Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets


In his autobiography, Piri Thomas narrates his misfortunes on the streets of Spanish Harlem where poverty and racism often lead youths to alcohol, drugs, gangs, and crime. Though Thomas tells the experiences he shares with the majority of boys in his neighborhood, being mixed race in segregated America makes his condition very unique. If on one side, his narrative is collective, it also becomes very personal, especially when he comes to terms with the anguish of being a different Latino, a dark skin Puerto Rican who is identified as a Negro on the streets, and suffers discrimination within his own family. As a child of a white Puerto Rican and a Black Cuban, in his family, he is defined as a black ugly guy. As he says;

“Aw, Moms, you love any way I am, clean or dirty, white or black, pretty or ugly.  Si, you’re right, and my son, I have to love you because only your mother could love you, un negrito ugly.” (DOTMS 19)

Here, Thomas deals with a situation that is very peculiar in the mixed raced Latin- America, the discrimination that is based on the skin color. It is the various shades of the skin which often determines one’s position in society. Thus Piri’s phenotype determines his lower status at home where he was the main target of his father’s abuse.  On the streets of Harlem where he is identified as a Negro, being mixed race does not give him any special privilege. Thus he learned how to hate blacks and tried by all means not to identify with them. As he says:

“Brew,” I said, “ I hate the paddy who’s trying to keep the black man down. But I am beginning to hate the black man, too, ‘cause I feel his pain and I don’t know that it oughtta be mine. (DOTMS 124)

While he says that he hates whites and blacks in America, in spite of his appearance, he avoids blackness. Due to the impossibility of constructing an in-between identity in America, as in Latin America, he chooses to be white, exactly like his father. It is this state of mind, this paranoia for whiteness that leads to some very stereotyped images of African Americans in the novel.

Brew, his friend, is also an interesting character; he is a stereotyped black American who is angry and uneducated. Brew is disrespected by Piri who almost agrees that he is a black who does not like blacks. In the second part of the book, Brew vanishes from the narrative what opens up space to many interpretations.

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