Startling revelations of how bigotry and gang violence are transforming once-bucolic suburbs.
While working on her graduate studies at NYU in 2004, New York Times contributor Garland became acquainted with the surprisingly fertile gang scene in Hempstead, Long Island. She wondered how this community—one of the first planned suburbs on the island, long since grown rough-edged—was infiltrated by Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street, Latino gangs renowned for their violence. After meeting with several Salvadorean teens at the high school, the author found that their bravado masked deep trauma and alienation. The roots of the suburban gang explosion, she writes, began during El Salvador’s brutal civil war. Both government and rebel forces recruited adolescent soldiers, many of whom emigrated to scattered American communities with their wartime stressors unaddressed. Garland’s interviews reveal a depressingly familiar pattern. These recent immigrants—most hampered by linguistic and other difficulties—join small-time gang cliques for a sense of belonging and protection. The cliques then develop intense rivalries, which spawn murderous mayhem for which suburban police are unprepared. The author also tracks a narrative of homegrown viciousness. White working-class residents of towns like Freeport and Farmingville react despicably to the new arrivals, attempting to outlaw day-labor activities while gangs of white teens make sport out of attacking “Mexicans.” Garland offers empathetic portraits of the troubled adolescents and beleaguered cops trying to stanch the spiraling violence, and she helpfully examines how the lack of regional planning on Long Island created de facto segregation, as “a bunker mentality had set in when it came to protecting communities from outsiders.” The author offers few uplifting conclusions, suggesting that these communities’ unwillingness to embrace new arrivals will only empower the gangs.
A valuable exploration of an important cultural phenomenon, but Garland’s sympathy for her subjects occasionally clouds her examination of the gangs’ seemingly pointless sadism.