The Amigo Brothers: The Difficulty in Understanding Identity Through Social Constructs

June 22, 2022 by Essay Writer

Piri Thomas’ novel Down These Mean Streets depicts a captivating and thought-provoking story that delineates significant questions of class, gender, and race within society. What are they really? Where does one stand if they’re mixed? Why are these elements so important? Carefully illustrated by Piri, the injustices perpetrated upon the poor and racial minorities at the time of this writing emphasize these questions through experience and reflection. Throughout, Piri is frequently found doubtful of his own personal identity because he is a product of mixed-race marriage. The inability to reside within a singular culture, forces him to feel insecure and lacking of an identity by definition. The novel’s main objective is to bring us through this difficult journey in Piri unveiling his identity which has been shadowed by social constructs that create illusionary boundaries, which affect how people are viewed, and create stereotypes and classifications for different race and genders that push people to act a certain way. Down These Main Streets serves as a glimpse into the world that is run by these social constructs, hindering Piri from understanding his true identity.

One of the key elements of Piri which often forces him to question his personal identity, is the color of his skin versus his cultural heritage. As the child of parents that are of different races, Piri is commonly referred to as more than one race by people who are unable to determine what exactly he is. Piri clearly expresses interest in enganging more with his Puerto Rican heritage as he asks his mother to “tell us all about Porto Rico”, and his interactions with family members and friends often revert into broken Spanish (9). However, due to his dark skin color, many people who don’t know him personally often mistake Piri for being African American.

“It’s not the same for me. How come when we all play with you, I can’t really enjoy it like the rest? How come when we all get hit for doing something wrong, I feel it the hardest? Maybe ‘cause I’m the biggest, huh? Or maybe it’s ‘cause I’m the darkest in this family…Miriam gets treated like a princess. I’d like to punch her in her straight nose.” (Thomas 22.) This passage highlights one of Piri’s most challenging qualities about himself; the fact that he inherited black features, while his siblings are all lighter than him. These differences in appearance cause him to believe that his father does not love him as much as the others because they are naturally better than him for the color of their skin, which is ironic since his father is the one who he inherited this quality from. The lines “it’s not the same for me” and “I can’t really enjoy it like the rest”, are examples of how inferior Piri feels because of the color of his skin, as he cannot comprehend why he is different from his siblings in any other way. This leads to jealousy which is expressed towards his sister in the line, “I’d like to punch her in her straight nose”, noting the fact that her nose is straight which is a “white” feature.

Later on in the chapter, Piri and his family move to a different part of Harlem, where he is harassed and questioned by a group of local Italian kids who believe he is “black enuff to be a nigger” (24). At this point, Piri is confused by this mentality because he does not identify as black, but rather, Puerto Rican. He is then nearly blinded in a traumatizing physical attack. He states, “The shitty gritty stuff hit my face, and I felt the scrappy pain make itself a part of my eyes…I heard Rocky’s voice shouting, ‘Ya scum bag, ya didn’t have to fight the spic dirty; you could’ve fucked him up fair and square!’ I couldn’t see” (31-32). This scene is significantly essential in Piri’s journey because it serves to demonstrate how Italians in the neighborhood discriminated against both African Americans and Latin Americans at the time, as well as disregard the idea that Piri could potentially possess both identities. Because he did not explicitly give into the aggressive comments made towards him when Rocky and the other boys wanted to fight him, one of them picked up and threw gravel into Piri’s eyes which nearly caused him to go blind. However, even in this moment where his sight is in danger, Rocky refers to Piri as a “the spic”, and the boys feel no mercy for him solely because of his race. His attempts to stand up to them in hopes of making his father proud, only to be degraded regardless of what he had said, only deepens the complexity of Piri not understanding his identity. In this situation, Piri believes that he is Puerto Rican because of his heritage, yet the Italian kids assumed his identity on Piri’s skin color. It leaves Piri confused and with a distorted perception of who he is, as he begins to identify as what he thinks he fits best into. At one point, Piri mentions that he sees himself as a “Puerto Rican moyeto” or ‘Puerto Rican Negro’, indicating that the color of one’s skin, and their cultural background, can define identity and is brought out through a culmination of different factors, which are both physical and cultural. Interestingly, ‘Down These Mean Streets’ also illustrates how identification may be demonstrated though biological means. Whilst discussing racial backgrounds at a bar, Gerald explains to Piri and Brew that the “genealogical tracer” is most important in deciding ones identity. For example, even though Piri sees himself as a “moyeto”, Gerald argues that he is “really only one-eight colored” (p. 175) and therefore must consider himself black. Gerald continues by saying due to his mixed-cultural background he feels “sort of Spanish-ish” (p. 172). Again, Gerald’s feelings of Spanish decent are biologically rooted within him, thus creating his identity. Even though Gerald portrays no physical appearance of Spanish decent, he believes he has a right to consider himself Spanish simple due to his heritage. Gerald’s meaning of identification only confuses Piri more as his mixed-cultural heritage offers him a wide variety of cultural identities, but not one in particular.

In today’s society, people of mixed-culture are heavily embraced because culture is constituted with understanding, global thinking, and forward rational.However, this positive mentality was not the case for Piri during the Interwar Period and Jim Crow Era. Racial segregation defined who people were simply based on the color of one’s skin; complete exaggerations of social behavior created stereotypes that were wrongfully placed upon people (often those of lower economic status); and due to one’s skin color, people were forced to endure incomprehensibility harsh lifestyles. Piri was sadly one of many who were constrained to such lifestyles. For example, during a meal at a restaurant with Betty, a light skinned girl Instead of embracing his dark skin color as he normally would around members of his family, Piri understood the negative connotations linked to being black in American society, and thus was insulted. In fact, Piri is so enraged by these racial comments he thinks back to a romantic experience he had with Betty and responds by saying to himself Even though Piri often considered himself “negro” or “moyeto”, he only felt comfortable when members of his family called him that. When others, especially those of lighter skin color, pointed out his dark complexion, he would instinctually snap back at them. “It was a while before I dug that they were talking about ‘some nigger.’ ‘Will you look at that damn nigger with that white girl?’ A voice said…she understood and kept saying ‘I don’t care what they think- I love you, I love you.’ But inside me I kept saying, Damn it, I hate you- no, not you, just your damn color. My God, why am I in the middle?” (90)

This quotation illustrates how the confusion he feels is only made worse by the fact that he is simultaneously referred to as “some nigger” by the kids at school and told, “I love you” by the white girl. He cannot get past his frustration with the “paddies” at school in order to ignore the remarks; however, he is able to distinguish that he does not hate her, but the color of her skin, which only furthers the incoherence. Living in the suburbs teaches Piri that the “paddies” will only ever see him as African American, which makes him question his entire family’s identity in addition to his own. He gets into a fight with his brother José because he extends the African American label to apply to his entire family, stating, “…only pure white Puerto Ricans are white…Poppa thinks that marrying a white woman made him white. He’s wrong…Poppa’s got moyeto blood. I got it. Sis got it. James got it. And, mah deah brudder, you-all got it! Dig it!” (145) The fact that Thomas uses the term “moyeto” (black man) to describe his father is significant because he is not outright dismissing their Puerto Rican heritage, seeing as he is speaking in Spanish, but he is acknowledging the fact that they have African American blood. His statement, “only pure white Puerto Ricans are white” is a direct representation of what he learned from living in the suburbs, which is a great example of how a person’s location can affect his or her perspective. Saying that his entire family has “moyeto blood” is also an example of incoherence, because it adds confusion to his brother’s life as well as his father’s when he later confronts the two of them. Furthermore, the fact that it upsets his family so much is another example of how society rejects confusion of one’s identity. After his fight with his brother Piri is exhausted by his family and his frustrations with Long Island, so he decides to travel “down South” with his friend Brew. Piri was excited to explore new areas, but he soon learned for himself that it was not easy to be black in the South. His first experience with true segregation is in a restaurant: “‘Boy-er-ah-we don’ serve nigras heah…’ A hand touched a little part of my shoulder. I looked around and a skinny white face said, ‘Y’all don’ want no trouble, do you, boy?’ Nobody else said a word. I jumped off the stool and spilled a lot of bad words, mostly in Spanish… ‘That ain’t the way, man, it ain’t the way,’ [Brew] said.” (186)

This passage is significant because it is another example of how location can shape the way a person thinks, because the way that Piri is treated by the white man is generally accepted by the public who is from there; this is shown by the statement, “Y’all don’ want no trouble, do you, boy?’ Nobody else said a word.” This is also an example of the incoherence within his life because of the fact that he is still trying to embrace his Puerto Rican heritage, by responding mostly in Spanish and assuming that part of his identity, even though they clearly consider him to be black and will not accept that he is both of these things. Finally, Brew warns him once more not to be aggressive in the South because the white people will not respond well, stating, “That ain’t the way, man, it ain’t the way.” (186) This defeated response sets the tone for the rest of the chapter, as Piri comes to realize what little say he has in his own identity and becomes angry. He states, “I learned more and more on my trips. Wherever I went- France, Italy, South America, England- it was the same. It was like Brew said: any language you talk, if you’re black, you’re black. My hate grew within me. I thought, I’m going to kill, I’m going to kill somebody.” (191.) Piri comes to accept the fact that everyone considers him to be black, but he does not do so happily, as he states that “hate grew within [him.]” (191)

Piri is illustrating to readers of his inner conflict with who he is, and that creating an identity for himself is incredible difficult because his mixed heriatage. Piri was very clear that he did not hate Betty but he hates the color of her skin. Therefore, he can not be with her. He seems upset with the last question he says because he wants to know why he is in the “middle.” He is Puerto Rican that can not enjoy an interracial relationship with a white women because he is not looked at as Puerto Rican. At this point, readers may think that Piri wishes that he could be white so he can be happy with Betty.

What situations seen within the restaurant demonstrate is how identity is open to interpretation depending on the individual perceiving the situation. Piri has always believed that he was both Puerto Rican and African American because of his cultural heritage. However, he quickly questions himself when others around him draw attention to the negative connotations linked to being a particular skin color, which Piri obviously does not desire to be. In this situation, African American’s were still considered inferior to other races, especially whites, and thus Piri was insulted to be seen as African American. Identity, therefore, is a malleable concept, interchangeable depending on the situation and social context. Society creates illusionary boundaries that categorize race, gender and class, which are in a constant state of flux. People desire not to be placed in a category that is seen as the minority, and thus will change their behavior in order to be seen differently.

Throughout the novel, the difficulty in maintaining interracial relationships is another factor in Piri’s dilemma as he is a dark-skinned Puerto Rican mistaken as black throughout the novel. His experiences lead to his skin color being more of a disadvantage rather than an identifying factor. Interracial relationships in the 1940’s was a rather foreign concept that was looked down upon in the midst of racial inequality among the races which tried to catergorize people into white, black, or anything else. The idea of a minority dating a white woman was obscene since they were thought of as not being privileged like a white male, ultimately creating insecurity for Piri in never being good enough for a white woman. Interracial love is what Piri struggled with the most because even when he had a good women, he would let them go due to the way society saw him.

Insecurity with skin color is an issue that Piri has because people treat him based off of his color instead of his race. Piri and his family moved to Long Island after his father got a new job. Adjusting to a new school with people that were not his race was difficult for Piri. One day, Piri decides to go to the lunchtime swing session to try and meet new people. He meets a girl at his school and likes her, but soon discovers that he is not as welcome as he thought. A girl named Marcia who modestly rejects him to the face. However, when Piri goes outside he hears Marcia talking to her group of friends, “Just as if I was a black girl. Well! He started talking to me and what could I do except be polite and at the same time not encourage him?” (Thomas, 85). Hearing Marcia speak like this hurt Piri’s feelings. He feels insecure around the people he goes to school with. It even causes him to speak rudely to his friend Angelo. “Do me a favor, you motherfuckin’ paddy, get back with your people. I do not know why the fuck you’re here unless it’s to ease your—oh, man, just get the fuck outta here. I hate them. I hate you. I hate all your white motherjumps” (Thomas, 86). Piri is extremely upset and realizes that he will never be able to be happy with a white female. He knows that he will always be judged on the color of his skin and that it will always be used as a disadvantage. It was not okay for an African American or someone that looked like an African American to be with a white women. Piri in particular struggled with this because he did not know how to love a white women even when she saw past the color.

As stated before, the role of gender is another great example of how identity is socially constructed in society. Gender is an incredibly significant element in expressing one’s identity. Biologically, males and females are limited to a binary system in which their identity can be expressed; however, these gender roles become interchangeable depending on how particular people see themselves. In one particular instance in the novel, Piri experiences marriages in an all male prison. He states that the “outside is one kind of life, inside is another” (p. 261). For Piri, he views prison as defying the ‘normal’ gender expectations within society, one in which gender roles are fixed and understood. Thus, whilst in prison, Piri becomes frustrated by how ‘normal’ gender expectations are switch in order to tend to the desires of his fellow inmates. For example, Piri states, “I ain’t gonna marry you, faggot, no matter what” (p. 263), which clearly entails his distrust in those that do not abide by societies norms. Shocking still, he becomes even more frustrated because he understands these prison relationships are “fake” since everything on the “inside is a lie” (p. 263). Despite Piri’s disgust with such relationships, the understanding of identity, in terms of gender, is further deepened in terms of a social construction. Both partners in the prison relationship are not homosexual; however, they are simply changing their identity in order to obtain a sense of security during their time in prison.

Additionally, forming ones identity can be developed through social pressures within society; people conform in particular ways because they do not want to seem as outsiders to everyone else. Piri is seen succumbing to the social pressures his friends place upon him, which change his personal beliefs and identity. For example, very early in the novel, Piri expresses the notion of becoming “hombre” – a man – in order to gain respect from his surrounding peers. He suggests that there are particular behaviors one must and mustn’t do to “play the game” to “build rep”, “be a man” (p. 15), and be “cool” (p. 16). These behaviors differ depending on the type environment or people Piri is surrounded by; thus exemplifying the arbitrariness of identity as it is constantly changing. A fantastic example illustrated by Piri that portrays how one can succumb to social pressures is during his experience at a trans-gendered brothel house. Normally, Piri would disdain members of society that didn’t comply with conformative norms because he believes males and females must adhere to set behaviors. However, during his encounter at the trans-gender brothel house, which Piri considers a “house full of faggots”, he complies with the pressures of his friends as “we wanted to belong, and belonging meant doing whatever had to be done” (p. 55). The readers therefore witness a change in Piri’s identity, one from homophobia to that of entering the brothel house, simply because of pressures from his peers.

In conclusion, it is apparent that identity is an incredibly malleable construct, influenced by several factors. Within ‘Down These Mean Streets’, Piri exemplifies how ones identity can be altered through the color of one’s skin, cultural up brings, gender orientation, social pressures, location, and even situation. Piri strives to express himself and form a strong identity, but falters whenever he is judge or confronted by others in society. One mustn’t forget the difficult social environment Piri endured during the Jim Crow Era, which troubled his discovery of personal identity further; however, even in today’s society, one expresses themselves through similar means, and still suffer from similar issues. Human beings constantly categorize others in order to simplify and make sense of life. In doing so, we create socially constructed and illusionary boundaries that hinder people, much like Piri, from truly achieving an identity because they are constantly being questioned by others in society.

Through his various experiences in Harlem, Long Island, and the South, Piri Thomas comes to realize that an identity is socially constructed and that the public rejects any confusion that one may have concerning his or her own. Each location introduces him to new groups of people, all who have different views due to their own logic of comparison, who attempt to break down the incoherence he feels because of the fact that it is not accepted in society. Originally stemming from his feelings of alienation in his own family, Piri’s confusion turns into anger as he realizes how little control he has over how the world sees him. The incoherence in his life is something that plagued him from birth because of the time at which he was born and the combination of cultures that he was brought into. The difficulty in defining the term “America” is similar to determining his own identity, as both subjects contain multiple sides of them that can appeal to different groups of people who have their own perspectives on the matter.

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