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Street Baptism, Machismo and Inner-City Street Culture: Purity and Danger among Contemporary Chicano Gangs in Los Angeles

By Auni Husted

From the Author: Although I myself am puzzled as to how my relatively sheltered, thoroughly middle-class, suburban upbringing fostered a passion for urban culture, I am nonetheless intrigued by all aspects of street life.  My scholarly interest in urban culture began last year when I chose to study aerosol art (graffiti) for my International Scholars Program research project. I analyzed how aerosol art was used a device of postcolonialism— how, in New York City’s subways in the 1970s and 80s, these largely oppressed, lower-class minority youth used their available resources to develop a sense of voice, empowerment, and influence. I quickly became entrenched in the concept of the street, whether in terms of ritual and religion, systems of power, or relationship to mainstream American society.  This paper was created for George Baca’s fall 2007 “Anthropology 234: Religion, Myth, and Symbol” class. 

From the Faculty Nominator: Auni wrote “Street Baptism” for anthropology course entitled “Religion, Myth and Symbol.” Taking the concepts of myth and ritual – often associated with so-called primitive societies -- she illustrates how anthropological methods provide the basis for a profound analysis of U.S. society that transcends the platitudes associated with American liberalism.  Eschewing a patronizing stance toward marginalized citizens, she begins her paper with a sympathetic description of how Latino gangs use violence in initiation rituals. Rather than dismissing these activities as irrational, destructive, or a “culture of poverty,” Auni places these rituals within the broader social and economic context of disinvestment and retrenchment of the federal government that has left inner cities dilapidated.  Focusing on Latino gangs in Los Angeles she connects gang activity to historical processes that have shaped and constrained the options regarding labor and social status for many working class residents. In the vacuum left by retreating industries and government agencies, she argues that gangs have provided many working class youth social and economic opportunities.  In the end, Auni successfully tells us a story that transcends Latino gangs. Instead of being separate from the broader society, she shows how they represent the broader American ideals of self sufficiency and economic independence. 

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Purity and Danger among Contemporary Chicano Gangs in Los Angeles

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