Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 322 | Mayo 2008



Youth Gangs and Religion: Links and Differences

With the vital sense of identity that comes of belonging to a group, replete with its legends of heroic actions, its myths of idyllic times and buddies who sacrificed themselves, shared songs and rites, and marked their bodies with crosses, devils and virgins, youth gang members form a kind of religious group. Thus, when it comes time to leave the gang, the most common path is conversion to another religion…

José Luis Rocha

Is there a relationship between youth gangs and religion? Between violence and religious experience? Between youth transgression of the established order and religious authorities that construct supra-earthly orders? There are, in fact, multiple relationships and shared functions because, like religious institutions, youth gangs generate identity. Youth gangs are a socially unacceptable transgression of an established order, but they recognize themselves as such and by doing so legitimize and strengthen that order. Youth gang members bear tattoos with profusely religious motifs. They’re like altarpieces etched in flesh and blood; stained glass windows that express a personal and group Calvary.

There are many other links between youth gangs and religion that need to be explored much more thoroughly, following the various threads towards the great skein at the heart of youth and youth gang religious experience. But let’s make a start by looking in some detail at the relationship between the production of identity and religious conversion, the break with the authoritarian order that sinks its roots into religion and tattoos as a window onto the inner experiences that feed off religious self-identity.

Youth in the Masatepe Passion play

A group of young people are walking through the streets of a small city dragging thick chains. They are headed by three or four youths leading a hooded prisoner wearing a yellow slicker. None of them is over 20. Some are stocky, others are stringy and lean. Many have their faces covered with masks, balaclavas, bandanas or women’s stockings. They look threatening. More than a few have been drinking, and the smell of alcohol hangs on their breath. They exude energy and their numbers and determined gestures make them imposing. The closest one has a maned lion visible on a bicep exposed by his skimpy t-shirt, while a huge Virgin of Guadalupe covers the entire forearm of another. They make amorous comments to the girls they pass and some even try to touch them. They also try the doors of vehicles to see if they can steal something. All passers-by stop to watch this group of about 80 pass by, and many people come out of their houses to see them. Another group of the same size and similar attire is walking two blocks south. The long chains on the uneven cobbles produce an infernal din. The sound precedes the group, announcing its coming. Some adults feel obliged to give them chicha and tamugas—the former a fermented corn drink and the latter cornmeal tamales with meat and rice. Tamugas are a delicacy born of the culinary syncretism between the indigenous and Spanish cooking traditions.

It’s Holy Thursday in Masatepe, the city of tamugas, and the youths are portraying La Judea, the traditional Passion Play presented on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, a preserve of Hispano-Catholic anti-Semitism. For three hours on the Thursday the youths play a gang of Jews led by Judas who set out to capture Jesus. On the Friday, they portray his capture and crucifixion and Judas hanging himself. These youths have social approval—even applause—for dressing this way. Shielded by their portrayal of a transgression, they do things that would not be allowed in other circumstances.

The similarities with a youth gang are obvious. The group attempts some homogeneity of attire and postures. They are young. They portray violence to send out a message. They are a show of strength—Catholic in this case. They perform a transgression of the normal order that is tolerated by a certain group, but not by others—Protestants, for example. And they are immersed in a practice that brings their identity into play, announcing themselves as active Catholics.

Legends, songs, tattoos...

Youth gangs are and have been identitary institutions. In fact they are factories producing identity and cultural tradition. All efforts to dissolve them through one-on-one work run up against that characteristic and generally fail to take it into account when shaping the design of their rehabilitation strategies. The consequence of this fatal oversight is that the youth gang factory continues cranking out and marketing identity.

The youth gang has an institutional dynamism that allows it to continue recruiting new members to replace those that die, are jailed or leave. Would anyone imagine ending the Jewish or Muslim religions through one-on-one work? That was more or less the strategy employed by the Spanish Inquisition and the devoutly Catholic kings who sponsored it through a variety of methods ranging from proselytism to torture, by way of the lucrative sale of certificates of Catholicness. But ideological production, the generation of identity and cultural tradition make any religion a very resistant artifact. The history of religions shows that all religious imperialism has been imposed in part by violence, but also by cultural transactions such as enculturation and syncretism.

Obviously, youth gangs are much more ephemeral than a religious institution, but they last quite a lot longer than any public policy, presidential term or state official who has promised to fight, reform or prevent them. Songs, tattoos, life style, brotherhoods, legends and rituals feed their continuity and keep them distilling an identity concoction. Their legends are stories of the heroism of distinguished members; their songs are relatively new productions narrating stories and disseminating ideas on “the life of bums” to the latest rhythms, like rap and reggaeton; and their rituals are small obligations that structure the group activities and limit anarchism, as they signal special moments and spaces.

Rituals and compadres

Taking up the distinction drawn by Mircea Eliade between ordinary time and sacred time, we could say that youth gang rituals are also temporal delimitators that separate communal-gang time from everyday time. Rituals include the group smoking crack or marihuana in the house of one of the members or in an empty lot the group has appropriated and the community identifies as the gang’s territory.

Anthropologist Dennis Rodgers observed that the fights tended to follow ritual patterns: invasion of the rivals’ territory to draw graffiti or throw stones, withdrawal, holing up in their own neighborhood to receive the reciprocal attack, initiating an exchange of stone throwing, and gradually working up to clubs, machetes, pistols and AK assault rifles. Some youth gangs had initiation ceremonies, such as stealing, fighting the group leader or taking a beating. Perhaps all have had and continue to have punishment rituals, such as the respective lynching and gang rape of male and female snitches, who are known as bombines and bombinas. All of these rituals create links and build brotherhood and membership.

Compadres—a term stolen from Catholic terminology denoting a godparent or benefactor but popularized to denote a close buddy-style relationship—are an institution in certain Nicaraguan youth gangs. “There aren’t many friends,” explains Neftalí; “although we all talk to each other in the gang, we only get to be compadres with a few. You only lend money to a compadre. We can’t be compadres with everyone, because we hardly even know many people in the gang.”

The rank of compadre has to be won in battle and its worth demonstrated in everyday life. As Edgar explains, “The gang may have around 70 guys. They’re all bros, but only two are compadres. When I’d get hold of weapons, AK-47s, I’d give them to my compadres to look after. The other guys might have messed me over. You can only trust your compadres.

How do you become compadres? In my case, I’d been injured in a scrap with another gang and was lying on the ground. There were a lot of us, but only two, my compadres, came back and didn’t leave me for dead. They didn’t let me fall into the hands of the other gang. The others left me lying there when I got a gash in my eyebrow. So I owe my compadres my life and if anything happens to them I have to pull out all the stops. Compadres give you money, even if you weren’t involved in the robbery. If I go out stealing with my compadres, there’s no fighting. If we get hold of a hundred pesos, we share them out three ways. That’s why I don’t go on the steal with anyone else.”

The compadre relationship—or compadrazgo—has the same function that Eliade attributes to religious myths: it harks back to an idyllic original time, in illo tempore: the time one wants to recapture. It’s a time of egalitarianism, when one member sacrificed himself for another. That’s why the compadrazgo strengthens the link of brotherhood. This social tie has such force—and one different to that of other ties—because it’s a non-hierarchical, horizontal link that is more indissoluble and binding than the one between authority and subordinates.

These cultural hooks sculpt the sign of belonging and cultivate membership through events, brands and habits. And they all have their similarities with religious identity mechanisms, so when someone asks a gang member “Are you a Billarero or Bloquero?” or “Are you with the Tamales from Urbina or Los Monos from San Judas?” it has the same intensity as “Are you Catholic or Protestant?” or “Are you from the Apostolic or Hosanna Church?”

Who is and who isn’t has always been an essential question in religions. Religious denominations are a welcoming house that firmly shelters its members. Youth gangs are only a small shack in comparison, but they provide no less shelter and speak just as firmly in providing sense, belonging and identity.

The neighborhood youth
are either bums or straight

Youth gangs compete with religious organizations and their similarities make them compete even more effectively. The broad constellation of identities includes those that can co-exist: one can be a woman, Lutheran, mother, Liberal, migrant, Guatemalan, Quiché and worker all at the same time. There are also excluding identities—like being a bum and being an Evangelical—which clash with and exclude each other. Two terms in neighborhood slang designate clearly distinguishable opposing types: vago (bum) and sano (straight). Kids in the neighborhood are either bums or straight, categories that apply to girls as well as boys.

The prototype of a straight kid is a devotee of an evangelical church, walks with Bible under arm, preaches the Gospel door-to-door, pays his tithe and attends church and spiritual retreats. When Nicaraguan youth gangs were at their peak, not being involved in gang life and the battles to defend the neighborhood was not very easily accepted, no matter what form the alternative took. Those who didn’t participate were branded ponky, gilberto or peluche (bourgeois, puppet or coward).

The prototype of the bum is a gang member constantly on the prowl, waiting for a chance for a small-scale heist, charging a toll for crossing the neighborhood, sitting on a street corner smoking crack and often getting into street fights.

Deserting equals “taking up the gospel”

Rodgers found that there were no alternative forms of collective youth organization to the youth gang, apart from the evangelical churches and small networks of friends or groups that intermittently came together in the Managua neighborhood where he did his research. Religion was the only element that systematically affected gang membership. He learned that there were no young evangelicals in the gang, which is hardly surprising as many activities associated with youth gang identity—violence, stealing, drinking, smoking or getting high—directly contradict the teachings of evangelical Protestantism. The youth gang member/evangelical dichotomy sets up the possibility of “conversion” to evangelism being the most easily accepted route for gang members to abandon their gang.

Still today, evangelical churches are still the biggest alternative to youth gang militancy. Those who leave are offered identity and a sense of solid militancy. That’s why evangelical churches provide an oft-chosen possibility of change based on a dual mechanism: psychological (by providing identity) and social (by offering group belonging and a form of desertion that generates acceptance among gang members and credibility among the rest of the community). Becoming an evangelical is a way to get an honorable discharge from the gang. Despite the clearly opposing signs, the evangelical persuasion offers the departed gang member much of the same: identity, group belonging, acceptance of a creed without discussion and defense of fellow members merely because they are members rather than for their own particular virtues.

The Saul/Paul syndrome

Gang life itself becomes the perfect anteroom to a state—evangelical membership—that is in turn the anteroom to a full life in the hereafter. A life of violence and robbery is the ideal anteroom because it allows a clear inflexion to be traced, a dividing line between a sinful before and pious after. The young gang member who manages to complete the cycle goes through at least two personas. And just like a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, he can describe his change and contrast his past with his present, his yesterday with his today. He has a story with which to enlighten the other members of his religion who have followed a less rocky path of life.

His gang life thus acquires meaning in that it has the function—like the Holy Thursday Passion Play—of portraying the evil that must be renounced. Converted gang members experience what could be termed a “Saul/Paul syndrome.” The anti-Christian Saul fell from his horse to become Paul, apostle of Christianity among the gentiles. Both Saul and the gang members have hit rock bottom and “opened their eyes,” so their testimony is important for the religious community. In the evangelical churches people often talk about the duty of “giving testimony,” or telling about their conversion for catechistic ends.

Nobody can give testimony with greater impact than someone who hit bottom then accepted Christ. The real divine power of redemption comes into play when someone entirely removed from the religious world has a numinous experience. Ernesto—alias Maná—is a former member of La Pradera youth gang and lives in one of the poor barrios in Managua’s vast Reparto Schick. Before participating in several work sessions with promoters from the Center for Violence Prevention, he belonged to an evangelical group. The community celebrated his conversion and he testified about it in tears, which is a counter-cultural sign in an environment in which masculinity demands that men don’t cry. “Before getting involved with them,” Maná explained, “I felt like I was gonna get rubbed out. I had a suffocating feeling that was driving me crazy. I felt like I was being followed. People saw that I was going to reconcile. I cried and didn’t care about crying in front of everyone. People said: ‘Look at Maná crying.’ The suffocating feeling came from the drugs making me desperate. I felt relieved in church.”

Later, on the social level, that conversion experience translates into a change of life style, friendships and occasionally even employment, with the evangelical church forming a bridge to the socially acceptable. This doesn’t mean that the gang member experiences the conversion and new existence with no conflicts or regressions. Maná didn’t persevere: “I was in the evangelical church, but I left because I fornicated. I felt relief in the church, but after a year and 25 days I met a girl and fornicated with her, so they disciplined me. They forced me to apologize and sit in the last pew.”

There are no evangelicals in youth gangs

The change in the framework of values involves conflicts because youth behavior has another kind of discipline that encourages active hedonism exercised through a predilection for certain brands of clothing and a taste for dancing, marihuana, crack, liquor and promiscuity. The task of disciplining the body—thou shalt not fornicate—is an ideal contrary to that of the youth gang.

This undoubtedly played a part in Maná’s leaving the church, although losing his lead role as testimony giver and ending up one of the sinning members on the back pew played no less a part. That’s why Maná’s criticism of that evangelical community questions its methods and intolerance, but not its basic moral principles, as demonstrated by the assimilation of the degrading word “fornicate” to refer to the sexual act, a term as far from the lyrical “make love” as fuck and screw, the street slang more familiar to gang members.

It is also possible, however, that Maná’s choice of the term “fornicate” came from him considering it more appropriate to the ears of the interviewer, who by definition tends to distort the environment being researched. Put more eruditely, this hypothesis is an application to the social sciences of Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty, according to which the observer introduces perturbations into the object being observed.

It is clear that evangelicals are both the opposite prototype to youth gang members and an option for their conversion because they offer similar things: group meaning and identity. They provide identity for the same reasons: they have traced a clear dividing line between an “us” that is saved and “the others” that are condemned. We should recall that there is no more rousing incentive to violence for the youth gang than the difference of sign. The gloomiest interpretation would say that a war is being waged in the neighborhoods between different fundamentalisms. But it’s no less true that both groups and strategies are proving an antidote to the prevailing atomization and individualism in Nicaraguan society.

Thorns, crosses, tears, virgins...

All of these characteristics and symptoms of similarity, co-existence and competition between gangs and religion can be traced in the tattoos of gang members. There’s an oral gang tradition of anecdotes and songs and a plastic artistic tradition etched on epidermises and walls in the form of tattoos and graffiti. Tattoos are a more indelible version than emblematic religious symbols such as the ephemeral cross on Catholics’ foreheads on Ash Wednesday, the long skirt of Pentecostal women, the beard worn by the most traditional Muslims and the ringlets of orthodox Jews.

The youth gang signs are inscribed on the skin forever. Those tattoo-saturated bodies proclaim that there’s no possibility of switching option. The scapular is physically in the flesh, the religious engraving an inseparable part of the back. The signs have been incorporated into the anatomy, seeking a fusion between culture and biology. The skin has become a canvas where the Nike sign and the Virgin of Guadalupe share the same pectoral. The religions of consumption and confession are conceded the same space. The polychromatic ideology admits a post-modern amalgam of sacred and secular logos that lead to a simultaneous sanctification and banalization of everything.

Among the most common explicitly religious tattoos are monks, crosses, demons, crowns of thorns, the sacred heart of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, frequently the Virgin of Guadalupe. The heart of Jesus—a widely disseminated sacred image that hangs on a vast number of walls in Nicaraguan households—is now on the breasts, backs and arms of youth gang members. In some way, this guarantees a permanent procession. They are symbols of Catholicism. The plastic sobriety of Protestantism—even the evangelical versions—doesn’t give rise to such kidnapping or syncretism between youth gangs and religious imagery.

There are also tattoos whose religious link only appears when you explore their meaning: clowns, fire, tears, chains and barbed wire. But while the first category of tattoos tends to be placed on more extensive parts of the body, such as the breast, arms or back, this second category can appear anywhere, with the exception of the tears, which are always on the face.

The gang members’ discourse on tattoos has a marked polysemy. It sometimes suffers a hermeneutic anarchy, but there are also oft-repeated interpretations, a consensus on the meaning of certain signs and a general tendency. The religious symbols allude to the pain and state of rupture with the established order. The virgins are associated with the pain caused to the mother. The youth gang culture sins, above all, against the mother. The macho culture has turned the veneration of maternity into a myth that, through an ambivalent recognition, reproduces masculine domination by exalting the condition of mother above any other social role that women might perform.

The heart of Jesus appears run through by a dagger, a sign of the suffering that the gang members suffer and cause. The tears have the same meaning, declaring the same pain caused and suffered. But they are also a counter-cultural sign: “I cried in secret because my mother abandoned me,” Black Eddy told me. The macho code makes a man who cries anathema. Anyone who does so in public displays a special state of psychological breakdown. Displaying tears in a tattoo is therefore a rupture with the macho code and social reserve. Is it a cry for help?

The presence of satanic elements

The attempts at rebellion and a break with the established order are displayed through a kind of cult to the diabolic, with demonic elements present in the gang members’ tattoos and their discourses.

They’re not the first to declare themselves bedeviled and brag about it. The devil has had a firm presence in Western literature, including the work of some of its most illustrious exponents, whose highly varied representations have ranged from the most poisonous diatribes to the sickliest apologies, passing through a moderate but daring recognition of their rebelliousness. In Paradise Lost, John Milton presents a Lucifer who, while traditional, is valued in a different way for daring to proclaim his rebellion against an authoritarian God: “Better to reign in hell than serve in heav’n.” Christopher Marlowe’s Mephistopheles in The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus evolves, while Goethe’s in Faust shows a certain level of sophistication. The evolution, however, has not been linear. The venerators and the detractors have appeared and reappeared over the centuries, but there is no doubt that the vindication of the Satanic reached its peak in the gothic novel of the Romantic period. Matthew Gregory Lewis’ The Monk (1796), which personified the devil in the form of an extraordinarily beautiful adolescent girl, was an ideological bombshell. It was followed by a legion of literary figures who turned the devil into a tragic, esthetic, erotic and sometimes comic figure. William Blake proposed renouncing all other religions and worshipping Satan, who he presented in his engravings as a young and handsome angel. The English Gothic novel of the late 18th century took the myth of Satan very seriously. Satan is present throughout Balzac’s The Human Comedy and E.T.A. Hoffman brought him out again in The Devil’s Elixirs, creating an atmosphere of anguish, terror and unsettling omens.

In Onophrius, Théophile Gautier established the demon’s characteristics as a young, well dressed dandy, with a red moustache, green eyes and pale complexion. It is a sardonic Mephistopheles that invaded art and publicity. In a long poem, Alfred de Vigny celebrates the glory of the one who carries the light. Victor Hugo dedicated an epic poem to Satan, portraying him as a sympathetic figure despite being a sinner because he suffers due to his own hostility, a characteristic he shares with humans. Victor Hugo’s apology for the Devil is highlighted in a scene in which he describes how a feather that fell from the Devil’s wing during his fight with God acquired the form of a beautiful angel, called Liberty. In the field of painting, there was no lack of similar images. For example, Delacroix’s Rebellion of Lucifer and the Rebel Angels was a homage to the liberating impulse.

Gang members aren’t Satan-like rebels

Different human groups and societies have linked their members through the devil, employing the demonic as an expression of the fear of oneself, an explication of evil through the supernatural, a projection of inner evil and a manifestation of rebellion. Youth gang members have used the devil and other demonic signs to declare their break with the established order. Tattoos, graffiti and t-shirts all display satanic signs, with gargoyles, horned demons and hellfire the most common motifs. Monks are also frequently used in the form of recoded images. “We draw monks,” explains El Piruca, “because monks are satanic beings, like us. They do the same as us. They sleep during the day and come out at night to do diabolical things.”

To some extent, youth gang members vindicate evil and the demonic as positive elements, which radically distances them from the Romantics and other apologists for Lucifer. Father Alphonse-Louis Constant (1810-1875) was convinced that Lucifer had been unjustly condemned by an arbitrary God. Under the pseudonym Éliphas Lévi, he wrote several books around 1840 describing the devil as a positive spiritual force to turn him into a symbol of revolution and liberty, while in the era of Napoleon III he was presented as the hieratic pillar of law and order. Before Constant, George Sand presented the devil in her book Consuelo as a god of the poor, weak and oppressed, the archangel of legitimate rebellion. Byron proposed venerating the devil as rebellion against a tyrannical God.

This is not so for gang members. Their approximation to the devil is almost penitent. They take up and exhibit diabolical signs not in worship of the devil, but rather as an expression of their rebelliousness and rupture, without, however, questioning the prevailing order and its codes. They don’t renounce the value system; they admit they’re sinners and they don’t countenance hypocrisy, taking the application of the moral code they assimilated as children to its ultimate consequences. Glorying in a seamless consistency, they are self-condemning without backing off an inch in the terrain of rupture. And as order is divine, they embrace the diabolical. They are rebels without a cause. They aren’t proposing to change the system; they just want to establish that they have broken with it.

The yearning for social insertion

This mix of rebellion and submission makes them transgressors who long to be inserted into the dominant current. This explains the dream of all gang members, expressed by Black Eddy, Eric the Bone, Franky and the Dog, among many others when asked about their ideal life: to marry a decent girl. The signs alluding to mother express the pain caused by the rupture, while union with a woman refers to integration into the socially acceptable. One myth very common to youth gang members is rooted in this vision of the woman as a gateway to the good life: tattoos—the expression of a bum’s life—can only be erased by re-tattooing using the milk of a first-time mother. So only a woman who recently lost her virginity can redeem through her maternity.

According to French Marxist Georges Sorel, a myth is a description of a will rather than a state of things. The myth of tattooing with breast milk expresses the gang member’s desire for social insertion with a new status. This yearning marks the limits of the gang as an institution: submission is the end of a cycle. The rebelliousness, however, wreaks its havoc and launches an interpellation to society, leaving a number of unanswered questions: Why does that fever for rupture acquire such epidemic dimensions? And what does this tell us about the current (dis)order of things?

José Luis Rocha is a researcher for the Jesuit Service for Migrants of Central America (SJM) and a member of the envío editorial council.

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