Recent public concern for such issues as teen violence, urban gangs, high school dropout rates, and teenage pregnancy, among others, has attracted the attention of many in the academic, public policy, and media communities. Maria Hinojosa, the savvy and talented National Public Radio reporter, has produced a book about the members of New York City’s youth gangs that contributes to the growing literature on juvenile gangs and violence. Hinojosa became interested in these “crews” — the correct term according to the teens themselves—after being asked to cover the highly publicized killing of a tourist stabbed in the New York City subway while attending the U.S. Open tennis tournament in 1990. The book is a sample of Hinojosa’s continuing interviews with male and female crew members after the killing.
Hinojosa is originally haunted by the question, “What makes it so easy now for kids to turn to violence?” (p. 2). The answers are, of course, as varied and complex as the teenagers themselves. Yet the themes of domestic abuse, alcoholism, class and racial discrimination, lack of true career opportunities, and the often marginal survival of working poor families resonate through the interviews. The teenagers do not use these themes to justify their actions and their choices. The teens Hinojosa interviews are forthright about their own sense of responsibility, but they yearn to be engaged, to be understood. “You asked us!” exclaims Shank, one of the interviewees, when Hinojosa asks how people could feel safe and respected near crew members. “That’s all people have to do. Like, if people want to hang out with us, just approach us” (p 14). Hinojosa’s book is an attempt to approach these kids and to publicize their stories.
The teenagers interviewed by Hinojosa live in a tough world of physical and verbal domestic abuse, intense sexual and material pressures from kin and society, and narrow opportunities for self-expression, intellectual development, and financial solvency. Not surprisingly, the crews—usually bounded by city blocks or by neighborhoods—provide the kids with the respect, companionship, and material comfort that their families and the larger community cannot or will not provide. Crews allow teens a semiautonomous space. There, respect and fellowship are granted on the basis of a combination of old-fashioned values like loyalty, honor, and courage with a more modern materialistic ethos based, at times, on the unrestrained capacity to consume and to display that consumption. Before any reader begins to romanticize the role of the crews, however, the kids themselves will say that crew membership is also associated with the pleasures and practical use of power. “So it’s the power I look for,” replies Coki, when asked what in the crews allows him better to face his fears. The quest for power is an ongoing motif in Hinojosa’s book.
The book would have been more effective if Hinojosa had included more general information on the crews themselves and on the selection criteria for her interviews. Are the interview subjects supposed to be representative of most crew members? Are they the crew leaders? Were girls part of the original interviews, or was their addition a result of Hinojosa’s interest in providing a gendered perspective on the crews’ experiences? Obviously, some teenagers stood out or became more accessible as Hinojosa worked on her original news assignment; but the reader ought to know why the author selected the subjects interviewed for the book. Even when the book allows the voices of urban teenage crew members to be heard, the reader needs to know which voices the author has silenced and which privileged, and why those choices were made, to appreciate better the voices that were included.
This book provides little, if any, additional information to those interested in Latino and Latina urban gangs and juvenile problems. Hinojosa’s attempt to create a space for Latino and Latina crew members to speak for themselves has been successfully accomplished in the recent works of Martin Sánchez Jankowski, James Diego Vigil, Joan Moore, and Félix Padilla. Perhaps here lies the tragic irony of Hinojosa’s story. The more we as academics, reporters, and policy analysts think we give attention to teenagers and their problems, the more isolated, abandoned, and alienated they feel.