In collaboration with Daniel Albright of Harvard University, I am working on developing a site with Omeka to discuss the theory and practice of comparative arts, a discipline centered around the question: Are there many arts, or only one? A very beta version of the site is available at ComparativeArts.org.
Working with the Islandora tool developed by the fine people at the University of Prince Edward Island, I’m working on an edition and repository of bilingual Spanish/English poetry that will facilitate teaching bilingual poetry in the monolingual classroom. When completed, the documentation for the project will also offer scholars working in other bilingual literatures the structures, protocols, and procedures for producing editions of this kind in the future. Coming soon to LiterRícan.org!
Springing from a panel at the 2011 American Studies Association conference, and under the editorship of Anna Everett of the University of California, Santa Barbara, a group of scholars are collecting a series of essays for publication surrounding the question: How can the methodological insights of queer and ethnic studies produce a transformative effect on the digital humanities? More information at TransformDH.org.
Puerto Rican Writers Resisting the Rhetoric of Respectability
I argue that the colonial status of Puerto Rico and the discrimination—including racial and language-based discrimination—that Puerto Ricans experience in the United States inform the construction of Puerto Rican identity even as they constrain the representation of Puerto Rican experience. Theorists of “the culture of poverty” have contributed to the restricted representations of Puerto Ricans as they attribute Puerto Rican poverty not to systemic injustices, but to poor parenting, promiscuity, and deviant family structures. These constrained representations of Puerto Rican lives and experiences influence public opinion and policy, without regard to their truth values. I contend that Puerto Rican literary production struggles to integrate images of Puerto Ricans constructed by themselves with those images constructed for them by others. The United States’ racially binary thinking, which not only consistently locates the African American experience as marginal to the white American experience, in the case of Afro-Puerto Rican subjects, these narratives also write out the experiences of people of color who do not fit cleanly into one of these roles.
Down These Mean Streets: A Critical Edition
First published in 1967, Down These Mean Streets is widely regarded as the “ur-text” of New York Puerto Rican narrative. Telling a story at once strangely familiar and absolutely new, Piri Thomas’ work changed the literary landscape for Puerto Ricans in the diaspora forever. The 1997 30th Anniversary edition of Thomas’ work was crucial: it brought this important text to a new generation of readers and scholars. It should be viewed as no coincidence that some of the most dynamic scholarship on Down These Mean Streets was published after 1997 (Luis 1998, Sánchez González 2001, Carminero-Santangelo 2004, Sánchez 2005). Piri Thomas’ death on October 17, 2011 has already sparked a renewed interest in his work, and Down These Mean Streets is ripe for a critical edition that would both open up the text to a wider range of readers by unpacking the language that was so particular to Thomas’ time, location, and ethnicity and would capture and present some of the excitement that this text has generated among critics and theorists.
Need for an Annotated Edition
Both the 1967 and the 1997 editions contain a brief glossary at the end of the book. However, this glossary does justice neither to the richness of Thomas’ language, nor to the needs of monolingual, non-Puerto Rican readers to understand Thomas’ bilingual usage and cultural context. Glosses are offered for words denoting Puerto Rican racial categories such as “moyeto,” “negrito,” “moreno,” and “trigüeño,” without attending to the nuances of racial construction in Puerto Rico or the ways in which those constructions differ from those common in the United States mainland. “Lechón,” glossed correctly as “pig,” loses its connotation as a pig roasted over an open flame on a spit, particularly for large holiday occasions. “Bodega,” glossed as “grocery store,” misses the bodega as the neighborhood hangout in New York, the informal community center, the parallel to the island Puerto Rican “colmado.” “Coquís,” the small frogs indigenous to Puerto Rico, are incorrectly glossed as “crickets.” All of these entries could be corrected and fleshed out with historical, cultural, and linguistic context that would greatly enhance the reading experience for readers of all abilities and educational levels. Additionally, I strongly believe that more glosses are needed to clarify many of the terms Thomas employs, for example, noting that the character Piri routinely refers to white people as “paddies” without ever noticing that he is using an anti-Irish slur.
Need for a Critical Edition
Thomas’ text has generated a great deal of critical discourse since its initial publication. A critical edition that is able to incorporate into one volume some of the excellent scholarship that this text has generated would tend not only to enrich the readership of this book and to generate more scholarship, but to make this volume a particularly attractive text to incorporate into the English classroom, whether in courses in 20th Century Literature, American Ethnic Literature, or Latino Literature. A critical edition would help instructors craft lessons around this text and also help them understand the context for this work. The criticism on Down These Mean Streets can be roughly categorized in three movements: reportage, activist Bildungsroman, and as a text rich in material for gender and queer theorists. Exemplary of contemporary reviews and reception would be this excerpt from the New York Times which called the book a “report from the guts and the heart”–that is, early reception viewed the book as reportage about the lives of Puerto Ricans in the so-called ghetto, but didn’t look at it as a work of literature in any particularly meaningful way. A second movement of criticism locates it within the Bildungsroman tradition, particularly within the subgenre of American minority or immigrant Bildungsroman. Lisa Sánchez-González writes that this book is a classic civil-rights era novel, of a particular kind whereby civil rights are explored through the lens of the child trying to navigate a difficult world. In this movement, Thomas is re-claimed as an activist writer, yet the novel is also regarded with a critical eye to its literary merit. A third movement of critical thought has adopted queer and gender theory to discuss the ways this novel talks about masculinity and sends messages about heteronormativity. Marta Sánchez discusses homosexual activity in the novel in the context of traditional Latin ideas about homosexuality, and Arnaldo Cruz-Malavé has an excellent close reading of a scene of homosexual activity wherein it is the homosexual himself who constitutes masculinity for other men.
Whether the format is digital, print, or both, I believe what would best serve this text would be the following three additions: First, a new scholarly introduction written by myself as the editor. Second, moving the glosses to footnote position, away from the back of the book, adding to them and fleshing them out. In a digital edition, this could be accomplished via hover or other medium, depending on the mode of digital publication. Last, an appendix of relevant scholarly articles at the end of the book. Glosses might refer to articles in the appendix, and in a digital edition might be linked directly to those articles.