I interpreted the overlapping occurrences of gang displays, recovery practices, and conventional displays of manhood as suggesting that successful gang desisters were neither simply gang members nor conventional men. Previous research had suggested that recovery institutionalizes ritualized verbal displays that make performances of ascendant notions of manhood accessible to men Flores and Hondagneu-Sotelo This article narrows the focus on embodied masculine displays in the process of gang recovery.
Homeboy Industries and Victory Outreach are large institutional programs that grew out of the historic concentration of gang activity around the Pico Aliso housing projects, in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. Sonny Arguinzoni founded Victory Outreach in , as an outreach program to Chicano gang members. Arguinzoni later moved to Boyle Heights and ministered to heroin-addicted Chicano gang members out of his own personal apartment. Today Victory Outreach claims over urban churches worldwide, and draws freely from Christian rock and rap music, film, and publications. The top hierarchy of pastors drove expensive cars and lived in suburban homes, and the organization purchased a acre compound in La Puente, east of Los Angeles Leon This evolved into Homeboy Bakery in , and in , as Homeboy Industries, an independent non-profit organization dedicated to gang recovery.
During fieldwork, gang members were employed through Homeboy Industries, though after the period of fieldwork ended, county funding was cut and most employees were laid off Becerra Additional activities included an assortment of alternative therapeutic and spiritual programs: classes, yoga, Native American sweat lodges, individual counseling, free tattoo removal, and a panoply of step therapy programs.
During the time of this ethnographic research, both sites had a significant proportion of women about 20 percent at Homeboy Industries and 40 percent at Victory Outreach , but the missions of the organizations were primarily focused on the rehabilitation of male gang members. A highly gendered division of labor characterized both organizations. In addition, Tattoo Removal was staffed by women, while Homeboy Landscaping employed men. I encountered little resistance, suspicion, or discomfort from subjects, perhaps because I seemed to personify some version of Chicano masculinity, but also because most members of Homeboy Industries and Victory Outreach had already dedicated a good deal of their time to meeting new persons.
The research followed IRB approval and procedures. I told the men that their real names would not be used, but that the names of the organizations, Homeboy Industries and Victory Outreach, would be made public. Leaders claimed that, for exit from gang life to be achieved, street gang embodiment—such as shaved heads, baggy clothing, and display of gang tattoos—had to be reformed.
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To distance them from gang life, leaders implored members to reshape malleable facets of their bodies according to conventional masculine expressions. Men who embodied dominant masculine expressions sat atop organizational hierarchies. Some members were eager to adopt dress codes, welcoming the opportunity to demonstrate gang desistance and to engage in displays of conventional masculinity. They wore slightly oversized polo shirts and formfitting khakis, or plaid shirts and slightly baggy jeans, to give the impression that they once had a gang background, but were now attempting to fulfill the duties of conventional manhood.
Homeboy Industries institutionalized displays of the family man through a relatively lax, but strictly enforced dress code. All employees were to wear a Homeboy Industries shirt: either a T-shirt, polo shirt, or collar shirt.
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On rainy days, Homeboys were told that they had to wear a hooded sweatshirt with the Homeboys logo, or their hooded sweatshirt under their T-shirt. At a Sunday service, Brother Alex encouraged members to change the way both they and their kids dressed to facilitate the process of exit from gang life—even if it seemed awkward and clumsy. I was challenged years ago to grow my hair. Homeboy Industries encouraged members to grow their hair out and dress with work clothes in order to obtain and maintain work; tattoo removal services were even provided free-of-charge to those with visible gang tattoos.
In contrast, the refusal to discard elements of masculine gang embodiment was treated as an unwillingness to leave gangs. If he noticed that a Homeboy was exposing old gang tattoos, Father Greg would privately, kindly ask the Homeboy if he really wanted to be at Homeboy Industries. For example, reform of dress led to opportunities for advancement within organizational hierarchies.
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Members enjoyed the status and privileges that came with wearing such dress clothes. Reformed gang embodiment risked being interpreted as a failed masculine performance. I thought they were just sissies. What kind of gang members are these guys? As a result, gang recovery leaders sought to create new moral universes in which former gang members held a higher status than current gang members. Leaders talked about the body in ways that placed themselves above gang members: they renounced flashy displays of drug money, drug use, violence, and incarceration.
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Leaders dichotomized recovery from gang life with health, well-being, and masculine privilege, on the one hand, and active gang status with deteriorating health and masculine subordination on the other. At times, they spoke highly of abstaining from drug use, earning wages, and building family relationships in order to experience inner peace. The ritualized verbal displays of gang recovery enabled leaders to shame gang members, and to give a higher status to former gang members Flores and Hondagneu-Sotelo Victory Outreach and Homeboy Industries leaders used platforms, such as worship sermons or group therapy classes, to protect themselves from being emasculated.
They asserted the ascendance of their masculine expressions, through the podium, shaming gang men and stigmatizing gang embodiment. Gang recovery leaders used humor to render active gang members as subordinate; as leaders mocked and emasculated embodied gang masculinity, active gang members had no institutional means by which to contest such depictions.
At a Criminals and Gang Members Anonymous meeting, Jeremy equated Chicano gang embodiment—in terms of sharp clothes and lax posture—with addiction. Similarly, Pastor Raul made a remark concerning posture and gang embodiment during one Victory Outreach sermon. Leaning back, he dramatized how active gang members posture by leaning back and critiqued them for having an exaggerated sense of importance. Many members experienced difficulty in shedding the physical markers of a gang past.
Certain features of gang embodiment were more deeply habituated and difficult to reshape than clothes, hairstyle, or tattoos. Drug addiction was the most prominent example of hard embodiment among recovering gang members. Ramon, a year-old member of Victory Outreach and bible study leader, described how he was unable to leave gang life prior to entering recovery.
Marcelo, a year-old member of Homeboy Industries, was still active with his gang. Homeboy Industries operated as a nine-to-five job, and Marcelo was not able to create distance between himself and his gang. He still used drugs after work and on weekends. I asked Marcelo if there were times he did not feel like continuing with rehabilitation, and he remarked that interactions with his mother and his wife triggered emasculating feelings that quickly led to relapses into gang and drug activity. These relapses caused him to do illegal things, which he regretted, and, in some cases, did not even remember.
Where the fuck am I? Chris, a former gang member who had been with Victory Outreach for three years and become a bible study leader, suggested that addictions and gang life were simultaneously embodied—one triggered the other. Chris said: It would just take a couple of hours for me to start drinking, or start getting high, or just be right there with them, you know? Where Chris avoided his gang to prevent relapse into drug and gang activity, Marcelo did not. However, Homeboy Industries and Victory Outreach members had few resources to move themselves and their families out of their neighborhoods and cut ties with their gangs.
Another feature of embodied gang masculinity was permanent disabilities such as limps, paralysis, or missing limbs. This was hard embodiment, because disabilities made it difficult for men to refashion their bodies and adopt conventional expressions of manhood. Disabled recovering gang members sometimes grew frustrated with being unable to perform dominant expressions of masculinity.
Ruben, a survivor of a gunshot to the head, suffered such extensive nerve damage that he was confined to a power chair. Shedding tears, he talked about how he was unable to attend Homeboy Industries camping retreats or work at a proper job. What they make you do here at Homeboy Industries is not like a real job. Homeboy Industries is not shit. Disabled recovering gang members also led to discrimination in some cases.
Jose, a blind member of Homeboy Industries, wore large black shades to cover his eyes and was forced to hold his head up with a hand to keep it from falling to the side—he had lost the ability to keep it up straight after being shot in the head and neck. With his scalp shaved, the black shades made it appear that Jose was still an active gang member.
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While in recovery, some respondents would look around anxiously and inappropriately stare at strangers. Despite the fact that recovery posed no threat of violence, some members responded with mannerisms that embodied fear; they had been habituated in a context of violence and fear, and surfaced through interactions even after such threats were no longer present. Racial minority status, and years of growing up in a context of poverty and violence, shaped the way respondents carried their bodies; these facets of embodied gang masculinity could not simply be wished away.
To deepen engagement with the process of recovery, recovering gang members had to overcome rigid displays of gang embodiment. As Winchester found in his study on Muslim converts, embodying religious practices deepened shifting moral dispositions; gang recovery provided religious and lay religious embodied practices to further facilitate gang exit. Homeboy Industries provided work opportunities, and facilitated group therapy classes and encouraged meditation, in order to reshape rigidly embodied displays of gang masculinity.
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Sergio, a baker in Homeboy Industries with a gang past, claimed that—because he was a single father of a three-year-old son—his primary responsibility was as a father: to provide for and nurture his son. However, Sergio was also addicted to crystal methamphetamine and was trying to quit through Homeboy Industries. Sergio said he had started to take up praying every morning and before every meal in order to try to overcome drug cravings. As I sat with him on a sunny day, to eat outside during his lunch break, Sergio calmly closed his eyes and took deep quiet breaths.
Victory Outreach provided a space for ecstatic worship and social activities, in order to redirect rigidly embodied displays of gang masculinity towards religious activity. Victory Outreach leaders spoke about channeling the collective, effervescent behavior of gang membership to spiritual worship. Victory Outreach members claimed that their primary responsibility—because they had been saved by Jesus—was to bring new members to the church.
They used their own personal testimonies to try to draw the attention of gang members who were in and out of jail, and warn them that living gang life would lead only to ill health and violence. Both Homeboy Industries and Victory Outreach appropriated a significant embodied gang practice—handshakes—to facilitate the project of recovery.
Recovering gang members exchanged elaborate handshakes to greet each other, to say goodbye, or to facilitate conversation. The typical goodbye handshake ended with a fist bump, although this could also be used in the middle of a conversation, such as in confirming a later meeting. There were variations even within this fist bump handshake; some men used closed fists, and others open hands, to accept the fist bump. These handshakes were also a rough indicator of social location.