CCR 635: Advanced Research Practices

Angels’ Town: Chero Ways, Gang Life, and Rhetorics of the Everyday

I wanted to approach this week’s blog post a little differently. Instead of summarizing Cintron (because, honestly, I’m not sure I can do a good summary of this!), I wanted to point to some different themes that caught my eye while I was reading the last three chapters.

1) Metaphor (or Topos) of Disorder.

Like the first four chapters, metaphors continue to play a pervasive role in Cintron’s analyses. One that I thought might be useful to examine a little more closely was framed as a rhetorical theme, a topos: “that of madness, disorder, and irrationality” (182). Cintron argues that gang members use madness to “create a ‘rep’ that no one wanted to ‘mess with’” (183), which is a way to create respect under conditions of little or no respect. Thus, disorder became a tool for power, a “kind of freedom” (183). Like he does with all points, though, Cintron provides a counter: “Instability, whose metaphor is rampant disease, whether in the physical body or social body, is not allowed its full power to destroy” (210). This occurs in his discussion of instrumental rationality and shows the limitations of “power” through disorder.

Generally, madness/disorder is constructed in opposition to social order, but it has larger connections to disability. Harkening back to Valerio, for example, disorder (e.g. LD) is prominent in the lives of these Mexican males. Because they seem to struggle with reading and writing, it seems likely that the LD label is racially motivated, that it’s a matter of not knowing enough white, middle-class English rather than not being intellectually “up to par.” This resonates with the Juárez family narrative, too, as we read about Alberto’s feelings about his own education and discrimination and how it has disabled him economically.

Taking this one step further, moving into “quicksand” (195) as Cintron might say, the theme of disorder has more explicit implications for the gang members as a disabled group. Cintron writes, “The reaction against the topos of madness/disorder, particularly when it becomes embodied in gang-related shootings, is that it represents both a threat to life as well as a withering away of the social controls that shore up the strongholds of the system world” (185). The gangs are abnormalized through a refusal to adhere to social norms; their physical bodies (their clothing, jewelry, performative characteristics) are marked differently from other Angelstown inhabitants; and they are literally disabled through physical violence.

2) Metacommentary on Ethnography.

From the first page, Cintron tells us that we will be getting a different kind of ethnography: “At one level, I critique the making of ethnographic texts, this book in particular” (ix). And Cintron holds true to this, dropping in questions and comments about ethnographic methods and practices as he explores various themes.

These are just a few that I think are worth revisiting:

  • “What was I to make of values and beliefs that seemed to run contrary to my own?” (130)
  • “How does one textualize such encounters, such people? How do I render the density and subtlety of life lived if, as the observer, I felt that mostly nastiness and short-sightedness were to be found there?” (130)
  • “What is this ethnography, or, as I prefer to call it, this project in the rhetorics of public culture or the rhetorics of everyday life?” (228)
  • “Like other ethnographies exposed, [this one] would reveal how innumerable particulars were sifted through, leaving most behind, and how the ones that remained were denuded of their contexts so that they could be distilled into a set of tenuous generalities.” (231-32)
  • “Can we ask ethnography to be more exact or more complete or more faithful to the fieldsite? Other than demanding honesty and hard work of any fieldworker, I do not think that more can be asked.” (232)

3) The “E” Word.

It almost makes me cringe, but I’ll address it anyway: ethics. Cintron’s book has a different flavor than others we have read: it is poetic, sometime painful, and very personal (don’t ask me how I only chose “p” words). He constantly gives us both sides of the story and of his own claims, never settling for one true answer. For someone who argues the importance of ethos, he constructs a mighty trustworthy and honest ethos himself. In many ways, then, I want to say that he addresses ethical issues virtuously—that he is an ethical superhero ethnographer, but there were a few places that raised red flags for me that I want to share.

a. “Yeah, I was being judgmental, but the Juárez family had always summarized for me a certain innocence and trouble whose points of origin were deeply embedded in the larger social system” (133). He also discussed the family giving him headaches. It’s a side of the researcher that I’ve never seen, and I appreciate it. At the some time, it makes me question how the Juárez family functions in this book. I keep thinking back to our discussions about representing research participants and what to do when your analysis negatively portrays them. It’s difficult here, though, because these people aren’t just participants for Cintron; they are a family, a group of friends. It makes me wonder, how would the Juárez family feel about these brief, intimate snippets about their family dynamic?

b. “I was in a kind of mini-crisis. On the one hand, listening to stories of vengeance with a supposedly neutral ear seemed morally bankrupt; on the other hand, since I had never articulated a system that both understood vengeance and opposed it, I didn’t know how to reply to such stories” (146). Here, Cintron is struggling as he listens to Martín’s story of vengeance. To me, this is similar to the Juárez family narrative (to me) and the division between friend and researcher. Cintron, however, is so deeply affected by these stories of vengeance that the situation moves beyond a researcher/friend dilemma and moves to a deeper, personal dilemma about moral consciousness itself. What can we make of this moment and others like it? What does it show us about the level of engagement involved in a research project that spans nearly a decade?

c. “We interviewed those individuals who accepted us and became friends with a few, and occasionally we stumbled onto caches of information that we had no right to see” (164). This excerpt is part of a discussion about becoming part of a research project about gangs without having any personal experiences with gangs. It follows a quotation from Sanyika Shakur: “There are no other gang experts except participants” (163). And though Cintron claims that he doesn’t want to be a gang expert (164), the fact remains that he is researching gangs.This brings up a question that we’ve tossed around a few times: How do you research and become part of a community to which you have no personal ties?

This question gains speed when you factor in the high privacy of gang activity (from graffiti to physical acts of violence). Cintron argues that gang members are an important part of determining how people with no respect can gain respect, but beyond that, what are the benefits of studying gangs and their particular members in this chapter or in any context? Who benefits from this study?

 

Cintron, Ralph. Angels’ Town: Chero Ways, Gang Life, and Rhetorics of the Everyday. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997. Print.

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2 thoughts on “Angels’ Town: Chero Ways, Gang Life, and Rhetorics of the Everyday

  1. I’m glad I checked in with this post in between reading chapter 5 and taking on 6 and 7. The three themes you’ve pointed out were useful in guiding my subsequent reading this morning. I was particularly taken with your thoughts on the ethics of this ethnography and had found myself asking similar questions at a few of the moments you identify. Despite all the self-reflexivity in Angel Town, these questions do remain, which gives all the more power, it seems, to Cintron’s argument that “logos gets made via ethos” (232). That is, in knowing the role ethos plays not just with regard to the field site subjects, but also of readers who are critically aware of ethical traps within an ethnography of this kind, Cintron uses ethos as a strategy.

    Like you I did wonder about how Alberto (or the Juarez family) might feel about Cintron’s tone, especially in some of the more psychoanalytical moments in this chapter. But then we get to this line on page 146 when he is talking about using logic as a metaphor throughout the chapter: “what interested me here is how cognitive life and emotional life function together and, more importantly, how both of these are not just private experiences but thoroughly social, indeed, parts of a larger ‘ideologic'”. On the next page he argues that his aim in the rest of the chapter is to link his analysis of Martin and Juarez “in order to present a larger portrait of the logic and ideologic of violence and trust” (147). I’m not sure, but it seems like the local needs to be sketched out bluntly in these chapters in order to articulate the effects of the larger systemic forces at play in Angel Town (and in the modern). He shows his awareness of this at the end of chapter 6 when he argues that his analyses “derive from an argue for a big-picture version of social justice” (195). He then asks, “Can one argue critically for a big picture of social justice and simultaneously find solutions that make sense from the perspective of the local?”

    This dialectic made a little more sense for me at the end of the book when Cintron reaches a coda of sorts on the metacommentary on ethnography, as you neatly put it. Drawing from de Certeau (whom I haven’t read) Cintron sketches a relationship between writing and blank spaces. The writing is what gets the attention, but the space — largely ignored or taken for granted — is what defines the writing. In his words, “The surface that receives the writing, as I described earlier, is a site for reducing the world to a more personal configuration. It makes no difference if we call this configuration a scientific idea, a personal essay, a poem, a note, or a report. In all cases, the subject faces his or her object, and this object becomes the site of production, the place where one can exercise one’s will” (230-31). He calls writing a discourse of measurement and I wonder if we can read Cintron’s characterization of Alberto as just one of many moments where ethnography, as one form of a discourse of measurement, is necessary in order to expose the larger complications within this community and the modern world at large.

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