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Early in his autobiographical novel about growing up Puerto Rican-Cuban in the desperately poor community of Spanish Harlem in New York, Down These Mean Streets, author and former prison inmate Juan Pedro (Piri) Tomas describes being chased through the school hallways by the principal, only to find shelter, and solace, behind the figure of Miss Washington, prompting the following from the young boy's savior:
"Now hol' on, white man," Miss Washington interrupted. "There ain't nobody gonna chaz -- whateverit is -- this boy. I knows him an' he's a good boy, at least good for what comes outta this heah trashy neighborhood, and you ain't gonna do nuttin' to him, unless you-all wans' to walk over me."
Tomas' books is all about race. What's more, it's about racial distinctions within ethnicities, for example, lighter-skinned Puerto Ricans and blacks who viewed their darker-skinned brethren as racially inferior beings. Skin color played a major role in Tomas' childhood, as it has with many minorities. The descriptions of the school principal who chased Piri that day are short on physical details, other than the fact that he is articulate and deferential to Miss Washington, an imposing 280-pound woman. We can surmise that the principal is white, in which case Miss Washington was siding with a fellow minority against the white authority figure. That Tomas takes pains to quote the principal as meekly responding to the large black woman with a pitiful defense of his actions -- "I- I- I- er, assure you, madam, this young man is gifted with the most wonderful talent for prevarication I've ever seen" -- is indicative of the manner in which the autocratic Caucasian would be portrayed by the vindictive and too-often-victimized minority. Miss Washington, then, addressed the principal "white man" to draw the enormous distinction between this figure of power and the frightened little Puerto Rican-Cuban boy cowering behind her. To her, the conflict between principal and student was entirely racial, and her words and demeanor bespeak one who has been on the losing end of that equation too often.
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