The “Culture of Poverty” and the Scapegoating of Puerto Rican Sexuality (ACLA, 2012)

American Comparative Literature Association, Providence – 2012

Piri Thomas’ 1967 Down These Mean Streets interacts with the discourses of poverty and
race that were in circulation during the civil rights era. In the late-fifties and early-sixties, a
variety of “non-fictional” texts, such as Oscar Lewis’ La Vida: a Puerto Rican Family in the
Culture of Poverty—San Juan and New York
(1966), purported to analyze and explain the causes
of low-income urban life, drawing on the tropes of street life and the cultures of criminality
associated with urban poverty. These texts sprang from different political programs, some
looking for “national action” in the form of policy, others looking for sympathy for the poor.
Whatever their agendas, these texts informed, or misinformed, the American public and
influential policy-makers about the lives of people like Piri Thomas. Down These Mean Streets
exists in a dynamic relationship with these political and anthropological texts that simultaneously
articulate and construct the dominant understanding of Puerto Rican lives in New York City in
the mid twentieth century. Between Thomas’ semi-fictional narrative and Lewis’ ostensibly
objective scholarship, a rhetoric emerges that defines who the Puerto Rican people are in New
York City. This paper argues that this text presents possibilities for radical social transformation
through undermining the hegemonic hold of heteronormativity. Reading Lewis’ anthropological
work, which is most commonly associated with enduring images of poverty and race, alongside
Thomas’ novel, which queers Lewis’ foundational theory “the Culture of Poverty,” highlights the
moralistic and sexually homogenizing thrust of Lewis’ discourse. At a time of massive
population growth in the New York Puerto Rican community, when public discourse about
Puerto Ricans reached a particularly dehumanizing level, Down These Mean Streets provides an
in-depth exploration of the mechanisms and costs of survival in this time and space.