CCR 635: Advanced Research Practices

Angels’ Town, Take Two

I already have a post about this book, highlighting three key themes, which is here. This post, however, is a chapter-by-chapter breakdown (who, quite frankly, deserves the detailed attention). And although I spent way too much time re-reading this, I’m glad I did because I love this book.

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“How does one create respect under conditions of little or no respect?” (x).

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

Cintron begins Angels’ Town with a discussion of making and divides his project in two parts: 1) the making of ethnographies, reflecting on and critiquing both the methodology at large and his own research practices and 2) the making of ourselves through performance and display as we exist within systems of power (ix). Cintron’s own project is an ethnography of a Latino/a community outside of Chicago, although he encourages us to think of his book as a “project in the rhetorics of public culture or the rhetorics of everyday life” (x). That is, he situates his ethnographic research into an analysis of public culture—exploring public performances that range from clothing and car decorations to linguistic styles and geographic boundaries (x). According to Cintron, such an approach blends traditional (anthropology-based) ethnographic methods with cultural critique (xi).

Taking a page from de Certeau, Cintron introduces tekhne—“a reasoned habit of mind in making something” (xii)—as a supplement to his theme of making to explore art (performance) in everyday contexts.

In many ways, my summary of this book will never do it justice as Cintron carefully crafts a narrative rich with symbolism and metaphor, methodological reflection, and narratives from those with whom he worked/lived. Even in the book title—named for two different Angels who represent the tragedy and comedy of the town—we see attention to a larger commentary about the lives of people who exist within the subaltern. Even his pseudyonyms for the town and for the people are larger tropes “of the difficult of finding truth inside the lie, the lie inside the truth” (xiii).

Chapter Breakdown

In chapter 1, “Starting Places,” Cintron offers more about his methodology, beginning with his move to Angelstown in 1981, his involvement as a researcher working on his dissertation from 1987-98, and his on and off work within the community from 1990 to the book’s publication date. It’s interesting how Cintron describes his interactions and “different social roles” that allowed him to move beyond the typical scope of a researcher as he tutored children and took them to museums, translated for adults, and actively participated in the community with which he researched. This detail speaks nicely to his metaphor of the collection basket—a metaphor of someone “who moves at the level of the heart, and so much is dropped into her or his life” (2). Particularly with ethnography, the researcher is like the collection basket that receives information and details about the lives who contribute to it, and this book is an attempt to empty that basket, to give back.

This reciprocity can also be seen in the argument Cintron establishes between ethos and logos.  arguing that they are bound together and that a person’s character is integral to their ability to persuade (3). The ethos of the ethnographer, Cintron argues, is created during moments of interaction, which leads to his central claim: “The persuasiveness of the ethnographic knowledge claim is constituted through and through, both in the moments of fieldwork and the moments of the final text, by ethos” (4). He takes this a step further, though, to point out that there is also a deep and important connection between our early-life experiences (ethos) and our the research and fieldsites we pursue (logos) (7). These experiences help us sift through observations and negotiate between knowledge claims and memory. Cintron is not interested, then, in ethnography for its traditional goals of attempting to “get into the heads” of the people researched who are bound by their geographic and linguistic conditions; rather, “this text is about the conditions of in-betweenness, an almost unlocatable place” (12) and his purpose is “to talk of these contradictions and nuances as they appeared in individual lives” (13). Like Canagarajah, Cintron is careful to establish his own subjectivity within these shifting negotiations and how his own experiences both allow and deny him access to the culture and community he studies.

In chapter 2, “Mapping/Texting,” Cintron offers some background and spatial analysis about Angelstown, introducing the importance of maps as representations of “the discourses of measurement” (17). That is, he examines maps of the neighborhood and the separate wards in order to show how the place-names that appear on the map are part of a “network of idealizations that enable the buying and selling of property” (21). In some ways, then, this measurement is one of property and economic value, which is why the tensions with Angelstowns gangs—and particularly The Latin Kings—is a tension with the police of reclaiming space (“recovering” the streets) in order to make Angelstown (and communities like it) more marketable. Here, Cintron invokes Nancy Fraser’s articulation of the public sphere as a space where people both struggle to be heard and struggle to silence others (27). This is important because within such a space, rational discursive interaction doesn’t exist because, as Cintron notes, “The public space can never be a place for equally contending ‘rational’ voices when the society itself is so fissured that an accent, a gender, an appearance, or an action can by itself signal in the minds of some a discourse that should not be heard” (27). It is this space—where members of the community struggle within different systems of power and struggle socially and economically—that Cintron’s analysis exists.

Chapter 3, “Looking for Don Angel,” begins with a discussion of documents (which reminded me of the argument Canagarajah makes about the power of the research article and the argument Brandt makes about our documentary society). Specifically, he analyzes the rhetoric of legal documents—passports, green cards, driver’s licenses—in order to understand their cultural meaning and how they construct and cross the binary of truth/lies. In Angelstown, the forging of legal documents is a reclamation of power from the “literate burearcracy” that controls printed documents and, thus, tries to control who does and does not belong (52). This chapter focuses on Don Angel, a chero (ranchero) who gave Cintron access to two different types of illegal documents—ID cards and birth records—so that he could analyze the role these documents play in “bridg[ing] distance in cultures that have grown so large that knowledge of the Other is not often the norm” (55). The dynamic of truth/lies plays out through the “truth” that such documents tell about a person, the suspicion of those in power who use these documents to regulate norms (“the separation of one individual from the masses” 56) and the deceit in forging by those who such documents marginalize. These documents “are products of a lack of trust that plays itself out as a momentary curtailment of freedom at the moment of verification” (56), offering temporary—and controlled—moments of “freedom” to exist within the system of dominant power. And even this transient space is deceiving because Cintron writes, “Don Angel’s false documents were a display of identities allowing his person to escape observation. They increased the bureaucratic clutter. They parodied and manipulated bureaucratic discourse and its forms of representation so that he could hide behind the array” (57). That is, they represented truth only in the way that they (successfully) forged and mimicked truth.

Cintron also analyzes the gestural and oral discourses of Don Angel and how he performs a set of stylized actions (viejito performance) that set him apart from others in the community. Don Angel—with his mix of verbal and gestural modes, Spanish and English, and stories influenced by cultural traditional knowledge—becomes a powerful metaphor in the text for the fractured nature of the community and another binary: the outdated/modern. Importantly, Cintron ties this binary into a discussion of a cash economy because those who buy into modernity (and stay up to date with technologies, skills, capitalistic values) benefit more economically and allow people to pass more easily into the systems of power (66).

In chapter 4, “A Boy and His Wall,” Cintron focuses on a different metaphor: the wall as both a barrier and as a space “on which imagination can write out a desire and protect the self” (100). The walls Cintron analyzes belongs to Valerio Martinez, a teenager, which mirrored the way Valerio was both confined within his social and socieconomic realities and chose to represent himself beyond those constraints. The thing that interests me most in this discussion of Valerio is Cintron’s focus on his LD label:

It was as if in the everyday world where discourse is largely performative and social, constructed in groups or dialogically, he did well, but in the school world of metadiscourse—where discourse and its parts become the objects of study or, in short, testing grounds for evaluating individual competence—he started to short-circuit. 101

This statement, in particular, critiques an educational system stuck in a model that attempts to diagnose and sort students based on de-contextualized testing practices that privilege particular (normative) bodies and forms of knowledge. This relates back to the discussion of truth/lies because we frequently uphold medical and educational authorities as Truth despite the social acknowledgement that Othering is constructed. In this particular case, Othering occurs through the diagnosis, indicating that “LD may be less ‘there’ in the tested subject and more in the social/political contexts in which the testing occurs” (104). This creates a vicious cycle of failure because Valerio had struggled (because of the constraints and values of the classroom), LD tests identified this struggle, and he was sorted (ie. therapy, tutoring) accordingly in order to integrate back into the mainstream classroom and mainstream ideology of what education is. So instead of changing the system, these students are themselves expected to change—and, because they rarely have power—are powerless against a system that offers them no alternative. Valerio’s bedroom walls, then, became a space where he could represent himself—albeit hyperbolically—in ways that imagined a different life.

Cintron also focuses on gangs here to explore how hyperbolic images are performed and embodied. The cars (brightly painted, impeccably maintained), the clothes and hairstyles (carefully constructed) represent ways that community members attempt to pass through their socioeconomic and material realities—to perform an identity that has more control. Cleanliness was also a performance of this control because, as Cintron notes, “Clean display within public space acts to hide the raggedy or the decay in private space” (118).

Chapter 5, “The Logic of Violence/The Logic of Trust,” takes an interesting turn in terms of methodological self-reflexivity because Cintron asks, “What was I to make of values and beliefs that seemed to run contrary to my own?”, questioning how we can fairly and ethically textualize these encounters and people (130). This chapter, then, is an attempt to identify complex inner lives and inner struggles as sharply influenced and driven by ideological forces (131). More specifically, Cintron identifies how a macroworld of humiliation and microworld of fear are reinforced and reinscribed by shared ideologies. To do so, Cintron turns to María and Alberto Juárez, whose relationship is grounded in both private and socioeconomic power imbalances (140). In what might ordinarily be written off as matters of (verbal) domestic abuse, Cintron very carefully dissects their interactions in order to locate how power manifested within their struggles to communicate with and be heard by the other, illustrating how the injustices they faced externally influenced their ability to communicate. Cintron also analyzes Martín’s story of vengeance (connected to a crime involving his friends), situating it within a framework named “the logic of violence and the logic of trust” (146). I find this part fascinating because Cintron describes the experience as a “mini-crisis” in terms of both his values as an individual and as a researcher, yet he very carefully analyzes the way external pain manifests within internal struggles of fear and violence (147) that become embodied “felt truths” (162) of the community itself.

Similar to the chapter focused on Don Angel, chapter 6—“Gangs and Their Walls”—offers insight into a space that the researcher isn’t ordinarily granted access: gangs. Specifically, Cintron focuses on both the syntactical elements of the graffiti of the Almighty Latin King Nation and the appropriation of mainstream materials in order to show how gang members create respect under conditions of little/no respect. Cintron focuses on both their appropriation of mainstream symbols (and how these are recontextualized with new meanings through graffiti) and the rhetoric of gangs as Other and beyond the values of society in order to show how “street gangs for very understandable reasons sometimes played with this very rhetoric creating from it hyperbolized images in which the mainstream could witness its deepest fears” (167). This is where de Certeau enters the scene as Cintron spins a narrative of how graffiti is used to “enact a degree of violence against another gang or to implicitly do so by celebrating the power of one’s own gang” (170). That is, graffiti becomes a channel for reclaiming control and property and thus functions as both a tactic of action and tactic of language (176). These tactics are performances within a restricted public sphere that denies gang members access, so these tactics become opportunities to create (and perform) public expressions (176). Graffiti, then, is the result of “an intense need to acquire power and voice,” (186) and it is here that Cintron questions the boundary of how we label and respect some subaltern groups as legitimate counterpublics and how others lose the respect of the community and are denied access to their participatory privileges (186). This loss, Cintron argues, is a result of the public sphere’s anxiety (echoing the logic of violence)—a sphere that “cannot ‘think’ beyond what terrifies it” (194)—which of course, relates back to how we treat and sort disabled and otherwise marked bodies in our educational, social, and economic systems of power.

Concluding Thoughts

In the final chapter, “Blacktop,” Cintron returns to the making of order, attempting to reconcile ethnographic research through a lens of neat/clean, disorder/order, and a final exploration of the “discourses of measurement” (199). Here he actually defines discourse of measurement as “a set of historical processes that might allow one to understand the emergence of modern, professional life as a set of pervasive practices, styles of thought, and ways of speaking” (209). He also describes it as “the ways by which a precise order (or the fiction of a precise order) gets made (210). One way this is contextualized is the example of cleanliness and the way folks in the town placed themselves and their belongings behind a façade of cleanliness to create and perform a sense of order. Contextualized within a larger history, discourses of measurement present ways “of speaking and thinking that create order, coherence, and sets of rules to organize the otherwise random motions of daily life” (211).

This focus on daily life also circles back to Cintron’s methodology and his ethnography/rhetorics of everyday life. He describes writing as one discourse of measurement in the sense that we write in order to sort and make sense of what’s around us—to take control over the many different pieces we see and create a narrative about them. Like Cintron’s own book shows us, though, it’s difficult (and contrived) to try to sort those things neatly, to make order from disorder, which is why we see so many overlapping metaphors and narratives and cautious representations people and communities and methods. Critiquing himself, though, he also argues that even when we show the disorder, writing can only ever highlight “the appearance of disorder, rather than the being of disorder” (229). This leads to a final reflection on the making of ethnographies:

This way of imagining ethnography—as something that tries so hard to be exact and complete but remains always a failed expectation and a target for the sweetness of critique—is very humbling, yet it contains, finally, so very much that is worthwhile. 232

Beautiful.

 

 

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

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