Race in Down These Mean Streets
“Éste es un mundo brillante, éstas 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 alegría 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.”
… “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. 120-87). 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....