God’s Gangs: Barrio Ministry, Masculinity, and Gang Recovery

God’s Gangs by sociologist Edward Orozco Flores examines how members of Latino street gangs in Los Angeles are leaving gangs and reshaping their lives, despite overwhelming obstacles to entering the mainstream economy.  His book complements the expanding literature of critical gang studies by arguing that Latino immigrants in inner-city Los Angeles are not mired in cyclical poverty.   Rather these immigrants are in reach of a modest social mobility that has proven crucial in offering a path out of gangs.  Flores conducted ethnographic research with two of the foremost organizations in gang recovery, an ecumenical Jesuit institution (Homeboy Industries) and an evangelical Pentecostal ministry (Victory Outreach).  Each organization is active in recasting the street masculinity of gang members into conventional patriarchal roles, most often as family breadwinners and leaders in faith-based communities.

The book opens with an overview of racial politics in Los Angeles across the twentieth century–a genealogical account of the stereotype of the Latino gang banger.  Flores tracks the dialectical production of images of the Latino family, addressing the interaction between the biological racism of the eugenics movement and the cultural ecology of the Chicago School countering such racism; and then turning to the work of mid-century reformers and the white backlash to the Civil Rights movement.  He asks how such discourses about the culture of black and Latino families shaped public policies, housing covenants, and police initiatives that led to the War on Drugs and the subsequent mass incarceration of the lower classes.  It is an impressively synoptic and economical opening chapter that deconstructs national security hyperbole about Latino gangs and establishes the figure of the Latino gang-banger as a specter of Los Angeles’ own history.

Flores’ second chapter challenges segmented and downward assimilation theorists who argue second generation immigrant families gravitate to criminalized subcultures as a response to exclusion and racial hostility.  He notes that in inner-city Los Angeles, longitudinal studies show that immigrants who reside in neighborhoods for a significant duration are experiencing enough financial gains that they relocate.  Census data rarely reveals this, however, as out-migration is obscured by new migrants moving into the same low-income areas.  Flores argues that poverty in the Latino inner-city is common to adolescence but declines in adulthood, and that assimilation theorists frequently describe the immigrant experience as overly regressive.  Recognizing these windows of opportunity, modest as they are, is essential to understanding what has made gang recovery a viable enterprise in Los Angeles despite deep socioeconomic stratification.

Over the next four chapters, Flores draws from field research in gang recovery programs where he was a participant-observer.  Homeboy Industries is a non-denominational, non-profit organization founded by a Jesuit priest and limited to Los Angeles, while Victory Outreach is an evangelical Pentecostal organization active in thirty countries.  Homeboy Industries follows an ecumenical Catholicism in which God’s presence is suffused throughout the world, and redemption found by reintegrating oneself back into the world.   Victory Outreach, on the other hand, relies on a Protestant theology of transcendence, rejecting the mundane world for the sacral community of the church.  Homeboy operated with a language of clinical rehabilitation, offering courses in basic life skills, anger management, and professional skills.  Victory offered ecstatic worship practices that led to effervescent connections with the Holy Spirit and support within a pious community of believers.  Though their approach differed, each program aimed to transform macho street culture into conventional expressions of male privilege, what Flores calls “reformed barrio masculinity” (p. 113).  Through eight personal history narratives edited from his interviews, Flores walks the reader through the varying levels of commitment and participation in gang recovery programs.  He describes a range of people, from participants turned program leaders to newcomers struggling unsuccessfully to leave the streets.  Though at times these portraits read like one-off interviews with persons accustomed to narrating their story, they are occasionally poignant and unpredictable, and cover an array of immigrant experience.  Flores’ editing is skillful and the interviews are devoid of cliches.  Importantly, the interviews present how reactive masculinities form during childhood, long before they are the target of recovery programs in adulthood.

In the two final chapters, Flores details the path of recovery and the discursive space marked off by each program, showing how the programs encourage individuals to narrate their lives through a new set of values.  He cites scholarship on evangelicalism and recovery in which faith-based groups work to restore spirituality, and in the process promote conventional patriarchal roles as a path to recovery.  He identifies this “patriarchal bargain” (p. 142) as central to addressing gang masculinities.  At Homeboy, recovery centered on men talking openly about weakness and remorse, and supporting one another in group settings.  Counselors presented empathy and openness to criticism as strength, and a vehicle for opposing impetuosity in gang life.  Evangelical recovery similarly established a dominant recovery-based masculinity, casting gang members as weak and subordinate to family-oriented, male breadwinners.  In contrast to conversational methods at Homeboy, participants at Victory attended worship in which the public shaming of gang members was central to religious oratory of church pastors.  Interspersed with the sermons, gang members spoke, following redemption scripts to share their regret, public acts which began integrating them into the religious community.  As recovery begins, both groups offer the incentive of working one’s way up their institutional ladder, and encourage participating in the gang recovery effort at large.

For me, the most fascinating aspect of Flores’ work is the analysis of recovery and gang embodiment, from deeply embedded physical and psychological wounds, to the mannerisms and styles that signal one’s gang background even as an adult.  For both organizations the body was a symbolic site of recovery, members were urged to grow their hair long, to remove tattoos, to switch from baggy to form-fitting clothes, and so on.  But neither organization sought to fully efface gang culture.  Instead each redirected many of its core elements (handshakes, dancing, fashion, and slang), redefining and absorbing these markers.  Such hybrid moments not only make for the institutions’ distinctive pedagogy and spiritual life, but infuse the organizations with a vitality missing from more traditional forms of rehabilitation.

Flores’ book is a groundbreaking look at the institutions and socialities emerging from communities criminalized by a century of racist and punitive policy in LA.  For anthropologists the ethnography is likely to feel thin, but this work is nonetheless a theoretically vibrant analysis of marginality and solidarity that consciously builds-off the voices of Los Angelinos themselves.

Jon Horne Carter, Le Moyne College

Flores, Edward Orozco. God’s Gangs: Barrio Ministry, Masculinity, and Gang Recovery.  New York University Press, 2014. Read more at New York University Press. 

 

 

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