latino immigrants of coming to their country and sucking up all their welfare. Education definitely helps prepare a more skilled work force, which means more income for the Puerto Rican households. However, with the current budget cuts, increased financial aid to Puerto Rican students will likely be met with opposition from the rest of the population. The DREAM act which allows alien students to obtain financial aid in college has already been met with opposition arguing that the aliens would take away educational funds that could be awarded to native students.
Granting more aid to Puerto Rican students will probably be met with the same opposition. However, education does serve as an important tool to pull a community out of poverty. Gangs not only create violence and crime in a community, but their culture is harmful to the vital institutions of society such as the family, the church, the school, and the government. In “Beating the Barrio: Piri Thomas and Down These Mean Streets”, James B. Lane states that “The social disorganization of the ghetto bred cynicism, hatred of authority, confused identity, inability to defer pleasure, and violent impulsiveness (Lane, 1972, p. 17). ” Piri, tormented by racial prejudice and confused identity, leaved his family to be on the streets because he found a stronger sense of belonging there. So do countless number of kids in the present. To Piri religion seemed an obligation. He hated school and resented government. Although gangs like the ones Piri was in are harmful to the society, villanizing them will only make matters worse. MS-13, the biggest gang in the world, started with a couple persons but grew so much partly because police cracked down on them and sent them back to El Salvador; many of them were born and raised in the U. S. which made them more organized and bigger. That policy only aimed to remedy the problem but failed to address the root of the problem: how the kids joined the gang. We need to recognize that criminals weren’t born criminals. Many gang members are victims of racism and oppression. Racism plants a seed of hatred in each of its victim, as in Piri’s case: “A big hate of everything white grew inside of me. I was scared of the whole fucking world (Robinson). ” This hatred eventually led him to shoot a white cop. It is also no surprise that he had no interest in school and government, where he encountered racism.
Gangs also provide protection for the oppressed, give them strength to fight back the authority that oppresses them, and give them a sense of belonging. In order for there to be no gangs, racism must be eliminated. In order for racism to be eliminated, everyone, kids and adults, need to be educated about racism in contemporary society, because racism starts in the mind. Schools need to make it mandatory for students to learn how racism starts, the social structures that breed racism in our society and all the ways that racism affect different ethnic groups today.
Piri Thomas had a good idea of what needed to be taught to children: Children become what they are taught or not taught. For thousands of years we have heard propaganda about white supremacy and “might makes right. ” Because if you conquer people by might, strip away their education, their beliefs, their culture, and their land, then in two or three generations their children will be in the dark ages again. We had very bright minds when we first went into their schools, because children are not born stupid.
The world has no right to judge intelligence by the color of one’s skin… this is the struggle that we have had to wage, to allow all the colors to express their humanity through literature and the other arts to learn from each other, as a people, for we are not only geographic locations, colors, sexes, or preferences. We are earthlings who share a common bond—our humanity (Thomas, Race and Mercy: A Conversation with Piri Thomas, 1996, p. 352). It’s because of the lack of awareness and ignorance that racism is still so prevalent today.
There needs to be more representatives for under-represented groups such as Puerto Ricans in the political arena who could voice their needs. Puerto Ricans should be given voting rights in the general elections, since they are citizens of the United States. Puerto Ricans can also empower themselves through strengthening their identity as a whole. Oquendo suggests that “just as African Americans seek to base their self-understanding on their resurrection from slavery, Latino/as should trace their identity back to their resurrection from imperialist conquest (Oquendo, 1998, p. 70). Indeed, Puerto Ricans and other Latino groups have proven to be resilient peoples with a great deal of stamina to live in their harsh environments while keeping their dignity. Oquendo also suggests that Latino/as should use Spanish as a source of support for Latino/a identity, since Spanish is their shared heritage. I agree with Oquendo. Language is the central part of a cultural heritage, if they all speak the language that their mother and grandmother speak, they can be closer to their roots and thus secure a sense of belonging. It is important for Puerto Ricans in the U. S. o know their homeland and its culture in order to have a stronger identity. Piri said in the interview that he was not recognized in Puerto Rico because he didn’t write in Spanish, and “the only reason why I knew of Puerto Rico is because I sat in the corner and listened to the grown-ups speaking about places like Fajardo, Bayamon… I finally went to Puerto Rico when I got out of prison at the age of thirty-two. My God, as that wall of green humidity enveloped me, it was like I was entering into my mother’s arms (Thomas, Race and Mercy: A Conversation with Piri Thomas, 1996, p. 347). Through speaking Spanish, different Latino groups can relate to each other, which can be a source of support. He suggests that Spanish be brought to adult schools, unions, church organization, prisons and rehabilitation programs, so that the adult population can learn, too (Oquendo, 1998, pp. 70-71). It’s also vital that children living in the Barrio know their own value and realize their potential. In the video Every Child is born a Poet: Life and Work of Piri Thomas, it shows Piri working with teenagers in a juvenile hall inspiring them to express themselves and find their values through poetry.
It also shows testimonials from local youths telling stories of how Down These Mean Streets had helped them find their identities and connect with their neighborhood (Robinson). There should be social work agencies and after-school programs geared towards teenagers helping kids find passion in learning and keep them away from the streets. Piri Thomas’ memoir is not only a testament to the harsh life of immigrants growing up in the United States and the dangers of racism; its wisdom teaches us all of the importance of identity and heritage.
Its lessons will benefit generations to come. Works Cited Hernandez-Truyol, B. E. (1998). Bringing International Human Rights Home. In R. Delgado, & J. Stefancic, The Latino/a Condition (p. 381). New York and London: New York University Press. Lane, J. B. (1972). Beating the Barrio: Piri Thomas and “Down These Mean Streets”. The English Journal. Lopez, I. F. (1998). Chance, Context, and Choice in the Social Construction of Race. In R. Delgado, & J. Stefancic, The Latino/a Condition (pp. -11). New York and London: New York University Press. Oquendo. (1998). Re-imaginning the Latino/a Race. In R. Delgado, & J. Stefancic, The Latino/a Condition (p. 70). New York and London: New York University Press. Robinson, J. (Director). (n. d. ). Every Child is Born a Poet: Life and Work of Piri Thomas [Motion Picture]. Thomas, P. (1996, Autumn). Race and Mercy: A Conversation with Piri Thomas. (I. Stavans, Interviewer) Thomas, P. (1998). Down These Mean Streets. New York: Vintage Books.

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