- Homies and Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America by Robert Brenneman
Robert Brenneman's Homies and Hermanos is a thoroughly researched, engaging sociological study of transnational gang and evangelical Christian subcultures in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The author's aim is to make sense of these cultures and to understand more deeply the push and pull factors of gangs and evangelical Christianity for those adolescent and young adult Central Americans who join. Homies and Hermanos is at once a sophisticated qualitative sociology and at the same time an accessibly written book. Academics and non-academics alike who are interested in understanding the allure of gangs and evangelical Christianity in Central America more specifically, and on a global scale more broadly, will not be disappointed. Brenneman delivers a captivating portrayal of his Central American interlocutors and their complex social milieu.
In the opening pages of the book, the reader is swept into the life of "JJ," a former ranflero, leader of the White Fence mara, gang, whose story begins with details of a life of life of poverty and abuse. It is a gripping entrée to the book's larger sociological investigation. We learn of JJ's entry into gang life at the young age of nine, his increasing involvement in his teens and rise to power as a ranflero, and his eventual decision to leave the gang for evangelical Christianity. JJ's narrative is one of many compelling narratives of hardship, and redemption in the book, and Brenneman contextualizes these narratives with a larger social history of transnationalism and a sociology of emotions. As he notes, there are many studies of gang entrance and membership, but far fewer studies of gang exit (15).
Moreover, rather than focus on the individual gang members' psychological health as a push factor into gang membership, which he finds limiting because it tends to blame victims caught up in complex social constraints, Brenneman offers a much more nuanced and helpful exploration of the broader social reasons why young men and women decide to join gangs—and then later decide to leave them. Based on his interviews with sixty-three ex-gang members, as well as twelve sympathizers, the author discovered that poverty, problems at home, and stresses at school were the three primary reasons why Central American youth join gangs (74). To these male and female ex-gang members, gangs offered a hope of stability, family atmosphere, acceptance and protection that their biological and extended kinship systems failed to provide.
The overarching sociology of emotions Brenneman uses as a frame for his study leads him to focus on shame as a key push factor to joining these violent transnational gangs. What linked all of his interlocutors' narratives was their shame—for being abused, for having an alcoholic parent, an absent mother and/ or father, for being poor, and for failures in school. Low self-esteem, he discovered in the course of his research, is connected to the overarching social constraints in which these youth find themselves.
It is here in the book that Brenneman draws on the social theorist Randall Collins' interaction ritual chain theory approach to explain the complexity of emotions that ultimately leads young adults to join a gang and to undergo rituals of violence and sacrifice. Joining a gang, Brenneman argues, is less a rational decision than it is an accumulated emotional response to the various social push and pull [End Page 291] factors that accumulate (84-5). These young adults experience a rebirth when they undergo the ritual of brinco (jumping in), which is considered to be their bautizmo (baptism) and official membership into a gang (94). Newly baptized, their shame is mitigated by the violence done to them and that they in turn commit. Young men, who comprise the vast majority of Central American gang membership, experience a new kind of manhood and power via violent acts, and it is through these actions as homies that they gain respeto among their peers. The acquisition of tattoos, sex, drugs and guns...