This week we started talking a little bit about the presence of gang violence in Central America, an area of expertise for Professor Brenneman, since this is the central focus of his research and his book Homies and Hermanos. Professor Brenneman talked to us about the appeal of gangs in the more impoverished areas of urban Guatemala, mainly as a way of gaining respect and dignity in social classes that feel hopelessly stuck at the bottom of a structure. I was surprised to learn that the structure of gangs in Guatemala is mainly an imitation of the Los Angeles structure. This violent and expansive gang mentality found its way to Central America in the 1990’s, when the LAPD cracked down on gang activity and deported many members of Hispanic gangs back to El Salvador. Once they were back home, these former U.S. homies (the term, along with many other English words, were adopted in Central American gang culture) began recreating the efficient gang structure they learned in the U.S. and applying it to the more localized gangs that already existed in urban Central America. This, along with an oftentimes underpaid and underfunded police system was the perfect storm for a rise in transnational gang activity. Much of Professor Brenneman’s research considers how these gang members are able to leave a gang, and he has found that there is only one real way for male members to leave: by giving themselves to God via Pentecostal churches. Since most of these gangs have (or had) a “don’t mess with Curly (God)” standard, they would leave ex members at peace if they could prove they had truly given themselves to God. Professor Brenneman went on to show us how the church provides a similar structure and sense of belonging for the boys. This can sometimes replace the sense of power and dignity offered by the gang, and simply occupy the boys’ free time.
As a way to bring these ideas to life, two former gang members came to CASAS to tell us their stories, along with Suzy, the widow of an ex-gang member. Suzy has been working in urban areas in Guatemala City to create soccer teams that will keep young boys off the street, and give them a healthy way to occupy their time outside of school.
Putting a face to ex gang members really gave me a new perspective on their situation. It is easy to study these things in an academic setting, and to think about how awful they are, but to see these two boys and hear their stories was truly eye opening. They could easily be a couple of students in your high school math class back in the states. I was especially moved by how completely unfair and in every way ‘other’ their experience in urban Guatemala is compared to ours in the US. Their options were, as Professor Brenneman put it, bad, bad, and worse. One of the boys got involved in gang activity when he was just 11, and was then trapped in their service. The gang usually gives the boys an initial payment around 1500 quetzales (US$200) per month for joining. For boys living in impoverished communities, in families with profound economic distress, this offer is hard to refuse. Along with money, the gang offers boys a sense of belonging, respect in their community, and in general a way to occupy their time. At the end of the talk, one of the boys asked a fair question: What is life like for teenagers in the US? How did we grow up? This question seemed impossible to answer. How could we explain our own sheltered and oftentimes excessive childhoods to someone who had seen and been forced into so much violence and poverty? I think I speak for the whole group when I say that this experience really put into perspective how vast and unlimited our privilege is in our small New England towns. The sheer injustice of this was something that will stick with me, and I will not forget to appreciate the safety, opportunity, and love that has been relentlessly presented to me during my life.
We have talked a lot about economic contrasts in Guatemala, and nothing could have illustrated this point more than our trip to the Rio del Sol Art Gallery the same day. We all dressed up for this occasion, walking around looking at modern art (with an oftentimes unclear message) while sipping on wine and eating fine cheeses. This is the complete opposite end of the spectrum from the gang violence we learned about earlier in the day. The building itself was a beautiful old home with huge open windows and intricate tile flooring. With the stories of those boys still lingering in my head, the art seemed all the more beautiful and the people seemed all the more classy and I didn’t really know where I fit in on the spectrum.
All in all this was a day that showed us the vast differences we have heard so much about in Guatemala, and helped us to appreciate the city as a complex one with a culture and beauty as great and impressive as it’s poverty.
– Leah Valletta