Down These Mean Streets believe that every child is born a poet, and every poet is a child. Poetry to me was always a very sacred form of expression. (qtd. In Fisher 2003)
Introduction / Background History
Born Juan Pedro Tomas, of Puerto Rican and Cuban parents in New York City's Spanish Harlem in 1928, Piri Thomas began his struggle for survival, identity, and recognition at an early age. The vicious street environment of poverty, racism, and street crime took its toll and he served seven years of nightmarish incarceration at hard labor. But, with the knowledge that he had not been born a criminal, he rose above his violent background of drugs and gang warfare, and he vowed to use his street and prison know-how to reach hard-core youth and turn them away from a life of crime.
Thirty years ago Piri Thomas made literary history with this lacerating, lyrical memoir of his coming of age on the streets of Spanish Harlem. Here was the testament of a born outsider: a Puerto Rican in English-speaking America; a dark-skinned morenito in a family that refused to acknowledge its African blood. Here was an unsparing document of Thomas's plunge into the deadly consolations of drugs, street fighting, and armed robbery - a descent that ended when the twenty-two-year-old Piri was sent to prison for shooting a cop.
As he recounts the journey that took him from adolescence in El Barrio to a lock-up in Sing to the freedom that comes of self-acceptance, faith, and inner confidence, Piri Thomas gives us a book that is as exultant as it is harrowing and whose every page bears the irrepressible rhythm of its author's voice. Thirty years after its first appearance, this classic of manhood, marginalization, survival, and transcendence continues to touch the souls of all who read Down These Mean Streets.
Born in New York City's Spanish Harlem in 1928, the son of a Puerto Rican mother and a Cuban father, Thomas struggled for his survival, identity, and recognition at an early age. He lived among poverty, racism, and street crime. His autobiography, Down These Mean Streets, published in 1967, made "el barrio" (the neighborhood) a household word to non-Spanish speaking readers (Fisher 2003).
In the 1930s when he was growing up, "they didn't know whether to call me nigger or spic" (Fisher 2003). So they called him both. "I'm not a nigger and I'm not a spic," he would reply, "I'm a human being" (Fisher 2003). His words reflect his mother's wisdom. When his mother, Dolores Monta-ez Tomas, witnessed her child's anger, she'd say:
No color was born to be superior and no color born to be inferior. All color is born to be beautiful decoration, like the flower gardens of the earth. Nobody's better than you, son.
We are not minorities. We are all majorities of one, similar to each other, but like fingerprints, not quite the same. (qtd. In Fisher 2003)
Piri's father, Juan Tomas, had been raised in an orphanage in Cuba by missionaries. He migrated to Puerto Rico at the age of sixteen; his intention was to enter the United States as a Puerto Rican. After all, he reasoned, Puerto Ricans and Cubans were "kissing cousins" (Fisher 2003). Tired of living on colonized islands, he ventured to live "in the belly of the shark" (Fisher 2003). He was brought to the United Sates by friends and dumped in Harlem at the age of seventeen. Life there was rugged. Though he was trained to be a tailor, he could only find menial jobs. He changed his name from Tomas to the anglicized, Thomas, something he would be ashamed of for the rest of his life (Fisher 2003).
Born John Thomas, the younger Tomas disliked his name, and so adopted Piri, from the word, "spirit" (Fisher 2003). Though not a talkative person, his father did imbue him with an interest in Cuba and took him to political meetings to hear, among others, Vito Marcantonio, a staunch champion of justice and human rights for the poor and independence for Puerto Rico (Fisher 2003).
Piri's mother was visiting from Bayam n, Puerto Rico, when she met her husband-to-be. She was light complexioned, Juan was dark, so their seven children ranged from fair to dark-skinned. From his mother, Piri gained spiritual insight, but never could relate to spirituality in the context of priests or organized religion, unless it was in the sense of sharing and respect for human dignity (Fisher 2003).
As an adult, Piri has long believed that we all need each other. His mother, a Seventh Day Adventist, wanted him to become a minister. But writing was in his blood. Piri always had a flair for words. Once scolded by an irate teacher for speaking Spanish, he determined to master the English language (Fisher 2003). Spanish, he knew from his parents; English, he had picked up on the streets. His mother was a great storyteller, passing on to him folklore of Puerto Rico.
Prison & Censorship
One day Piri Thomas put a big notebook on the table in his prison cell during a seven-year stretch for armed robbery and said to the book, "I want to tell you a story." He began writing. Thomas had forgotten that he had failed English in school. By his own admission he "didn't know an adjective from a pronoun from a hole in the ground" (Fisher 2003). Thus, he began to write his book phonetically until he went to high school in prison and received his diploma. Upon his release, he expressed his concern for his brothers and sisters in Harlem by working with street gangs there (Fisher 2003).
On Thomas' first visit to Puerto Rico, he drank in the beauty of the scenery, and the ugliness of colonialism. He was offered a scholarship towards a doctorate in psychology at the University of Puerto Rico (http://www.peacehost.com2000). But after a few months, he found it too boring. His years in prison had been a learning experience beyond what he could learn in college. Piri decided that he wanted his doctorate in the art of living, rather than in academics. He worked for a time as assistant to the Director of the Hospital of Psychiatry in R'o Piedras. As an ex-addict, he was able to help develop a successful program of rehabilitation for addicts (http://www.peacehost.com2000).
In protesting the removal of Down These Mean Streets from some libraries, Piri related how much the library had meant to him in his childhood. He used to spend a great deal of time in the library, borrowing the allotted two books and slipping three or four more under his coat. Through books he had learned of the world outside (Fisher 2003).
Campaigns to remove books from school curricula and libraries go back decades (Heins 2003). In one incident in 1975, seven members of the school board in a Long Island, New York town called Island Trees ordered the removal from school libraries of nine books that had been listed as "objectionable" by a local conservative group. They included Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, Piri Thomas' Down These Mean Streets, Desmond Morris' The Naked Ape, and Best Short Stories by Negro Writers, edited by Langston Hughes (Heins 2003).
The school board members explained that they had been told the books were "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy" (qtd. In Heins 2003). Unlike many similar school censorship incidents, this one ended up at the Supreme Court, largely thanks to a student named Steven Pico who took the school district to court.
The Supreme Court eventually issued what we call a compromise decision. On the one hand, it said school boards have broad discretion to select or remove books that they consider "pervasively vulgar" (qtd. In Heins 2003). But on the other hand, a narrow majority of five justices said that some motivations for the removal of books from school libraries would violate the First Amendment. Four justices joined an opinion explaining that school boards may not act in a narrowly partisan or political manner," because "our Constitution does not permit the official suppression of ideas" (qtd. In Heins 2003). This Pico standard still governs in school censorship cases; as a result, most school boards have learned to frame their censorship decisions in terms of "vulgarity" rather than suppression of particular ideas.
Surviving an upbringing in a world of racism, brutality, and censorship, Thomas can still write, "My world is really loving, despite promises that never come to be" (qtd. On http://www.peacehost.com2000).
Racism in Literature
The onset of the 1970s and 1980s propagated a generation of historians and other academics schooled in the struggles for civil rights in the turbulent 1960s and influenced by the creative expression of their communities (Sanchez Korrol 2000). Intent on expanding the boundaries of academic history to include strong national connections, labor, gender, and ethno-racial perspectives, intergenerational dynamics, interdisciplinary methods, and new categories of analysis, they challenged the demeaning, distorted, and monolithic interpretations of the U.S. Latino experience.