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Down These Mean Streets (Part 1)

I’m really enjoying this book so far – so much so that it has been hard for me to put the book down and tackle the other work I have to do. I think one of the more obvious themes is the concept of race and identity. At surface, this may seem as a simple story; a story – or perhaps more appropriately deemed as a memoire – of the life and transformation of a young, Puerto Rican boy trying to find his place in the world. However, I think this book as a whole is unusual and complicated – a “kink”, if you will.

Most memoires about race in the USA are centred around the African American experiences. I, for one, haven’t read, about the experiences of Puerto Ricans (or other races for that matter) during this time, prior to this class. This seems like a kink in and of itself – a dark skinned, Puerto Rican boy telling his story in insane detail of his experience in an American world. Thus far, it has been a constant search for the young boy’s identity – he is stuck in the middle. He has a fair skinned mother, but a dark father. He is told by the many he is black, wants to be white, and yet, he is neither. His sense of insecurity and uncertainty of who he is and how that differs from who he wants to be is demonstrated in how he constantly compares himself to others:

 “I wondered if it was too mean to hate your bothers a little for looking white like Momma. I felt my hair – thick, black and wiry. Mentally I compared my hair with my brothers’ hair. MY face screwed up at the memory of the jillion tons of stickum hair oils splashed down in a vain attempt to make it like theirs. I felt my nose. “Shit, it ain’t so flat,” I said aloud. But mentally I measured it against my brothers’, whose noses were sharp, straight and placed neat-like in the middle of their paddy fair faces. Why did this have to happen to me? Why couldn’t I be born like them?

Although he compares himself with his mother and siblings in this way, his father is different; Piri and his father seem to be considered outsiders to their family, and society in general. Piri even references their “peters”, stating how his two brothers have white peters and the “only ones got black peters is Poppa and me, and Poppa acts like his is white, too”. He goes on to say that “if I’m a Negro, then you and James is one too. And that ain’t leavin’ out Sis and Poppa. Only Momma’s an exception.” This is interesting, because it calls into question of decent, while also hinting at the patriarchy of the world; it’s not the mother who passed down the blackness, it’s the father, and the whiteness of the mother does not negate or “rescue” the blackness of her husband in the family, nor his position in society. It’s interesting to ponder that if his mother were dark-skinned and the husband fair-skinned, if their lives would have been the same or dramatically different during this time in history. To me,  this distinction seems quite deliberate as Piri quite frequently references his Mom’s lighter complexion and his father’s darker skin. The purpose? I’m not 100% sure.


2 thoughts on “Down These Mean Streets (Part 1)

  1. I am also enjoying this book so far!
    I agree with you on how Piri has a problem to find his identity because of the color of his skin, and how his color is different from the rest of members of his family. I also agree with you, in that reading these kind of stories, by a boy born from a Puerto Rican mother, who has dark skin color and who was in prison, is a kink itself.
    I find interesting how you find connections with the patriarchy of the world about in this books and in relation to the skin color of Piri’s mom and dad.


  2. Hey Madeson!
    I find what you mention interesting, I saw these trends as well, also in how, in the context of a patriarchy, he has no problems dating ‘white’ girls. Brew notices this and he points it out to Piri. I grew up in Portugal, where there are a lot of Immigrants from Angola and Mozambique. The conception of Black and white is a little different there, and I wonder if it might be somehow related to the conception Piri has. In Brazil and Portugal being Black is different than being moreno, there is even the term ‘mulato’ and ‘cafe com leite’ which refers to the ‘whiter tones’ in between. The term mulato isn’t derogatory in Portugal nor in Mozambique, but i think it is in Brazil. I think it is interesting that
    I think his mom might be ‘white’ in this way. And in Portugal, some guys would prefer dating girls that were “whiter” than them. It somehow brings a certain feeling of empowerment. It also applies to people in Portugal that have more arabic complections (due to previous arab occupation).
    It is interesting that each country has a different sense of a “colour gradient”.
    -M. F.


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