- Jesus and the Gang: Youth Violence and Christianity in Urban Honduras by Jon Wolseth
With criminal activity and personal physical insecurity a ubiquitous certainty throughout Honduras, gangs and God are the main avenues for combatting these realities and claiming social space for urban male youth, according to Jon Wolseth. Writing of this population, the author notes, “Not only must they witness the murder of their peers, they also live everyday their own social death of not being able to rise above their station in life” (136). Young men and women are socially, politically, and economically marginalized; they struggle daily to claim physical and theoretical space in their communities in order to survive. In Jesus and the Gang: Youth Violence and Christianity in Urban Honduras, Wolseth illuminates these two arenas for identity and thereby contributes to the anthropological, historical, and sociological literature of religion and violence in Latin America.
As the original “banana republic,” Honduras is a nation rooted in mono-crop agriculture and plagued by heavy US investment in economic affairs, particularly in the manufacturing industry. Rapid urbanization and a decrease in world banana prices caused Honduras to fall into a pattern of corruption, political mismanagement, and military control that it has not been able to overcome in the past thirty years. This trifecta of decline contributed to the socioeconomic disenfranchisement of a majority of the population, especially young adolescent men. With high unemployment and perpetual threats of bodily injury, young men, in particular, are victims and perpetuators of violence. Wolseth’s study presents the ways in which urban youth respond to this by carving out social space for themselves through participation in illegal activity or religious life.
Using an ethnographic approach that combines snippets of sermons, pieces from interviews with fifty-one young men and women, church meeting minutes, newspaper articles, government reports, and field research from a year living in the towns of El Progreso and Colonia Belen, Wolseth concludes that adolescent males appropriate violence. For those who join gangs, engaging in violent behavior is a means to navigate social relationships. For those who participate in Catholic or Pentecostal life, religious actions contest the prevailing logic that men, in general, are violent. But for all, violence is a part of everyday life; in attempting to define their social space, young men are often drawn to gangs (maras) or the Pentecostal and Roman Catholic churches as vehicles to appropriate a voice for themselves in public and assert agency.
Weaving his own personal experiences with the themes addressed above, Wolseth begins with a presentation of the historical factors that created modern Honduras. He moves to a discussion of identity and space, noting that [End Page 208] places, like people, have reputations. Using a specific bridge as an example, he cites the numerous ways in which both gangs and Pentecostal and Catholic groups attempt to reclaim it for their own, most commonly through graffiti or memorials. He then moves into chapters that discuss each entity individually. Beginning with gangs, he notes that those who are part of a gang are physically inscribed through tattoos and emotionally branded through a process of renaming by their carnal, or blood brother, to create an organization with lifelong familial bonds for its members. Gangs provide street socialization, mentorship, and a new subcultural norm to follow.
In contrast to gangs’ violent way of life, the fourth and fifth chapters explore the role of religion in Honduran society. The former details the role of the Catholic Church, particularly youth groups, in providing a community for youth to escape the violence of their neighborhood. Wolseth presents testimony from various meetings in which young people attest to the presence of an inclusive, supportive system within the barrio for young men and women to participate. The Catholic Church is seen as a place to build friendships with both other neighborhood members and God. But they, too, feel the economic inequality pervasive throughout Honduras, and like their counterparts in the gangs, these youths are in an ambiguous position...