Down These Mean Streets II

thomas_mean-streets2The second half of Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets is much less preoccupied with questions of identity than the first. It seems as though Thomas has accepted that his primary identity is the one bestowed on him by society, rather than family: he is black, even if he can occasionally “pass” as something else, as when (in Texas) he goes to a brothel with a Mexican friend and, by acting as though he only speaks Spanish, assures the establishment that he is foreign rather than African American. As he leaves, though, he switches to English and watches as the prostitute’s “smile fall[s] off and a look of horror fill[s] the empty space it left–‘I just want you to know,’” he tells her, “’that you got fucked by a nigger, by a black man!’” (189). If he is going to be penalized for his blackness, in other words, by this point he sees that it can also be wielded as a weapon.

Towards the end of the book, in an odd and somewhat underdeveloped passage, Thomas even seems to be taken by Black Nationalism: under the influence of a follower of Elijah Muhammed, he becomes a Muslim and takes on the name “Hussein Afmit Ben Hassen” (296). Neither the religion nor the name stick (for reasons that Thomas does not explain), but it is notable that he has little corresponding interest, even momentarily, in his Puerto Rican heritage or latinidad. Indeed, though he signs on to work on a ship that travels to the West Indies, it is not clear that he visits the island, or even that the thought to do so ever crosses his mind. “Puerto Rican” becomes simply a qualifier, albeit a necessary one, to “black”: when a plainclothes detective grabs him and calls him a “black bastard,” Thomas replies “If you don’t mind, I’m a Puerto Rican black bastard” (235). His blackness is no longer contested.

But the book’s fundamental concern continues to be the self. In some ways, this is unsurprising given the generic conventions of the memoir, whose point is largely to narrate the unfolding or discovery of what makes an individual what he or she is. But Piri is more concerned with “me” than most. Thomas tells us that “one thing still stood out clear; one things still made sense and counted–me. Nothing else but me” (95). And asked for “who do you love?” he seems hardly to hesitate before answering “Me” (259). He has many associates but relatively few friends; relationships become significant only when they are at an end, as with his friend Brew (who disappears), his mother (who dies), or his girlfriend Trina (who marries another man).

Ultimately Piri is not particularly interested in other people. Nor is he all that concerned with a broader notion of community or “people.” Sent to prison for robbery with violence, there is a point, when the inmates rise up against the guards, at which Thomas has to decide on his allegiances and belonging, and ends up split, arguing with his self: “These damn cons are my people . . . What do you mean, your people? Your people are outside the cells, home, in the streets” (281). In the end, though, it is more that he has no people.

Rejected for the most part by mainstream society, with the exception of the anomalous episode of Muslim conversion he is unable or unwilling to find any alternative sense of community. The book’s final scene is emblematic. Returning to Harlem and to the building he once lived in, he meets an old friend, Carlito, who at first does not recognize him. It turns out that Carlito is, like Piri had once been, a junkie. Hearing his mumbled but unconvincing promises that he will get clean, Thomas realizes that all this is simply part of his past, of his numerous yesterdays: “my whole world was yesterday. I ain’t got nothing but today and a whole lot of tomorrows” (330). Ignoring what Carlito is saying, Piri leaves him behind and “walked out into the street, past hurrying people and an unseen jukebox beating out a sad-assed bolero” (331). Any salvation here is going to be individual rather than collective. There is little if any sense of any common political project.

Even when Thomas bumps into a boy who reminds him uncannily of himself, or of his former self–“This kid shot a cop and got shot; I shot a cop and got shot. What’s happened to me is going to happen to him” (315)–he is hardly keen to communicate his own experience and learning, fobbing him off rather with a “Buenas noches” and the unconvincing and unlikely reassurance that “You’ll probably get a break, don’t worry about it” (315). Taken as a whole, however, the book gives the lie to this superficial prognosis. Piri himself catches very few breaks. And if he survives to tell the tale, it is hardly thanks to anyone else but to the fact that he has shown, over and over, that whatever the colour of his skin he has “heart.” And it is heart, a mixture of bravery and persistence, capacity to affect or be affected, that is untethered from any notion of identity or belonging, that is finally what counts. This is what leads to acceptance on the street, where “if you you ain’t got heart, you ain’t got nada” (47). You make your own luck, and you do so as an individual (because heart is what defines the individual), not as part of a group.

Down These Mean Streets I

thomas_mean-streets2The story Piri Thomas tells in his memoir Down These Mean Streets is a story of cultural and ethnic confusion. Thomas, the US-born dark-skinned son of Puerto Rican immigrants, grows up in a multicultural and multilingual Harlem marked by “the roar of multicolored kids, a street blend of Spanish and English with a strong tone of Negro American” (121). Everyone lives cheek-by-jowl, and yet the streets are also carved up into jealously-guarded territorial units. The family moves three blocks, from 111th to 114th Street, and they find themselves on “Italian turf” (24). Immediately picked on by the local gang of Italian kids, Piri wins their respect by obeying a cross-cultural code of omertà and not squealing on them when things go too far and a fight ends up with him half-blinded and in hospital. He has passed a rite of passage, and it turns out that “Italianos wouldn’t be so bad if they spoke Spanish” (39).

However “mean” these Manhattan streets are, they are infinitely preferable to the Long Island suburbs to which the family move later: “a foreign country [that . . .] looked so pretty and clean but it spoke a language you couldn’t dig. The paddy [white] boys talked about things you couldn’t dig [. . .]. No matter how much you busted your hump trying to be one of them, you’d never belong, they wouldn’t let you” (88). The mixture and confusion of the city might be violent and dangerous, but it is better than the cloying hypocrisy of the suburbs, where a girl at a dance treats Piri politely enough to his face, only for him immediately afterwards to overhear her telling her friends: “Imagine the nerve of that black thing” (85). If in Long Island he is repeatedly put back in his place, in Harlem he feels that place might still be somehow up for grabs.

Struggling to stake out his role in a context defined by poverty and social antagonism (in which the disadvantaged are constantly at each others’ throats), Thomas has to resolve the contradiction that he is seen as black even though his family, and particularly his similarly dark-skinned father, insist that as Puerto Ricans they have more in common with whites, that they are perhaps half-white or almost white. His father even accentuates his Puerto Rican accent if it will help distance him from the stigma of blackness. Yet as Piri points out, the dominant white culture tries to maintain an image of purity and inviolability: “Poppa, they don’t care how you feel inside. They don’t care if you look white. No mix, no mingling–for Christ’s sake, even your shit gotta be practically white!” (150). Lambasting him for his self-denial, Piri tries to instill in his father some notion of black pride: “You gonna have to wake up to the fact that you ain’t white, but that’s all right, Poppa, that’s all right. There’s pride galore in being a Negro, Poppa” (151). It is not yet clear, however, that Piri himself quite believes this.

Still confused or torn between different possible identities or identifications, Piri decides to head south, as though he could gain some kind of clarity the other side of the Mason/Dixon line. As he explains to his friend, Brew, an African American who has moved north: “It might just set me straight on a lotta things. Maybe I can stop being confused and come in on a right stick” (127). Brew reluctantly agrees to accompany him, “but only on the condition you cool your role” (128). Yet the heat or passion that Piri feels seems to come precisely from the fact that he does not yet feel he has a “role.”

Nor does the first stop on the journey south enlighten him much; if anything, it just adds to the confusion. In Norfolk, Virginia, waiting for a ship to take them down the coast, Piri and Brew meet a man, working as a waiter, who is almost Piri’s mirror image or distorted double. For this Gerald Andrew West is also a northerner who is seeking some kind of clarity in the south, in his case expecting to discover “the warmth and harmony of the southern Negro, their wonderful capacity for laughter and strength [. . .] the richness of their poverty” (170). Moreover, Gerald, too, has constructed this romanticized image of blackness from a position of marginality and mixture: he is not exactly white, although, “tan-colored” he is “not really very negroid-looking” (170). Yet he is much more certain of his own identity, arguing that this should be a matter of choice and affective affiliation: “I have the right to identify with whatever race or nationality approximates my emotional feeling and physical characteristics” (176). As Piri observes, “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). They are choosing different roots out of a shared confusion.

But in other ways, Gerald’s and Piri’s strategies will turn out to be the same. What is interesting is that, in addition, Gerald defines himself as a potential author: he is “writing a book on the Negro situation” that he hopes will eventually “contribute in some way to the Negro’s cause” (171). For we know, thanks to the evidence of the book we are reading, that Piri, too, though at this stage he does not know it, will end up a writer. And though, half-way through the memoir, it is still unclear what kind of resolution he may find for his sense of confusion, we do know that it will take the form of the text that we are holding in our hands.

With His Pistol in His Hand II

paredes_coverThe second half of Américo Paredes’s ”With His Pistol in His Hand” consists of a painstaking analysis of the corrido “Gregorio Cortez.” After a discussion of the history of the corrido genre as a whole, and its relation to other genres of popular Mexican music such as the romance or the décima, Paredes gives us the text of the ballad itself, in multiple versions and variants. One is a printed broadside from Mexico City, published in 1925 but probably written very shortly after the incidents it describes, in August or September 1901; although the music for this version is lost, Paredes tells us that it is not in fact a border ballad, and offers it mostly for the sake of comparison with the versions that are. Eight variants are transcriptions of performances, in one case of a record from 1920 and in almost all the other cases of “field recordings” made by Paredes himself of singers, both young and old, male and female, in the mid-1950s. Finally, one of the versions of the ballad–which is also the longest of them all–is Paredes’s own reconstruction of what the song might have looked (or sounded) like in its original incarnation, or at least in its very early stages. Having presented us with this wealth of primary material, Paredes goes on to analyze it, in all its variations, stanza by stanza and practically line by line. He has a detailed discussion of such elements as metre, stress, and syllable count; of verb tenses and conjunctions, and the use of words such as “ya” and “y”; and of imagery and language, including the peculiarities of border Spanish that the corrido reproduces.

In short, for a song that in Ramón Ayala’s rendition, for instance, lasts all of three minutes and twenty-four seconds, Paredes really goes to town. Indeed, the ratio between the length of the text to be interpreted here and the number of words expended in its interpretation and commentary is quite extraordinary: a corrido that in its longest (reconstructed) version comprises 28 four-line stanzas covering four pages is subject to around 100 pages of interpretation. But all this makes the book’s key point: that we should take such texts seriously.

Paredes does not exactly claim that the corrido is literary, as indeed strictly it is not if we define “literature” as written or printed matter. Not that this is the definition that Paredes employs: the version of the ballad that is printed (the Mexico City broadside) he repeatedly describes as “pseudoliterary,” apparently because of its style, which abandons “the corrido stanza [. . .] in favor of the literary redondilla”; the result is “awkwardness and dullness. [. . .] The reader who knows no Spanish may not appreciate to the full the scantiness of inspiration of the broadside” (182, 183). By contrast, “The maker of the Border corrido makes no effort to be original or literary, and by staying within the ballad traditions of his people he succeeds in composing in a natural and often a forceful style” (183).

While Paredes is not explicit about the basis for his judgements of aesthetic success, more than once he praises the ballad for its “vigor” (207, 209, 224), for its “simplicity of diction and [. . .] dramatic style” that avoids “verbal adornments” (219). Where the “pseudoliterary broadside [. . . prefers] the highest sounding word,” Border ballads “are composed in the language that the rancheros use every day” (219). And yet at the same time Paredes is keen to locate the corrido within an extensive and quite distinguished transnational tradition that dates back as far as the Spanish Middle Ages. In other words, it is precisely in that it does not strive for literary value (as does the broadside) that the Border ballad becomes a legitimate object of study and can be treated with the care and attention usually reserved for canonical literary texts.

Hence the comparisons with, for instance, romances dedicated to El Cid: “In response to conditions similar to those which produced the romance in Spain, the dormant, half-forgotten romance tradition in America revived in the corrido” (245). Moreover, not only does the Border corrido revive and gain (perhaps unconscious) inspiration from this venerable lineage, Paredes is also keen to underscore that it is far from derivative; a ballad such as “Gregorio Cortez” also adds something new and distinctive to this tradition. It “created some conventions of its own, conventions related to the border conflict which was its environment.” It initiates, in other words, a new set of aesthetic and cultural developments, which are then later taken up by the “Greater Mexican corrido tradition, which does not begin until ten years after El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez” (240).

In sum, however much Paredes wishes to mark the Border ballad’s distance from a literary self-consciousness that he sees as forced and un-natural (“pseudoliterary”), he is also keen to demonstrate that it is far more than the simple reflection of social reality or documentation of events and attitudes that mattered to the subaltern peoples of the Border. It is a creative contribution to a long-standing cultural genre. As such, the justification for its study is as much aesthetic as it is political or sociological.

American Dirt II

american-dirtThe recent and ongoing controversy over Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt concerns the politics of literary representation and taste, publishing and canonization. Why should a non-Mexican author whose grasp of the detail of Mexican culture is sometimes precarious be rewarded with both financial capital (with a seven-figure advance) and cultural capital from the arbiters of literary value and media prominence (Stephen King, Oprah Winfrey, and so on) for a text that distorts Mexican reality by serving up gringo fantasies of the country’s trauma and pain?

These are important issues, and the critique posed to the book (and more broadly to the media and publishing business) is timely and significant. But amidst all the fuss it seems to have escaped most people’s attention that the novel’s heroine, Lydia Quixano Pérez, is, before she is forced to flee the threat of narco violence, herself a bookseller. Moreover, her relationship with the antagonist, a narco boss named Javier Crespo Fuentes, is structured through their common appreciation for the written word. As such, this is a text that in some ways anticipates some of the criticism it has received, and that outlines its own vision (which may equally be subject to critique) of the role of literature in depicting or mediating social antagonism.

Lydia sells everything. As a bookseller, we are told, she is well aware of the basic tension between what the market wants and literary value. But she tries to maintain some kind of personal integrity (however unseen or invisible) by stocking her store not only with “books she wasn’t crazy about but knew she would sell” (let alone the para-literary ephemera of “notecards, pens, calendars” and so on) but also with “books that she loved” (24). This latter category includes “her best-loved secret treasures, gems that had blown open her mind and changed her life [. . .] that she stocked anyway, not because she expected she’d ever sell them, but simply because it made her happy to know they were there” (25). She sells books, in other words, as though they were any other commodity, but within this mechanism of merchandising she quietly insists on the presence of a stubborn countervailing logic, a sort of silent protest against the market.

In other words, Lydia somewhat quixotically (against her own interests of profitability and commercial success), clings to other measures of literary value and purpose that are not reducible simply to exchange. As the novel explains: “Now and again when a book moved her, when a book opened a previously undiscovered window in her mind and forever altered her perception of the world, she would add it to those secret ranks.” Yet her efforts go unrecognized, unappreciated by a public that cares more for the best-sellers and notecards: “In the ten years she’d been doing this, only twice had Lydia experienced the pleasure of a customer approaching her counter with one of those books in hand, unsolicited” (25). Still, she persists.

There is already enough here of the fantastic: Lydia’s habit is obviously enough a compensatory device that enables and obliquely justifies the work in which she is mainly engaged as a bookseller, which is precisely that of the commodification and trivialization of the aesthetic project. It functions something like ideology, though at no point is Lydia deluded about the quality of the goods that she is mostly purveying. But there are also at least two other fantasies encapsulated here: either that one day there might arrive another reader appreciative or worthy of this other set of texts, this restricted canon; or, implicitly, that a book might turn up that would somehow transcend this divide by both “open[ing] previously undiscovered window[s],” altering our “perception of the world” and selling in quantity to the public at large.

Within the novel, it is that first fantasy that (briefly) comes true. A customer enters Lydia’s shop and picks not one but two of her secret list of non-marketable titles. She is dazzled and seduced by this unheralded event, and invites him to linger or return to discuss the books further, though he immediately warns that “sometimes the experience of reading can be corrupted by too many opinions” (26). Yet the source of the corruption here is elsewhere. We soon learn that this ideally receptive reader, one in a thousand or a million, is the feared capo of the cartel that has recently taken over the city. And it is he, Javier Crespo, who is responsible for the massacre of Lydia’s extended family with which the book opens. So much for the civilizing power of literature!

But is not American Dirt itself, at least as packaged and advertised for our consumption, an instance of the second fantasy, of the best-selling book that might also “open [our] mind and change[ our] life”? Of the book that would combine critical and commercial success as so few other texts have? (It is telling that a later communication between Lydia and Javier comes via the pages of Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, one of the few that might be said to have achieved this same “magical” feat.) Hence the extraordinary blurbs from figures such as Sandra Cisneros: “It’s the great world novel!” Hence the choice to feature it in Oprah’s Book Club. This is a novel that aspires to combine the accessibility and readability of the thriller with the transformative aesthetic power associated (again, however fantastically) with high art.

But hence also the controversy. It is not hard, after all, to puncture such fantasies. If it had aimed for just one or the other goal (either a thriller for the masses or enlightenment for a limited readership), it would not have attracted such attention. But attention it has, and the book’s critics are keen to point to the tension between its success already as a commodity (that million-dollar-plus advance; the forthcoming movie deal) and the high-minded ambitions to which the text implicitly or explicitly aspires (“But then, I thought, If you’re a person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge?” [382]). No wonder Cummins has received such grief. Who does she think she is? Not that some of her justifications or protestations have helped her case much. After all, when it comes to fantasy, it is easier for an author’s characters to be eloquent than for an author to be so.

As for the real value, if any, of American Dirt–not that it is up to the critic to determine this, and such judgments are the least important and most banal of critical interventions–it is surely not that it depicts the “truth” of contemporary Mexico. But how could it? It may, however, reveal something, even despite itself, about the reasons why we might ever imagine that a literary text could or would disclose such truths. Like many other similar texts, it may tell us far more about its readers, and their hopes, fears, and desires, and about the impact that they envisage reading can or should have, for better or for worse, on themselves and the world around them.

But for those contrasting the work of going elsewhere and experiencing otherness with simply reading about such alterity, Javier Crespo already has a warning: “Books are cheaper than traveling, but they’re also more dangerous” (24).