While serving a prison term for armed robbery, Piri Thomas realized that what he had become was not who he was born to become. Moreover, he still had plenty of time to turn his life around and make something of himself. He encouraged himself to strive for better, and he found his writing voice. Since then, he has used his life and his career to make a positive impact on his family and his community. He has worked with prisoners, youth, and children, motivating them to find the best path they can find for their lives. He brings hope and wisdom to those who need it, and he is able to speak from experience and personal struggle. One of the ways he reaches out to people is through his stories, such as ‘‘Amigo Brothers,’’ a short story in his 1978 collection. In the story, two teenage boys who love boxing and love each other like brothers must face off in a championship boxing match. It puts their determination and friendship to the test. Set in Spanish Harlem, the story has not just a universal message for all readers, but specific messages for the people in Thomas’s community. Just as he has used his time and experience to encourage the people of his heritage, here he uses a short story to do the same thing.
The first way Thomas’s story speaks to the young people of Spanish Harlem is through his strong message about staying positive and not getting pulled into negative influences that can ruin a young man’s life. Having gone down that road himself, Thomas knows that it is a road of destruction where people are hurt, killed, or— like him—imprisoned. Although he experienced first-hand the devastating effects of those choices, he reveals in an interview for Bilingual Review, ‘‘When I came out of prison, I didn’t want to be out in the streets, because it was too tempting to pull into the negative.’’ He had to prepare and strengthen himself to be around those influences because he knew that they were so strong, they could pull him back into that lifestyle. In ‘‘Amigo Brothers,’’ he lets his reader know early that there are different paths a young man can take, and that it is important to choose wisely. In the fourth paragraph, barely into the story at all, he writes, ‘‘While some youngsters were into street negatives, Antonio and Felix slept, ate, rapped, and dreamt positive.’’ From the very beginning of the story, Thomas wants his young readers to understand that they have the power to make good choices, and that these protagonists are doing just that. The narrator also reveals that the two boys dream of becoming the lightweight champion of the world. Even in their humble surroundings, where discouragement is around every corner, they have great ambitions. Their dreams are constructive and motivating, and the boys are not jaded or brought down by the negative influences of other boys their age.
In a later scene, Felix is watched by some local gang members. The narrator says that even though they were Puerto Rican like Felix, the territorial issue could mean problems. The gang members are watching Felix to see if they should go after him, but when they see his boxing moves, they decide to leave him alone. In this scene, Thomas subtly demonstrates that Felix is more powerful and in control, even though he is alone against the gang members. It is a metaphor for the larger message about making positive choices, even though many other people make negative choices every day. The pay-off for focusing on the positive is being more in control and stronger than those who make negative choices. This scene also hints at the effect a person’s choices have on his character. Felix has made good, productive choices, and he means no harm to anyone, although he is prepared to defend himself if necessary. In contrast, the gang members are looking for someone who is weaker than they are; they want an easy target to attack so they can feed the delusion that they are powerful and strong. When they see that Felix is a threat to their skewed sense of identity, they leave him alone. This shows their weakness of character because their motives are anything but pure.
Another message in ‘‘Amigo Brothers’’ is about the power of friendship to keep a young person on a good path. Their friendship is incredibly important to Antonio and Felix, and when they are faced with the opportunity to fight in the championship round—an opportunity they have trained for years in hopes of earning—they are more concerned about the fight damaging their relationship than they are about losing. The story shows clearly how their mutual interest in boxing, training together, quizzing each other about fighters’ stats, and encouraging each other has played a major role in bonding these two young men together. There is little mention of family members and no mention of any other friends in the story. The impression is that Antonio and Felix only have each other, but that their friendship and influence on each other is enough to keep them positive, motivated, and moving forward in the right direction. The contrast with the gang members shows how important peer influences are and how important it is not to be alone in this neighborhood. Antonio and Felix stick together and look out for each other.
Besides serving the important purpose of keeping the boys safe and on the right track, the friendship fills the need for fellowship and connection. They consider each other brothers, and their relationship fulfills them both and makes them happy. When they are training separately, they miss each other. When the fight is over, they rush toward each other, glad that their time apart has come to an end. In agreeing to train separately, they agree to fight like strangers, but they reunite as if nothing had happened. They need each other’s company, and their loyalty and affection runs very deep.
The third message Thomas seems to be sending to his community is one of hope. There are people all around Antonio and Felix who are either content to be where they are or struggling with their lot in life, but the boys have dreams beyond their tenement. Thomas contrasts them not with those who are living full and productive lives in Spanish Harlem, but with those who are not. The gang members, for example, have lost hope that they can achieve something great. Their need for identity and acceptance in a group is so great that they are willing to risk their futures by joining a gang. Clearly, they do not see anything in their futures they are not willing to risk. If they had something valuable ahead, they would make different choices, as Antonio and Felix do. The two friends dream of becoming world-class boxers, and they believe they can make it. If they lost hope in their dreams, they would not take working out and practicing so seriously. But they are determined and diligent in their training because they love it and believe their dreams could come true. They have a bigger vision than the gang members do, and this is what Thomas wants his young readers to see. It does not matter where someone lives, but it is important that they see beyond their circumstances to what might be. In the end, Antonio and Felix are well on their way to making their dreams come true. One of them is Golden Gloves-bound, and the other knows he is a champion with a bright future, too.
If Thomas had meant for ‘‘Amigo Brothers’’ to be just for the young people in Spanish Harlem, he would not have included it in a published work. Instead, he would have told the story to the youth and children of the neighborhood as he worked with them. There is definitely a universal message of the power of friendship and the enduring encouragement of dreams. Thomas is careful with his setting, including lots of details and language style to bring it to life. For readers whose background is not in Spanish Harlem, these details bring a richness and authenticity to the story that makes it all the more engaging. But for children and youth in Spanish Harlem (or somewhere similar), the story packs a real punch. They are able to see themselves in Antonio and Felix, see their buildings in the neighborhood, and see the challenges in the gang members. When the setting comes to life like that in the mind of a reader who knows it so well, the messages of the story speak more loudly and more clearly. Thomas wants those readers especially to understand the importance of positive choices, the power of friendship, and the possibilities of having great vision.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Piri Thomas – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.
Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on ‘‘Amigo Brothers,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.