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On LatinidadU.S. Latino Literature and the Construction of Ethnicity$

Marta Caminero-Santangelo

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780813030838

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813030838.001.0001

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“Puerto Rican Negro”

“Puerto Rican Negro”

Defining Race in Piri Thomas's Down These Mean Streets

(p.51) 2 “Puerto Rican Negro”
On Latinidad

Marta Caminero-Santangelo

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses the theme of racial denial, which is evident in the novel Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas. The novel was published five years before Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, and shares the same theme. The protagonist of Piri's novel must also learn the “lessons” of racial identity that are suppressed by his family and its narrated myths of origin, no doubt in a defensive move against racial construction.

Keywords:   racial denial, Down These Mean Streets, Piri Thomas, Rudolfo Anaya, Bless Me, Ultima, racial identity, racial construction, defensive

In Latino Crossings, Nicholas De Genova and Ana Y. Ramos-Zayas recount a joke “that was circulating among Mexican migrants in Chicago in the spring of 1997”:

It is the time of the Mexican Revolution, and Pancho Villa's army has just captured an invading U.S. regiment; addressing his lieutenants, Pancho Villa gives the order: “Take all the Americans [americanos]—shoot them, kill them; the Blacks [morenos] and Puerto Ricans—just let them go.” The lieutenants are confused and dismayed: “What?! What are you saying?!? But why??” Coolly, Pancho Villa replies, “Don't waste the bullets—they'll all just die of hunger—because here, there's no welfare.” (76)

Although hegemonic U.S. culture generally assumes that Latinos see themselves as a single group—or at least as having very strong ties among the subgroups—De Genova and Ramos-Zayas maintain that very often Puerto Ricans and Mexicans (at least in Chicago) have seen themselves in opposition and even marked antagonism to each other. As they note, “the inequalities generated through the politics of citizenship”—for instance, Puerto Ricans' access to “welfare” programs that were not available to Mexican immigrant noncitizens—“became particularly salient for Mexicans' and Puerto Ricans' understandings of the differences between one another, as groups, in ways that ultimately came to be quite forcefully racialized” (27).

These racialized identities, of course, have a history in U.S. colonizing efforts and attendant policies toward Mexico and Puerto Rico. As De Genova and Ramos-Zayas recount of historical debates about the possible colonization of Mexico by the United States, “the position that finally prevailed against the proposition to colonize all of Mexico was that articulated by Michigan senator Lewis Cass, who declared, ‘We do not want the people of Mexico, either as citizens or subjects. All we want is a portion of territory, which they nominally hold, generally uninhabited, or, where inhabited at all, sparsely so, and with a population, which would soon recede [by which he meant Indians], or identify itself with ours [by which he meant those who could be considered whites]’” (p.52) (12; Horsman 241, qtd. in De Genova 12; bracketed phrases in original). The hegemonic U.S. perspective routinely considered Mexicans to be largely “‘savage’ or ‘barbarous’ Indians” (De Genova and Ramos-Zayas 13). By contrast, “Puerto Rico […] was widely characterized as being populated by a ‘hybrid’ people produced principally from the racial mixing of Spaniards and Africans, a significant portion of whom, furthermore, were considered to be simply Black” (De Genova and Ramos-Zayas 14). We can see the Mexican American acceptance and revision of this racial construction in the joke that opens this chapter, in which Puerto Ricans are dramatically opposed to Mexicans (by the Mexicans) and linked, instead, to blacks.1 In De Genova and Ramos-Zayas's findings, “Mexicans and Puerto Ricans viewed themselves as racially distinct from one another” (27), rather than as the “same” people.

Piri Thomas's classic Puerto Rican autobiography Down These Mean Streets (1967), published five years before Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, shares with that Chicano novel the theme of racial denial. Like Antonio in Ultima, the protagonist of Mean Streets (whom I will call “Piri” to distinguish him from the author, “Thomas”) must learn the “lessons” of racial identity suppressed by his family and its narrated myths of origin, no doubt in a defensive move against precisely the racial construction outlined above. In their place, he comes to embrace a construction of Puerto Rican racial identity that acknowledges a common “peoplehood” with African Americans. (In this respect, Thomas's writing can also be grouped with that of Nuyorican poets of the 1960s and 1970s such as Felipe Luciano and Miguel Algarín, who—as William Luis points out—the—matized “the important African component of Puerto Rican culture, race, and identity” [68].) Yet this perceived commonality based on racial identity, arguably, also appears in many ways to be racially essentialist (as the Chicano celebration of “raza” can also seem to be in retrospect).

William Luis, in his discussion of Down These Mean Streets, has noted that the Young Lords Party's 13-Point Program and Platform, which appeared in the late sixties, included an insistence on Puerto Rican solidarity with Chicanos, based on experiences of common marginalization:

We Want Self-Determination for All Latinos. Our Latin Brothers and Sisters, inside and outside the united states [sic], are oppressed by amerikkkan business. The Chicano people built the Southwest, and we support their right to control their lives and their land. The people of Santo Domingo continue to fight against gringo domination and its puppet generals. The armed liberation struggles in Latin America are part of the war of Latinos against imperialism. Que viva La Raza! (Young Lords Party and Abramson, qtd. in Luis 279)

(p.53) Other accounts, however, would suggest that Puerto Rican and Chicano/a solidarity under a “Latino” rubric, in the late sixties and early seventies, was shaky at best, and that a panethnic Latino or Hispanic identity was perhaps as much a concept imposed from without as generated from within. De Genova and Ramos-Zayas intriguingly assert that, in (that is, in the same period as the publication of Anaya's and Thomas's landmark texts and the Young Lords' platform),

U.S. president Richard Nixon's proclamation of a “National Hispanic Heritage Week” served to conflate the different historical experiences of Mexicans and Puerto Ricans at the precise juncture when Mexicans (especially those born or raised in the U.S. who had increasingly come to assert a specifically nonmigrant identity as “Chicanos”) and Puerto Ricans were each engaged in increasingly militant and often nationalist acts of cultural affirmation as distinct groups with particular histories of subjugation and resistance, and were emphasizing their specific (and potentially divergent) political demands. (17; emphasis in original)

By setting Mean Streets and Ultima, published in such close proximity, next to each other, we can see some dramatic differences between the racial/ethnic constructs that these authors were attempting to reimagine and the ways that they reimagined them. For, in Anaya's novel, indigenousness is the shameful identity that has been suppressed and must be reintegrated into a Chicano identity, while in Thomas's memoir, indigenousness is the excuse given in family stories to avoid a more difficult identification—with blackness. Needless to say, while Anaya strives to extend the boundaries of who “we” are to include Indians, nowhere do Puerto Ricans (much less African Americans) appear in his imagined landscape of an expanded collective identity. Likewise, while Piri moves from a defensive belief that African Americans and Puerto Ricans are two separate, distinct groups to a growing conviction that the circles encompassing each group overlap, he does not register Mexican Americans in even his reimagined sense of self. Arguably, this silence suggests the degree to which the concept of a panethnic “Hispanic” or “Latino” identity that binds Chicanos and Nuyoricans was without compelling force for both Anaya and Thomas, concerned as they both were with the issue of transracial imagined communities.

In a crucial scene in Down These Mean Streets, almost exactly at the halfway mark of the text, a character named Gerald Andrew West describes himself (p.54) as “so blended racially that I find it hard to give myself to any […] one of the blends” (174). This description would seem to fit perfectly with much more recent, resistant, accounts of racial and ethnic identity. Once again, as with my discussion of Bless Me, Ultima, Gloria Anzaldúa's image of inhabiting the “borderlands” among racial, ethnic, national, and sexual categories comes to mind: the “new mestiza […] learns to be an Indian in Mexican culture, to be Mexican from an Anglo point of view” (79). Gerald's self-representation, like Anzaldúa's, seems—within a contemporary, poststructural critical context in which stable, fixed, and singular notions of identity have been challenged and debunked—to powerfully suggest subversion of socially constructed and all-too-limiting racial categories that, in truth, have little meaning in biology. Indeed, it is surely this scene, among others, that has triggered the critical view that, “years before the concepts ‘hybridity,’ ‘heterogeneity,’ and ‘difference’ gained academic and social repute,” Thomas was engaged in a “bold attempt to undermine the black/white categories of U.S. racialization” (M. Sánchez 44).2 As it turns out, however, Gerald is a highly unlikable character whose rejection of racial paradigms is wholly predicated on his desire to “make the next step to white” (177), as he himself admits. In his need to claim racial privilege, Gerald is an echo of Piri himself, who has been struggling all along with precisely such an impulse. Thus Gerald, whose understanding of race seems more “radical,” is actually a deeply conservative character.

While Thomas's autobiography certainly points toward the instability of racial categories, it ultimately relies less on notions of hybridity and heterogeneity than on what Gayatri Spivak might call a strategic essentialism that often reproduces the language of racial polarities. That is to say, it implies that race can be useful in constructing a group identity that is based in a sense of solidarity. As Antonia Darder and Rodolfo D. Torres have noted, the concept of “race” in the s provided Latinos with “a discursively powerful category of struggle and resistance upon which to build in-group identity and cross group solidarity with African Americans” (9).3 Taken as a whole, Mean Streets suggests that notions of race are radical or conservative depending on the circumstances of their deployment, rather than on their “inherent” challenge to dominant ideology. In this respect, Down These Mean Streets resonates with more recent currents in theoretical discussions of race and racial discourse, to which I now, briefly, wish to turn.

Gerald Andrew West would, no doubt, have embraced and celebrated news that race was, scientifically speaking, an illegitimate category. This news was still treated as startling (that is, as “news”) when Henry Louis Gates observed in the mid-1980s that “[r]ace, as a meaningful criterion within the biological (p.55) sciences, has long been recognized to be a fiction” (4). As Gates's statement implies, this “news” had in fact been around for a while, although when Gates edited the two issues of Critical Inquiry (1985–86) that became the groundbreaking volume “Race,” Writing, and Difference (1986), he still felt the need to assert in his introduction the lack of biological grounding for any idea of “race” and to signal this fact through the use of quotation marks around the word “race” in the title of the volume. Anthony Appiah, another prominent contributor to the volume, was apparently even more anxious about the degree to which this “long […] recognized” fact was indeed recognized, in the academic community and elsewhere. Declaring at the outset that “[e]very reputable biologist will agree that human genetic variability between the populations of Africa or Europe or Asia is not much greater than that within those populations” (“Uncompleted Argument” 21), Appiah was at pains to point out that by 1911 with the publication of the August issue of Crisis, the outlines of this scientific conclusion were already publicized (“Uncompleted Argument” 30). Yet, he commented, “it is my experience that the biological evidence about race is not sufficiently known and appreciated” (“Uncompleted Argument” 22).

Surely Appiah's anxiety was not misplaced. In 1995, almost a decade after the publication of “Race,” Writing, and Difference, Newsweek ran an article on the scientific (non)basis for racial categorizations under the subheading “Surprising new lessons from the controversial science of race” (Begley 67). “Even with racial mixing,” the first paragraph runs, “the existence of primary races is as obvious as the existence of primary colors.” “Or is it?” the second paragraph begins, in what was clearly meant to be a jarring lead-in to the “surprising new” information about race, namely, that it does not exist (Begley 67). At about the same time, Time magazine covered the publication of a new book, The History and Geography of Human Genes, in an article whose subhead reads, “Alandmark global study flattens The Bell Curve, proving that racial differences are only skin deep” (see Cavalli-Sforza, Menozzi, and Riazza). The bottom line, the article notes, is that “the whole concept of race becomes meaningless at the genetic level” (Subramanian 54). Clearly, for mainstream popular culture, the idea that race is not biology was still “surprising” news.

If the notion of race as a scientific fiction has become a given for academics, however, we still cannot seem to agree on what to do with this information. For Appiah, it was (in 1986) apparently quite a concern that W.E.B. Du Bois was never able to fully escape a biological conception of race, despite his “life's work” being devoted to challenging the underpinnings of racial and racist thought in America (“Uncompleted Argument” 36). More recently, Paul Gilroy argues in Against Race (2000) that race is a “tainted logic” (15), suggesting that any concept of race as biology is politically suspect and contaminates all efforts toward a truly liberatory radical politics.4 More strident voices push (p.56) this position toward its extreme conclusion, arguing that, if race does not exist, we ought not to continue discussing it.5

In turn, the latter approach has faced its detractors. Houston Baker, in the same volume as Appiah's essay, critiques the latter on the grounds that it is “instructive but, ultimately, unhelpful in a world where New York cab drivers scarcely ever think of mitochondria before refusing to pick me up” (358). The risk of such arguments, Baker points out, lies in their possible effects

at a time when a violent reinforcement and retrenchment of whitemale hegemony dictates the dismantling of quotas meant to repair damages done by old (and scientifically sanctioned) differentiations, of revolutionary initiatives (such as women's and black studies) predicated upon accepted and championed differences, and of federal support systems grounded on policies that forthrightly acknowledge manifest (and scientifically sanctioned) racial differences. The scenario they seem to endorse reads as follows: when science apologizes and says there is no such thing, all talk of “race” must cease. (385)

In Crossing the Line (2000), Gayle Wald echoes Baker's concern, noting with dismay “the emergence of arguments seeking to appropriate anti-essentialist racial critique to question the social relevance of race” (9); the fear is that “radical” arguments (if ninety-year-old arguments about the lack of a scientific basis for race can be called “radical”) are being deployed for “conservative” purposes. Wald shares with Baker a concern about the pragmatic political effects of arguments about race that, to some degree, supersedes concern with their scientific (not to say “political”) “correctness.”6 Wald and Baker want us to consider effects and ends before judging the “means” to be illegitimate because they are somehow tainted by racial thinking.7 A “tainted” argument and “tainted” politics do not necessarily go hand in hand, just as the spouting of arguments about the nonexistence (and therefore insignificance) of race is no guarantor of radical or liberatory politics.

In the debate over “race,” then, a vocal collection of voices underscores the importance of taking into account the context within which, and purposes for which, racial discourse is deployed. Wald seeks to replace an overly simplistic condemnation of tainted ideology with a focus on pragmatics in studying how “subjects appropriate ‘race,’ a discourse they do not control, for their own needs, wishes, and interests” (10); she calls on critics and readers to take account of “the necessity of constructing our choices and our agency out of the material of racial discourse itself” (10), including, presumably, the popular (rather than the more narrowly disseminated scientific) discourses on race, which remain, by and large, grounded in unconsidered assumptions of biology. Gilroy, in an argument that otherwise urges moving toward “a deliberate (p.57) renunciation of race” (12), seems to concur with Wald in her concern for strategies undertaken within a circumscribed context:

[P]eople who have been subordinated by race-thinking and its distinctive social structures […] have for centuries employed the concepts and categories of their rulers, owners, and persecutors to resist the destiny that “race” has allocated to them and to dissent from the lowly value it placed upon their lives. Under the most difficult of conditions and from imperfect materials that they surely would not have selected if they had been able to choose, these oppressed groups have built complex traditions of politics, ethics, identity, and culture. […] For many racialized populations, “race” and the hard-won, oppositional identities it supports are not to be lightly or prematurely given up. (12)

As Gilroy suggests, the “imperfect materials” of (biologically-tinged) understandings of race—the master's tools—have, historically, occasionally been put to use in dismantling the master's house. (“Dismantling” is surely an overstatement, but they have, at the very least, broken a window or two.) We can give them up only if, and when, we have found more effective tools.

The long-standing and more recent attacks on biological understandings of race, and the subsequent arguments about the status of racially inflected arguments, provide an especially useful frame of reference for an analysis of racial discourse in Piri Thomas's autobiography, Down These Mean Streets. Thomas's exploration of Puerto Rican racial identity, which is now commonly understood to be predominantly derived from the dual Spanish and African heritage, depicts a climate in which racial and ethnic politics encourage Puerto Ricans living within the continental United States to identify themselves against African Americans, to erect an imaginary boundary between “us” and “them” as a means of establishing a slightly higher position on a hierarchy determined by fine degrees of social marginalization. Certainly, however, the denial of a racial connection between Puerto Rican blacks and African Americans seems to refute any sort of biological understanding of race. The text explores several possible definitions of race: as rooted in biology, in social perception, or in self-definition. It both challenges and, at times, strategically appropriates dominant social understandings of race. In the process, it raises interesting questions about the context in which any given definition of racial or ethnic identity is adopted.

The autobiography's structure is loosely that of a bildungsroman, in which Thomas's young protagonist Piri struggles to come to terms with his own racial and ethnic identity and to accept and embrace his “blackness.” In his undeveloped (p.58) or immature phase (that is, in the early portion of the bildungsroman, when he still has everything to learn), Piri consistently rebuts essentialist biological explanations of race, rejecting the idea that race is a stable, natural category based on biology. Yet his repeated refusal to accept that biology reveals race (as signaled by physical characteristics) is obviously motivated by the desire to “defend” himself from “accusations” of blackness, despite his dark skin and kinky hair. Consider, for example, the following confrontation with two Italian boys:

“Hey, you,” he said. “What nationality are ya?”

I looked at him and wondered which nationality to pick. And one of his friends said, “Ah, Rocky, he's black enuff to be a nigger. Ain't that what you is, kid?”

My voice was almost shy in its anger. “I'm Puerto Rican, x I said. “I was born here.” I wanted to shout it, but it came out like a whisper. (24)

In response to the question about nationality, Piri struggles with context; should he assert his status as an American citizen (and one, furthermore, born on the mainland) against the possible accusation of foreignness, or should he assert his sense of Puerto Rican peoplehood in the face of Italian ethnic pride? The choice becomes moot, however, when he is confronted in the next question with the possibility of being black, where blackness would seem to preempt, as a category, the possibility of any (other) nationality.

Implicit in this exchange is the intimate connection of race with nationality that is inextricable from the history of the evolving concept of race.8 In Ivan Hannaford's massive Race: The History of an Idea in the West (1996), he identifies early (pre-) manifestations of modern conceptions of race in a search for national origins, as in Francis Tregian's poetic urgings that the English “learn thy name, thy race, thy offspring” and Richard Verstegan's claim that “Englishmen are descended of German race, and were heeretofore generaly [sic] called Saxons” (180; emphasis in original). But in the logic of emerging European nationalisms which gave rise to the concept of race as we know it today, blackness and nationalism were mutually exclusive. To be “black,” “negro,” or “negroid” (a “race” identified geographically with the entire continent of Africa) was to have absolutely no part in the origins of a European nation, if indeed it did not imply being of an entirely separate species.9 Thus, in response to an accurately perceived challenge to his ability to claim any nationality (for the slur “nigger” renders the whole question of nationality moot in the minds of the Italian boys), Piri scrambles defensively to assert any and all possible “nationalisms”: (p.59) “I'm Puerto Rican […]. I was born here.” To have a national identity will, by the logic of race, mean that he is not black.

The underlying assumption of the Italian boys, needless to say, is that whatever Piri is, he is not “American.” As De Genova and Ramos-Zayas write of the “joke” which opens this chapter, “Notably, African Americans are perceived to be separate, distinct, and, indeed, excluded from the category ‘Americans’—exposing the fact that ‘American’ comes to connote whiteness. […] Neither for African Americans nor for Puerto Ricans does birthright U.S. citizenship secure the status of ‘American’-ness, which constitutes a national identity that is understood, in itself, to be intrinsically racialized—as white” (77). It is precisely because Piri is aware of the ways in which African Americans and Puerto Ricans share certain structural analogies within a U.S. context that he actively struggles to disassociate these categories from each other—to draw distinct and nonoverlapping boundaries.

Scenes of such defensiveness repeat themselves insistently in the first half of the text with an accumulative weight that suggests the enormity of pressures contributing to the construction of Piri's racial/ethnic identity. It is clear that the retrospective Thomas is critiquing these early impulses on Piri's part to deny that he is black. In each case, Piri's responses are obviously meant to establish social difference from African Americans, with the assumption that such difference of necessity grants a certain privilege.10 After playing a game of “dozens” with an African American friend, in which Piri asserts, “I'm a Porty Rican,” and his friend Brew responds, “Ah only sees another Negro in fron' of me” (121), Piri becomes for the first time self-conscious about the implications of using either remark in a “game of insults” (121): “What the hell was I trying to put down? Was I trying to tell Brew that I'm better than he is 'cause he's only black and I'm a Puerto Rican darkskin? Like his people copped trees on a white man's whim, and who ever heard of Puerto Ricans getting hung like that?” (122). Insistence on Puerto-Ricanness, in these contexts, is not nationalistic or ethnic pride but an assertion of privilege (“I'm better than he is”) in a complicated racial hierarchy. As Roberto Rodriguez-Morazzani has powerfully asserted, one of the ways that “Puerto Ricans have negotiated the racialization process […] is by deployment of a national identity in an effort to escape identification as black or as nonwhite. The identification as Puerto Rican first [that is, of a cultural identification over a racial one] is not itself racially neutral” (151).11 Piri's insistence on being Puerto Rican is, furthermore, clearly a self-protective denial of shared experience with African Americans in a U.S. context; if he is not black, he assumes, he need not fear being lynched.12

Even after his moment of self-consciousness, however, Piri continues to insist (p.60) that he is not African American and that therefore the hardships of African Americans are not his own:

“Yeah, Brew,” I said, “it must be tough on you Negroes.”

“Wha' yuh mean, us Negroes? Ain't yuh includin' yourself? Hell, you ain't but a couple shades lighter'n me, and even if yuh was even lighter'n that, you'd still be a Negro.”

I felt my chest get tighter and tighter. I said, “I ain't no damn Negro and I ain't no paddy. I'm Puerto Rican.”

“You think that means anything to them James Crow paddies?” Brew said coolly. (123)

Against Piri's insistence on difference, Brew posits both biological and social definitions of race. On the one hand, the physical “sign” of Piri's dark skin seems to speak for itself and to be sufficient cause to make Piri “Negro.” On the other, and simultaneously, Brew seems to be aware on some level that it is social definitions, or how the “sign” of dark skin is “read” under the social systemof Jim Crow segregation, that make Piri black; he is black because whites say he is. In Du Bois's words, “the black man is a person who must ride ‘Jim Crow' in Georgia” (qtd. in Appiah, “Uncompleted Argument” 33). Both biological and social means of defining race will later be appropriated by Piri.

In terms of the autobiography's bildungsroman structure, the first step in Piri's development of a presumably more enlightened identity is that he must reject the privilege that comes with the assertion of racial dfference; within the structure of the autobiography, he learns to modify his vocabulary so that, in place of the dichotomy “Puerto Ricans and Negroes,” he speaks of “Puerto Rican Negroes” and “American Negroes” (,125, 173). Interestingly, however, Piri's transformation is based on the “realization” that his family has “black blood.” In a heated argument with his brother José, who insists on asserting his whiteness through physical features such as white skin, “almost blond” hair, blue eyes, a straight nose, and lips that “are not like a baboon's ass” (144), Piri insists on his own blood relationship to his white-looking brother and on the resulting conclusion that his brother, too, is black, no matter how “white” he looks on the “outside” (145). When José invokes the family myth of origins, claiming that Piri's darker skin comes from their father's “Indian” blood, Piri challenges him: “What kinda Indian? Caribe? Or maybe Borinquén? Say, José, didn't you know the Negro made the scene in Puerto Rico way back? And when the Spanish spies ran outta Indian coolies, they brought them big blacks from you know where. Poppa's got moyeto blood. I got it. Sis got it. James got it. And, mah deah brudder, you-all got it!” (145). In the polarized racial (p.61) dichotomy of white/black, “Indian blood” gets “read,” at least by Piri's brother, as a defense against blackness. (In contrast, as we have seen, in Bless Me, Ultima it is the Indian blood itself that is vigorously suppressed in family and community myths of origin.) As a first step toward repudiating white privilege and constructing a sense of solidarity with African Americans, Piri rejects the comforting excuse of “Indian blood” for the insistence on “moyeto,” or black, blood,13 but in so doing, he relies on the very notion of race as biology and the one-drop rule that are the foundations of the racial structure of American society. In other words, he bases his argument on the grounds of biological essentialism, which will connect him to African Americans. Ironically, then, biological essentialism (the dominant American understanding of race) is used to establish a sense of racial solidarity, in a process quite similar to that which Appiah observes (and critiques) in the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois.14

In contrast, Thomas's autobiography also offers radical images of racial instability and nonessentialism, yet seems to imply that they are not always the most effective strategy for challenging the American racial system, perhaps because they allow Piri too much “wiggle room” for the assertion of difference from, and consequent privilege over, African Americans. In another example of racial defensiveness, Piri explains his identity to a white girl who is surprised to learn that he is Puerto Rican because he “talk[s] English very well”:

“I told you I was born in Harlem. That's why I ain't got no Spanish accent.”

“No-o, your accent is more like Jerry's.”

What's she tryin' to put down? I wondered. Jerry was the colored kidwho recently had moved to Bayshore.

“Yeah, I know Jerry […]. I know Jerry is colored and I know I got his accent. Most of us in Harlem steal from each other's language or style or stick of living.” (83–84)

Against the hinted “accusation” that he is African American like Jerry, Piri defends himself by presenting a radical image of identity as constructed, a product of borrowing and cross-pollination. As Rodriguez-Morazzani has observed, “While it is traditional to think of different groups as hermetically sealed, social interaction includes exchange, borrowing, and transformation. […] The social position of African Americans and Puerto Ricans resulted in a sociocultural and ideopolitical complex of exchanges and transformations not easily reduced to their individual parts” (145). In the aftermath of such cross-pollination, external “signs” such as accent or language or lifestyle are no longer accurate indicators of a stable, essential identity. Yet Piri in no way recognizes the implications of this model in terms of its potential challenge to (p.62) dominant notions of identity as “blood” or of the intriguing possibility it suggests of a group identity that is strategically constructed rather than essentially determined. Instead, he uses the severing of identity markers from “essential” identity to “defend” himself from the “accusation” of being black; he might look and sound like a black friend from Harlem, but he insists he is not black. Indeed, his use of the metaphor of theft (they “steal from each other”) suggests that his Harlem accent still, properly, belongs to African Americans.

Similarly, although the text brings up the important culturally based distinction between African Americans and Puerto Ricans, that distinction is also shown to be potentially dangerous if used to draw a boundary line that reinscribes racial hierarchy. The possibility of defining group identity based on culture, rather than on biology, is raised by Alayce, an African American friend of Brew's. In response to Brew's claim that Piri's “skin makes him a member of the black man's race an' hit don't make no difference he can talk that Porty Rican Talk,” Alayce responds, “But honey, […] Porto Ricans act different from us. They got different ways of dancin' an' cookin,' like a different culture or something” (159). Alayce, it may be argued, is “onto” Appiah's observation that race “works as an attempt at a metonym for culture; and it does so only at the price of biologizing what is culture” (36; emphasis in original). Yet although Brew's understanding of identity is more essentialist than Alayce's, which grounds notions of race in a shared culture rather than in “blood,” Alayce's cultural sensitivity, as it turns out in this context, simply translates into yet another means of preserving the existing racial hierarchy: “Ah've met a whole lot of dark Porto Ricans, an' I ain't met one yet who wants to be a Negro. An' I don't blame 'em. I mean, like anything's better'n being a li'l ole darkie” (159). Just as biological essentialism is used strategically by Piri to repudiate white privilege and establish solidarity with African Americans, so more flexible postmodern and postcolonial understandings of identity are sometimes used by both Piri and Alayce to reaffirm rigid racial hierarchies. No understanding of race or racial difference, this text suggests, is inherently conservative or inherently resistant; all meanings are contextual.

While Thomas's text insistently reverts to biological understandings of race, it also, simultaneously, exposes race as a social construct that is, at best, only loosely anchored to physical “markers.” Mixed in liberally with Piri's assertions about his family's “black blood” are suggestions that “proof” of blackness is in white reactions. He tells his father, “If you're really so sure you’re white, come on down South with Brew and me and see where you're really at” (151). Piri's words echo those of Brew, who earlier had countered Piri's distinction between Puerto Rican and black with the question, “You think that means anything to them James Crow paddies?” (123). Piri's identity as a black man is confirmed when he actually does go to the South and is kicked out of a restaurant on the (p.63) grounds that he is a “nigra” (185–86).15 In these instances, it is social perception, rather than biology, that defines race; Piri is apparently black because white southerners say he is. Such moments point to the social construction of race and thus undermine the essentialist biological explanations that have underpinned American social structures.

Interestingly, however, the moment when biological essentialism is most undermined in the text as an explanation of race is also the most ambiguous in terms of its politics. In protest against a “two-tone South” that recognizes only the dichotomous opposition of white and black, Piri decides that he wants to “fuck a white woman in Texas” (187). In this scene he uses the system of social perception of race against itself; he goes to a brothel and poses as a Puerto Rican who can speak no English, playing with socially defined distinctions which do, indeed, “read” dark-skinned Puerto Rican “foreigners” differently from African Americans. As the clerk at the brothel explains, “Well, you know, we got all kinds of people coming in, all kinds of foreigners, and Spanish people who come from Argentina and Colombia and Peru and Cuba, and that's all right, but we got to keep these damn niggers down (188).

Briefly here, Piri's use of Spanish signals what might be read as a panethnic Latino identity—one connected by Spain as the European homeland and therefore, implicitly, by whiteness. To use language as a “deciding” factor in the determination of race, as the clerk does here, seems counterintuitive to any notion of race as biology (if race is biology, then, logically, it should make no difference whether Piri is descended from African slaves brought to Puerto Rico or to the U.S. mainland), although observations about language differences have been a key component in the history of the developing concept of race, as Ivan Hannaford notes (181, 227, 243).

The clerk, however, is blissfully unaware of past “theories” of race linking biology with language; rather, he is acting on a form of historical “amnesia” whereby he conveniently “forgets” the historical dispersal of African peoples to lands colonized by the Spanish, as well as by the English. He is speaking, instead, out of a much more recent racially-defined context, in which white privilege in the United States has been maintained through the continued suppression of political advances for the black population (“we got to keep these damn niggers down”).16 In this immediate context, only American blacks pose a threat to American whites; thus only American blacks count as “niggers.” As Ian López puts it, “Context is the social setting in which races are recognized, constructed, and contested” (11). This scene is, I might add, an ironic reversal on the earlier exchange with the two Italian boys, in which to be black is not to be “American”; in this scene, only if Piri is “American” is he black. Here, again, the text shows how social concepts of race as based on biology are actually quite fluid, contextually specific, and unconnected to biological explanations.

(p.64) Piri's “revenge” against the racial system in the United States is to have sex with the prostitute and only afterwards declare to her in perfect English that she has just slept with “a black man” (189); the narrator describes the “look of horror” on the prostitute's face as she “realizes” his race, and her resulting miscegenation, a realization based not on any change in physical characteristics or even on the revelation of “secret” biological information (as in Faulkner's Light in August or Absalom, Absalom!) but on Piri's use of a different language, which would seem to have nothing to do with race.17 In this instance, Piri exploits bizarre and illogical social codes which categorize him racially in one way if he speaks only Spanish but in another if he speaks English; but the use of this subversive understanding of race is to “fuck a white woman.” As Marta Sánchez writes, Piri “displays the inherent instability of the racial binary, proving that its boundaries are indeed fluid and permeable” (51); yet, at the same time, “Piri's ability to see beyond binary racial oppositions is undermined by his commitment to sexual and gender hierarchies” (53–54). That is to say, Piri's willful disruption of the stability of racial categories serves the purpose here of affirming his male power and of enacting aggression within a dichotomous gender relation. The deployment of notions of race as fluid, unstable, or constructed is thus in no way a guarantee of liberatory ideological representation more generally.

The incident with the prostitute also brings up the issue of race as defined by self-identification, since the narrator's race changes in the prostitute's eyes the moment he self-identifies as black rather than Puerto Rican.18 But elsewhere, self-identification is clearly problematic as a determinant of race, since it opens up the very possibility for denial based on privilege that Piri and his family enact at the beginning of the text.

This understanding of race is reviewed again with the introduction of Gerald Andrew West, with whom I began this discussion. Gerald claims to be “only one-eighth colored” (173) and insists on the right to determine for himself which race he will belong to: “It's true I don't look like a true Caucasian, but neither do I look like a true Negro. So I ask you, if a white man can be a Negro if he has some Negro blood in him, why can't a Negro be a white man if he has white blood in him? I will say that you hit it on the head when you insinuated that I was trying to be a Puerto Rican so I could make the next step to white. You're right! I feel white, Mr. Johnson; I look white; I think white; therefore I am white” (176–77). Gerald's understanding of race once again challenges dominant ideology in the form of the one-drop rule and its implicit reliance on the illusion of biological definitions of race; further, it opposes the concept of social construction, in which the dominant society holds the power to define race, with the possibility of self-definition. Indeed, as I noted at the opening of (p.65) this chapter, Gerald's “radical” understandings of race seem to invite celebratory responses from critics, who tend to overlook the fact that he undermines dominant racial definitions for clearly conservative purposes.19 Gerald, like the earlier Piri, is motivated by his own desire to assert privilege and distance from African Americans.

Gerald's function is to hold a mirror up to Piri of his own unlikable racism, a fact which Piri dimly recognizes: “I was thinking that Gerald had problems something like mine. Except that he was a Negro trying to make Puerto Rican and I was a Puerto Rican trying to make Negro” (177). This is perhaps Piri's most ambiguous statement about race. On the one hand, he clearly perceives and wishes to distance himself from Gerald's motivations for “passing”; thus he posits an “exception” to the similarity he spots between them. By this midpoint in the text, after all, Piri is identifying himself as a “Puerto Rican Negro” (173), even in the face of Gerald's seeming insistence that Hispanic ethnicity exempts one from classification as black. On the other hand, to claim to be “trying to make Negro” still suggests the difficulty Piri is having with racial categories as they apply to him. In what sense, the scene forces us to ask, could Piri be “trying to make Negro” but not really be “Negro”? One could of course argue that, since “black” is not a scientific racial category, Piri is not “really” black in any meaningful sense. But in that sense, Brew is no more a “Negro” than Piri; nor is Gerald. Is Piri not, on some level, suggesting that he is “better” than Gerald, not because Gerald is still trying to claim racial privilege and Piri no longer is, but because Piri is not really a “Negro” and Gerald (in Piri's eyes) “really” is? To the degree that race does exist as a social construct, and to the degree that Piri is identified as “black” by dominant American culture, he cannot be said to be “trying to make” black; the thrust of Thomas's autobiography is that Piri must accept that he is black—that his Puerto Rican heritage offers him no escape clause from this.20

It is Piri's continuing investment in racial status that the bildungsroman structure of the text suggests he must move beyond. As he says to Brew shortly after the encounter with Gerald Andrew West, “I ain't got rid of that fuckin' status that I got brought up on” (180). Piri is starting to recognize the motivations for racial identifications such as his much earlier insistence to Brew that “I ain't no damn Negro […]. I'm Puerto Rican” (123). In the early stages of his development of what we might term “racial consciousness,” as we have seen, he sounds much like Gerald, assuming as he does that being “Puerto Rican” exempts him from being “Negro.” Indeed, his journey south with Brew is his deliberate effort to move past his own embrace of privilege, by confronting head-on the way in which he is constructed by dominant American racial ideology, which is at its most intense (although not different in substance) (p.66) in the American South. As the journey begins, Piri starts to sit in the front of a bus, but Brew pulls him toward the back. When he asks why, Brew explains,

“Once we all cross the Mason-Dixon line, all spades will commence to sit their asses in the ass of the bus. I thought it right good fo' yuh to git used to the idea from the jumps.”

I laughed and said, “Dig it.” But in my mind I hadn't thought it was gonna apply to me. (166)

Piri's education consists in learning precisely how much it does apply to him.

The process is a gradual one. In Washington he notes that, indeed, the black people now sit in the back of the bus (166). In Norfolk, Virginia, he bridles when a white man calls him “boy” (168). In Mobile, Alabama, we can see how Piri still clings to racial privilege (even, notably, after the central scene with Gerald Andrew West) by entering a white restaurant although he is with Brew, who, as Piri knows, cannot enter: “On the way back to the ship I got hungry and walked into the first restaurant I saw. It was a white place. […] Brew had warned me about going in, and I could see him through the plate-glass window, standing outside, waiting, with no expression on his black face, the only black face around. I was the alonest” (185). Again, the scene is highly ambiguous. Piri's entrance into the diner marks a willful insistence on a racial status different from that of Brew, who represents “the only black face around,” including, presumably, Piri's own. He is the “alonest” because, although he is not white, he also does not see himself as black. But when the counterman refuses to wait on him, making it clear that, as Brew has insisted all along, he is black, Piri “smashe[s his fist] on the counter with all my Puerto Rican blackman's strength” (186), once again embracing the dual identification as Puerto Rican and as black, rather than positing, as he does at other times, that the first rules out the second. As he summarizes the lesson he learns on his travels, “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” (191).21 Piri increasingly responds to the perception that he is read as black by society with an acceptance of his status as black.

Such a dynamic is obviously troublesome. When Piri accedes to the supposed “fact” that he is black, because others have made this clear to him, is he simply, as Marta Sánchez writes, “accept[ing] the gaze of a social system that blackens him” (41)? While on one level such a reading is hard to avoid, it is notable that Piri's identity struggles are never framed in terms of acquiescing to dominant notions of race by succumbing to “blackness.” What is textually foregrounded in Thomas's autobiography is not the issue of capitulation or resistance to racial ideology but the issue of claiming or rejecting racial (p.67) privilege. Indeed, Piri's acceptance of “blackness” is positioned within the bildungsroman structure as a positive step toward what we might call “panethnic solidarity” (that is, between Afro-Caribbeans and African Americans), rather than a negative one indicating surrender to society. When, during his arrest after a botched robbery, Piri responds to a cop's slur of “black bastard” with the statement, “If you don't mind, I'm a Puerto Rican black bastard” (235), we are clearly meant to measure how far he has come from the days when he said to Brew, “I ain't no damn Negro” (123). “Puerto Rican” is now no longer used to defend him from the lower social status of blackness that is marked by the cop's linking of “black” with “bastard.” His ethnicity is only an additional modifier of “black bastard”; it no longer serves as a qualifier limiting that blackness. Relying largely on what seem like essentialist categories, Piri now disavows racial privilege, while formerly he had used the fluctuating boundaries of the social construction of race to assert difference and distinction. This scene, less than one-third from the end of the book, for all practical purposes resolves this particular identity conflict.22

As I have suggested, Thomas's autobiography contains a sophisticated understanding of racial politics. The text suggests that an awareness of the social construction of race is, in and of itself, not resistant, any more than the acceptance of biological explanations of race is, in and of itself, conservative. In the text, all definitions of race call out to be judged contextually, in terms of the strategic purposes they serve.23 Repeatedly, Thomas undermines essentialist biological notions of race, exposing the ways in which it is, rather, a socially constructed category only arbitrarily linked to ideas of “blood.” Thus he does much to shake the foundations of racial thinking that, as we have seen, continue to persist in popular culture, despite the long-standing and more recent “evidence” of science.

Yet at the same time, Thomas's text suggests that nonessentialist understandings of race are no guarantee of political progressiveness, while strategic essentialism, it is implied, can be used effectively, even against more “radical” notions of race, to assert and construct a solidarity based on the exigencies of American life. Down These Mean Streets thus offers an interesting coun terpoise to Gilroy's concern about the “tainted” discourse of race. The mean streets are a long way from the ivory towers of academe and are ill-informed about the discoveries that are made there. But that does not make them any less a site for subversion, even if such subversion deploys tainted categories. It turns out that, to play in the mean streets, you sometimes have to get dirty.

Though Thomas's memoir never explicitly considers the notion of a panethnic Latino identity that would include, for example, both Puerto Ricans and (p.68) Mexican Americans—as I began this chapter by noting—it is suggestive nevertheless, by analogy, of the possibilities for such an identity. In concluding this chapter I would like to dwell for a moment on Mean Streets' implications for conceiving of a latinidad that it never, in fact, conceives of. For as Michael Jones-Correa and David L. Leal have noted, scholars increasingly reject, as “imperialistic at best,” the idea of a common culture that binds Latinos together (215)—that is, as another form of tainted logic. And, indeed, it would seem crucial to the pursuit of knowledge to critically dismantle such inaccurate categories. Nonetheless, it is striking how useful they have, on occasion, been.

In Latino Crossings, De Genova and Ramos-Zayas criticize previous studies which postulated latinidad as “a kind of ‘instrumental ethnicity,’” because in practice these studies continued “to either uphold essentialist assumptions about the presumed cultural ‘content’ that is contained by those malleable boundaries or to regard essentialist myths as inexorable and necessary” (20–21). Surely, one of the targets of their criticism here—which echoes quite powerfully the writings of Appiah and Gilroy in its concern about the lingering presence of essentialist categories of identity—is the study by Felix Padilla, Latino Ethnic Consciousness, which argues precisely for such an instrumentalist understanding of Latino identity, even while at times appearing to reinscribe the notion that a common language is one salient manifestation of a (preexisting) “common culture” that is then mobilized or deployed in coalition-building. What is striking when reading Padilla's book is how frequently respondents themselves—even when arguing quite transparently for the instrumental value of panethnic latinidad, rely on “essentialist myths” about “presumed cultural ‘content.’” One of Padilla's respondents, for example, insists that “[t]he idea of Latinismo is a very good strategy,” then goes on to complain about Puerto Ricans and Mexican Americans who “do not understand Latinismo. They do not know that we have basically the same culture and needs. And the only way to alleviate those problems and gain political respect is to work together as one group” (F. Padilla 73; emphasis added).

The discourse of instrumentality (strategy) and the discourse of primordiality (common, preexisting culture) are inextricable in this passage; indeed, the suggestion appears to be that groups have the “same needs” because they have the same culture (rather than, as Padilla argues, because of similar problems of poverty and discrimination).24 Though the transparent, pressing concern for this respondent is to “alleviate problems,” using latinismo as a “strategy” to gain political recognition, the strategy will clearly work only if Latinos first recognize themselves as a group. As Padilla comments, “the unique potential of Latinismo or Hispanismo for mobilizing Spanish-speaking people as a collective ‘political force’ must stem from its appeal to sentiments of ‘common (p.69) origin’ [and] its ability to arouse emotions and loyalties founded on people's real or assumed ethnic ties” (148).

Here we can see quite clearly what De Genova and Ramos-Zayas have subsequently critiqued, that is, the notion that “essentialist myths [are] inexorable and necessary.” Elsewhere in his study Padilla points out that some respondents relied on rhetoric that was far less dependent on primordial categories; and as we have seen in the Introduction, later findings suggest that a belief in “common culture” cannot account for a majority even of those who currently identify themselves with a panethnic label (Jones-Correa and Leal 230–31).25 While it has become quite difficult, then, to argue that essentialist myths are inexorable and necessary to a panethnic identity—or even to panethnic political mobilization—it is surely not an overstatement to say that, in certain situations, they may continue to be useful, even if tainted. Nonetheless, if essentialist myths erase and ignore salient differences that need to be attended to, they become dangerous—as I will discuss in Chapter 7.

Needless to say, essentialist myths need not be exclusively panethnic ones; we have seen in the texts of Thomas and Anaya that they can be national (and racial) ones as well. In the following chapter, then, I turn to novels which—while still not explicitly invoking the panethnic category of latinidad—nevertheless seriously complicate and challenge essentialist myths regarding more group-specific ethnic identities. (p.70)


(1.) It is not necessarily the case, of course, that Puerto Ricans have generally accepted this identification, just as we saw in the last chapter that it was not the case that Mexican Americans (especially prior to the Chicano movement) automatically accepted an association with indigenousness. See De Genova and Ramos-Zayas for a discussion of this issue with regard to Puerto Ricans and African Americans in Chicago.

(2.) Sánchez, notably, also discusses this scene near the beginning of her chapter on Down These Mean Streets, although the thrust of her analysis is that the racially loaded nature of the conversation is dissipated by a segue to the essentializing language of male privilege: “Pussy's the same in every color” (Thomas 191, qtd. in M. Sánchez 41; emphasis in original).

(3.) As I have already suggested, however, the racial self-construction celebrated during the Chicano movement was somewhat different from the one ultimately offered by Thomas. “Cross-group” solidarity between Chicanos and African Americans was not based on racial identity, as it comes to be in Thomas's memoir, but on similar positions (p.229) of marginalization within U.S. society due (in part) to the analogous position of nonwhite races.

(4.) The use of the rhetoric of contamination (“tainted”), ironically, echoes the loaded language of biologically inflected understandings of race as “blood,” whether “pure” or “tainted.” Similarly, for scholars like Gilroy, the rhetoric of race contaminates or infects radical politics: “Raciology has saturated the discourses in which it circulates. It cannot be readily re-signified or de-signified, and to imagine that its dangerous meanings can be easily rearticulated into benign, democratic forms” would be misguided (15).

(5.) For example, in an internal dissenting voice to the organizing principle of “Race,” Writing, and Difference, Todorov warns (echoing Gates's phrasing but not his underlying argument) of the “dangerous trope” of “race”: “if ‘racial differences’ do not exist, how can they possibly influence literary texts?” (371). More recently, Michaels has engaged in an extended argument which aims to establish that, if “we do not believe in racial identity as an essence, we cannot believe in racial identity as a social construction and we ought to give up the idea of racial identity altogether—we should […] deny that there are such things as Jews, or blacks, or whites” (142).

(6.) An editorial in the New York Times by Glenn C. Loury, a Boston University economics professor and director of its Institute on Race and Social Division, expresses a similar view in a discussion of the “Racial Privacy Initiative”(which was eventually defeated) in California's 2003 election. This initiative threatened to further erode affirmative action correctives in that state (following on the effects of the infamous Proposition 209) by weakening the power of state institutions to collect racial data:

[D]espite its superficial appeal, race-blindness is an ideal at war with itself: Strict adherence to this principle would […] inhibit addressing the harmful effects of its own past violation. Fair employment laws are most effectively policed when courts and government agents can compare the racial composition of a company's work force with the racial demography of qualified prospective workers in that company's local labor market. But doing so requires the collection of data that classify individuals by race. […] The trouble is that race-blindness is a narrow, technical aspiration and not a genuinely moral end. (13)

(7.) This is not reducible to an argument in which the end justifies the means. Loury, like others, is quite aware of the dangers of racial thinking; his proposal involves a careful and sophisticated weighing of the moral risks of the means against the moral advantages of the ends (13).

(8.) As Hannaford explains, key to the developing concept of race was that “a new relationship had to be established among bodily structure, bodily endowment, and mind, and here the argument was advanced that all three had a bearing on something new called ‘national character.’” Hannaford traces, from 1684to 1815, the development and elaboration of an argument “that custom and law depended on natural history and that each nation had a hidden but noble natural past that could be legitimized by the new scientific and historical processes” (189).

(9.) Consider, for example, Gates's citation of Hume's essay “Of National Characters” (1748): “I am apt to suspect the negroes, and in general all the other species of men (for (p.230) there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complection than white” (10; emphasis added).

(10.) In the relatively slight body of critical work on Thomas's Down These Mean Streets, there is little acknowledgement of Piri's use of racism and racial privilege in theearly part of the text as an essential part of its bildungsroman structure. Marta Sánchez points out, accurately, that, “[b]ecause for many whites at this time ‘Negro’ was a racist category, those who used it on Piri perpetrated acts of mutilation on him by refusing him the possibility of self-representation” (44); but she overlooks how frequently the young Piri's “self-representation” involves the deployment of racist categories for a stake in racial privilege. In general, commentators such as Herms, Luis, and Rodríguez de Laguna prefer to focus on Piri's experience of racism rather than on his wielding of it. Others, such as Mohr and Lisa González, put the problem in terms of being caught between categories or groups.

(11.) Rodriguez-Morazzani is here taking issue with Clara E. Rodríguez's claim in a 1974 article, “Puerto Ricans: Between Black and White” (a claim which, as Rodriguez-Morazzani points out, was later reduplicated almost verbatim in her 1989 book Puerto Ricans Born in the U.S.A.), that, “in Puerto Rico, racial identification is subordinate tocultural identification, while in the U.S., racial identification, to a large extent, determines cultural identification. Thus when asked the divisive question, ‘What are you?’ Puerto Ricans of all colors and ancestry answer, ‘Puerto Rican,’ while most New York-ers answer, Black, Jewish, or perhaps, ‘of Italian descent.’ This is not to say that Puerto Ricans feel no racial identification, but rather that cultural identification supersedes it” (qtd. in Rodriguez-Morazzani 150).

(12.) And yet—lynching aside—as various critics have noted, the social positioning of African Americans and Puerto Ricans in U.S. urban centers has not been dissimilar: “Both groups experienced unemployment, housing discrimination, police brutality, racial violence, and racial devaluation […]. In this context it is very suggestive that much of the literature of the 1960s and 1970s in the social sciences concerning Puerto Ricans compares and contrasts their situation with that of African Americans” (Rodriguez-Morazzani 145). Flores argues that, in terms of such demographics, Puerto Ricans could be said to have more in common with African Americans than with Cuban Americans or Mexican Americans (From Bombay 163).

(13.) See Marta Sanchez (47) for a different reading of this scene.

(14.) In yet another wonderfully ironic twist of fate, DNA studies—which can serve the purpose of grounding group (and individual) identity claims in a certain sort of biological “essentialism”—have suggested that, in fact, a larger percentage of Puerto Ricans actually have some indigenous heritage than the percentage that shares some African heritage. In other words, the historical “lesson” that the indigenous inhabitants of Puerto Rico were killed off, leaving no genealogical trace, might be wrong (see Kearns).

(15.) Ian López notes that such scenes “suggest a spatial component to racial identities, an implication confirmed in Thomas's travel from Spanish Harlem, where he was Puerto Rican, to Long Island, where he was accused of trying to pass, to the South, where he was Black” (12).

(16.) For a fascinating discussion of some earlier “texts” (both fiction and film) that (p.231) dramatize white consolidation of power in the face of a perceived black threat, see Stokes.

(17.) Piri's father acknowledges having similarly used linguistic difference to signal racial difference from “Negroes,” when a phenotype might have suggested otherwise: “I saw the look of white people on me when I was a young man, when I walked into a place where a dark skin isn't supposed to be. I noticed how a cold rejection turned into an indifferent acceptance when they heard my exaggerated accent. I can remember the time when I made my accent heavier, to make me more of a Puerto Rican than the most Puerto Rican there ever was” (153).

(18.) This scene is an excellent illustration of Ian López's argument that “[c]hoice composes a crucial ingredient in the construction of racial identities and the fabrication of races. Racial choices occur on mundane and epic levels […] and the effects are often minor though sometimes profound, for instance, slightly altering a person's affiliation or radically remaking a community's identity. Nevertheless, in every circumstance choices are exercised not by free agents or autonomous actors, but by people who are compromised and constrained by the social context” (13 –14). In the incident with the prostitute, Piri is not “seen” as black until he chooses to engage in a behavior—speaking English—which he knows will cause him to be read as black.

(19.) Mohr, for example, argues that West “proposes a theory of racial options which […] is in an absolute sense more reasonable than the system of restraints and impositions that actually governs” U.S. society (49–50). See also M. Sánchez.

(20.) For an interesting discussion of the implications of the concept of “passing” for notions of race, see Michaels.

(21.) This lesson seems to contradict Piri's earlier understanding that language may modify racial identification. His travels, that is, reinforce the concept of race as biologically, rather than linguistically, determined. In the United States speaking a “foreign” language can, in certain contexts, exempt him from the severity of the racial dichotomy; but he discovers that countries which speak a language other than English still make distinctions between “black” and “white.” In Spanish-speaking countries in South America, for example, speaking Spanish will not “save” Piri from being racially identified as black—thus “Hispanic” logically becomes less of an assertion of whiteness.

(22.) Although racial issues arise again in prison, especially with regard to religion, Piri is no longer struggling with how to identify himself racially; as Mohr has noted, “Piri seems less troubled by the identity question” while in prison (53).

(23.) Interestingly, Lisa González detects an increasing emphasis on pragmatics in the trajectory of Thomas's oeuvre overall: “The unresolved […] crisis in Down These Mean Streets [i.e., Piri's “identity” crisis] gives way to an important set of thematics in Thomas's later works, thematics that focus on the importance of direct intervention in the lives of urban youths rather than identity per se” (118).

(24.) A common race is also cited by some Chicago Latinos as a primordial category that would allow Latinos to unite against inequalities (F. Padilla 105).

(25.) To arrive at this finding, Jones-Correa and Leal sorted data from respondents based on (1) whether they had identified themselves, either primarily or secondarily, using some sort of panethnic label such as “Latino” or “Hispanic” (the four categories were “No preference” for a panethnic label, “Some preference,” “First preference among (p.232) others”—that is, the respondent identified with more than one label, such as a national-origin label and a panethnic label but with the panethnic label first—and “Only preference”) and (2) whether respondents believed that the different Latino cultures were “Very Similar,” “Somewhat Similar,” or “Not Very Similar.” For each of the categories of labeling preference, however, only a relatively small minority of respondents asserted a belief in “Very Similar” Latino cultures (18.45 percent of those who did not identify at all panethnically believed this, while 16.46 percent of those who identified only panethnically did so). A much larger percentage in each category, ranging from about half to 65.29 percent, believed that the different cultures were somewhat similar (231). It is worth noting here that even to say that Latin American cultures are “very similar” is not to say that they are the same (that is, a “common”) culture.