(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Down These Mean Streets is an autobiographical novel that tells of the author’s experiences growing up as a dark-skinned Puerto Rican in New York, becoming involved in drugs and crime, and going to prison. It is only fiction insofar as the author attempts to reconstruct the scenes of his youth in a more detailed and lifelike manner than would be possible by recounting memories alone.

The book’s thirty-five chapters are divided into eight sections, with each of the sections devoted to an important place and time in the author’s life. The first section, consisting of eight chapters and entitled “Harlem,” deals with Piri’s childhood in and around New York’s Spanish Harlem. The two chapters of the second section, “Suburbia,” deal with life in the suburbs of Long Island, where the family moves after Piri’s father gets a wartime job at an airplane factory. The third, fifth, and final chapters all concern Harlem, the site of the “mean streets” of the book’s title and a place that keeps drawing Piri Thomas back.

Piri Thomas himself is the narrator of the book, telling his story in the first person. The style draws heavily on the speech of New York’s Puerto Rican and black populations, evoking the feel of the urban environment. The author scatters Spanish phrases and Puerto Rican slang throughout the narrative, although the meanings of these are usually clear enough that readers with no knowledge of Spanish do not need to turn to the short glossary in the back of the book.

In 1941, when Piri was thirteen, his father, known as “Poppa” in the book, lost his job and went to work with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a Depression-era government program to create jobs. The work was hard manual labor, and Poppa became distant and cool toward his son, who desperately wanted paternal...

(The entire section is 760 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Down These Mean Streets, Piri Thomas’ confessional autobiography, documents the brutal growing-up experiences of a young man of African and Puerto Rican descent in New York City. This testimonial depicts the Depression of the 1930’s in Spanish Harlem and the struggle to achieve an identity in a society where inequality prevails.

The dark-skinned Piri, known as Johnny Gringo, encounters racial and social prejudice beginning in childhood. The son of Hispanic immigrants, he becomes aware of his parents’ poverty at an early age. His father often submits the family to the humiliation of welfare, while the mother escapes reality by daydreaming about Puerto Rico. Piri, the oldest of five children, yearns for the love of his father, who favors the siblings with lighter skin. When the family moves to an Italian neighborhood, Piri is a victim of racial remarks and physical abuse. As an outsider, in his need to belong, he joins street gangs that walk down the streets “tall and tough,” and becomes a burglar.

In 1944, the family moves to a suburb in Long Island; Piri’s attempts to make friends fail because of discrimination. He moves back to Harlem on his own; unable to get a job, he starts dealing drugs. He achieves recognition and prestige among junkies and hoodlums.

Confused about his identity, Piri joins the merchant marine with his black friend Brew. Prejudice becomes intolerable after seven months around the world. He returns to Harlem. When Piri’s mother dies, the streets become his world again. Although he is in love with Trina, he fathers a child with Dulcien. Addicted to heroin, in need of money, he gets involved in burglaries. Convicted of an attempted armed robbery, he is sentenced to five to fifteen years hard labor in prison. His adored Trina marries somebody else.

In his twenties, while in prison, Piri tries to find himself through learning. Eligible for parole after four years, he focuses on preparing for freedom. He earns a high school diploma, three or four certificates, and three diplomas for Bible studies. Through self-discovery, faith, and endurance, he finds redemption. A classic coming-of-age narrative, Down These Mean Streets portrays the survival strategies of underprivileged Latino youth in urban streets and in prison. Through the achievement of self-respect and dignity, there comes a new sense of identity.


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Flores, Juan. Divided Borders: Essays on Puerto Rican Identity. Houston, Tex.: Arte Público Press, 1993.

Fox, Geoffrey. Hispanic Nation: Culture, Politics, and the Construction of Identity. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. A general work on the growth of Hispanic ethnic groups in America. Contains a discussion of Puerto Rican literature that gives special attention to the influence of Piri Thomas.

Hernandez, Carmen Dolores. Puerto Rican Voices in English: Interviews with Writers. New York: Praeger, 1997. Interviews with fourteen Puerto Rican authors, including Piri Thomas, who write in English. The book will help readers understand the dilemma of the Puerto Rican writer, who must work in two cultural traditions, and it presents readers with the views of Thomas and his fellow authors on their work.

Rivero, Eliana. “Hispanic Literature in the United States: Self-Image and Conflict.” Revista Chicano-Riqueña 13, nos. 3-4 (1985): 173-192.

Rodriguez de Laguna, Asela, ed. Images and Identities: The Puerto Rican in Literature. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1987.

Santiago, Roberto, ed. Boricuas: Influential Puerto Rican Writings—An Anthology. New York: Ballantine Books, 1995. An anthology of the most influential Puerto Rican writings of the twentieth century, both on the island and in the mainland United States. Intended to serve as a handbook on the Puerto Rican experience, this can help readers place the writings of Piri Thomas in literary and historical context.

Shorris, Earl. Latinos: A Biography of the People. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.

Turner, Faythe, ed. Puerto Rican Writers at Home in the USA: An Anthology. Seattle: Open Hand, 1991. A collection of stories, poems, and essays about the Puerto Rican experience in America, including writing by Piri Thomas.