Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Robert Brenneman's "Homies and Hermanos"

Robert Brenneman is Assistant Professor of Sociology at St. Michael's College in Colchester, Vermont. He is the author of Faith and the Foreigner.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Homies and Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America, and reported the following:
It's appropriate that JJ speaks on page 99 of my book Homies and Hermanos. JJ is one of the sixty-three former gang members I interviewed in Central America in 2007 and 2008, and in many ways, JJ's story frames the book. I quoted him in this section exploring why gang members engage in violence because I wanted to give readers a sense of the emotional energy that gang members derive from wielding a gun. Here, he describes the thrill of firing the gun to commit a crime in another city:
"I went to my mother's house, washed my face, changed clothes and went racing back to the capital and I told the homies, 'Now I'm a real man. I just [describes the crime] with this [referring to the gun]. And anyone who gets mixed up with me is going to meet with this mother. That weapon had been my, like my God.'"
Page 99 falls in the middle of a chapter called "Turning Shame into Violence." In it, I try to help readers understand the violence that seems "senseless" to so many who know little about the transnational gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha and the M-18 other than that they are violent, often in hideous ways. My argument in that chapter is that violence, and by extension access to violent weapons--just touching or handling them--is deeply attractive to many young boys of the barrio precisely because it offers an avenue to respect and a (temporary) escape from social shame. I wrote the chapter because I wanted readers to understand youths' attraction to the gangs and the gang mystique before building my argument about why evangelical-Pentecostal conversion is such a popular pathway out of the gang for the gang members who live long enough to tire out of the gang lifestyle. As it turns out, evangelical-Pentecostal churches offer their own remedies for young men facing shame and social stigma by providing an alternative form of masculinity built around the project of "facing down the devil" and "battling sin." It helps that many gang leaders themselves "respect" evangelical religion, although they do not practice it, and extend a conditional "pass" on the "morgue rule" for gang deserters. But the ex-gang member who converts must provide ample evidence of the sincerity of his conversion by walking, talking, dressing, and acting like a true hermano (Christian brother). Anyone caught "messing with Curly" (Curly being God in the gang's vocabulary) by faking a conversion in order to be free of the gang can expect to meet a quick ending.
Learn more about the book and author at Robert Brenneman's website.

--Marshal Zeringue