Queerness, the Culture of Poverty, and Radical Sexual Possibilities (2010)

Introduction: Piri Thomas with Oscar Lewis

In 1967, Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets presented a vision of life as a Puerto Rican growing up and living in New York City that simultaneously shocked its audience with the “report from the guts and the heart” of his community of Puerto Ricans living in New York and failed to surprise, telling a story with “a certain lack of suspense” (Stern). Though preceded by collections of short stories published by Jesús Colón as well as a number of other forms of writing by Puerto Ricans living in New York City, Thomas’ semiautobiographical novel provides the widely acknowledged foundation for Puerto Rican anglophone narrative. 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) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s The Negro Family: The Case For National Action(also known as “The Moynihan Report”), 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. Down These Mean Streets tells a story about poverty, racism, and redemption. This chapter argues that this text also 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. 

Searching for Sexual Possibility in These Mean Streets

Discussions of Down These Mean Streets have too frequently been limited to discussions of race and the ways that Thomas’ text speaks to various narratives about racial identity in the United States. These readings often elide questions of sexual behavior and identity and therefore overlook the interrelatedness of race—and perceptions of race— and sexual cultures. Even queer readings of this text are too frequently limited to discussions of sexual interactions and relationships, and overlook the familial and social structures that authorize or proscribe these sexual interactions. In this chapter, I contend that queer theory contains the best critical apparatus to dislodge the hold which “culture of poverty theory” has on the understanding of poor people, especially poor people of color. I locate my work in relation to queer theorists such as Judith Halberstam and Lee Edelman who are working to expand the definitions of the queer as an oppositional term: adopting a definition of heteronormative that includes not only sexual activity, but a life trajectory based on successful reproduction, as long as it is contained within the institution of marriage, and the social supports that surround households headed by legibly heterosexual parents. The definition of queer that places it in opposition to heteronormative, rather than to heterosexual, allows for a scope of discussion that does not exclusively discuss sexual or romantic activity. Instead, this definition authorizes a discussion of a wider range of activities that do not conform to this heteronormative teleology. 

This chapter also relies on queer of color theorists such as Manolo Guzmán, Arnaldo Cruz-Malavé, Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, and E. Patrick Johnson to discuss how communities of color are often regarded as queer in contradistinction to normative white communities, as well as how these communities often have understandings and articulations of sexualities that do not line up neatly with the definitions offered by white queer studies. Following the work of Cathy Cohen, Roderick Ferguson, and Sharon Holland in Black Queer Studies, I suggest that even queer of color studies are frequently so intent on the recapture, reinterpretation, and, it would sometimes seem, rehabilitation of homosexual sexual activity, that they lose sight of the “radical potential of queer politics” in favor of a vision of homosexual behavior wholly in thrall to heterosexual behavioral, familial, and reproductive norms (Cohen 441). I use these approaches to embrace a queer theory that focuses on anti-heteronormativity and can recognize more types of relationships and sexual interactions as queer. 

This reconfiguration of oppositions will end up creating strange bedfellows. Edelman suggests that “nothing intrinsic to the constitution of those identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, transsexual, or queer predisposes them to resist the appeal of futurity, to refuse the temptation to reproduce” (17); that is, within this definition, not all queers are actually queer. Additionally, we may assume that not all those who resist the “appeal of futurity” would willingly identify as queer, especially in cases where this resistance is, or is experienced as, nonconsensual. Yet Edelman’s and Halberstam’s reworking of the “queer” definition suggests a category of queer based on these groups’ respective relations to reproductive temporality. It is important to acknowledge that this recategorization risks enacting rhetorical violence on those whose heterosexual, heteronormative, or non-queer identities form a basic core of their self understanding. For certain groups, the desire to enter fully the category of heteronormative from which they have thus far been excluded is a goal linked to the familiar and familial logic of the “American Dream.” To argue for queerness on the part of these people may suggest that their denigrators may be correct, but it is also to suggest that the terms on which they have been denigrated must be changed. For this, we turn to queer theorizing of nonnormative lives in order to imagine ways to undermine the hegemonic hold of heteronormativity.

According to the New York Times, Down These Mean Streets was effectively written twice. First started while Piri Thomas was in prison, the original manuscript was extricated from a closet by Thomas’ young son, and later incinerated as “some old stuff” by his “old lady” (Lehmann-Haupt). Realizing how upset he was about the loss of the manuscript, Thomas determined that if he could write it once, he could surely recreate it, and thus began the version of Down These Mean Streets that would come to be published. An uncertain mixture of fiction and autobiography, Down These Mean Streets tells the story of Piri’s childhood in El Barrio, or Spanish Harlem, before and during World War II, his adolescence partly in Babylon, Long Island, and his young adulthood during which he joined the merchant marines and traveled the world, starting in the Jim Crow South. The last third of the novel covers Piri’s incarceration for armed robbery and his return to El Barrio.

Though the narrative of Down These Mean Streets follows much of the structure of a traditional bildungsroman, it focuses less on the process of Piri coming to adulthood than on the process of developing a political consciousness of his place within the complicated racial dynamics of Post World War II New York. Indeed, this text engages so thoroughly with city life that the Library of Congress has categorized it in the section of “History of the Americas” reserved for “New York.” Sánchez González indicates that Down These Mean Streets is one of the novels which “best illustrate the innovations entailed in the Boricua civil rights-era novel, particularly the narrative strategies involving child protagonists’ reflections on, and journeys through, a world that is hostile to their very being” (105). These novels narrate “less the ‘coming of age’ often associated with the bildungsroman than particular ways of coming to consciousness, a process by which the subject must critically evaluate his or her sociohistorical context and, accordingly, create alternative strategies for both literal and metaphysical survival” (Sánchez González 105-06). Indeed, this is not a novel about a child coming to adulthood, but about a subject coming to terms with the society into which he has been born. Any subject may choose to examine their place in society thus this form of bildung may be a process common to all. However, Down These Mean Streets demonstrates that in the face of injustices large and small, survival necessitates awareness.

Piri’s understanding of his masculinity develops as the novel chronicles the years between late childhood and early adulthood. During this time, Piri is at great pains to prove himself a man in a way that will be socially legible both to his peers and to the larger society within which he lives. As Piri’s sense of himself develops, he finds himself incapable of recognizing and emulating any of the instantiations of masculinity he is offered. He begins to understand that the masculinity to which his father aspires is heteronormative, white, and middle-class. Raised in a family where he is the darkest-skinned member, and where his mother, father and brother all willingly pass for white, Piri must learn that the world perceives him as black; then he must decide what that might mean to him. 

Piri begins to reject the white privilege that he has been both promised and denied, and he finds that this rejection brings his masculinity itself into question. He turns to the marginalized masculinity he sees represented by the young men of color in the gangs where he spends much of his time, a gendered sub-culture that operates according to different guidelines than the dominant culture. He encounters yet another version of marginalized masculinity in prison, where gender and desire are constantly inflected by the inmates’ incarceration. Eventually, he comes to name himself a “Puerto Rican black man” (Thomas 186). On the subject of the interrelation of raced and sexed identities, Cherríe Moraga has written, “to be without a sex… means also to be without a race” (116). For Piri, to be without a race—to be alienated from his lightskinned father and brother because of his dark skin not yet able to locate himself within a racial category in which he feels that be belongs—means also to be without a sex. Piri’s journey to find his sense of himself cannot be a search for any one thing, and the ways that the discourses of race and gender swirl around him in mid-twentieth century New York City do not encourage the kind of clarity he seeks.

In arguing that Down These Mean Streets had mass appeal and a political message, Sánchez González writes that Piri Thomas “wrote for a wide, popular audience; in both a literal and figurative sense, [his] novels constitute a paperback challenge to the fantastic fictions of American democracy and racial equality” (105). While this is true, Down These Mean Streets also enters into the discourses about family and sexuality, which are in no way race neutral themselves. Robert Reid-Pharr’s examination of Piri’s masculinity and sexuality, and Arnaldo Cruz-Malavé’s discussion of the masculine abjection (Reid-Pharr; Cruz-Malavé, “What a Tangled Web!”), offer useful examinations of the intersections of race and gender. Cruz-Malavé, in particular, notes that the editor of the first edition of this text accurately perceived what many subsequent critics did not: that this text is Piri Thomas’ “passionate, painful search to validate his manhood” (quoted in “What a Tangled Web!” 140). These important works look seriously at the foundations of Puerto Rican masculinity and the boundaries of male sexuality, scrutinizing the borderlines of the homosocial and homosexual. I expand on their readings by making clear that heteronormativity requires that certain individuals, partnerships, and groups receive vastly differing levels of support, based on a number of criteria including race, sexual behavior, sexual orientation, gender, and class. Recognizing the intricacy and multiplicity of this experience helps us interpret the influence that public discourse and policy have on keeping non-conformers invisible, illegible, or illegitimate.

Piri’s search for his own masculinity involves relationships with both women and men. Piri’s dealings with women include early dating experiences, his long-term dating relationship with Trina, and his impregnation of Dulcien. According to Edelman’s definition, these relationships qualify as queer heterosexuality, which is to say heterosexual interactions or desires that are not allied to the heteronormative telos of “reproductive futurism.” These relationships resist this affiliation not only because they do not produce a two-parent child rearing home, but because they actively avoid such an ending. Piri’s relationships with men include homosocial interactions with fellow gang members and prison inmates, and homosexual encounters with effeminate gay men and, again, prison inmates. Examining these relationships in turn, this chapter will elaborate where and whether the line between homosocial and homosexual is drawn in this text and how that line is racialized.

 In Down These Mean Streets, Thomas demonstrates a keen awareness of the distinction between behavior, identity, and culture—a distinction which is not recognized in Oscar Lewis’ work, where the classed assumptions about heteronormative family structures go unexamined and the family structures of racialized minorities are represented as pathological. The difference among behavior, identity, and culture is not generally understood, but neither is it isolated to queer theorists. The gay rights movement, for example, has not fully embraced this difference, perhaps for the sake of strategic alliances. On the other hand, the difference is readily accepted among epidemiologists, as in the Centers for Disease Control’s distinction between communities of gay men and communities of men who have sex with men—the former an identity category, the latter a behavioral category. This example is particularly relevant to Thomas’ portrayal of young Piri, whose sexual performances change to accommodate his needs in various settings and relationships. Lewis’ conflation of behavior and identity into one term—culture—is inadequate for understanding the confluence of race, class, sex, gender, and ethnicity in Piri’s identity formation. 

Queering Down These Mean Streets

Certain critics within the sub-field of queer Puerto Rican studies have recognized that examining how Down These Mean Streets interacts with sexual cultures illuminates the quest for survival that this novel presents. In the introduction to the Centro Journal’s special 2007 issue entitled Queer Puerto Rican Sexualities, the editors articulate three chief areas of concern for Puerto Rican queer studies, which are also important for Down These Mean Streets. They also call for deeper exploration into each of these areas: documenting queer histories, exploring the “mechanics of gender production and disruption,” and challenging the “heterosexist and heteronormative underpinnings of nationalist discourses” (Aponte-Parés et al. 7-8). Critics like Robert Reid-Pharr, who examine the stakes of the sex that Piri has with a gay man, help ground my own readings of Piri’s activities with men. 

The recent critical attention that has been given to Down These Mean Streets has begun to answer this call. In their attempts to document queer histories, Manolo Guzmán and Marta Sánchez have wrestled with the distinction between same-sex erotic/sexual activity and gay identity that exists in a number of cultures, including Puerto Rican. In most Puerto Rican sexual cultures, men can engage in certain forms of homosexual activity without otherwise threatening their heterosexual identity (Sánchez, “La Malinche at the Intersection”; Guzmán). Heterosexual identity, in these cases, is not disrupted because the homosexual activity does not disrupt the otherwise heteronormative telos of sexual life. Men can sleep with men as long as they continue to pursue the path of being a husband and father. Because of this disidentification with gay identity, and the concomitant retention of the privileges of heteronormativity, such homosexual acts are often considered outside of the scope of queer studies (Muñoz 9). However, the variety of queer, homosocial, and homosexual activity in the text cries out for more than merely reclaiming queer histories; the novel details the process of gender production and disruption, and invites further speculation on the ties between gender and national hegemony.

Before we too quickly assume that homosexual acts in the absence of homosexual identity retain heterosexual privilege, consider that the definition of the queer not only includes such acts, but a wide range of non-normative heterosexual behaviors as well, particularly when performed by bodies raced as other-than-white. Edelman specifies that by “queers” he means everyone who is “so stigmatized for failing to comply with heterosexual mandates” (17). Lest it seem that this definition of queer only exists as a negativity, as an opposition or a rejection of a set of values, Halberstam clarifies that we might “think about queerness as an outcome of strange temporalities, imaginative life schedules, and eccentric economic practices” (1). These strange, imaginative, and eccentric practices may be more readily conjured in the heteronormative imaginary as the temporal practices of the “self-employed – artists, writers, small farmers, and perhaps also … students” (Thompson 73). However, Halberstam’s list specifies that those who “live outside of reproductive and familial time” include “ravers, club kids, HIV-positive barebackers, rent boys, sex workers, homeless people, drug dealers, and the unemployed” (10). Halberstam’s list strongly evokes Down These Mean Streets, and a list of those living outside Edelman’s logic of heteronormative futurity in Thomas’ text might include gang members, drug dealers, poor single parents, and prison inmates. By considering the concept of queer temporalities, we can “detach queerness from sexual identity” and introduce it as a floating form of resistance, a disruptor to the narrow forms of representation allowed within a heteronormative framework (Halberstam 1). 

Cruz-Malave and Reid-Pharr have taken this study of Piri’s homosexual acts further, explicating the way that Piri and his fellow gang members shore up their own masculinity by projecting the feelings of tenderness that they might feel for each other onto a group of stereotypically effeminate gay men and then abjecting those men in a mandatory ritual of homosexual sex. Cruz-Malavé argues that, in this scene, “the ‘faggot’ incarnates for the ‘macho’ the state of abjection through which his own masculinity is constituted” (“What a Tangled Web!” 143). This straight-on-queer homosexual activity indicates that a heterosexual man can take as his sexual object either men or women. This Butlerian reading, which constitutes an extreme identity by excluding its opposite, certainly does respond to Centro’s call to examine the mechanics of gender production, but what of the mechanics of gender disruption?

To answer this question, the definition of gender, and specifically queer genders, must be examined further. Because Piri’s single documented homosexual encounter in this text is with a group of biological males who occupy a very complicated gender location, it becomes unclear to what extent this encounter represents a “homosexual” encounter. The basis on which “homo” and “hetero” are considered “same” or “different” is generally represented in “same-sex” or “opposite-sex” interactions. Examining this encounter as a “same-gender” or “different-gender” interaction provides a more gender-radical interpretation: the gender location of the men in question is clearly “other” to Piri. Taking seriously the idea that there are multiple gender locations undermines the binary of homo and heterosexual and allows for a wider reading of the queer in sexual interactions.

Here, again, the opposition between the terms heteronormative and the queer is key. Opposing “queer” to “heterosexual,” assumes that the reclamation of “queer” has served to do little more than to modernize the passé “homosexual.” As a corrective to this mere verbal substitution, Cathy Cohen offers this operational definition of heteronormativity: “those localized practices and those centralized institutions which legitimize and privilege heterosexuality and heterosexual relationships as fundamental and ‘natural’ within society” (440). Cohen’s definition recognizes the contrast between an identity category (gay or homosexual) slowly being expanded to include a larger range of identity categories (bisexual or transgender) and a near limitless category based around resistance to the privilege accorded relationship structure. Heteronormativity refers not only to sexual activity between men and women or to sexual orientation or identity animated by heterosexual desire, but also to a whole complex of raced and classed ideas about the signification and telos of sexual activity: heterosexual, reproductive, future-oriented, nuclear, middle-class family life. Cohen catalogs several of the ways that normative values around marriage and family are inflected by race, particularly in the United States, where some types of heterosexual relationships have been “prohibited, stigmatized, and generally repressed” (453). She argues, 

…the roots of heteronormativity are in white supremacist ideologies which sought (and continue) to use the state and its regulation of sexuality, in particular through the institution of heterosexual marriage, to designate which individuals were truly ‘fit’ for full rights and privileges of citizenship. (453)

Only those who legibly line up their lives with the ideology that Edelman has called “reproductive futurism” may be deemed fit for full citizenship (2). Even when this legible performance is letter perfect, many other factors such as race, class, or cultural identity may prevent this access.

As queer, or counter-heteronormative, behaviors press against the perceived fact that most people live their primary romantic lives in heterosexual relationships, the hegemonic forces of heteronormative institutions press back in the form of heterosexism. Warren J. Blumenfeld’s and others’ defines “heterosexism,” as discrimination “which has it roots in sexism, is the institutionalization of a heterosexual norm or standard which establishes and perpetuates the notion that all people are or should be heterosexual, thereby privileging heterosexuals and heterosexuality, and excluding the needs, concerns, cultures, and life experiences of LGBT people” (Blumenfeld 262). The distinction between this heteronormativity and heterosexism is the difference between an institutionalized belief system and the actions taken to undergird that system. Heteronormativity describes the belief in the heterosexual norm or standard, whereas heterosexism describes the institutional and active policing undertaken to enforce that standard. 

Oscar Lewis: Well Intentioned Libel

One major manifestation of heteronormative beliefs can be found in Oscar Lewis’ anthropological works, which have contributed to the cultural understanding, or misunderstanding, of how the “normal” family functions. I argue that Lewis’ “culture of poverty” emerges in the mid-twentieth century as a mode of reading, a critical lens through which the very real and troubling conditions of poverty in which many Puerto Ricans in this period lived could be seen as contextualized, contained, and most importantly, fobbed off on the poor themselves. The existence of a culture of poverty is a theory put forth by Oscar Lewis in 1959 in his book Five Families (Lewis, Five Families), further elaborated in Children of Sanchez in 1961 (noted in Leeds 226n1), and applied to Puerto Ricans in La Vida: a Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty—San Juan and New York. La Vida was published just two years before Down These Mean Streets, and won a National Book Award for nonfiction the same year that Down These Mean Streets came out. The families and relationships represented in Down These Mean Streets, then, would have been in many cases read with and against La Vida, which argues, in a nutshell, that poverty is both caused by and is a reaction to the social conditions of poverty. The circularity of his argument is only lessened by the introduction of a generational element: the poor are poor because their parents were poor, and like they inherit recipes, language, and manners, the poor inherit a complex of traits that insure that they will continue the cycle of poverty in the next generation. 

Critics discredited this mode of interpretation very early, on both methodological and ideological grounds. Even in the cases where Lewis’ methods were not questioned, critics struggled to untangle statistical reality from ideological bias. For example, early critics cautioned, after a review of Lewis’ work that “no one should predicate policy decisions affecting low-income Americans … on such a theory” (Coward, Feagin and Williams 633). Despite repeated critiques such as this, Lewis’ theory has taken a hold on discussions of sexuality, family, morality, and poverty. 

Lewis’ theory delineates a “culture of poverty,” which contains a complex of community, familial, and individual traits or characteristics, as well as the particular relationship between those in the “culture” of poverty and the “larger society.” He draws a sharp demarcation between poverty and the culture of poverty, “There are degrees of poverty and many kinds of poor people. The culture of poverty refers to one way of life shared by poor people in given historical and social contexts” (Lewis, La Vida xlvii). The particular traits that Lewis chooses in order to sort people into the simply poor and those in the culture of poverty—a distinction which might also be rendered as the worthy vs. the unworthy poor—echo many of the ways that people live their lives when they are fighting, either consciously or unconsciously, the logic of heteronormativity. The “culture of poverty,” according to Lewis, describes a complex of community, familial, and individual traits. According to Lewis, these traits operate in reaction to, but relatively independently of, the dominant culture (La Vida xlv-xlvii). These traits include, but are not limited to 

a high incidence of maternal deprivation, or orality, of weak ego structure, confusion of sexual identification, a lack of impulse control, a strong present-time orientation with relatively little ability to defer gratification and to plan for the future, a sense of resignation and fatalism, a widespread belief in male superiority, and a high tolerance for psychological pathology of all sorts. (Lewis, La Vida xlviii)

This descriptive aspect of the theory is problematic in itself, but the more troubling issue is Lewis’ explanatory posture. Claiming that some, though not all, of the modern poor share similar, overlapping, and nationally independent cultural properties, the theory argues that the properties are transmitted through generations and assure the continuation of multigenerational poverty (Lewis, La Vida xlv). This explanation shifts the focus from material conditions—such as labor and housing—to the private or privatized realms of sex and marriage. “Ultimately,” Briggs writes, La Vida “provided material for all those who wished to suggest that cultural, sexual, and reproductive causes were responsible for Puerto Ricans’ poverty” (77). 

Lewis might not have intended to blame the poor for their poverty or to demonize their family life in particular; “The full tragedy of this event was that Oscar Lewis was a socialist who favored government policies to ameliorate the lot of the poor and challenge colonialism” (Briggs 78). The goals of Lewis’ study of Puerto Rican (and, earlier, of Mexican) families within “the culture of poverty” rest on a peculiarly circular piece of analytic logic. He first makes it clear that his study is particular, writing, “I should like to emphasize that this study deals with only one segment of the Puerto Rican population and that the data should not be generalized to Puerto Rican society as a whole. Much of the behavior described in these pages goes counter to some of the most cherished ideals of the larger society” (Lewis, La Vida xiii). However, two pages later, when emphasizing the importance of his study, he generalizes: “I am suggesting the possibility that studies of the lower class may also reveal something that is distinctive of a people as a whole” (Lewis, La Vida xv). So, while this particular study should not “be generalized to Puerto Rican society as a whole,” it might “reveal something that is distinctive of a people as a whole.” Even within his own text, it seems unclear to Lewis how seriously his study should be taken. In spite of his ostensibly good intentions, Lewis did set the stage for his work to boomerang onto the poor themselves. 

La Vida describes how some poor Puerto Rican families live outside the heteronorm, which is not wrong. Unfortunately, it attributes their poverty to this resistance rather than to the hardships of colonization, immigration, economic exploitation, and racism. Thus, Lewis’ work can be used to press poor families away from potentially adaptive behaviors into heteronormativity. The critiques of Oscar Lewis’ La Vida have addressed thoroughly its racism, both overt in his rhetorical representations of his subjects, and covert, in the generally poor quality of research he allowed to represent entire communities (Opler 451). Though Briggs and Ortiz recognize that Lewis shifts much of the responsibility for poverty onto the sexual behavior of his subjects, they do not go so far as to suggest that the structures Lewis examines might have radical, or at least adaptive, potentials. Instead, Ortiz and Briggs locate Lewis within the “genealogy of the racialization and biologization of poverty” (Ortiz and Briggs 40). By biologizing poverty, they argue, Lewis actually places the onus of the problem of poverty onto the family, thereby relieving the government and other social institutions not only from the responsibility of alleviating poverty, but from any responsibility for having established the systems that might cause or perpetuate poverty. As Anthony Leeds suggests, “extrapolations from family histories to an alleged ‘culture’ simply fail to deal with the majority of institutional and social frameworks in which families are embedded” (Leeds 232). These critiques of Lewis’ methods and his conclusions are excellent and clearly needed, but in being willing to address only whether these traits are the cause of poverty, they accede too readily to the premise that the family structures Lewis describes are, in fact, social problems. 

 Lewis provided narratives of family and sexual life that are socially legible to readers in contradistinction to a narrative of the “normative conjugal unit of the ‘white’ family and household” so hegemonic and normative as to be mistaken for natural and immemorial (Sánchez, “Shakin’ Up” Race and Gender 23). The connection to contemporary queer theory is made eloquently by the introduction to the Centro Journal’s special issue on Queer Puerto Rican Studies.

Although it was not until the 1990s that there was a true explosion of Puerto Rican queer discourses, the foundation of the current interest begins in the post-WWII period. With the increase in urbanization, consumption, and migration following WWII, Puerto Ricans in general, including queers, became more visible in urban spaces. This visibility began to catch the attention of researchers, particularly in the U.S., who began to produce new “scientific” discourses about Puerto Rican sexuality. Among the most emblematic of these early studies is Oscar Lewis’s well-known ethnography La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty—San Juan and New York (1966). Consistent with much social science of the period, studies such as this one tended towards the pathologization of non- heterosexual practices that were also not aimed at procreation. (Aponte-Parés et al. 5) 

Aponte-Parés et al. are certainly correct about the pathologizing tone of the Lewis’ text towards non-reproductively oriented practices, but I want to push against the implication that the only non-reproductive practices that are pathologized in Lewis are also non-heterosexual. Lewis charts an entire constellation of pathologies of heterosexuals, from the “failures” to marry to female promiscuity. 

By blaming poverty on sexual relationships, an anthropological study ostensibly about poor economic conditions becomes a treatise on sexual morality. Lewis frames all the characteristics constituting the culture of poverty as rejections of “middle-class values” (La Vida xlvi), values which are nowhere challenged in his text. For example, Lewis lists the “lack of effective participation” (La Vida xlv) in societal institutions, specifically citing “marriage by law, by church, or by both” as an example of an institution in which those in the culture of poverty do not participate (La Vida xlvi). Though he lists a number of explanations why this may be so, they are all articulated as secondary to rejection of “middle-class values.” In this way, Lewis’ text implicitly catalogs unexamined “middle-class values,” two of which are, without question, heterosexual marriage and reproduction as much as it explicitly enumerates the traits of the “culture of poverty.” In incorporating Lewis’ work into an understanding of the current definition of heteronormativity, we must understand in this case that “heteronormativity” may be seen as nearly synonymous to the “middle-class values” which Lewis professes that Puerto Ricans reject. 

In their extensive review of Lewis’ work and its contemporary critics, Edwin Eames and Judith Goode approve of the concept of the “culture of poverty” as an analytical framework, but also criticize his value judgments. They list several characteristics that Lewis identified as inherent to the “culture of poverty,” and they articulate how traits that Lewis suggests are maladaptive might be understood as adaptive. 

Some frequently mentioned characteristics of people in poverty, such as female-based household units and present-time orientation, can also be viewed as adaptive. In a group faced with sporadic employment or underemployment, in which women have major responsibility for offspring, flexibility in familial patterns is adaptive. Women can decide to change mates or have no mate in the household unit as the economic situation changes. In addition, the legal structure surrounding marriage and divorce makes a more flexible and loosely structured mating situation particularly adaptive for those with little cash and little access to legal practitioners. Thus, both the initial costs of a ritual wedding and the potential costs of a formal dissolution are avoided. With negligible control over the economic, political, and social environment, any kind of planning for future events is meaningless. …These structural and ideological responses to poverty appear to us to be quite viable. (Eames and Goode 480-79)

Thirty-five years later, Marta Sánchez takes their argument one step further, averring that “each core trait in [Lewis’] ‘culture of poverty’ formulation implied a corresponding polar term on the ‘normative’ scale of social mobility, or the presumed value of middle-class achievement and success” (Sánchez, “Shakin’ Up” Race and Gender 29). What lies unquestioned in Lewis, and unacknowledged in Eames and Goode, begins to come to the fore in Sánchez: the status of Puerto Ricans is a “problem” and the “solution” is to find some way to bring them into conformity with white middle-class understandings of normative legibility, complete with marriage, monogamy, and material acquisitiveness. 

Though Lewis’ work and the work of others, such as Octavio Paz and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Sánchez, “Shakin’ Up” Race and Gender), were sharply critiqued by many contemporary scholars, one of the great tragedies for the state of thought about poverty in the United States in the twentieth century is that Lewis’ ideas have gained and maintained a hold on political thought that persists to this day. Whereas Marta Sánchez can write that “By the mid-1970s…the “culture of poverty” had been discredited” (Sánchez, “La Malinche at the Intersection” 29), on January 4, 2009, on a syndicated radio show, right-wing commentator Bill Cunningham stated that the reason that anti-poverty programs, particularly of the ‘60s and ‘70s have not worked is because “poor people were not and are not poor because they lack money. They’re poor because they lack values, ethics, and morals” (Bruck). According to Cunningham, the values, ethics, and morals that the poor lack are sexual ones. Cunningham’s words may contain a surprising amount of truth, though, in that when people participate in activities deemed to “lack values, ethics, and morals,” they lose a range of societal supports that might otherwise have facilitated their accumulation of wealth. Because Lewis and others separated “the problem of families’ poverty from labor and housing markets, rooting it instead in sex and marriage” (Briggs 77), we must recognize that a whole range of queer, nonnormative sexual, familial, and associative practices are abjected within not only the discourse of Thomas’ text but also within a dominant discourse about family and sexuality. This discourse about sexuality and the family has roots that precede Lewis, and, and as we see from Bill Cunningham and others, it continues to be influential to this day. So too, the same-sex marriage debate, by arguing that people engaged in same-sex relationships should be granted access to marriage by law (and by implication that they want such marriages) serves further to ostracize unmarried heterosexual couples from an increasingly privileged marital culture. 

The “Mean Streets” of Poverty?

At first glance, and if we accepted Lewis’ theory, Piri would seem to be the poster child for the young man raised and living within the “culture of poverty.” Down These Mean Streets opens with a twelve-year-old Piri out on the streets of Harlem at 2 a.m., having fled his father’s fists (Thomas 3). From the outset, we may read that the young Piri is not being raised within the normative nuclear family which would presumably have him “early to bed, and early to rise.” We recognize that Piri’s childhood is already marked by non-normative forms of temporality and by familial practices undesirable to the heteronormative imaginary. While this does not appear to be an instance of queer temporality as liberatory practice on the face of it, the streets of Harlem at 2 a.m. are safer for Piri than his own home, at least on this night. As Lewis would no doubt read this scene, however, the Thomas family demonstrates a “strong predisposition to authoritarianism” and the “absence of childhood as a specially prolonged and protected stage in the life cycle” (Lewis xlvii). Both of these two possible interpretations turn on one unprovable anecdotal aspect of the heteronormative: though he was able to recognize “authoritarianism” and “absence” of a “protected” childhood in the groups he studied, Lewis has little or no basis for comparison to more “mainstream” American families. Because of a variety of circumstances, ranging from more or less demonstrative cultural norms to the practical circumstances of low-income urban housing, some of the traits that Lewis identifies and pathologizes may not be as unusual as he thinks. In that same moment at 2 a.m., we will never know how many other twelve-year-old boys cowered in their beds in quiet suburbs from fear of their authoritarian parent. Down These Mean Streets does not consign Piri to the “culture of poverty.” Rather, Thomas suggests that Piri’s lack of participation in the institutions that Lewis deems important is not as unusual as Lewis implies. 

Thomas counters Lewis’ assertions from the very start of Piri’s life. Piri was raised with a mother and a father, who, if not married “by law, by church, or by both” certainly seem dedicated to each other. The text does not suggest maternal or paternal “infidelity,” and Piri does not suffer from “maternal deprivation,” (Lewis xlviii) as his relationship with his mother is better than with anyone else in his family. Piri’s father, while imperfect, works long hours to support his family. He works two jobs, and losing even one of them is enough to send his family to the “home relief” office (Thomas 8). In 1944, the Thomas family moves to Babylon, Long Island when Piri’s father has “saved enough bread” from his job in the wartime airplane industry to make a “down payment on a small house” (Thomas 81). Contrary to Lewis’ expectations, Piri’s family’s “values” do include a respect for hard work. Lewis’ best guesses, and they do seem to be little more than guesses, about the root causes either poverty or the culture of poverty generally seem not to be the case in Piri’s childhood. Piri’s childhood does not match Lewis’ theory, so the “culture of poverty” seems inadequate as an originary explanation for the young man’s behavior. 

Yet Piri grows to be the kind of adolescent and young adult that Lewis would recognize as having been raised in the “culture of poverty.” He participates in street-life, gangs, theft, drugs, and sex—including homosexual sex—all sure signs of so-called immorality. In La Vida, Lewis does not discuss the sexual habits of men nearly as much as of women: to Lewis, it is women’s sexual choices that make them the agents of their families’ poverty. However, the sexual choices Lewis references are all heterosexual and in many cases reproductive: ergo the choices must have for however brief a time involved at least one man. The men that figure in these encounters are elided from Lewis’ narrative, but Cathy Cohen describes the impression that Lewis and others leave about these men. Cohen describes, “young black men engaged in ‘reckless’ heterosexual behavior [who] are represented as irresponsible baby factories, unable to control or restrain their ‘sexual passion’” (Cohen 456-57). Cohen explicitly tags the men in these positions as engaging in queer forms of heterosexuality because of their lack of interest in or preparation for marriage and children.

While many familial traits are described that have direct bearing on men, Sánchez is correct when she suggests that Lewis “implicitly slighted the women” that he studied (Sánchez, “Shakin’ Up” Race and Gender 23). Lewis suggested that women’s behavior is the primary factor that keeps families in poverty, and men are mentioned mostly in their absence. Because the narrative of Down These Mean Streets focuses so much on men and on masculinity, Down These Mean Streets can be seen as a rich catalog of what all of Lewis’ “missing men” are up to when they are not at work or at home caring for “their” women. 

Piri’s sexual life illustrates an important distinction about heteronormativity. Excepting a few notable instances discussed below, Piri’s sexual activities are conducted with women, but his actions do not line up with the structures of the heteronormative. Piri’s earliest experiences with girls have nothing to do with reproduction, with building family bonds, or really, with the girls themselves. Piri relies on women to secure his ascent into what he perceives as authentically Puerto Rican manhood, thereby securing his position within his own heavily marginalized social world. Cohen notes that the very act of establishing oneself within a marginalized group means excluding oneself from hegemonic norms. She writes, “marginal group members, lacking power and privilege although engaged in heterosexual behavior, have often found themselves defined as outside the norms and values of dominant society” (454). By “copping girls’ drawers” because “getting yourself a chick was a rep builder,” Piri demonstrates that women are strictly instrumental (Thomas 15). The girls themselves are not important—none of them are named, nor are any of their unique characteristics represented in the narrative. They merely help him advance his position within his homosocial hierarchy.

During Piri’s later adolescence, he experiences starker racial differences, and that women can also be liabilities to his manhood—if they are white. On Long Island, surrounded for the first time with unequivocally white people, he has a relationship with Betty, a white girl, and the first girl named in the text. That the first named girl is also the first girl identified as white suggests that this text has internalized a white-supremacist ideology while it simultaneously seeks to debunk it—girls of other colors may not be “worthy” of names. The character Piri does not think of himself as having internalized this ideology, though he is beginning to perceive the racial climate around him. However, the privileging of Betty by name over earlier unnamed conquests shows that race is more important than Thomas is able to state explicitly. 

Piri’s short-lived relationship with Betty shapes how he views his own racial identity. On a train between Long Island and Harlem, he realizes that people seated across the car are commenting about “some nigger”: “Will you look at that damn nigger with that white girl?” (Thomas 90). This comes at a point when Piri is just beginning to look at his racial identity, believing that his Puerto Rican identity should free him from being placed in the United States’ racial binary which flips only between black and white. Within that binary, Piri’s family has tried to construct itself as white, a construction which, until this moment, Piri has never really questioned. In anger, he marvels “I was ‘that damn nigger’ and ‘that black son of a bitch’” (Thomas 90). Betty calms him and gets him off the train. They “found a field, and [he] made love to her. In anger, in hate” (Thomas 90). Whereas before this incident, he could enjoy what he perceived as benign differences between himself and Betty, he now cannot separate his feelings for Betty from his feelings for her race, and what others of her race have done to him. He thinks to himself while she repeats her love for him, “Damn it, I hate you—no, not you, just your damn color” (Thomas 90, emphasis in original). He takes her home, and never speaks to her again. The racialized heterosexism that Piri has internalized ruin his chance to have a relationship with Betty. Though the text gives little sense of the possibilities for Piri and Betty’s relationship had the racial question not intervened so disruptively, there is certainly the chance that Piri and Betty might have been able to have a longer relationship in which each learned about the other without being shamed and policed out of interacting. This invocation of shame demonstrates one of the ways that the “culture of poverty” is not a self-contained unit, but is perpetuated by the dominant culture.

His previous experiences in Harlem had taught Piri that women could be instrumental to his development into un hombre. In Babylon, his relationships with women, while more articulately developed, taught him that women—in particular those women who could be recognized as white—could be liabilities in his development as an autonomous subject. At the time in which a proper heternormative subject might contemplate “settling down” into a heteronormative relationship, Piri is shamed out of exploring the relationship he began. Although the years during World War II were an era in which, nationwide, the marriage age was at its lowest point in the twentieth century, we do not see Piri contemplate “a life with” Betty, the closest that he gets to a “high school sweetheart.” Though the logic of reproductive futurity sees the function of dating as an evaluative process for establishing a partner’s fitness and compatibility for a life of child rearing and domesticity, the intrusion of racism which ends his relationship with Betty prevents Piri from making these evaluations. Motivated by this incident and other experiences of racism, teenaged Piri decides he cannot handle life in Babylon surrounded by white people. So he returns to Harlem on his own.

There Piri meets Trina, “the prettiest, softest, widest-eyed Puerto Rican girl in the whole world” (Thomas 107). From the moment they meet, the text’s rhetoric changes into language about marriage and settling down. The narrative plays with all the tropes of chivalric love: the fascination at first sight, the formal courtship, and most importantly, Piri’s chastity regarding their physical relationship. Though he attributes the moral difference to her: “Trina ain’t no broad. She’s damn fine and she’s good. She don’t go in for shackin’ up with everybody” (Thomas 164), he takes upon himself the responsibility for keeping the purity in their relationship, “I ain’t gonna chinga her till we’re married” (Thomas 164). This relationship contains many, if not most, of the elements one would expect in a the relationship that will lead to domesticity, children, and Piri’s escape from or rejection of the reckless independence that stereotype young men of his “culture.” Suddenly, in his language, Piri is embracing the heteronormativity that his heterosexual activity thus far has not supported. He even refers to her as his “old lady” and recognizes that, within the male/female rules systems of his peer group, his ability to keep her under control and visibly faithful in public is his responsibility: “If I ain’t cool enough to take care of her, I ain’t cool enough to have her” (Thomas 117). The reverse of this logic, “If I have her, I must be cool” hearkens back to his youthful use of women to become a real man. Yet that older practice seems to be overlaid by a relationship he envisions leading to marriage, and, by implication, children and the kind of future orientation which they bring.

What is remarkable about Piri’s relationship with Trina, though, is not the ways in which it follows the logic of reproductive futurism, but the ways that in which it resists that logic. Although he talks to others about his desire to be married to her, Piri never actually proposes marriage to Trina. Piri leaves for an indefinite period “down south,” neither consulting her beforehand nor giving her more than a few minutes’ notice that he is leaving. He exacts neither promises of fidelity from her, nor commitment of any kind except that she answer his letters if he writes. What remains unclear is whether Piri’s rhetoric is only at the surface—giving lip service to a desire for domesticity that he does not actually feel—or whether he sincerely sees something in Trina that makes him believe that a heteronormative future for which he could not previously hope is now possible. What is clear, however, is that Piri cannot focus on his relationship with Trina. When his friend Brew asserts that Piri will learn the truth about how his racial identity is perceived only by leaving the diversity of New York City and experiencing the black-and-white thinking of the South, Trina and all thoughts of his romantic future disappear before the prospect of understanding himself. Doubtful about his racial location, Piri refuses to enter into adulthood, which a commitment to Trina may represent, until he knows for certain whether he is entering into white or black adulthood.

Upon returning from the South, now claiming the identity of a black Puerto Rican man, and “with a big hate for anything white” (Thomas 195), Piri still chooses not to pursue married life. Although it seemed before he left that Piri would return with marriage in mind once he knew “who he was” in the eyes of the dominant society, he continues to resist actual plans to settle down. Perhaps he now understands that Brew, the larger society, and Trina herself perceive her as white and recognizes that his life with her may be fraught with racial peril. She has previously cast this up to him, saying when he tries to control her, “I’m free, white, and over the age” (Thomas 112). Reconciling himself to his own blackness has not helped him reconcile the role of race in his sexual choices. Piri does not express to Trina any of his thoughts on the question of his race compared to hers. Indeed, he expresses none of his thoughts on race to Trina. He has taken a tour of the world and has come to a kind of consciousness about his position within the racial hierarchies of the United States. Perhaps because Trina occupies a different position, and is willing to use her more privileged position against him, he does not engage her in any kind of dialogue about his newfound consciousness. 

Instead of pursuing an actual relationship that would lead to marriage with Trina, Piri clings instead to a fantasy of love with her that stays perpetually present-tense. He exults about the fact that he “and Trina was making a steady scene” (Thomas 205). As mentioned above, in Lewis’ list of traits of the culture of poverty he includes “a strong present-time orientation with relatively little ability to defer gratification and to plan for the future” (Lewis xlviii). Of course, Lewis sees this as a maladaptive trait, and surely if we expect that romantic relationships lead to marriage and reproduction, it is. However, Eames and Goode suggest that “not worrying about the past or the future seems to be also psychologically adaptive for those whose past is better forgotten and whose future looks equally bleak” (Eames and Goode 480). Piri and Trina do not have sex—he has stayed true to his promise not to “chinga” her until they are married—but it becomes clear that his apparent “deferred gratification” is also Piri’s way of avoiding setting the wheels in motion that would lead to his marriage to Trina. 

Piri’s resistance to marriage is not only a reaction to the different racial positions that he and Trina occupy, or to the conditions of poverty; it also mirrors the presentism that is frequently displayed when a condition renders an individual or a population under constant threat. Judith Halberstam claims a similar present-time orientation emerged in the gay male community in the midst of the AIDS crisis. Eames and Goode find this presentism adaptive, and Halberstam goes further, finding it filled with potential, “The constantly diminishing future creates a new emphasis on the here, the present, the now, and while the threat of no future hovers overhead like a storm cloud, the urgency of being also expands the potential of the moment and … squeezes new possibilities out of the time at hand” (Halberstam 2). For Piri, re-engaged in a dangerous life of crime, the future is not a thing to be planned for: he does not sincerely expect to see his future. The “steady scene” he can make now is all there is.

Piri’s unwillingness to have sex with Trina does not indicate that he is eschewing sex altogether in the service of ultimate marriage to Trina, only that he is eschewing sex with her. Piri spends one evening with Dulcien, which results in her pregnancy. Piri’s unwillingness to notice women who are not creations of his fantasy makes it all the easier for him to ignore the significant reality of Dulcien, their baby, and what that baby could mean for his future. The introduction which the narrative gives to Dulcien is a notable contrast to the introduction to Trina, “Someone introduced me to… Dulcien, a pretty little girl who had just come out of some kind of home” (Thomas 223). Dulcien is belittled because of her implied association with, the reader is left to assume, mental illness, but that belittlement does not render her unappealing. Her possible lack of stability is not the only characteristic about which Piri informs the readers early on, “she had a couple of kids from some other cat, so she was hip on what a man dug” (Thomas 223). Dulcien’s past interactions with men, whether consensual or not, make her not only available for his attentions, but extraordinarily qualified. In spite of Piri’s attention to and intentions for Trina, his relations with Dulcien display all of the presentism and recklessness Lewis would condemn.

The authenticity of Dulcien’s subjectivity and consent is dubious in the scene in which they have sex. Piri’s internal sense of the situation is that she does seem to want Piri sexually, but that she denies that she is at “fault” for either wanting or having him because they “both had to play the game” (Thomas 224). The game is all any of them seem to be playing in this situation. When Dulcien turns out to be pregnant, and Piri is confronted by her mother, the fact that he “wasn’t the first at the well” (Thomas 226) quells the mother’s anger, even though she obviously must have known this fact as Dulcien already had two children. This scene establishes for Dulcien’s mother, not whether Dulcien is a virgin, but that Piri knew that when they had sex. Dulcien’s mother must sound Piri out with her anger to see if maybe this time she can help “make an honest woman” of her daughter. This interaction between them is economic: when it is clear that she cannot prevail on Piri’s economic protection for her daughter because she is used goods, she understands that Dulcien’s survival is up to her, not Piri. 

There are clearly sexual ethics at play here that do not square with middle-class heteronorms. Though unwilling to have sex with Trina lest he initiate a process that will ultimately lead to marriage, Piri sincerely believes that the night he spent with Dulcien does not tie them together in any particular manner, because she is not a virgin. There is a paradox here, though. Nothing in Piri’s social world tells him seriously that he must take financial or emotional responsibility for Dulcien and “her” child. If Piri were of a higher social class, he would also be unlikely to be required to claim children who cannot be proven to be his by the previous virginity of the mother. Piri draws on sexual tropes of the upper classes, who regard lower-class women as sexual outlets without them turning into marriage possibilities. 

Dulcien does not make further contact with Piri about the baby, instead returning to Puerto Rico for her pregnancy and childbirth. When Dulcien returns to New York City and meets with Piri to show him the baby, he vaguely recognizes that some social inequity has occurred between them. “I gave Dulcien what money I could, but that wasn’t much” (Thomas 228). Piri’s dim awareness causes him to note that “Poor Dulcien looked beat. It’s sure tough to be a broad… but that’s life” (Thomas 226, emphasis in original). It is, of course, tough to be a “broad” within a system of sexual ethics that denies that a man has more than a passing financial responsibility for his “illegitimate” child if the woman was not a virgin when the child was conceived. Tough, indeed, but not inevitably so. Piri refuses to see his role in Dulcien’s life, preferring to cling to the fantasy of love and domesticity with Trina. He does not see his rejection of Dulcien as a rejection of love and domesticity, though Dulcien seems to offer marriage in her willingness to “do all right” for him (Thomas 226). One of the troubles with seeing “new possibilities” in non-reproductive temporalities is that such stolen moments sometimes do lead to reproduction, and in such cases, it is almost inevitably women who bear the burdens of survival for both themselves and their children when men go looking to expand the potential of their moments (Halberstam 2). A coherent social framework which allows for the exploration of “queer uses of time and space” which “develop, at least in part, in opposition to the institutions of family, heterosexuality, and reproduction,” but which also takes account for and finds an equitable distribution of the labor of reproduction remains absent from both Thomas and Halberstam (Halberstam 1).

Aside from the rhetoric of his relationship with Trina, rhetoric which hardly ever contains the action that would result in a relationship in which both parties were participating equally, Piri’s strongest emotional connections are with men. Just before Brew and Piri leave for the South, Piri visits Brew and his girlfriend Alayce at her house. The conversation turns to ways that Brew and Alayce were mistreated in the South, particularly of how they were each sexually assaulted. Brew fought off his potential rapist, but Alayce was raped. Her entire story is as follows: 

Ah guess Ah can’t forget the so many times them white boys tried to pull me into the bushes like Ah was one big free-for-all pussy. Ah can’t forget the one time they finally did. Ah fought them as hard as Ah could. There were four of them, an’ Ah was fifteen, an’ they hurt me an’ hurt me an’— (Thomas 163). 

The representation of this story is remarkable because other than this one moment, Piri does not hear women’s stories. Marta Sánchez reads this scene in great detail, devoting the better part of a chapter to the interplay between Brew, Alayce, and Piri in Alayce’s apartment (Sánchez, “Shakin’ Up” Race and Gender 55-70). She notes that the attempted rape of Brew takes up much more narrative space than the story of Alayce’s actual rape, and that Brew minimizes the importance of her story in comparison with his own. While both these things are true, this is also the longest story that any woman in this text tells about herself, and almost the longest length of time for which a woman talks. Piri’s reaction to these anecdotes is crucial to understanding his relationships with women, because he cares about what happens to men more than he cares about what happens to women. Alayce’s actual rape neither surprises nor horrifies Piri as much as Brew’s near-rape does. Piri does not have a clearly developed sense of the difference between rape and consensual sex for women, but he assumes that men never want to be penetrated. Sanchez argues that “penetration, in Piri’s view, whether rape or consensual sex, is what men do to women” (Sánchez, “Shakin’ Up” Race and Gender 65). Alayce having been raped is unfortunate, and Piri feels sorry for her, but the feelings he expresses towards Alayce are far less than the relief he expresses towards Brew. Though in the recent past, Piri might have wanted to be viewed as a white man, Piri now identifies with Brew, putting himself in Brew’s place, not the white men’s. Piri does not, however, have the same identificatory response with Alayce on the basis of race—the gap of gender is too wide to cross. Not wishing to identify with the sexual aggressors in her story, and not able to identify with her, Piri glosses over Alayce’s experience in his intimate moment of sharing with Brew.

Blurring the Boundaries: Homosocial and Homosexual

In order for Brew and Piri’s moment to stay within the realm of the homosocial, however, Alayce has to be present. Her presence with and difference from Piri and Brew allows them to share this story of violation without endangering their masculinity, or edging into the territory of the homosexual. Piri’s acceptance of the homosocial forms of chosen family and reproduction represented in gangs, crime groups, and prison buddies, primarily with men who are within his own concept of his racial identity, are crucial to his identity—as a man and as a Puerto Rican. However, Piri’s homosocial interactions with men do not always rely on silenced or abjected women in order to secure the homosocial bond, in the classic triangle detailed by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Between Men. His youthful experiences with his gangmates and his time in prison leads him to understand that his sexuality is more flexible than he ever feels comfortable acknowledging. Recognizing that both his sexual behavior and his sexuality are flexible and open to male sexual attentions, Piri’s encounters with homosexuality help demonstrate the fluidity and contextuality of sexual orientation and attraction. 

Because Piri repeatedly avoids prolonged relationships with women in order to deepen his masculine homosocial relationships, the scene where Piri’s gang requires him to engage in homosexual sex to prove his masculinity and belonging is surprising. Piri works hard to avoid homosexual identification, and it would seem that avoiding homosexual sex would be a reasonable starting place. However, as both Cruz-Malavé and Robert Reid-Pharr have written, the abjection of homosexuality is the ground on which Puerto Rican masculinity is built (Cruz-Malavé, “What a Tangled Web!”; Reid-Pharr). They argue that the secret to the maintenance of the “macho” performance is a rigidly maintained distinction between it and abjected, feminized homosexuality. In order to maintain this distinction, heteronormative “macho” masculinity must come into direct contact with homosexuality as the only way to prove the resilience of such masculinity. 

Piri experiences a same-sex group encounter in “the faggots’ pad” (Thomas 55). In this case, the “faggots” triangulate the relations between Piri and his friends, and the “faggots” abjected sexuality provides the ironic proof for Piri and his friends of their own heterosexuality. When the excursion to this apartment is proposed, Piri does not question the logic by which he and anyone reluctant to have sex with “faggots” in exchange for drugs, alcohol, and cash would be accused of not being “down” (Thomas 55). He knows that once sex with men has been invoked as a group activity, it is mandatory. Piri’s narrative voice makes it clear to the readers that he is not happy about the situation, in fact, “not one of [his friends] looked happy” (Thomas 55). Piri may not understand the dual purpose of his presence—both to prove his masculinity, and more importantly, to do so in front of his friends as an act of abjection that signals one of the rites of passage he must endure for the group. Piri does not really know what to expect, though he had “heard of the acts put on with faggots” (Thomas 55, emphasis in original). Upon arriving at the apartment, he hears women’s voices “from behind the closed door” but when the door opens he “saw that the women’s voices belonged to men” (Thomas 56). The “faggots” or “maricones” are all biologically male, dressed in women’s clothing, and are represented in the text as having melodramatically feminine gestures and speech, including the fact that their English is spelled so as to represent orthographically the heavy Puerto Rican accents with which they speak. Though it would be anachronistic to refer to them as transgender, they represent a gender location that is neither man nor woman. 

Performing masculinity through this scene demonstrates belonging in the group; Piri says, “we wanted to belong, and belonging meant doing whatever had to be done” (Thomas 55). Although Piri had already established his bona fides in the gang by showing “heart” in a fight with Waneko, his membership, and that of others, is still contingent on participation in the activities of the group. Belonging in the masculine homosocial world of the gang requires that they “stretch themselves to the limits of their masculinity by visiting the apartment of a trio of stereotypically effeminate gay men. Indeed their interaction with the three homosexuals is itself designed to reflect their own hypermasculinity” (Reid-Pharr 380). Despite these distinctions between homosexual identity and behavior, this sexual experience demonstrates that “macho young men, with their relentless emphasis on masculinity and the male body, will stumble themselves, inadvertently, or not so inadvertently, across the line that separates the homosexual from the homosocial” (Reid-Pharr 380). It is not surprising that someone in a feminized role is necessary to balance the hyper-masculinity of the gang, but Reid-Pharr emphasizes that this particular triangulation of male homosocial desire, triangulated as it is around a feminized man, stretches this configuration to its very limit, requiring that Piri at least engage in a semi-magical chant. To quell his ambivalence, as much as to deny responsibility for his enjoyment of a scene he ostensibly finds distasteful, Piri chants his way through receiving oral sex, repeating, “I like broads, I like muchachas, I like girls” (Thomas 61, emphasis in original). Piri’s recourse to chanting and self-comforting behaviors instantiates what Reid-Pharr discusses in more depth as the ways that Piri is infantilized in this scene (Reid-Pharr 383).

 Not all of Piri’s experience of this scene can reasonably be characterized as pure homosocial behavior that, through the abjection of the feminized men, insulates itself from the homosexual. We understand that the very need for that insulation, or the very “prohibition against homosexual desire is homosexual desire turned back upon itself” (Butler, Bodies That Matter 65). To the extent to which this scene is animated by homosexual desire, and constrained by homophobia, the feminized men represent a safer object choice: this homosocial sexual proving ground would never be a group encounter with masculine gay men with whom Piri’s friends might have been forced to admit a sexual enjoyment of a masculine aesthetic. Furthermore, testing their masculinity with masculine men might raise the possibility that Piri or his friends would begin to identify with, or to be, the penetrated one—thereby cutting out their person in the triangulation and collapsing the logic by which the abject feminine reinforces masculinity.

In his younger days, Piri had worked very hard to maintain his interest only in “broads, muchachas, girls,” but by the time he is in prison, he has admitted, at least internally, that his sexuality is far more flexible than that. When propositioned by a man in prison to be “his man,” Piri refuses, thinking to himself, “I ain’t gonna break. One time. That’s all I have to do it. Just one time and it’s gone time. I’ll be screwing faggots as fast as I can get them” (Thomas 263, emphasis in original). The reason he cannot, or will not, let himself break is that it will kill his hatred of prison, “Once you lose the hatred, then the can’s got you. You can do all the time in the world and it doesn’t bug you” (Thomas 263, emphasis in original). The hatred of prison is essential to his sense of manhood—a man cannot tolerate confinement, restriction, containment, whereas, by implication, a woman or effeminate man, presumably, can. Reid-Pharr says of this scene that Piri “is afraid to engage in (homo)sex not because it is displeasing, but because it will allow for the articulation—and actualization—of an alternate logic of pleasure. Prison becomes, in this schema, not simply the wretched underside of normal life, but an alternative site of meaning, truth, even love and life” (Reid-Pharr 385). Rather than finding an “alternate logic of pleasure,” Piri instead holds on to the fantasy of life with Trina, even telling himself that Trina is waiting for him when he gets out and that she will be his whether or not she has already gotten married (Thomas 263). Though he has already proven in his youth that he can “succumb” to homosexual sex without losing his grip on his own heterosexual masculinity, submitting to a prison relationship will irrecoverably compromise his heterosexuality and thus his masculinity (Reid-Pharr 385). He tells Claude in prison, “I’ll jack off if I gotta, but I ain’t gonna marry you, faggot, no matter what” (Thomas 263). He can have “(homo)sex” when it is necessary to demonstrate homosocial bonds and masculinity, but when the sex is contextualized as a marriage, even an ersatz one, it must be reserved for his fantasy life with Trina. 

When Piri rejects prison “marriage,” he demonstrates an understanding not only of the ways that accepting a homosexual relationship in prison would lead to the loss of hate for prison, but also that if he were to accept a queer identification, his position in society would fundamentally change. As Cathy Cohen writes, “queer self-understanding” rests on a whole complex of other identities and behaviors that are implicated in the “stigmatization” of queers. Notions of “gender, the family, notions of individual freedom, the state, public speech, consumption and desire, nature and culture, maturation, reproductive politics, racial and national fantasy, class identity, truth and trust, censorship, intimate life and social display, terror and violence, health care, and deep cultural norms about the bearing of the body” all become recognized as vehicles of queer shame (Cohen 444). Piri, already marginalized with regard to race and poverty refuses to embrace the abjection and stigmatization he feels in prison. Rather than derive comfort from other male bodies, Piri clings instead to his belief that he is different, worth more, and not deserving of this additional humiliation.

Though Piri’s sense of what will best serve his need for survival makes him act in inconsistent ways, the one consistent set of relationships he pursues actively are his ostensibly non-sexual homosocial interactions. He does not actively pursue marriage with Trina, though he maintains that it is the thing he most wants. He rejects homosexual encounters, but acknowledges that he could find comfort and possibly contentment in them. Even after his trip to the South and claiming of his black identity, Piri is unwilling to move out of presentism. He rejects domesticity, both heterosexual and homosexual, including prison “marriages,” but he does reach out to other men in prison for friendship and support, as well as offer his friendship and support to his young cousin who is also incarcerated. Piri is gradually building a support network, both in prison and after that sustains him emotionally and validates his identity.

Another one of the “psychological pathologies” that Lewis argued were highly “tolerated” in the “culture of poverty,” physical violence forms the access to some of Piri’s most important and intimate relationships. Belonging requires masculinity, and violence is a way that masculinity can be proven in a public forum. “Even when the block belongs to your own people, you are still an outsider who has to prove himself a down stud with heart” (Thomas 47). This city block (104th Street) “belongs” to his own people already, meaning that the gang to which he seeks entrance is Puerto Rican, but having moved a few blocks to a new area, he must prove himself to this gang. The process of proving himself sufficiently masculine, a “down stud,” also allows him to relax his guard. After completing the fight with Waneko, he tells himself, “You’ve established your rep. Move over, 104th Street. Lift your wings, I’m one of your baby chicks now” (Thomas 50, emphasis in original). The block is figured as feminine, maternal, and Piri figures himself as feminized and infantilized—able to know that he is protected by the mother hen of 104th Street. Physical violence establishes belonging, belonging allows for safety, and safety allows the newly masculinized and mature subject to be infantilized and protected. In his sexual interactions, Piri refuses any abject version of his own masculinity, but instead accepting a certain infantilization and feminization when it comes as a result of his having proved his very masculinity.

Mirroring his fight with Waneko for admittance into the 104th Street gang, Piri fights with a prison mate, Little, after which he muses that, “sometimes a fight between two men makes them the greatest of friends, because of the respect that is born between the swinging fists” (Thomas 261). When Little responds after the fight with a gesture of tenderness, making it clear that he had pulled the worst of his punches during the fight lest he cause “bad hurt,” Piri is so touched that he felt “wet in [his] eyes” (Thomas 261). This expression of emotion far exceeds any that Piri expresses for women in the course of this novel. Piri’s relationships with men carry a range of emotional expression that his relationships with women never do. Piri separates sex from love and domesticity with women, and he separates sex from friendship and support with men. This separation allows him to have sex with women without the strings that would tie him down to a version of middle-class domesticity, and be friends with men without the sex that would ultimately place him in an even more marginalized position. 

Piri’s Masculinity

Aside from his interactions with others, Piri’s sense of his masculinity, or what it means to “be a man” in this text, has multiple significations, both positive and negative. Manhood entails having or being certain things, but also may entail rejecting others. The first list Thomas gives of the characteristics of manhood is simultaneously detailed and vague. He categorizes his first experiences with girls in the larger category of “becoming hombre,” a process that also entailed “wanting to have a beard to shave, a driver’s license, a draft card” (Thomas 15-16). The beard, the driver’s license, and the draft card are detailed—clear and tangible signifiers. One item is a biological indicator of adulthood and masculinity—the beard is a signifier of physical maturity that, unlike other forms of body hair or other characteristics, most women do not share with men. The second two are indicators of adult citizenship. Though the driver’s license is literally only a signifier of an acquired skill, because of the association with the age of acquisition as well as the freedom to drive—freedom of transportation—the driver’s license is a heavily weighted signifier of adulthood. 

Thomas does not elaborate on the significance of the draft card, but it is worth noticing that while for much of the 20th century it was a signifier of adult manhood, there are both temporal and colonial implications to this indicator. This line about the draft card appears two pages, presumably not representing many more days than that, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The World War II draft was on. Puerto Rico was, along with the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the central departure point of troops, ships, and forces from the east coast of the United States to the war with Germany. At such a moment, the World War II draft card was a sign of pride on the streets of New York. The draft represented in the setting of Down These Mean Streets signified quite differently than the draft that existed when the novel was published in 1967. By the time Down These Mean Streets was published, the Vietnam draft, about which people had far more ambivalent feelings, was on and the possession of a draft card had become less of a masculine status symbol. 

Additionally, the draft card crystalizes many of the social forces that have brought Piri to this place and time. As I discussed in the introduction, and will discuss further in Chapter Three, the United States imposed citizenship on Puerto Ricans less than two months before the United States entry into World War I, imposing conscription along with citizenship. Puerto Rican soldiers have figured prominently in all subsequent wars, perhaps because the United States’ disruption of the economy of Puerto Rico has frequently made military service a desirable alternative to island poverty. Citizenship also allowed unfettered Puerto Rican migration to the continental United States—a migration in which Piri’s father participated and which brought them to Harlem in the first place. 

Masculinity and Racial Understanding

In addition to these signifiers, Piri’s sense of masculinity is very much bound up with his exploration of his racial location. Judith Butler suggests that, indeed, the process of coming to consciousness of one’s sexed existence is intertwined with coming to consciousness of one’s raced existence. Rather than reducing “racial differences to the derivative effects of sexual difference (as if sexual difference were not only autonomous in relation to racial articulation but somehow more prior, in a temporal or ontological sense),” or reducing sexual difference to the effect of racial difference, “it seems crucial to rethink the scenes of reproduction and, hence, of sexing practices not only as ones through which a heterosexual imperative is inculcated, but as ones through which boundaries of racial distinction are secured as well as contested” (Butler, Bodies That Matter 18). When Piri leaves New York City, his relationships with men and women have begun to shape his understanding of what it means to be a man, but his inability to find his racial location within the United States’ black-white binary sends him on a search for a new racial understanding. The legacy in the United States of black-white racial politics and legal definitions of race based on hypodescent have contributed to the idea that a single nuclear family unit will share a single racial location. This assumption does not hold true in Puerto Rico, where racial status is determined more by shade of skin than by genealogy. Thus, United States racism has been a source of confusion and conflicts for Puerto Rican families when they come to the continental United States. Although the history of race-passing in the United States indicates that there can be a difference between one’s legal racial identity and one’s social racial identity, the idea of multiple racial locations within a single biological family unit is still unusual in the United States.

The evolution of Piri’s sense of his racial identity goes through three major stages. In the first, he denies every piece of evidence that tells him that the world perceives him as black. He is “really bugged when the paddies called … Puerto Ricans the same names they called our colored aces” (Thomas 120). At this point, along with his father, he sees himself as “Puerto Rican,” a category which transcends what he understands race to be, which is black or white. Identifying as Puerto Rican and thus neither black nor white, Piri believes he can escape the United States racial landscape altogether. Though he, as a Puerto Rican, gets called the same names as the black children, he views this as an error on the part of the namecallers, a misattribution of his race rather than a perception that contributes to constructing his race. In the second stage, the importance of others’ views of him begins to dawn on him. Piri tells his mother that he must leave suburbia because “I don’t dig the blancos around here, and they don’t dig me because I’m black to them” (Thomas 135). Only “to them,” to others, is he black, but he has accepted that this is others’ vision of him, and not a simple error they are making. The blancos of suburbia sincerely believe him to be black, and it begins to make Piri wonder what this belief of others can or should mean to him. 

In order for Piri to move to the third stage of his understanding, he must separate himself from his family’s racial understandings. Piri’s quest is motivated in part by his dim but developing sense that his lighter-skinned family does not treat him as well as it treats his light-skinned siblings. His light-skinned mother, who seems to regard racial difference as a benign aesthetic characteristic, presumably because she does not experience as much overt racism as does her dark-skinned son, does not understand the difficulties that Piri has negotiating the world with dark skin. She asks him at one point, “Why does it hurt you so to be un Negrito?” (Thomas 148). His darker skinned father has made an elaborate practice of exaggerating his Spanish accent because when he did he saw “cold rejection turned into an indifferent acceptance” (Thomas 153). Piri is filled with anger and frustration at these conversations with his family. While he loves his mother dearly, he cannot find the vocabulary to explain how hard this is for him. His father and brother seem to want to sweep him under the rug—without Piri they would be freer to access the privilege that they crave. Piri’s father understands that acceding to the position of black man in United States society means a loss of privilege, and encourages Piri not to seek to claim the identity of a black man. His father says, “there’s a lot of things I’m right in and there’s a lot of things you don’t understand yet. … I don’t like feeling to be a black man. Can you understand it’s a pride to me being a Puerto Rican?” (Thomas 150). Piri’s father is unwilling to risk losing the pride he feels in being Puerto Rican by acknowledging his blackness. Piri’s father, like Piri when the novel opens, feels himself to be outside of the United States’ racial landscape.

Piri must separate also from his brother’s sense of his racial location. The night before Piri leaves for the South, he gets into a fist fight with his light-skinned brother José, who has found it difficult to gain the privilege that his skin might grant him while having to explain his darker-skinned brother. Caught between black and white, Piri cannot recognize himself as a man, or fully as heterosexual, until he can locate himself racially. Marta Caminero-Santangelo notes that in Down These Mean Streets, in addition to the social understandings that Piri must come to in his trip to the South, he also uses “biological essentialism” as a strategy “to repudiate white privilege and establish solidarity with African Americans” (214). Piri looks back into what he knows of the history of Puerto Rico to argue that the whole family is partially black, regardless of the way they look:

Say, José, didn’t you know the Negro made the scene in Puerto Rico way back? And when the Spanish spics 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! … It’s a played-out lie about me—us—being white. (Thomas 145)

It is an unusual gesture to biologize race and simultaneously remove the component of phenotypic expression. For Piri in this early moment in the text, you do not have to look black to be black if you have black in you. Piri is repudiating white privilege (and violently attempting to convince his brother to do the same), but his repudiation contains an acceptance both of the existence of white privilege and of his subordinate position within that system. The “played-out lie” is not, yet, the lie of racial hierarchy, but of the Thomas family’s position within that hierarchy. Though Piri refuses to accept the abjection of his masculinity in his sexual life, in this scene he embraces the abjection that he sees as inherently connected to blackness.

Piri’s African American friend, Brew, has helped form Piri’s sense of race based on appearance. What starts out for Piri and Brew as a run-of-the-mill game of the “dozens” turns “serious” (Thomas 121). Piri says to Brew, “man, Brew…you sure an ugly spook,” to which Brew replies “Dig this Negro calling out ‘spook’” (Thomas 121). Piri replies “I’m a Porty Rican,” and Brew counters, “Ah only sees another Negro in fron’ of me” (Thomas 121). This moment stuns Piri as he recognizes what Anne Anlin Cheng would call, “the meeting of the ontic (how I come to a sense of my being) with the racial (how society labels my being)” (Cheng 75). This initiates a conversation about race between the two of them. Brew insists on Piri’s blackness, and Piri resists because the idea that he must claim blackness is too filled with pain. He first infuriates Brew by saying that he’s starting to “hate Negroes, too,” but after Brew retorts angrily, Piri clarifies: “I hate the paddy who’s trying to keep the black man down. But I’m beginning to hate the black man, too, ‘cause I can feel his pain and I don’t know that it oughtta be mine” (Thomas 124). When Brew invokes the lynchings still common in the South, Piri counters Brew’s insistence that the violence of southern racism is what lets people know whether they are black or white by invoking the pain trying to claim a masculinity that is abjected by society, “So they don’t hang you by your neck. But they slip an invisible rope around your balls and hang you with nice smiles” (Thomas 124). Piri’s conversation with Brew ultimately convinces him that he must experience the South in order to know for certain if what Brew says is true. The quest for understanding unmoors him physically. He decides that he must experience the more overt southern brand of racism represented by a South still in the thrall of Jim Crow-era laws. The understanding he reaches after his experiences with southern racism unmoors him existentially.

Finally, on his trip through the South, he challenges one of the strongest bastions of segregation. He sits down and waits for service at a lunch counter. When the service does not come, the importance of others’ vision of him finally hits home and he becomes infuriated. He “smashed” his fist “on the counter with all [his] Puerto Rican black man’s strength” (Thomas 186). He had previously regarded “black” as an erroneous reading of himself. He had previously regarded “black” and “Puerto Rican” as mutually exclusive terms. In this, the defining moment for Piri’s racial self-understanding, he claims both terms for himself, of himself. In so doing, he also claims his manhood—the location to which he has always been journeying, but had never arrived. This defining moment does not end the arc of the plot—now that Piri has arrived at an understanding of his identity, he begins to have awareness of the forces that constrain the possibilities of anyone inhabiting this identity. This moment, thus, is simultaneously liberatory and repressive. Piri journeys from having no location that feels truly authentic to a racial identity location that feels authentic but carries with it a rage at the systems of racial hierarchy through which he had previously been moving unaware.

Conclusion: Heterosexism keeps these streets mean

Arnaldo Cruz-Malavé writes that Puerto Rican homosexual queer male sexuality is based in an abjected masculinity that looks backward to a mythic past of robust, not abject, masculinity. Writing about René Marqués’ drama, Cruz-Malavé suggests that “this idealized past evoked, or rather invoked, by Marqués, paradisaical as it may seem, is also the differentiated realm where women assume their ‘naturally’ subordinate position relative to men, blacks before whites, and servants before their masters” (“Toward an Art of Transvestism” 141-42). Cruz-Malavé pushes against this construction and sees great liberatory potential for queer men in embracing the queer, abjected masculinity, and in so doing, rejecting differentiated and hierarchical past in favor of a queer and egalitarian future. Cruz-Malavé suggests that embracing abjected masculinity will limit the power of the male/female hierarchical binary to serve as the fundamental dividing point in society. Piri rejects some forms of patriarchal hierarchy represented by Marqués and by his own mother (Cruz-Malavé, “Toward an Art of Transvestism” 141-42; Thomas 9-10), yet he refuses to accept the abjection of his own masculinity, which means that he refuses to follow the path laid out by Cruz-Malavé. 

Down These Mean Streets emerged into a discursive world already primed to hear some of its stories. Oscar Lewis readied the public to hear what Down These Mean Streets had to say: Puerto Ricans deal drugs, have children out of wedlock, and go to prison. However, Lewis’ explanatory schema for the “culture of poverty” never achieves an internally consistent causality. The effects of poverty in Lewis’ readings are the same as the causes. Though many of the individual traits that Lewis catalogs are represented within the narrative of Down These Mean Streets, this reading can illustrate the ways that these traits can represent a quest for survival in the face of poverty and racial discrimination. This quest for survival involves choices that, from a distance, may look irrational or be destructive, but which may serve a counterintuitive purpose. Short-term planning may be more rational than long-term planning if one sincerely believes the long term will never come. The desire for a transient personal independence betokened by remaining unmarried and unmated may serve to compensate in some small way for lack of opportunity for more global forms of independence. More than simply a compensation, though, the desire of a “gang member” to prove his fitness to belong to that group does not differ much from the desire of an upper-class suburbanite to gain entrance to the “right” country club. Homogenizing readings like Lewis’ of behavior will always miss the compensations, potentials, and opportunities that can be found within the margins of society. It will also miss the individual struggles of those trying to negotiate not only the material circumstances of their lives but also the very ideologies that keep those circumstances in place. Down These Mean Streets is more than a sentimentalist novel designed to romanticize the marginal life; it exposes the fictions of white middle class heteronormativity which blinds social scientists studying life in poverty and those living in it themselves to creative possibilities and eccentric possibilities.

We can see how Down These Mean Streets usefully brings together a range of non-normative sexual practices, demonstrating how the queer practices of racialized subjects in the United States are viewed as both a problem for society and the cause of that problem. The practices themselves—sexual behavior, familial involvement, racial identity, and ethnicity—may contain radical potentials for undermining the basis of heteronormativity and the heterosexist practices that keep heteronormativity hegemonic. As long as public discourse is used to pass judgment on the myriad ways that people live their lives, such discourses will continually fail to see these lives clearly for both the actual problems they face, and the radical potentials they hold.

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