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From homie to hermano: Conversion and gang exit in Central America.

Brenneman II, Robert E.
June 4, 2015

Source: (2009) Dissertation. Doctor of Philosophy. University of Notre Dame.

The transnational youth gangs of Central America promote a hyper-machismo
that idealizes violent, risk-prone codes of conduct and lifelong affiliation. Meanwhile,
Central American evangelicals promote a “domesticated” machismo that prohibits
drinking, promotes marriage, and eschews interpersonal violence. Yet several studies
involving interviews with current and former members of Central American gangs report
that conversion to evangelical Christianity and/or joining an evangelical-Pentecostal
congregation may be a common pathway out of the gang. Using semi-structured
interviews with more than sixty former members of transnational gangs in Guatemala,
Honduras, and El Salvador as well as field notes and interviews with gang exit promoters,
this dissertation examines why many ex-gang members consider joining an evangelical-
Pentecostal church a safe and effective means of leaving the gang despite the gangs’
claim of lifetime membership. I conclude that conversion to evangelical-Pentecostal
religion provides former gang members with new access to social and symbolic resources
crucial for keeping safe, building trust, and finding work after leaving the gang. But morethan strategic use of cultural “tools” is involved in the conversion process. In some cases,
emotional conversion experiences actually helped to bring about gang exit by
occasioning embodied, emotional experiences that transgressed the macho feeling rules
of the gang, spoiling the gang member’s identity as a “homie.” In addition, highly public
emotional conversion experiences provided some exiting gang members with
opportunities for the discharge of chronic shame, a key emotion underlying male violence
(Scheff 2004; Gilligan 1996). My findings challenge traditional assumptions of religious
conversion as either the product of a rational-pragmatic choice on the one hand or of an
ideological concession to the convert’s changing social networks on the other. Finally, I
argue that an important factor in the ongoing popularity of evangelical-Pentecostal
religion in Central America is its promotion of ritual contexts for the discharge of shame.
While progressive Catholicism seeks to attack the structural sources of shame,
evangelical-Pentecostalism offers powerful interaction rituals for dealing with the
emotion itself at the individual level. (author’s abstract)


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