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bjbjWh, h L L " 0 Piris Thomas autobiography, Down These Mean Streets, covers his life from ages twelve to twenty-eight, and details the hardships of growing up in el barrio of Spanish Harlem, New York City in the 1940 s and 1950 s. Although Piris Thomas is native-born, his parents are recent immigrants to the mainland United States from Puerto Rico. Thomas father claims to be of Puerto Rican nationality, but is actually of Cuban heritage with African blood, while his mother is a white native Puerto Rican. Down These Mean Streets is "the first account about growing up in a United States ghetto written in native English by a second-generation Puerto Rican to bridge over to a mainstream U. S.
audience. " (Kanellos 311) Although Thomas was born in the United States, he is able to accurately portray the Puerto Rican immigrant experience in the U. S. through family and community struggles and he is able to vividly depict what it is to grow up Puerto Rican. Thomas brings to the surface the inevitable discrimination and oppression facing Puerto Ricans in the United States and he opens our eyes to the harsh realities of what it means to be dark-skinned in this country.
Down These Mean Streets "has an undeniable power com[ing] from the fact that it is a report from the guts and heart of a submerged population group, itself submerged in the guts and hearts of our cities. It claims our attention and emotional response because of the honesty and pain of a life led in outlaw, fringe status, where the dream is always to escape. " (Stern 1) In order to fully understand the Puerto Rican immigrant experience in the United States, we must first analyze personal motivations for migration. Down These Mean Streets does not give the reader a sense of why Piri's parents migrated to the U. S. , nor even tell us when the migration occurred. Little mention at all is made to the lives which Piri's parents led in Puerto Rico, except for the occasional nostalgic memory imparted by Piri's mother. "His family asserted its Puerto Ricanness and his mother inculcated in her children a longing for and an emotional identification with their homeland. " (Kanellos 311) When answering her childrens inquiry as to whether she was poor in Puerto Rico, Piri's mother answers, Si, muy porn, but very happy. I remember the hard work and the very little bit we had, but it was a good little bit.
It counted very much. Sometimes, when you have too much, the good gets lost within and you have to look very hard. But, when you have a little, the good does not have to be looked for so hardy have people everywhere who, because they have more, dont remember those who have very little. But in Puerto Rico those around you share la po breza with you and they love you, because only poor people can understand poor people. I like los Estados Unidos, but its sometimes a cold place to live not because of the winter and the landlord not giving heat but because of the snow in the hearts of the people. (Thomas 9 - 10) This statement by Piri's mother imparts that her family was very poor and this may indicate that economic factors influenced her out-migration. Although she probably did leave her homeland because of extreme poverty and although she may be doing slightly better economically in the United States; one must ask, at what cost?
Piri's mother has quickly realized that to be poor in Puerto Rico is very different from being poor in the U. S. She is well aware that in this country being poor means no escape from negative stigmatization. Along with personal motivations for migration, one must look at the historical, political, and economic forces that drive migration. Due to the fact that Piris Thomas was born in 1928 in New York City, it is safe to say that his parents emigrated from Puerto Rico prior to that. In order to understand why Piri's parents chose to build their lives in the U.
S. we must look to the situation in Puerto Rico at the time. Migration out of Puerto Rico began as early as 1898, when Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War and increased after President Wilson passed the Jones Act in 1917 granting American citizenship to all Puerto Ricans. (Green 1130) Puerto Rican migration to the United States also rose during World War I. "As of 1910, approximately 1, 500 Puerto Ricans were living in the United States. However, the Puerto Rican population living there had increased to 52, 774 by 1930. " (Torres 715) This great rise in immigration, during the first period of migration from 1900 - 1945, can best be explained by the political and economic relationships between Puerto Rico and the mainland. "The political relationship between Puerto Rico and the mainland resulted not just in political dependence, but also in economic dependence. " (Rodriguez 103) Prior to the approximate time that Piris Thomas parents immigrated, Puerto Rico's economy underwent sweeping changes. U. S.
involvement in Puerto Rico transformed the economy from a "diversified subsistence economy" with the staple exported crops being tobacco, cattle, coffee and sugar in the early 1900 s, to an economy based solely on sugar exportation with " 60 percent of the sugar industry controlled by absentee owners from the mainland. " (Rodriguez 103) "The decline of the sugar cane-based industry (combined with no reinvestment and continued population growth) in the twenties resulted in high unemployment, poverty, and desperate conditions in Puerto Rico. " (Rodriguez 103) These push factors caused early immigrants, such as Piris Thomas parents, to flee Puerto Rico in search of better opportunities. Along with the factors causing people to leave Puerto Rico, other pull factors regarding employment in the U. S. during the first period of Puerto Rican migration greatly increased the numbers of people entering the mainland. During this time, Puerto Rican "pioneers", as they were termed for being apart of the first wave of migration, were lured to the mainland with the promise of secure employment. "These early migrants worked as contract laborers to produce goods such as ships and ammunition needed for the war. " (Torres 715) United States industries began actively recruiting Puerto Rican labor to work on the mainland. (Rodriguez 102) This populations labor was highly regarded by employers because Puerto Ricans were citizens and possessed a very good work ethic. (Rodriguez 102) Further, adding to the appeal of Puerto Rican laborers, was the fact that employers could reap great profits from exploiting this population with very low wages. (Rodriguez 102) This "industrial and agricultural labor under contract provided the base from which sprang many of the Puerto Rican communities. " (Rodriguez 105) U. S.
policy, during this first wave of Puerto Rican migration, was both positive and negative towards immigrants. Immigration policy during the first half of the century was positive in that its open nature allowed all Puerto Rican the chance to escape their desperate situations in their homeland. However, U. S.
policy proved to be negative in that this "openness" and welcoming quality toward Puerto Ricans was all done in the countrys own self-interest. U. S. industries were helped along by the exploited, cheap labor provided by Puerto Ricans. Puerto Rican "tailors, cigar makers, carpenters and skilled artisans contributed to the growing American economy. " (Torres 715) Also, with open immigration during war times, as was the case during World War I in the first period of migration, U. S.
policy made it possible for large numbers of Puerto Ricans to be added to our armed forces. "During World War I, as many as 1, 000 Puerto Ricans all newly naturalized American citizens served in the U. S. army" and that number climbed to 100, 000 by the onset of World War II. (Green 1131) The pull towards employment can be further illustrated by examining why large numbers of Puerto Ricans settled in New York City. Most early Puerto Rican migrants came to New York City due to the "wide availability of industrial and service-industry jobs" which were just the type of low-skilled employment that non-English speaking peoples needed to survive on the mainland. (Green 1131) Many Puerto Rican migrants found themselves settling in East Harlem, a section of Upper Manhattan between 116 th and 145 th streets, because oftentimes there were already family members or friends residing there to aid them in adjusting to their new communities. (Green 1131) Due to the high numbers of Latin people in this area it was termed Spanish Harlem. "Among New York City puertorriquenos, the Latino-populated area was referred to as el barrio, or the neighborhood. " (Green 1131) Adhering to this now well-documented settlement pattern was Piris Thomas family. They built their lives in the barrio of Spanish Harlem and shared their mainland experience with the other Puerto Rican migrant families residing there. Being raised as a Puerto Rican in America, Piris Thomas experienced many of the same disadvantages that all migrants experience on the mainland.
The poverty that his family was forced to live in is characteristic of Puerto Rican families in the 1940 s and 1950 s, and still is to a large extent today. The "U. S. Census Bureau indicates that for at least 25 percent of all Puerto Ricans living on the mainland (and 55 percent living on the island) poverty is a serious problem. " (Green 1132) The early migrants to the mainland, especially families residing in New York City, worked in the service and industry job sectors. (Green 1137) The leading employment among early migrant Puerto Rican women was in the garment industry. (Green 1137) Piri's mother worked all her life as one of these garment industry employees, working in needle industry factories and doing piecework at home. (Kanellos 311) Piri's father was const...
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