Adios Nino: The Gangs of Guatemala City and the Politics of DeathHispanic American Historical Review

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Authors
E. Moodie
Year
2014
DOI
10.1215/00182168-2802978
Subject
History / Cultural Studies

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Book Reviews / National Period 727 rhetorical devices that allowed the First Lady to engage in other activities that often had little to do with her husband, such as the construction of Hogares de Tránsito, elegant shelters for migrant women and their families who had left their homes in the interior to find work in Buenos Aires, and even the purchase of military hardware that she wanted to turn over to the workers.

This perspective does not mean that there is no role for cultural studies of Eva.

Indeed, this production will continue to flourish as Peronism itself undergoes continual renewal and the contemplation of Peronist charisma becomes more sophisticated and takes into consideration how Eva’s role needs to change over time to legitimate a Pero­ nism that often strays far from its worker roots and deals with economic realities that

Eva never had encountered. But it needs to be a cultural study that takes Juan into consideration along with Eva and that embeds these figures into an understanding of an ever-changing political movement.

DONNA J. GUY, Ohio State University

D o i 10.1215/00182168-2802966

Adiós Niño: The Gangs of Guatemala City and the Politics of Death.

By DEBORAH T. LEVENSON. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013.

Photographs. Notes. Bibliography. Index, xi, 183 pp. Paper, $22.95.

Adiós Niño is a hard read. Set in a grim Guatemala City, it starts out by telling us that urban youth, once “heroic,” are now “criminal”: all have “gone down the drain” (p. 2). The book thus at first appears to be an account of the rise of the notorious gangs in the largest city in

Central America. But, situated in historian Deborah Levenson’s long-term research on social movements in the country, it is something more (and also less).

Certainly this book does tell a story about gangs, or, more specifically, it con­ templates changes in forms of gang organization and subjectivities of gang members.

These changes, Levenson tells us, reflect historical transformations in Guatemala, in particular the postwar process and neoliberalization, but also the unresolved conflicts of the past. She draws on Pierre Bourdieu’s “law of the conservation of violence: all violence is paid for” in her consideration of the often horrific violence linked to the groups known as Maras (p. 17).

The story of Maras that Levenson tells has a clear narrative arc: life to death. The author writes that at first, in the late 1970s, she had no sense of gangs’ presence anywhere.

The popular movement dominated public consciousness. Maras debuted on the Gua­ temalan media stage, and in the public imaginary, in 1985, part of a protest against bus fare increases. A year later they were blamed for the bombing of a discotheque. Con­ cerned about the way alarming headlines framed vulnerable youth, Levenson collabo­ rated in 1987 with other researchers in a qualitative study. They found many members {mareros) to be politically conscious, a liminal part of a social struggle—in her view arising within from “the generative environment of the revolutionary and popular urban movement” (p. 73).

HAHR / November7 2 #

She argues that they were “the gangs to live for”: many were diverse, accepting of difference—some even offered “arguably the only space where youth heterosexuality and homosexuality were undisguised and unashamed realities” (p. 65). True, mareros robbed, but mosdy expensive consumer items, like clean white Nikes from “burgueses” (bour­ geois). As one told her, “Taking from the burgueses is like taking a strand of hair from a cat” (p. 67). Some ominous language did seep into their accounts: rumors of gang rape, controlling authoritarianism.

In retrospect, Levenson believes these youngsters formed “part of a generation almost suspended in historical time between what now seems the shutter-shot moment of an urban popular movement’s peak and its quick bloody demise” (p. 75). When she returned to gang research in the late 1990s, mareros had metamorphosed into “the gangs to die for.” They participated in tight groups aiming to fight to death against rival clikas (cells). Unlike the mareros of the 1980s, few would even talk to her. Nor would they respond to other researchers—demonstrating the difficulty of most current studies on gang youth and pointing to some of the limits of this book. Those Levenson could engage often disclosed deep nihilism: “If I die, so what?” (p. 91). Levenson often relies on insights from psychologists, social workers, lawyers, and priests to draw her conclusions.

Despite clear limitations in her methodology, she does not shy from definitive declara­ tions: “In a horrid reverse of modernity’s theme of making one’s way in life, these youth control their destiny of death by ‘making’ their own deaths in tire fight against an ‘enem / who is themselves in the mirror of the rival gang” (p. 93).

Levenson confesses anxiety about the limits of her research; her approach is reflexive and readable, accessible to students and still challenging to experts. She echoes the urgency and discomfort of many well-meaning and often einpathic scholars who work with criminalized populations, especially given her own commitments to social movements. In her powerful Trade Unionists against Terror (1994), she analyzed the 1984 union occupation of a Coca-Cola botding plant in Guatemala City as a crucial moment amid decades of state repression. That passionate text, narrating workers’ resistance and agency in the face of death squads and disappearances, might offer the reader a clearer sense of the framework of disillusion shaping the story told in Adiós Niño.

Levenson’s analysis can feel speculative. My main question regards the effective substitution she performs in the work. She seems to be saying that Maras, “an extreme and a minority among youth” (p. 6), have replaced the sociological position of another small subset of urban youth, the activist vanguard, “a numerical minority in the midst of their peers” who “joined political movements [and] were a dominant presence in the public school system” from the 1950s to the 1980s (pp. 2-3). She does reject portraying this change as one from political engagement to apparendy apolitical belonging (p. 8), noting the political use of Maras and the political context of their emergence. But, even as she finally acknowledges the largely symbolic status of the national “heroic” youth of the past, I wonder if she could more carefully account for socioeconomic class and structure in these different historical manifestations of youth subjectivity.