From Homie to Hermano: Conversion and Gang Exit in Central America

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The transnational youth gangs of Central America promote a hyper-machismo that idealizes violent, risk-prone codes of conduct and lifelong affiliation. Meanwhile, Central American evangelicals promote a “domesticated” machismo that prohibits drinking, promotes marriage, and eschews interpersonal violence. Yet several studies involving interviews with current and former members of Central American gangs report that conversion to evangelical Christianity and/or joining an evangelical-Pentecostal congregation may be a common pathway out of the gang. Using semi-structured interviews with more than sixty former members of transnational gangs in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador as well as field notes and interviews with gang exit promoters, this dissertation examines why many ex-gang members consider joining an evangelical-Pentecostal church a safe and effective means of leaving the gang despite the gangs' claim of lifetime membership. I conclude that conversion to evangelical-Pentecostal religion provides former gang members with new access to social and symbolic resources crucial for keeping safe, building trust, and finding work after leaving the gang. But more than strategic use of cultural “tools” is involved in the conversion process. In some cases, emotional conversion experiences actually helped to bring about gang exit by occasioning embodied, emotional experiences that transgressed the macho feeling rules of the gang, spoiling the gang member’s identity as a “homie.” In addition, highly public emotional conversion experiences provided some exiting gang members with opportunities for the discharge of chronic shame, a key emotion underlying male violence (Scheff 2004; Gilligan 1996). My findings challenge traditional assumptions of religious conversion as either the product of a rational-pragmatic choice on the one hand or of an ideological concession to the convert’s changing social networks on the other. Finally, I argue that an important factor in the ongoing popularity of evangelical-Pentecostal religion in Central America is its promotion of ritual contexts for the discharge of shame. While progressive Catholicism seeks to attack the structural sources of shame, evangelical-Pentecostalism offers powerful interaction rituals for dealing with the emotion itself at the individual level.


Attribute NameValues
  • etd-11192009-134732

Author Robert E. Brenneman
Advisor Christian Smith
Contributor David Smilde, Committee Member
Contributor Andrew Weigert, Committee Member
Contributor Jessica Collett, Committee Member
Contributor Christian Smith, Committee Chair
Degree Level 2
Degree Discipline Sociology
Degree Name Doctor of Philosophy
Defense Date
  • 2009-09-16

Submission Date 2009-11-19
  • United States of America

  • religion

  • Pentecostals

  • evangelicals

  • gangs

  • shame

  • violence

  • sociology

  • sociology of emotions

  • El Salvador

  • Honduras

  • Guatemala

  • University of Notre Dame

  • English

Access Rights Open Access
Content License
  • All rights reserved