ROUNDTABLE: Liberation Theology and Guatemalan Gang Violence
Joe Brew, Kelli’s son, is about to leave for his third summer in Guatemala where he will teach at the “Institut,” a school which Holy Faith Catholic Church, the GCW’s home parish, helps sponsor. He led the Roundtable discussion this past Thursday.
Joe talked about the growth of gangs in Ciudad Quetzal, an extremely impoverished area on the outskirts of Guatemala City. Here, deplorable violence is perpetrated by gangs on the community whereby they exact a “tax” from households, individuals, schools, clinics, churches, etc. in exchange for not killing one of their members. Joe had personal experience with this when one of his students was shot in the head and killed after witnessing one of these murders, and again when his next-door neighbors had to flee overnight after receiving a telephone request for $5000 in exchange for not killing their child. It’s a terrible situation that creates a climate of fear and causes daily deaths in the street.
Joe talked about the history of the gangs in Guatemala, how they first came about when desperately poor Guatemalans had entered the U.S. to seek work. Once in the U.S., because they were poor and separated from their families and communities, and because they had no status as U.S. citizens, they were vulnerable to street crime and violence. When undocumented workers are threatened in the U.S., they have no recourse to legitimate forms of civil protection that U.S. citizens enjoy. So from within the Guatemalan community in the U.S., groups were formed to offer “protection.” These groups quickly became gangs, adopting aspects of U.S. gang culture and functioning to give their members protection, identity, a sense of belonging, and more. When these gang members were subsequently deported back home, they brought their gang identity with them. Especially for second-generation deportees, who spoke little Spanish having grown up in the U.S., the gangs offered them community and status in a now-foreign place.
Joe used gang violence to discuss two different tracks of religious thought in Guatemala – the “liberal” liberation theology track and the conservative, evangelical track. In a nutshell, evangelical Christians stressed personal sin, and the liberal (usually Catholic) Christians stressed structural sin. The personal sin side is easy to see in the case of gang violence against innocent families and children. But Joe clarified the structural side by comparing it to the familiar tale of “Les Miserables.” Many of us are familiar with the story of Jean Valjean who is imprisoned for decades because he stole bread for his starving nephew. The harshness of prison life and the disdain of the public for ex-convicts once he is released – on top of the injustice of being punished by the system that created the inequities that would have caused most people in his situation to steal bread for a child – creates a bitter, hateful man. But, in Les Mis, we can read Valjeans story with mercy because we get to watch the “true” Valjean emerge after he is offered understanding, forgiveness and a fresh start. It’s interesting to try and apply this mercy to gang violence – something current, and as repugnant to us as Jean Valjean’s behavior was to the powers in 18th century Paris. Joe made clear the point that gang violence is both a terrible personal failure as well as a structural one. The situation is complicated, but Joe pointed out that a large part of the solution is, as Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin once envisioned – to “make it easier to be good” by helping Guatemala become a place where people can support and care for their families – and in the meantime to work on creating more just immigration policies here.
Joe is heading off in a week to teach basketball, English, and history to displaced Mayan and poor Ladino (mixed European and indigenous ancestory) children. We’re looking forward to hearing all about it on his return in September. Meanwhile, check out his Guatemala blog!