Gangs play role in new identities

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Fina Carpena-Méndez

In this pueblo, drug addiction is increasing because children grow up as rebels with their grandparents,” Carmen told Fina Carpena-Méndez. “They come back home from school and nobody tells them what to do . . . Some children don’t go to the milpas and they are just in the street. Youth don’t like village life anymore. They come and go . . . but they already feel they are from the other side [the USA] and cannot adjust when they return. A boy got together with a Chicana and stayed for good on the other side. His parents were left alone here, without any help . . . And this is the abandonment that is happening.”

Fina Carpena-Méndez is a Research Fellow and assistant professor of anthropology at OSU. Carmen lives in a Nahua village in Central Mexico where Carpena-Méndez did field work for a year. The research investigates—and questions—prevailing notions about what happens to children left behind by family members who migrate to the United States.

“My work attempts to show the complexities of intergenerational relations in indigenous villages affected by new, accelerated processes of transnational migration, plagued by unexpected events and misunderstandings of each other’s realities on both sides of the border,” said Carpena-Méndez. “Children do feel abandoned when left behind even though they are under an extensive network of care and supervision from grandparents or other relatives. Parents in the U.S. think the remittances they send back to Mexico are invested in providing children a modern form of nurtured childhood, but elders are losing power in what until recently were gerontocratic societies.”

Mexico is in the process of dismantling an agricultural system that has historically provided food variety and security in rural regions. A new generation of rural Mexicans is growing up in the context not only of a rapid dismantling of subsistence agriculture, but the almost completed process of deindustrialization, accelerated transnational migration, deepening social inequality, and compulsory schooling under a new World Bank development program known as ‘Oportunidades.’

“In the countryside, households are increasingly composed of elders and children left behind by young migrant parents. . . In a community broken up by transnational migration, children contribute with their work, care, and creativity to sustain forms of everyday practice and to stitch the ruptures of the everyday in a transitional society,” Carpena-Méndez wrote in summarizing her research. In her book-in-progress, Seeds to the Wind: Growing Up Across Furrows and Borders in Neoliberal Rural Mexico, she argues that indigenous rural youth are drawing on whatever cultural and social resources they have at hand in order to make sense of their new world.

They are constructing new networks of support—support to help them create new social practices in Mexico as well as to migrate to the United States—and gangs (bandas) figure large in the new order. The term “gang,” however, does not necessarily carry the familiar meaning.

“This difficult family life, together with a self-understanding of ‘being Indian’ as ‘backwardness,’ often compels children to join youth gangs for mutual support and identity . . . The majority of bandas are groups of adolescent boys and girls who hang around street corners at night and give themselves a name in order ‘to be somebody.’”

Youth may band together according to the neighborhood or barrio in which they live. Carpena-Méndez describes some young children from the Shalacas barrio who spray-painted their gang names on the walls and fences: Niños abandonados (Abandoned children), Niños callejeros (Street children), Niños huérfanos (Orphan children), Niños sin amor (Children without love).

“Fully aware of the negative connotations of the word pandilla—associated with drugs, violence, and delinquency—many youth would highlight that for them the term banda meant just ‘a group of youth,’ and that its purpose was spending time with the peer group and organizing themselves for the preparation of youth’s modern versions of their elder’s fiestas, that is, pooling resources and work for the preparation of food and the hiring of a music band.”

Many of the Nahua youth migrate to Philadelphia and the New York-New Jersey area, where the newcomers join a rapidly growing informal labor force. On their periodic returns to their mountainous rural communities “the younger migrants incorporate new material social practices while struggling to forge new forms of belonging in their traditional environment . . . Indigenous youth gangs draw both on modern popular culture and on ancient community practices. I’m trying to argue for the specificities of this new development and its adaptive aspects.”

Carpena-Méndez remains in contact with some Nahua youth by telephone and Internet, tracking, among other questions, how the young immigrants and their children perceive the predominance of American culture in emerging global forms. “Through the reconfiguration of gender in the context of migration, Nahua boys are becoming accomplished cooks in U.S. restaurants, while at the same time gaining awareness of local struggles to change the food system for justice, health, and sustainability.”

Some of the young migrants are returning to Mexico to push for change based on their new perceptions of international forces and their own identities.

“My book uncovers how both boys and girls are taking the lead in emerging patterns of circular migration by using gang membership and practices as social capital to construct support networks in their passages to the north. Youth gangs have not only been absorbed into the social organizations and kinship networks of the indigenous community, they are also a new transnational institution across the U.S.-Mexican border and the rural/urban divide.”

The significance of the combined effects of transnational migration and the “modernizing” of the Mexican countryside for the future of rural people may not be well understood now, as it’s occurring, said Carpena-Méndez. This will have to wait until younger generations show how they will use the land they inherit in their communities of origin.