Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Psychological and sociological themes are interwoven in Down These Mean Streets. Psychologically, it is the coming-of-age story of a young man who must struggle with the conflicts in his family and in his own mind in order to make sense of his life. Through gang involvement, drug addiction, a criminal career, and a prison sentence, the protagonist wrestles with his own versions of the problems that confront all people: problems of self-definition, of tension with parents, of sexual relationships, and of religious meaning. These problems are complicated by the hero’s sociological setting. As a Puerto Rican, he is a member of a group that has an ambiguous status. Puerto Rico is not a state or a part of any state, but it is part of the United States. Puerto Ricans are culturally different from the people of the mainland United States, but they are U.S. citizens. As a blend of national and racial ancestries, Puerto Ricans often do not fit neatly into the racial categories used by North Americans. In writing an autobiographical novel, Piri Thomas added a distinctively Puerto Rican voice to the tradition of American immigrant literature.

Racism and prejudice, both as sociological forces and as sources of psychological pain, are central themes in the work. Some of Piri’s difficulties in fitting in with American society are caused by the impoverished circumstances of his background. He also experiences real discrimination, and opportunities are closed to him because of his skin color. His anger and resentment at being continually rejected, though, are his true reasons for becoming a drug addict and a criminal. His story is ultimately the story of his ability to rise above his anger.