Down These Mean Streets Themes
The main themes in Down These Mean Streets are race and identity, loyalty, and poverty and drug abuse.
- Race and identity: Though Piri’s family is Puerto Rican, he is darker than the rest of them and yet feels he isn’t black because of his cultural ties.
- Loyalty: Piri’s loyalty to the streets and their concept of manhood leads him to be disloyal to important people in his life, such as Trina.
- Poverty and drug abuse: Piri struggles to break away from the cycle of poverty and subsequent drug use.
Race and Identity
At the beginning of the memoir, the reader learns Piri is Puerto Rican, but as time goes on, Piri and the reader both recognize that he is darker than most of his family and most of his Puerto Rican friends. While those in his life are white-passing, Piri looks more like a black man, something he comes to resent along his journey. The need to understand the pain and plight of the black man pushes Piri to travel to the South—which, particularly in the 1940s and 1950s, is still rampant with racism, lynchings, and hatred.
Piri feels he doesn’t fit in anywhere. He is too dark to be identified as Puerto Rican, and he feels he isn’t black because of his cultural roots. The Italians beat him up and call him racial slurs, and the white girls on Long Island are horrified that a “colored boy” would even speak to them. The more he tries to unpack his identity, the more he comes to resent everyone: Puerto Ricans, white folks, and the black community.
Piri’s friend, Brew, a black man from the South, tries to help Piri understand the ways of the world. No matter what Piri feels, Brew emphasizes, his skin color dictates his reality. Brew tries to explain that the system was built on something much larger than race: that is, power. There are people of all kinds, white included, who are suffering, but Piri doesn’t want to be associated with any race but his own, not realizing that he is carrying his own prejudices.
Piri’s struggles to fit in and accept his skin color illuminate not only the struggles that remain from slavery but also the prejudices within one’s own racial group. The reader learns that people are far more than their skin color, but racial divides and ingrained prejudices continue to divide the nation and the world. Identity runs far deeper than the skin, but understanding one’s place seems dependent on acknowledging the dominance of colorism in the world.
Throughout the story, Piri remains loyal to the streets. He feels a call to “have heart” and ensure that his reputation is upheld, but his loyalty almost costs him his life. However, this concept of loyalty isn’t really a choice for Piri. It’s either “eat or be eaten”—because if Piri doesn’t create a reputation for himself on his block, he will be beaten, or worse.
From the beginning of the story, this concept of loyalty to the streets of Harlem makes Piri feel like he needs to be a man; he wants to be looked at as “an hombre,” but this need for external validation and wanting to grow up too quickly hurts Piri in the end. It forces him to make hard choices that damage not only his own future but also the lives of those who are affected by his negative actions, such as the man at the car dealership, the police officer he shoots, and Trina. Even though Piri feels he has to be loyal to street code, this loyalty comes with a price: a long prison sentence and the loss of the woman he loves.
The reader also sees the concept of loyalty play out with Trina. While Piri has multiple affairs, he believes Trina is the one for him and refuses to have sex with her before their wedding day. Even after he gets another girl pregnant, Trina loves him just as deeply. She deals with his abuse and his toxic behaviors, and just like Piri, she remains loyal to his form of love. However, after Piri...
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spends some years in jail, Trina marries someone else and has a child. He puts his hopes in her, but from day one—when Piri snorts heroin and they fight on Trina’s stoop—it’s clear that he has other priorities. His actions don’t align with his words, because he always picks the streets over everyone and everything else: he continually chooses one form of loyalty over another.
It seems Piri’s concept of loyalty is skewed. Everything and everyone he remains loyal to hurts him in the end, but after six years in prison, Piri finally realizes he can’t live his life the same way anymore. At the prison riot, he knows that if he fights, he has no shot at parole, and his growth is reinforced when he gets out of jail and refuses to shoot heroin with Carlito. He finally realizes that the only person he needs to be loyal to is himself, and with a clean heart and a clear head, he can live a good life.
Poverty and Drug Abuse
Piri’s family struggles to make money. His father is constantly losing work and keeps moving the family around Harlem to keep Piri out of trouble. Each time Poppa loses a job, he takes it out on the rest of the family, but this projection is too much for Piri to handle. However, the irony comes in when Piri tries to hustle on the streets and gets caught up in the drug world. He constantly wants the respect of his father, yet he misses the point that his father works honorable jobs to keep the family going. Poppa works night and day to save money and move the family to a safe neighborhood in Long Island so Piri doesn’t have to end up on the streets, but this form of love is lost on Piri, who has been blinded by the endless cycle of poverty.
This is the lesson of the text itself—one of circumstance, class systems, and immigrant struggle. Piri was born into a cycle and location of poverty and drug abuse, and the minute Piri snorts heroin before the Christmas party, he aligns himself with the stereotype of the Barrio. In one very real sense, Piri doesn’t have an option to make a better choice. He is a product of his environment and is trying to survive poverty, bullying, and gang violence.
While the cycle is broken by Poppa moving the family to Long Island, the internal struggles of Piri’s race and prejudices are exposed, which leads to feelings of hatred and isolation. Piri doesn’t feel comfortable in Long Island due to blatant racism against him, so he reverts back to the cycle he knows: drugs and poverty in Spanish Harlem. Breaking this cycle doesn’t happen by moving or even getting clean, as we see when Waneko helps Piri wean off heroin. It’s something deeper that is ingrained in Piri.
But at the end, Piri does break the cycle and realizes that labels and reputation mean nothing if a person is dead or rotting away in prison. Piri is a reminder to readers that one’s situation can define a person, but there is always a choice when it comes to the future. Piri didn’t have every option available to him, but he did learn how to redirect his heart away from danger and towards a safer life. He’s a reminder that anyone can change, even if it means walking through hell to get there.