Down These Mean Streets

by Piri Thomas

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In his account of growing up Puerto Rican in 1940s New York City, Piri Thomas explores numerous issues that differ for the first generation of children born on the mainland. His stories encompass all aspects of daily life, including family dynamics, school, and work.

His father changes job often and, as the county is not yet out of the Depression, sometimes has to take low-paying federal relief program jobs. One winter day, the children beg their mother for stories of Puerto Rico, the warm paradise where they have never been. When Poppa comes home, he brings the outdoors wintry feeling with him into their apartment, which has almost no heat. He is bone tired, and curses almost everything, the “d—“ this or that.

Momma . . . thought about her Puerto Rico and maybe being there where you didn’t have to wear a lot of extra clothes and feel so full of d---s, and how when she was a little girl all the green was wet from the lluvias [rains] . . .

And Miriam, James, José, and me, just looking and thinking about snow balls and Puerto Rico and summertime in the street and whether we were gonna live like this forever and not know enough to be sorry for ourselves.

The kitchen all of a sudden felt warmer to me, like being together made it more like we wanted it to be.

As a teenager, Piri worked as a shoeshine boy on the street. He adopted a positive attitude, taking care to do a good job and hoping for a tip to supplement the fifteen cents he charged. The earnings were slim, and tips infrequent.

But wasn’t it great to work for a living? I calculated how long it would take to make my first million shining shoes. Too long. I would be something like 987 years old.

After Piri becomes friends with an African American man, nicknamed Brew, he starts to think of himself as black or, in the term common at the time, a “Negro.” He tries to convince his brother of this identity, pointing out that they definitely are not white so that, according to mainstream white thinking, they are by default black. His brother, José, does not accept this.

“I don’t give a good s--- what you say, Piri. We’re Puerto Ricans, and that makes us different from black people."

I was trying not to get mad. “José, that’s what the white man’s been telling the Negro all along, that ‘cause he’s white he’s different from the Negro; that he’s better’n a the Negro or anyone that’s not white . . . I’m saying, sure there’s stone-white Puerto Ricans, like from Spanish way back—but it ain’t us.”

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