Analysis

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Last Reviewed on May 26, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 993

Down These Mean Streets begins in Spanish Harlem in the 1940s; the community is still suffering from the effects of the Great Depression and will soon feel the nationwide pressure of the Pearl Harbor bombing. Along with racial tensions and poverty, there is something that lies much deeper in Spanish...

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Down These Mean Streets begins in Spanish Harlem in the 1940s; the community is still suffering from the effects of the Great Depression and will soon feel the nationwide pressure of the Pearl Harbor bombing. Along with racial tensions and poverty, there is something that lies much deeper in Spanish Harlem than the world’s troubles, and that’s the world of street code.

From page one, Piri understands this code and wants to be “an hombre.” He wants to be seen, respected, and treated as a man. This need bubbling up from his heart is a reflection of his home life, as he lives with a father who barely pays attention to him because he is forced to work multiple jobs. Even though his father works day and night to provide for the family, Piri doesn’t see this work as love. He’s looking for more, and the struggle becomes deeper when he begins to see the harsh reality of racism and prejudice all over the world.

Piri struggles with his identity. He identifies as Puerto Rican and speaks Spanish, but his dark skin creates a complexity that Piri struggles to define and understand throughout his teenage years. This conflict, coupled with a longing for acceptance and love from his father, creates internal chaos that takes Piri on a journey into the streets and results in a six-year prison sentence.

From the start, the reader watches a young boy look for love and respect in all the wrong places. Piri opens his narrative by running away from home, but he becomes scared and returns to a father who doesn’t know he had left. This burns Piri’s heart and adds to the insecurity he already feels surrounding his father. Piri spends his young teen years wondering if his father actually does love him, looking for meaning in quick conversations and brief interactions.

Unfortunately, Piri and his father never fully reconcile, even after their brief conversation about race in the Long Island house. It could be that Piri’s father does give into the concept of “being” or “acting” white, as Piri would suggest, but it could also be true that his father simply wants to provide a good life for his children. What Piri doesn’t realize is that Poppa wants to remove the burden of street code from Piri’s shoulders, but Piri can only see this move as trying to be white or showing disloyalty to their culture. Because Piri and his father struggle to communicate and both need more time to work through these deep traumas, the conflict is never resolved, even though it’s mentioned that Piri does start spending time on Long Island again when he is released from prison.

The combination of Piri’s issues with his father and his need to be respected play out on the streets of Harlem as Piri seeks approval, acceptance, and what could be conceived as a replacement family. Even though Piri is terrified of the life he begins to embark on, he never stops. He tells himself to “have heart” and fights through his fear as he goes up against gang violence and the police. Even though he still has anxieties, Piri feels comfortable on the streets because he knows where he stands—something he never finds in the relationship with his father. Through all the uncertainty of the streets, Piri finds stability in instability, something he could never find within his father’s heart. He never knows what his father thinks or feels, but he knows what he has to do to maintain a reputation and stay alive in Spanish Harlem.

It’s almost as if Spanish Harlem becomes another character in the memoir, as love for the neighborhood is the only loyalty Piri upholds throughout the narrative. He is unfaithful to the love of his life, Trina, and stops seeing much of his family when they move, because when it comes to the call of Harlem, Piri always answers. The reader sees this clearly when Piri finally gets his life together in Washington, DC, but leaves after Dulcien becomes pregnant.

The turning point for Piri occurs in jail and is implied in chapter 32 of the memoir. When Piri begins reading about philosophy and psychology, he realizes that he doesn’t know who he is. It’s at this moment that Piri actually starts taking responsibility for his actions and stops blaming the world around him for his issues with race, respect, and family. Piri learns that he has control over his life and his choices. The only heart he needs to prove anything to is his own—with a new start that will never put him back in prison. He turns to God for help, ready to be a better man, a real hombre. It seems that Piri finally understands that all he needs to survive this world is inside of him. When he talks with God, he’s ready to start trusting himself and hear the call to a better life.

It seems that this lesson sticks by the end of the narrative, when Piri returns home to Harlem. Piri makes a few negative choices but decides that enough is enough. Once he acknowledges that everything has changed and his affair with Harlem is over, he releases the need to merely survive and begins to thrive. Most of his friends are in jail, Trina has moved on, and the rest of his crew are addicted to heroin. The final moment of change occurs when Carlito offers him heroin. He sees a past he never wants to experience again and realizes that his old life is only a memory.

As Piri leaves Carlito on the roof, he realizes that his past is now behind him, and he has an entire future waiting for him to explore. Piri is free from his circumstances and can finally start a new life, one that is happy and healthy.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 269

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.

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