I am almost drowning in the four or five major commitments I've made with my time. The irony is that when I started swimming for exercise again, I regained a sense of buoyancy. I'll get almost everything done. But, ugh. Nothing else. So, to entertain you while I'm dong that, I think I'll post some of the writing I've been doing for school. This paper was for my class on the Youth Gang Problem. I think I was supposed to cite some of the other reading we've been doing but I'm not sure how I would have worked it in there in any sort of authentic way so I just left it out. I have a feeling that my scruples will turn around and bite me in the ass when it comes to grades this time.
I will be honest and say that I tried to skim Reymundo Sanchez’s My Bloody Life in order to earn myself a little more time for other class reading. However, to my dismay, I found that every anecdote, every vignette, every story was essential to the psychological progression of this young man’s complicated experience desperately desiring community but simultaneously regretting his choices. There was not a chapter that I could skip without creating a large hole for myself in the fabric of knowledge that he was trying to weave for me. In writing his story, he does an excellent job of looking back with humility, showing neither the self-aggrandizement of a man still caught in the insecurity of adolescence nor the false humility that is just another symptom of that same insecurity. His simple, straightforward commentary on the reasons for his actions communicated the voice of a man who has accepted himself through examination and repentance. For instance, when he says, “The real impact of our actions was a lack of education within the Puerto Rican community,” (166) he demonstrates his new awareness that his story is not just about him, but about a larger system of people and that all of their actions and consequences are tied up with one another. This is the running theme of the book.
This theme that people’s actions and reactions to each other are inextricable is played out in Reymundo’s ultimate initiation into the Latin Kings. Reymundo joins the Latin Kings gradually and spends the first third of the book describing his life up to that point. He vividly describes the abuse from his mother both physical and relational when she allows the men in her life to disregard him once their own children are born as the main reason for his vulnerability to the brotherhood that gang life offered him. He holds his mother responsible for not protecting him, but admits that her actions stemmed from a society that allowed a 74-year-old man to marry a teenager and that did not provide a means for that young widow’s survival other than to seek refuge in another man. In a parallel scenario, he paints a picture of a society that does not provide a means for Reymundo’s survival except to cower under the bed. As his life continues, he describes continued cowering under the bed through drug use, sex and violence. This trio of behaviors is the only thing he knows to do to feel safe. Since these three behaviors were those most rewarded by the girls who he wanted favor with and the boys he wanted esteem from, being formally initiated into the Latin Kings once the Spanish Lords had rejected him seems inevitable.
Every time Reymundo is sober, he does not like the choices he has made, including his choice to join the gang. He feels scared and like he in incapable of living up to the legend of Lil Loco that he has created for himself. His solution to these insecurities is abuse of alcohol and drugs and the irony is that this solution is what keeps him from getting to an emotional place where he can leave the gang. He does not fear the physical punishment of being violated out. He fears having to live independently in a society that he views as merely a larger version of his abusive mother. Racist, corrupt police and other gangs form the most obvious threats that his gang protects him from. However, he quietly acknowledges that from the very beginning when watching Slim get violated out rather than helped with his drug problem that his own gang brothers are also a threat. His objectification of women shows that he also sees them as threats. If he becomes emotionally close to them, he risks being hurt and having to repeat the scene when he found himself defending his mother’s honor while still bleeding from the electrical welts on his back that she had given him.
There is no safe haven for the emotional emptiness that attacks Reymundo. But until he acknowledges that the external threats are not the largest threats, he stays in the gang, even when he has pursued the life of a coke dealer and lives largely outside of the gangbanging sphere. His turning point comes when he is in the same position as Slim was at Reymundo’s first meeting. He is brought in front of a gang authority figure for discipline for his drug use and snaps, ranting about how the idea of “Amor to all Kings” had become a joke, that the gang culture had changed, that it was now all about money and not brotherhood. Although he cites specific examples of how gang culture had changed, what seems more likely is that Reymundo had changed. As he had been allowed higher and higher up the chain of command, he saw the inner workings of corrupt officials and the white people who sold his Puerto Rican community the guns and drugs that were used to destroy themselves. He saw that most of the gang leaders lived outside the community that they foot soldiers risked their lives for. He saw that his emotional emptiness could not be filled by a corporate machine. The gang culture might have changed some in the six years that Reymundo was involved, but Reymundo changed much more. So it is fitting that when he is finally violated out, the beating is anti-climactic. The beating was never what he feared and since he had faced his fear that life outside the gang would be worse than life inside the gang, he could walk away and resist his urge to avenge Loca’s child’s death.
I hated reading this book. It was well-written with a humility that did not allow me to dismiss it as grandstanding. I had to engage with Reymundo’s suffering and the suffering of all the people in his community. It was awful. More than any of the clinical research that we’ve read for class that show trends, statistics and brief anecdotes, Reymundo’s story arouses sympathy. What are my impressions of gang life? It is more awful than reading Reymundo’s book. The animal terror of being attacked. The sadness of being rejected. The betrayal caused by family, chosen friends and authority figures. The hopelessness of having no skills to leverage a way out. The emptiness that results from having nothing stable to hang on to. And the overwhelming sense of inevitability is worst of all. Other first-hand accounts and interviews that we have looked at are full of bravado and claims that gang life provides a sense of family and security but Reymundo’s story and my own experience with teenagers makes me interpret that bravado as denial.
I know from my perspective of privilege that individual people can be redirected from the path that leads to gang life. But those folks can’t see it from my perspective. All they can see is the system and the system probably seems deliberately designed to keep them on that path. I hope that the system can be changed, for their sake, as well as my own. I agree with Reymundo, our actions and reactions are inextricable entangled with the actions and reactions of the larger community. From my perspective of privilege, I am partly to blame for every kid that lies bleeding in the arms of another kid. I hope that I do not take that responsibility lightly.
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