Shannon L. Ortiz
Once students are able to identify different economic motives and pressures that caused a large migration of island Puerto Ricans to the United States. I want them to consider the difficulties when a group must adapt to the popular culture within a society. I want students to question: Were Americans welcoming to the large migration of Puerto Ricans into the United States? Why or why not? How did this effect the way Puerto Rican perceived Americans? More importantly, how did this effect they way they perceived being Puerto Rican?
I chose the chapters "Konk" and "Babylon for Babylonians" from Piri Thomas's novel Down These Mean Streets. Both of these excerpts deal with different types of difficulties faced when assimilating into mainstream American society by a young Puerto Rican male.
In "Konk", the narrator Piri, saves up enough money to chemically treat his hair so it resembles white people's hair. In the opening passages he admits to different methods in which non-white people tried to alter their own features to look like whites. This included bleaching their skin and pinching their noses so they were smaller. Once he gets to the shop Piri allows the barber to begin the process of straightening his hair. The experience is painful, Piri realizes, once he begins to feel his scalp burning from the lye in the konk. Nonetheless, Piri becomes excited about his straight hair which can now be styled into a pompadour. Yet this excitement turns to embarrassment and shame when he heads back to his neighborhood. Once in the house his siblings ridicule him and his mother questions his motives behind altering his "beautiful hair". After being told by his mother to not be ashamed of his coarse hair and she would not "trade him for any blanquito", Piri decides to shave his head.
This excerpt will allow students to analyze the difficulties non-white immigrants faced when coming to the United States. Piri's hair texture was a constant reminder of his race and class. In straightening his hair he attempts to emulate the popular white culture of the time. However, the painful process along with the ridicule that occurs after reduce him to shame for trying to hide his coarse hair, a characteristic of his cultural identity. I believe that many of my students can empathize with Piri's situation as societal standards on what ideal beauty currently causes many students to question their own looks.
In "Babylon for Babylonians" Piri is faced with the difficult transition from Harlem to Long Island. His parents have saved enough money to buy a house in a nicer neighborhood with better schools than Piri is use to. Although he understands that moving will allow him better opportunities, he becomes frightened by living in a world almost void of Blacks and Puerto Ricans. At first his experience is good; he begins to make friends with some white students and joins the baseball team. However, when he tries to court Marcia, a white girl, he realizes the differences that exist between whites and himself. After being categorized as being Black because of his skin, he asserts his Puerto Rican identity. Yet, that doesn't stop Marcia and other students from calling him a nigger. It is then that Piri decides to ostracize himself from all whites, which included ending his friendship with Angelo, a white student who befriended him.
This excerpt will allow students to examine the cultural conflict that occurs between suburban white America and Urban Puerto Ricans. Although Piri has heard stories about the large differences between whites and minorities, it wasn't until he moved to Long Island did he become a victim of discrimination. Despite claiming being Puerto Rican, the kids continue to call him a nigger. I want students to see the complexities of being a Black Puerto Rican where you are judged by whites to be black, regardless of your ethnicity. I want students to recognize the cultural conflict this causes Piri and how it shapes his American experience.
After the students read both excerpts I want them to consider the methods that Piri attempts to assimilate into American society. I want them to consider: what worked for Piri? What didn't work? What was the cultural conflict he experiences? What were his misconceptions and realizations about assimilation? How did these misconceptions shape his American experience as a Black Puerto Rican in New York City? Students will write a thesis driven response to these questions using evidence from the text to support their thesis.
Students will then watch the film "Every Child is a Poet: The life and work Piri Thomas" In showing this film I want the students to see the adult Piri reflecting on the difficulties growing up Puerto Rican in New York City in the 40's and 50's.
Additionally I want students to witness what different cultural elements helped shape Piri's experiences. This includes being the son of immigrants, growing up in racially diverse neighborhoods, being imprisoned and ultimately becoming a writer and activist.