Piri's Double-Sided Identity

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Black and Puerto Rican: Developing Piri’s Double-Sided Identity For centuries, American citizens have possessed a tendency to view ethnicity in black and white. A person without pale skin and smooth hair is characterized as black without regard to his or her self-identification. Given the racism prevalent in society, this black-white paradigm causes difficulty for people who are not comfortable in one or either category. Piri Thomas was one of these children, and his memoir recounts his struggle to understand himself. In Down These Mean Streets, Thomas demonstrates how the protagonist Piri’s confusion with his skin color and Puerto Rican heritage lead him to eventually acknowledge and appreciate his identity as an Afro-Latino man in America.…show more content…
Piri’s family, excluding his father, is significantly lighter skinned, and he feels like an outcast in his home and predominantly Italian neighborhood. On his way home from school one day, a gang of Italian children accost Piri for being black, telling him that the hospital where he was born was “where all the black bastards get born.” Piri responds that “all kinds of people” are born there, insisting that he is Puerto Rican and not actually black (Thomas 25). Piri protests his skin color instead of the racism towards people with dark skin, not comprehending that his Puerto Rican heritage does not dictate or overrule his pigmentation. He refuses to accept his African blood, claiming the same identity as his light-skinned siblings and mother. He has learned from his family members, who also conceal their African heritage, that being black is undesirable, so he pretends that being Puerto Rican permits him to disregard his skin tone. In addition to altercations with outsiders, Piri also faces violence over the racial bias within his family. One day, angry at his family for denying their African ancestry, he instigates a fight with his brother José. José insists that the family is white and that their father has Indian blood, not black. The two begin to fight. After Poppa breaks them up, Piri states that he is “the only one that’s found out [he’s] not [white],” and that although he “tried…show more content…
At first Piri speaks of cultural pride, but he does not act on his own advice until reaching maturity. When fighting with José, Piri tells Pops that “there’s pride galore in being a Negro,” but he still feels ashamed and alternates accepting and rejecting his African heritage (Thomas 151). In street arguments, he pretends that he is as white as his siblings and mother, but in the South he embraces the bold masculinity that he feels accompanies being a black man. When he is released from prison, though, Piri realizes that he has been suppressing his true identity, responding to adversity by hiding behind societal ideals instead of showing confidence as an Afro-Latino man. When he sees his reflection after “making the scene” with his old friends, he feels “as though [he has] found a hole in [his] face and out of it [are] pouring all the different masks that [his] cara-palo face had fought so hard to keep hidden” (Thomas 321). While his friends are still caught in the gang cycle of years past, this does not mean that Piri must conform. His health and freedom are now more important than his reputation. Whether denying or embracing his black and Latino heritage, Piri has not permitted himself to find his true identity until this point. The cycle of choosing only one seems to be
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