This is not an easy time, or an easy society, in which to grow up. Adolescence itself can be a strain on body and soul. Education takes place in settings that can feel like a prison (or, perhaps more precisely, a “correctional institution”) and the usual insecurities worsened by the presence of people involved in violent and criminal activity.
The growth of youth gangs and their accompanying terroristic activity is no longer confined to big urban areas. These gangs with their tight structures can sometimes provide young people the most effective discipline they’ve ever received. The gangs have their own rituals, recognizable symbols, a code of obedience. They may also obligate members to commit violence and can be well armed and even a connection to adult crime syndicates. A young person seeking stability or protection may find them attractive, or may find it difficult to avoid their recruitment.
Julio Torres, the protagonist of A.A. Delgado’s novel “Spirit of the Gang” faces more troubles than a young person should have to deal with. His brother Alex has been murdered in gang warfare and now the gang called the Reapers is trying to draw him into the fold. Julio’s mother is struggling with cancer, his father tries to keep order both in the family and in the community as a police officer. Julio attends a Catholic high school that has established an on-line partnership called Crossing the Boundaries that allows their inner-city students to chat by computer with the kids at an upscale suburban high school. Through Crossing the Boundaries Julio hooks up with a girl named Carlie (until his explicit comments cause him to be banned from his school’s computers and he skips school to try to meet Carlie in person).
“Spirit of the Gang” is realistic, violent, troubling and, like adolescence itself, occasionally funny. Its author says that it was “inspired by true accounts”.
“Even though his was a Catholic school, it was not immune to fights. Pockets of students were forming already. Carlitos was soliciting the help of his basketball buddies, but they refused to get involved. On the corner nearest the entrance, a group of students from the tennis team were talking. Even in the crowd, as Julio walked by, he could feel cliques of students forming.
The excitement of the imminent fight pushed Julio deeper and deeper into the crowd, and in a surreal moment he remembered his brother’s shiny, black coffin being lowered into the ground. I am not alone, he thought. I am not alone, he kept repeating.”
— from “Spirit of the Gang”
Author Alvin A. Delgado is an English teacher at West Middle School in Binghamton. He was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in New York City and served in the U.S. Air Force. He is currently working with the Binghamton Youth Bureau and Broome County Gang Prevention on helping students at risk, and formed the school’s Brother to Brother program. “Mister D” was one of the organizers of Broome County’s first Youth Summit in November, 2007. Students from grades 6-12 were invited to speak out in an afternoon-long party atmosphere about personal and community problems, home and school life. There was also a dramatic reading of sections of “Spirit of the Gang”.
The message of the novel is that gang violence can penetrate even a small community. The setting of the book is obvious, with locations called Bingham City, Bingham Hills and Johnson Village. The social tensions are real, the terror and tragedy can happen anywhere and the violent conclusion of “Spirit of the Gang” is an expression of madness in the extreme.
A.A. Delgado comes to OFF THE PAGE to tell Bill Jaker about his work with young people and the books he is writing that he hopes will be of special significance to them (his next novel will be science fiction).