Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Hispanic perspectives on structural racism

Professor Juan Alonzo recommends a couple of works for the continuing series on books that illuminate structural racism.

Américo Paredes, George Washington Gomez

Piri Thomas, Down These Mean Streets

Américo Paredes is generally recognized as one of the seminal Mexican American scholars of the 20th century. From the publisher of George Washington Gomez:

This first novel written in the 1930s by the dean of Mexican-American folklore charts the coming of age of a young Mexican American on the Texas-Mexico border set against the background of guerrilla warfare, banditry, land grabs, abuses by the Texas Rangers and the overpowering pressures to disappear into the American melting pot.

Piri Thomas' memoir, Down These Mean Streets, was published in 1967. In 1995, Sam Roberts, writing in the New York Times, called it one of the Ten Best Books about New York.

[T]his gritty autobiographical account of growing up in East Harlem cries out plaintively: "I'm here, and I want recognition." And a way out.

Mr. Thomas's mean streets are the ghetto and he is no dispassionate tour guide (so vivid are his accounts that the book was banned by a school district in Flushing, Queens). His itinerary includes the underside of El Barrio's rooftops and barrooms, its low life and the convicts he befriends and his fears in the prison where he served six years for armed robbery. Mr. Thomas's account may seem dated, even stereotypical. But his pain and lack of self-pity resonate in an enduring struggle for social mobility and against the siren call of quick cures. "The worlds of home and school were made up of rules laid down by adults who had forgotten the feeling of what it means to be a kid but expected a kid to remember to be an adult--something he hadn't gotten to yet," Mr. Thomas wrote. "The world of street belonged to the kid alone. There he could earn his own rights, prestige, his good-o stick of living. It was like being a knight of old, like being 10 feet tall."

Juan Alonzo is Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Texas A & M University. His area of concentration is 20th-century American literature and culture, with specialization in Chicano/a literature and film studies. He is interested in exploring literature and popular culture's engagement with modernity and their imbrication with globalization. His current research examines literary and cinematic representation of ethnic identities, from the turn-of-the-century to the present. He is the author of "From Derision to Desire: The Greaser in Stephen Crane's Mexican Stories and D. W. Griffith's Early Westerns," which appears in Western American Literature (2004).

For the initial post in this series, which includes Andrew Grant-Thomas' working definition of structural racism, click here. Lee Baker of Duke University nominated one novel here. Michael Dawson of the University of Chicago offered recommendations here and here, and Michael Collins of Texas A & M suggested a couple of novels and an autobiography here. For recommendations from New York Daily News columnist Errol Louis, click here.

Thanks to Juan for the suggestions.

--Marshal Zeringue