Homegirls in the Public Sphere

Marie “Keta” Miranda
University of Texas Press, 2003

Reviewed by Ramona Lee Pérez, doctoral candidate in Cultural
Anthropology at New York University

Why did you show them fighting like that? Throwing down over a boy? Uh-uh, we don’t do that. (MG quoted in Miranda: 2)

Homegirls in the Public Sphere opens with an account of Oakland homegirls responding to Allison Anders’ Mi Vida Loca, the first feature-length film about female gang subculture. Critical of how Anders’ film, and nearly all other popular media images, ignore or misrepresent the conduct and motivations of girls in gangs, they embarked on a project to produce their own auto-ethnographic documentary video. Miranda’s study of teen-aged female gang members in Fruitvale, a Mexican/Mexican-American community in greater Oakland, documents how these young women, aged fifteen to sixteen, intervened in the politics of representation that encompass their daily lives.

The book is divided into seven chapters plus an appendix of questions frequently asked about girls in gangs. In the first three chapters, Miranda establishes the framework for the study, explaining that she wanted to relocate the genre of gang studies away from pathologizing accounts of life in the mean streets towards showing homegirls as “citizen-subjects” capable of contributing to political discourse. Chapter 2 details the socio-economic conditions underlying the development of Fruitvale as an urban underclass community. The third chapter gives an account of the dilemmas confronted by insider ethnographers and those working with underprivileged and stereotyped populations. Initially designed as an audience reception study about the reactions of female gang members to male-dominated media images of gang life, the project was refocused around the concerns of the participants: the logistics and significance of being a homegirl. Miranda writes, “Of what value is it to talk about the absence of women in films, since it just amounted to criticism without results?…The girls needed to present their world and worldviews to fill, not analyze, the gap” (43).

The second half of the book tells how the Fruitvale homegirls worked towards that goal. In chapter 4, Miranda provides a textual analysis and a production summary of It’s A Homie Thang!, a 12-minute auto-ethnographic film made for community television by the members of Norteñas With Attitude, an alliance of four all-girl Fruitvale gangs. Revolving around the twin themes of sameness and difference, Homie interrupts preconceptions of gang association as based on pathological, socially destructive behavior, proposing instead that members are “regular” teens with unique concerns. The video is composed of peer interviews conducted in their favorite hangouts: at home and at the park. Topics covered include language, stereotypes, membership, origin stories, enemies and fights, and poetry as well as visual evidence of appearance and body language and the practice of “hangin’” or “kickin’ it” with the girls.

Addressing how the homegirls primary social networks are based upon friendship rather than kinship, chapter 5 evokes the ethos of a peer-group subculture built from intense, repeated interpersonal sociality. Hours spent hanging out and comments exchanged on personal writings are works of intimacy and solidarity-building that reveal the primary significance of shared activity in constituting gang membership. By spending time together homegirls monitor and influence each other’s behavior, offering advice and support for romantic relationships, family problems and fights with rivals. The peer group also provides an autonomous arena for teen girls to create an identity in opposition to their sexual objectification. Adopting an androgynous dress style and aggressive posture and speech patterns, homegirls base their sense of self-worth on fighting prowess and peer support rather than competition for boys. This explains why they reacted so strongly to the plot of Mi Vida Loca: two homegirls fighting over the same man. As they explained “You can’t be in a gang and do that shit…a dude ain’t worth it, you know?” (150).

Chapters 6 and 7 track the girls and their self-representations as they intervene in public discourse about themselves. Describing their reception and performance in several “foreign” settings — professional and academic conferences, a film festival, and a community health clinic — Miranda details alternating experiences of alienation and empowerment as the homegirls adjust to the agendas and expectations of their interlocutors. In the health clinic, for example, they had been invited to give a presentation on the rising incidence of physical violence. The clinic staff, however, undermined the girls’ claims about altercations with boys by challenging their rationale for fighting at all and asked questions about teen pregnancy, defining the female gang body in terms of dysfunctional sexuality.

Homegirls provides an empathetic portrayal of a subculture that is typically represented as a male-dominated world of criminal behavior, obscuring the everyday conduct of its members, especially that of women and girls. At times the lack of detail about participants—their ages, family background, biographies, and gang conduct — is frustrating but the missing information is a result, no doubt of the author’s concern with protecting her informants. Despite these gaps, Miranda’s book opens the door to a neglected social world, providing a foundation for further questions about how gang life is shaped by ethnicity, gender/sexuality, and inter-generational kin- and community-ties. Does patriarchal ethnic nationalism limit the girls’ opportunities to such an extent that gang membership is the most effective way to build self-esteem? Aside from compadrazco, are there other culturally relevant forms of affiliation upon which homegirls model their relationships? What is the significance of “sounding black” versus speaking Spanish or caló when talking to peers and how is this different from language use at home? What are the limits of ethnicity and the contours of the norteña/sureña divide and how do they lead to fights? How do romance and sexuality intersect with their street tough personas? Participants complained about boys perceptions of them — “All these guys call us bitches and hoochies and don’t have respect for us” (34), but we do not know the context for such comments. How do homegirls navigate the tension between family and gang life? Notably, Miranda was unable to conduct a reception study of the girls’ video because many participants had told their parents that they no longer belonged to the gang and feared that public screenings would generate conflict over their continued membership. This raises further concerns about how young women are disenfranchised not only in public discourse and popular representation but also at home.

This volume could be successfully integrated in a variety of courses from women’s studies to urban ethnography, Chicano studies, media studies and seminars on youth subculture, peer socialization and gender rebellion. The characters and settings explored in the second half of the book are particularly engaging and should provoke discussion among undergraduates while the focus on politics of representation and fieldwork dilemmas are important for graduate students.

Ramona Lee Pérez is a doctoral candidate in Cultural Anthropology at New York University. Her research interests include food studies, Greater Mexico, media, gender, and embodiment. 

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