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Homegirls in the Public Sphere

Homegirls in the Public Sphere

Marie “Keta” Miranda presents the results of an ethnographic collaboration with Chicana gang members, in which they contest popular and academic representations of Chicana/o youth and also construct their own narratives of self identity through a documentary film.

December 2003
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231 pages | 6 x 9 | 13 b&w photos |

Girls in gangs are usually treated as objects of public criticism and rejection. Seldom are they viewed as objects worthy of understanding and even more rarely are they allowed to be active subjects who craft their own public persona—which is what makes this work unique. In this book, Marie "Keta" Miranda presents the results of an ethnographic collaboration with Chicana gang members, in which they contest popular and academic representations of Chicana/o youth and also construct their own narratives of self identity through a documentary film, It's a Homie Thang!

In telling the story of her research in the Fruitvale community of Oakland, California, Miranda honestly reveals how even a sympathetic ethnographer from the same ethnic group can objectify the subjects of her study. She recounts how her project evolved into a study of representation and its effects in the public sphere as the young women spoke out about how public images of their lives rarely come close to the reality. As Miranda describes how she listened to the gang members and collaborated in the production of their documentary, she sheds new light on the politics of representation and ethnography, on how inner city adolescent Chicanas present themselves to various publics, and on how Chicana gangs actually function.

  • List of Abbreviations
  • Acknowledgements
  • Representation and the Public Sphere
  • Rollin' through Oaktown
  • An Ethnographer's Tale
  • Mediating Images: It's a Homie Thang!
  • Affinity and Affiliation
  • Cross-Sites for Cross-Talks
  • Dialoguing Differences
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Marie "Keta" Miranda is Assistant Professor of Mexican American Studies in the division of Bicultural/Bilingual Studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio.


It was one thing to publish ethnographies about Trobrianders and Kwakiutls half a century ago; it is another to study people who read what you write and are more than willing to talk back.
—Américo Paredes

In May 1994 I took ten Latina youth from Oakland to the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) to see the screening of Allison Anders' Mi Vida Loca. They were excited about this film because it was about girls in gangs—the first-ever such feature-length film! Moreover, their excitement was stirred because a university professor, Rosa Linda Fregoso, had talked about it at a conference they attended. The public was finally interested in girls and gangs, finally talking, showing and writing about the life these girls knew intimately. Before the film began, a festival official announced that Anders and some of the actresses would hold a question-and-answer session after the screening. When the discussion began, the teens from Fruitvale took over. More than half the young women had their hands raised, and a few just stood up and spoke.

Anders' film captured the language of the youth, the prominence of tattoo and graffiti art. Her use of music to render the story line skillfully expressed the subcultural style of Chicana youth in gangs. Multiple narrators illustrated different points of view and ways of seeing life in a gang. But the girls in the audience felt Anders had gotten something wrong—the reason for the fights. She had worked with gang members of Echo Park in Los Angeles for two years, preparing the script and producing her film (Breslauer 1992). And even though she had seen the solidarity the girls created, she did not understand how that solidarity was sustained. Her young critics at SFIFF did not protest the specific portrayal as much as the cultural logic that Anders seemed to have missed. For Anders, the critical problem was patriarchy, and the evidence was women fighting women over men. The young women vehemently disagreed. There was more to it than that. Their comments addressed what it means to be a gang member: the variety of girls who join, issues of protection and loyalty, the gang as a voluntary association. Generally, they seemed to be speaking more to the audience than to Anders—filling out the film.

GG, a former member of East Side Norteñas, remarked on the variety of girls in gangs. "Some of us go to school and we get good grades, and some of us drop out, but we don't make people join. That's up to them." TC, who had rarely spoken in public meetings, also stressed the variety of gang members and the solidarity among girls in gangs who back up their partners. MG, a founder of Da Crew, had her hand up for a long while as other audience members critiqued the fact that a White woman portrayed Latinas and portrayed them as gang members. Finally, MG just stood up and falteringly stated, "Why did you do it like that? Why didn't you show the real fights. . . ?" Interpreting the comment as a question, Anders explained that she did not want to portray violence. She had kept most of the violence off-camera because she intended to focus on the personal relations among the girls. MG remained standing. Her statement was not a question. "Why did you show them fighting like that? Throwing down over a boy? Uh-uh, we don't do that. You didn't show the reasons we fight." Spurred by MG's critique, the young women began waving their hands, insisting on being recognized. Anders admitted that the girls she worked with in Los Angeles would agree that the fighting is not over boys. Nevertheless, she had heard the story she used from her daughter: a situation of two girls holding guns to each other over a man. Insisting that the incident really happened, Anders made it the major plot of the film because she was concerned about the divisions among women that arise because of men. At this the Latinas of Fruitvale clamored a unanimous "Ahhh, no!"

When other members of the audience were critical of Anders—as an outsider, a Euro-American, representing Latina youth—the Latina teenagers didn't seem to side with that criticism. They seemed equally uninterested in other critical questions presented by the audience members. Audience participants challenged Anders' intention, asking her questions such as "Why weren't families portrayed in the film?" or "Why represent Latina youth solely as gang members when there are other Latino youth subcultures?" These types of questions tended to emphasize Anders' outsider position in the Latino community. At one point, a Latina who had been trying to get in a question finally stood up and addressed the girls who had been hoarding the discussion time: "Make your own films! That's what we have to do!" To which the girls responded, "We did!" When Anders directed her attention to the woman who had questioned her authority to represent the Chicana/o community, the girls continued to talk among themselves, their bodies huddled over the theater chairs in intense discussion. Since they were taking up so much of the discussion period, Anders invited the girls to speak with her later. The Latina youth had a lot to say but had only one question: How could she help them with the video they were producing?

Not a Gang Study

Dorinne Kondo (1990) has written about ethnographic "setting tropes," narrative conventions that invoke the experience and journey of an ethnographer in an unfamiliar setting. The convention brings order to an otherwise chaotic, open-ended experience called fieldwork. For two and a half years, I conducted field research among Latina gang members in the community of Fruitvale in Oakland, California. But instead of "setting" my fieldwork in the mean streets like so many other gang studies, I begin this study with a story of girls in gangs at a public meeting where the representation of Latina/o youth was under debate and discussion. At this public forum, my informants spoke directly to a wider audience—thus dislodging any privileged position I might have thought I held as an ethnographer. As I listened to the girls participate in this forum, I began to realize that this would not be a study of girls in gangs, but a study of girls in gangs speaking on behalf of themselves. After all my hard work to build trust and confidence, was my role now secondary, even superfluous? My role was shifting. I felt anxiety, but also a different possibility. When the girls spoke for themselves, I was released from the gnawing problem of doing a gang study.

Throughout my fieldwork, I had confronted images that constrain and limit the complex lives of our youth: in academic literature, in the few serious cinematic portrayals, in news and media coverage. Even as Chicanos enter various research fields, attempting to avoid traditional approaches that portray gangs in terms of deficiency and pathology, the persistent image of Latino youth is that of gang bangers—gangsters, hoodlums, and violent delinquents. During the course of my research, I was constantly anxious about my particular contribution to Chicana/o scholarship—another gang study? A sympathetic account might attempt to deconstruct the image of otherness, but even this sort of gang study would risk reproducing stereotypes. In creating the very object of study—gangs—otherness is constituted. Because it would locate youth on a local level—in the "street," the "'hood"—a gang study would continue to demarcate the disciplinary field as well as segregate youth from the rest of society. I propose, on the contrary, to examine how the girls resisted their localization and objectification. I follow them out of conventional "turf" to examine their discursive practices as the tactics of the oppressed in counter or subaltern public spheres (Fraser 1989, 1992). This move entails close attention to the girls' video, It's a Homie Thang!, as well as an analysis of how they intervened at various sites of public discourse about gangs.

The public sphere can be understood as those locations where individuals join in a discussion of issues raised by the administration of the state. In Habermas' (1994) ideal public sphere, individual citizens form a public by articulating general interests and ultimately arriving at an objective goal. In this view, the ideal public sphere should not be "distorted" by particular interests. But the actual clash and engagement of discourses is messier and more uneven. Thus, the problem is how to bring identity politics and difference into conceptualizations of public conversation. In the study that I am constructing, I attempt to look at problems of representation at various locations, intersections, of discourse. I am not proposing a complete picture of a subcultural group—girls in gangs. Instead, I bring together discrete incidents, plotting a narrative of my subjects' (and my own) struggles around representation. I trace particularly the girls' growing awareness of self-representation and my own struggle with authority. The data which I select to analyze are not drawn primarily from the culture of the street, but rather shift attention to sites where the girls challenge prevailing representations of Latino/a youth, gang youth, and girls in particular. My research is thus not a gang study. It shifts the paradigm of research from the turf to the sphere of politics, from gang subjects to civil subjects.


Chronicling the various sites of discussion and the ways in which the girls develop their stakes in a politics of representation, "Rollin' through Oaktown" introduces the community of Fruitvale in Oakland, California. I briefly take up the debates about the development of an urban underclass in order to consider spatial practices found in Fruitvale that reveal the multiplicity of discourses which accommodate and challenge the conditions brought on by economic restructuring. The next chapter, "An Ethnographer's Tale," both enacts and queries the "arrival scene," a way of "locating" the ethnographic encounter. I examine the power relations of fieldwork—how the researcher determines the topic of research, the conduct of the study, and the writing of the investigation. Showing how the girls I worked with successfully contested my research goals and methods, I examine how, finally, we developed a co-discursive partnership reflecting our different stakes in the issue of representation.

In the chapter "Mediating Images: It's a Homie Thang!," I describe the production of the girls' video project—how it began, how they changed the topic, and how they produced a distinctive auto-ethnographic documentary about girls in gangs. Finding the film's major message to be a dialectic of difference and similarity—we are not like you/we are like you—I point to a more complex ending, a third space expressing a utopian goal for marginalized communities. The video stands as an addendum, possibly a correction, to my ethnographic representation. I have tried to present it, therefore, as more than just evidence or data. In effect, the video qualifies my power to represent.

Examining "Affinity and Affiliation" relations, I extend the video analysis, discussing the culture of solidarity I found among the young women of Oakland. Examining the everyday practice of "hangin'" or "kickin' it," I propose that the defining characteristic of the girls' culture is a form of romantic friendship. In a gang context, intimacy takes on a public role. Employing feminist theory of the public and private spheres, I show the social practices through which the girls transform a collective culture from the private into the public. I term this transformation "the publicization of the private."

Examining specific "Cross-Sites for Cross-Talks," the girls speak out about their lives in public meetings and at community agencies. On these occasions, the subjects of my study enter into dialogue and debate about public images, public policy, and public affairs regarding Latino/a youth and gang youth, particularly girls in gangs. I analyze various strategies the girls use as they participate in public discourse and develop a practice and politics of representation that aims to end their objectification and to intervene in generalized images and understandings.

In "Dialoguing Difference," I am not proposing to have found an ideal public sphere but include the site in order to consider the communication process that begins with acknowledging difference in our dialogues for democracy. I have also provided as an appendix some "Frequently Asked Questions" about gangs and about the young women who participated in my research project. In it I refer to other studies about gangs and girls in gangs for the reader to pursue.

Through this progression I analyze intersections of dialogue—from the push and pull of ethnography, to the independent video, to the several cross-sites of public discourse. Employing Nancy Fraser's (1992) notion of multiple, overlapping—and what she has interchangeably called counter and subaltern—public spheres, I examine the limits and potential of democracy, from the ethnographic encounter to the sites of conferences where images and policy toward gangs are discussed. Implicit throughout is Chéla Sandoval's (2000) analysis of the processes and products by which women of color respond to their objectification: the "methodology of the oppressed." What drives this study, then, is a concern for how the Chicana adolescents I got to know in Fruitvale negotiated their identities and representations through a surprising range of political spaces.

I began with an ethnographic vignette, hoping to unsettle the typical image of girls in gangs. Experiences such as this throughout my research have impressed upon me how various liberal, radical, and leftist spaces restrict youth participation—refusing youth the status of citizenship. Exhilarated by the possibilities of public activism, the girls from Fruitvale brought a raucous, contentious, and unbounded style to orderly, regulated, and methodical meetings. They expanded discursive space, broadening the issues and interests of subaltern publics struggling for democracy and social justice.



“I like this book very much. . . . It’s a wonderful methodological dose of salts for anyone doing research ‘on’ so-called pariah populations, where the researcher is essentially called upon to interpret the population to the conventional world. . . . A book about the field experiences of a woman of color with women of color is virtually unique, as far as I know.”
Joan W. Moore, Distinguished Professor Emerita of Sociology, University of Wisconsin–Madison


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