LIFE IS BITCH

Diplomarbeit zur Erlangung des akademischen Grades einer Magistra der Philosophie an der Geisteswissenschatlichen Fakultät der Karl Franzens Universität Graz am Institut für Amerikanistik
Begutachter: AO. UNIV.PROF. DR. ROBERTA MAIERHOFER, Graz 2008
Mag. Sarah Marisa Gruber

 

 

Acknowledgements

Many thanks go out to my friends and family who provided immeasurable help and patience during this project.
Thanks for many insightful conversations that helped to clarify my thoughts, thanks for encouraging me and supporting me.
Finally I wish to thank my mother, who taught me that it´s more important to be a happy girl than a good girl; and special thanks to my grandfather for his continuous love, support, and encouragement.
To you I dedicate this thesis.
Thanks for making all this possible!


I. INTRODUCTION 2

1.1 BACKGROUND INFORMATION ON RANDOM FAMILY (2003) 4
1.2 SUMMARY OF RANDOM FAMILY (2003) 7
1.3 THE MEANING OF BITCH 9

 

II. BAD BITCHES 11

2.1 GENDER HEGEMONY 11
2.1.1 PRECONDITIONS FOR SUBORDINATION 13
2.1.1.1 THE HETEROSEXUAL MATRIX 13
2.1.1.2 HEGEMONIC FEMININITY OR BAD BITCHES 13
2.2 DEFINING FEMININITY 14
2.2.1 PHYSICAL APPEARANCE 14
2.2.2 POWER DYNAMICS AND SEXUALITY 19
2.2.2 GENDER ROLES – BLOOD AND LOVE AND NEED 20
2.2.2.2 FIGHTING FAMILIES - WHY BAD IS GOOD 30
2.2.3 MOTHERHOOD 38
2.2.4 THE WELFARE FAMILY - A GENDERED ORGANIZATION OF SOCIAL INSTITUTIONS 47
2.2.5 THE EMPOWERING EFFECT OF SEXUALITY-– BITCHING AT HETEROPATRIARCHY 53
2.2.6 HOMOSEXUALITY - A FEMINIZED SPACE 58

 

III. BAD ETHNICS 66

3.1 VISIONS OF DISORDER: HOW PUERTO RICANS BECAME OTHERS 64
3.2 THE MORALITY OF BEING MINORITY 66
3.3 BEING NEWYORICAN 67
3.3.1 RESIDENTIAL SEGREGATION 68
3.2.2 THE RACE-CLASS NEXUS 69
3.3.3 THE BRONX 73
3.4 IMAGINING PUERTO RICANNESS 75

 

VI. BAD TAX PAYERS: BEING UNDERCLASS 78

4.1 THE GHETTO - WELFARE CHISELER – PERPETUATIONG POVERTY 80
4.2 THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE SUBCULTURE AND THE LARGER SOCIETY 81
4.2.1 THE INWARD ECONOMY 82
4.2.2HOME – THE VAGABOND BITCH 85
4.2.3HIGH-SCHOOL DROPOUTS 89
4.2.4 THE WELFARE MOTHER 94
4.3 THE NATURE OF THE SLUM COMMUNITY / THE NATURE OF THE FAMILY 101
4.4 THE ATTITUDE, VALUES, AND CHARACTER STRUCTURE OF THE INDIVIDUAL 107
THE BRONX AS ALLEGORY OF UNDERCLASS 107
4.5 THE THUG LIFE 112
4.6 DRUGS 113
4.7 STREET CRIME 115
4.8 STREET LANGUAGE - THE SEMIOTICS OF EXCLUSION 117
4.8.1 BITCH TALK 119
 

V. CONCLUSION 122

VI. BIBLIOGRAPHY 124


I. Introduction

In the late 1980s, the journalist Adrian Nicole LeBlanc was on assignment for Rolling Stone Magazine to do a story on the trial of a 22 year old who was, at the time, New York City’s most notorious and legendary drug dealer. Over the course of the trial, she got involved with the culprit’s girlfriend, her family, and friends. Instead of reporting on the flashy gangster Boy George, LeBlanc decided on a different project: the women surrounding Boy George became the protagonists of LeBlanc´s multi-biographical novel Random Family, which anthropologically chronicles the life of the urban poor Puerto Rican women in New York City.

The aim of this paper is to highlight the intersection of various types of oppression - classism, racism, and sexism - that the indigent ethnic women in Random Family face in their daily experience. Furthermore, the particularities of the Random Family women’s experience will be set in a wider context of gender- being subject to white supremacist patriarchy as well as to Latino-specific ascribed gender roles, a pan-ethnic identity – being third generation Puerto Rican in New York City, and socio-economic conditions – being working-class.

In addition, this work attempts to provide a second reading of the gendered experience in Random Family: the emergence of a conditional female identity that subversively attempts to resists gender, race and class hegemony- the bitch.

The following topics will be subject of additional analysis throughout the three chapters centered on gender, race, and class: It will be hypothesized that controlling images are hegemonically imposed on the protagonists from within the community as well as from the outside, and therefore a vicious circle of representation and perpetuation of patterns of behavior is triggered.

Furthermore, the subject of locality and confinement, in a literal as well as a metaphorical sense, will be the subject of analysis

Just as LeBlanc’s intention was not to raise pity for an underprivileged racialized group of people, this paper does not primarily attempt to investigate the deteriorating effects of poverty, racial discrimination, and patriarchy on the physique or psyche of the female protagonists. It rather raises the opposite question: How do women in Random Family cope with the often devastating conditions they are forced to live in and bring up their children? Coco and her statement “Life is Bitch – But I’m a strong woman!” (Random Family 2003: 212) shall function as a guideline and red string throughout my thesis. I will try to prove that these women develop specific survival tools and “bitch” back at life’s obstacles. Normative values have to be abandoned in order to meet basic needs such as food, clothing, or – love. Life in the Bronx- street life- is a life where "better-than” was the true marker of success:
Thick and fed was better than thin and hungry. Family fights indoors -- even if everyone could hear them -- were better than taking private business to the street. Heroin was bad, but crack was worse. A girl who had four kids by two boys was better than a girl who had four by three (Random Family 2003: 32).

“Bitching back” might not always be something positive or admirable, but it keeps you alive, which is better - than death. The Random Family women transgress ´good girl` behavior through promiscuity, interracial and same-sex relationships, drug abuse, violent behavior and many more deviations from what is normative – they are bad. Together, these narratives highlight different locations of the female protagonists along a continuum of gendered experience in the Bronx; who construct their identity not in terms of religion, race, or nationality but in terms of affiliation to a community that is constructed through spatial limitation – the Bronx. The interplay of ethnicity, class, and gender is paramount to their image of ´self `. They share a common habitus in Bourdieu´s sense:

The structures constitutive of a particular kind of environment (e.g., the material kind of conditions of existence characteristic of a class condition) produce habitus […] a universalizing mediation which causes an individual agent’s practices, without either explicit reason or signifying intent, to be nonetheless ´sensible` and ´reasonable` (Urciuoli 1996 :66).

The author of Exposing Prejudice explains this further by noting that routine ways of thinking, acting, and talking [like a bitch)] readily become ”sensible” and “reasonable” to people sharing the same forms of exclusion from the middle class, the white world, or “the large life” (Random Family 2003: 334) in general (cf. Urciuoli: 66). Consequently, Bitchiness as Tool for Survival in Random Family is not static; it is a process that is nurtured by the continuum of gendered experience mentioned above; a continuum of social and economic factors within a community.
This work does not intend to homogenize behavioral patterns according to economic status, ethnicity, or sex; instead it will try to analyze types of behavioral patterns that lead to a more or less successful life – meaning surviving – that I have coined ´bitchy`.
It will not theorize a stable unitary subject named ´proletarian female Puerto Rican third-generation immigrant`, but will instead try to permeate this rubric by finding out which circumstances and conditions make the Random Family women act in a way that bourgeois reformist feminists might condemn as wrong. It is crucial to acknowledge the heterogeneity of feminism, the diverse experiences and backgrounds of the protagonists to realize that in their very individual way the two main characters Jessica and Coco live their own revolution.


I.I Background information on Random Family (2003)

It is hard to precisely categorize LeBlanc´s narrative. She herself calls it a 44-chapter-long “family saga” (Random Family 2003: 405) with biographical background. She claims to have been present for much of what is depicted in the book. In those cases were someone is said to have “thought” or “believed” something, those thoughts and beliefs were described and recounted to her.

In order to maintain the feeling of intimacy and authenticity, the characters are quoted throughout the book, “´She always wanted a king with a maid, ` says Lourdes about her daughter Jessica”, is an example of LeBlanc´s narrative technique. The author lets Coco, Jessica, and assorted characters use their own voices to tell their stories. The reader is situated in the position of a witness. This style enables LeBlanc to make no judgments about the lives she presents, and moreover she spares herself from essentialist debates. Political spins, statistical analyses, blame and solutions are absent.

Random Family’s claim of authenticity makes it a valid microcosm of gendered experiences that allows drawing further conclusions of presented images.

Background History
Adrian LeBlanc found the seed for Random Family – Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx in a clip in Newsday announcing the trial of a hugely successful heroin dealer named Boy George. While reporting the piece, LeBlanc got to know the girlfriends of the various dealers, and they soon became the subjects of the main story. Adrian LeBlanc´s book Random Family is about people who are usually described in generalizing terms like drug dealer, high school dropout or welfare mother; gangsters and bitches.
The freelance journalist immersed herself for eleven years into what one might call “ghetto life” in the Bronx, more precisely the block around Tremont Avenue. In her non-fiction book that reads like a novel, she tries to shed light on the lives of people whose failures we might come across in newspapers, but whose victories usually remain invisible. Hundreds of hours of written and tape-recorded interviews were supplemented with other research, including court transcripts; medical, academic, financial, legal, police, and prison records; and personal letters and diaries. Recollected experiences and exchanges were assembled through primary- and secondary-source interviews and visits to locations. To sum it up, LeBlanc successfully approaches the emotionally loaded topic of the American experience of class injustice intimately and from a perspective rarely acknowledged- from the perspective of women.

Hip-Hop culture – the lyrics, the MTV videos, the fashion – have created their own impression of what it means to live ´ghetto style`. In fact, the flashiness, the pimpin´and the frontin´ is exactly what brought the young journalist to Tremont in the first place. LeBlanc first entered the lives of her main characters in the late 1980s when she was on assignment for Rolling Stone Magazine to do a story on the trial of Boy George, a 22 year old who at the time was New York City’s most notorious and legendary drug dealer, cashing about $ 60,000 a day. In a radio interview she gave on NPR´s Morning Edition on May 7, 2003, interviewed by NPR’s Madeleine Brand, (cf. Brand 2003) she admitted that seeing Boy George in court, wearing a shirt displaying huge dollar signs, she felt “constantly forced to back up her assumption” about ghetto life style. In fact, over the course of the trial, she got involved with Jessica, Boy George’s girlfriend, her brother Cesar and his girlfriend Coco. The female characters would become the protagonists of her complicated family saga Random Family, which reads in its subtitle Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx.

As already mentioned, Random Family is not about roaring cars and blasting music, - it’s about the silent suffering and the spare moments of victory behind the drug trafficking and the tough gang slang. LeBlanc was, and so am I, more interested in finding out “what makes this neighborhood tick” (cf. Brand 2003) and reports on the rather trashy than flashy day-in and day out of her main characters. She came to learn that life in the ghetto was less about Boy George’s glamour and more about Coco´s struggle as a young single mom, or Jessica’s daily attempts to hide the visible signs of domestic violence. The purpose of her book is to provide an intimate portrait of the urban poor and to show that one of the most brutal things about being poor is the sense that your life is not necessary, that you don’t need to be any place, nobody cares if you go any place, you are not called to be any place, you are not required to be part of something, that they can just pass you by; it’s a choice for somebody to know about your life or ignore it (cf. Brand 2003). Her achievement is her accomplishment to write about poverty without the usual focus on sadness and distress, since “[t]here is probably something wrong if you never acknowledge the joyful parts” (cf. Brand 2003).

Random Family was on the New York Times bestseller-list. This fact surprised the author, but also filled her with hope that more Americans might be willing to face reality: a world that exists parallel to their large life (Random Family 2003: 334) with cars, houses and credit cards, the second world (Random Family 2003: 378), and become aware of a ghetto lifestyle that is not shown on MTV. LeBlanc stopped reporting after her father got cancer and she needed to take care of him. She leaves the reader in the midst of the story; “a story that was written while hanging out in the Bronx sometimes for days, sit and talk, listen to salsa and Rap music” (cf. Brand 2003); a story that never ends since it’s life.


1.2 Summary of Random Family (2003)

LeBlanc’s narrative is divided into five parts: The Street, Lockdown, Upstate, House to House, and Breaking Out. Part I The Street starts in the mid-eighties and introduces the reader to life on Tremont Avenue, “one of the poorer blocks in a very poor section of the Bronx,” (Random Family 2003: 3) and traces the life of LeBlanc´s main protagonists Jessica, the oldest daughter of Lourdes Morales and Coco, the daughter of Foxy Rodriguez. Lourdes is identified as the neglectful and promiscuous mother of four; Jessica, Cesar, Robert and Elaine; the latter two will only play marginal roles in the narrative. The connecting link to the Rodriguez’s’ is Foxy´s younger daughter Coco, who becomes Cesar’s girlfriend. This section also relates to the fateful encounter of Jessica with the notorious Boy George and her rise in status from worker in his heroine mill to his girlfriend. Part I ends with Jessica, Cesar, and Boy George in jail.Part II Lockdown covers the fate of those imprisoned and those “outside”, and exemplifies that poverty and crime can be as caging as jail. The reader gets a detailed description of Coco´s struggle with her illegitimate child, her second pregnancy, and her step into independence; “going homeless”. It also reports on Jessica’s three children and their upbringing in different places by different people, Lourdes’ continuing drug abuse and the whereabouts of Coco´s sister Iris and her brother Hector, as well as Lourdes´ other kids Elaine and Robert. In addition, life in jail, which is not too bad for Jessica, but gets from bad to worse for Cesar, is described. Part III Upstate deals with Coco´s successful move Upstate near Albany and her various attempts to lead “the large life, a job, a wardrobe, credit cards, and a car” (Random Family 2003: 334). However, being enmeshed in her family situation, desperate for physical attention and not responsible enough to use birth control, she gets pregnant again and becomes ensnared in the vicious circle of being a teenage mother without an education. This section also introduces the reader to the “alphabet of poverty” which runs through the Bronx of Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's reporting. Coco almost despairs upon the impenetrable maze of bureaucracy behind the jumble of letters: “the WIC will help feed your babies, but fear the BCW, which could take them away. SSI will send you a check, the DEA will send you to prison” (cf. Gordon 2008).

Part IV House to House lets the reader glimpse into the life of all the characters introduced so far into the story. It covers life and death of minor characters, introduces the reader to Jessica’s homosexual tendencies in prison as well as her third pregnancy in jail, the birth of Coco´s fourth kid Pearl, who is disabled, Cesar’s early heroin addiction and his marriage to Giselle, a down-to-earth girl who manages to lift his spirits. By the end of the chapter, the focus of narration has shifted from Upstate and prison back to the Bronx.

Part V Breaking Out finally reunites almost all the characters in the Bronx. Jessica is released from prison, Coco´s fifth child is finally a boy, and she enters the work force. The book ends with Coco living Upstate, unemployed again, her daughter Mercedes having trouble at school for being a bully and Cesar still imprisoned. However, he has changed and seems to finally be the man he always longed to be. Serena, Jessica’s oldest, has herself reached the dangerous age and enters what LeBlanc calls the “eternal triangle that trapped so many of the girls and women, the irresolvable conflict between blood and love and need, between you, your mother, and a man” (Random Family 2003: 105) She is sixteen by the end of the novel and pregnant.


1.3 The Meaning of Bitch

In a review of “The world of Hedda Gabler” it is quoted: “[…] Iben was primarily interested in exploring the cold depths of that changeless and most fascinating of all women – the bitch” (Theriot 1994: 119). Since ancient Greek times, there is something universal in the comprehension of this female character. Using C. G Jung’s terminology of anima (a set of female qualities which assist in creating the personality) and animus (a set of masculine qualities), a bitch is a woman who becomes dominated by her animus and therefore is insecure in her role as a woman. In literature, she is usually characterized primarily by her insatiable thirst for material security. In order to achieve this she represses her role as a woman and becomes aggressive in a masculine manner (cf. Theriot 1994: 120-121). Moreover, it might be appropriate to look up the word in Wikipedia.com, a webpage usually frowned upon in the academic context, but which is especially interesting in this case since bitch is a term which is highly defined by its popular usage:

Bitch is a derogatory term for a woman, taken to mean that she is malicious, spiteful, domineering, intrusive, or unpleasant. This meaning has been in use since around 1400. Sometime during the late 1990s or early 2000s, the term "bitch" became more and more accepted and less offensive, and is now very rarely censored on television broadcasts or otherwise. The word bitch is sometimes used casually among hip-hop artists and followers of the culture. The term is typically used to describe a young female regardless of personality or looks. Often it is a directly negative and violent condemnation [...] denoting ownership. The adjective bitchy has a wider range of meanings [...] when applied to articles of clothing, it suggests that they are worn to advertise sexual availability” [bitch s.v. wikipedia 2008]

When looking for synonyms, bitch comes to mean the following:

Adulteress, advoutress, courtesan, prostitute, strumpet, harlot, whore, punk, fille de joie; woman, woman of the town; streetwalker, Cyprian, miss, piece; frail sisterhood; demirep, wench, trollop, trull, baggage, hussy, drab, bitch, jade, skit, rig, quean, mopsy, minx, harridan; unfortunate, unfortunate female, unfortunate woman; woman of easy virtue; (unchaste). (bitch s.v. websters-online-dictionary 2008). Somehow, all of these definitions apply to the women in Random Family. Coco, Jessica, Lourdes, Foxy, and Milagros are definitely unfortunate women who have to fight subordinacy in every respect: Almost every woman in Random Family has been sexually molested, including Jessica's 2-year-old daughter. Coco makes $5.14 an hour at Price Chopper, while Jessica's boyfriend brings in $500,000 a week running a drug empire. All of them have multiple sexual partners without ever being in a stable relationship. However, bitch has taken on a new meaning in our society:

I'm a bitch, I'm a lover
I'm a child, I'm a mother
I'm a sinner, I'm a saint
I do not feel ashamed

Part V Breaking Out finally reunites almost all the characters in the Bronx. Jessica is released from prison, Coco´s fifth child is finally a boy, and she enters the work force. The book ends with Coco living Upstate, unemployed again, her daughter Mercedes having trouble at school for being a bully and Cesar still imprisoned. However, he has changed and seems to finally be the man he always longed to be. Serena, Jessica’s oldest, has herself reached the dangerous age and enters what LeBlanc calls the “eternal triangle that trapped so many of the girls and women, the irresolvable conflict between blood and love and need, between you, your mother, and a man” (Random Family 2003: 105) She is sixteen by the end of the novel and pregnant.


II. Bad Bitches

2.1 Gender Hegemony

2.1 Gender Hegemony

In order to understand the intricacies of gender hegemony, and how it impacts the characters in Random Family, it is necessary to first discuss the theory behind it. II. Bad Bitches will introduce the reader to the theoretical concept of gender hegemony, and the preconditions of the subordinate status of women in general and the women in Random Family in particular. Furthermore, it will deal with the internal factors that keep the women in Random Family in their ´assigned` places in society: the twisted hierarchy of femininity, which places being ´someone’s girl` higher than being a mother or a woman per se will be discussed. This hierarchy that has developed in the ghetto will prove to destine them to do wrong as mothers, and keep them loyal to abusive and violent men. However, within their limited sphere some women develop remarkable insight and agency to break the vicious circle, claim authority over their feminine role and reach a high level of sexual self determination.

According to Butler (1990 as quoted in Schippers 2004: 13), gender is the socially constructed binary that defines man and woman as two distinct kinds of people. According to gender discourse, there are certain bodies, behaviors, personality traits, and desires that neatly match up to one or the other category. In their difference, the bodies, traits, and desires are assumed to naturally complement each other, so that members of each category – men and women – are symbolically situated in relation to each other as complementary opposites. Consequently, women and men are defined not just in terms of their difference from one another, but also by the relationship between them. For Butler then, the meaning of the relationship between them is as central to gender relations as the specific characteristics on each side of the binary and, importantly, it is through the articulated differences between them that the relationship is constructed. Embedded within the system of symbolic meaning that defines gender positions and their relationship to each other are shared beliefs about what qualities members of each gender category possess (cf. Schippers 2004: 13).

In gender hegemonic relations, femininity is implicated in that there are characteristics and practices expected of women that are deemed more acceptable or desirable than other practices and that, through their recurring enactment, situate women as subordinate to men as a group. Within the context of a male dominant gender order, femininity is, by definition, a position of subordination in relation to masculinity. When a woman is assertive, she moves away from ideal femininity (cf. Schippers 2004: 11). In contemporary Western societies, femininity is a set of abstract ideals for what members of the category woman are and should be and masculinity, what a man is and should be like. In short, masculinity and femininity are the characteristics that are taken by members of a group or population as the desirable qualities or traits of each gender category. It is important to limit this definition to the realm of symbolic meaning: man and woman are positions, and the characteristics believed to be the qualities of people occupying these positions are masculinity and femininity. The specific content or feature of each is neither universal nor fixed, but varies across cultures and time. What is defined as feminine in one culture might be defined as the opposite in others. Within any given society or group, the qualities of gender differences are contested and negotiated. Masculinity and femininity can and do shift over long periods of time, with some assumed characteristics melting from one to the other, shifting from one side of the binary to the other (cf. Schippers 2004: 14).

2.1.1 Pre authority and physical strength and feminine compliance and weakness.

Situated as gendered and hierarchical in value, authority/compliance and strength/weakness become central defining features of the relationship between masculinity and femininity and thus, men and women (Schippers 2004: 16).

2.1.1.2 Hegemonic Femininity or Bad Bitches

2.1.1.1 The Heterosexual matrix

One of the most outstanding and constant features of both masculinity and femininity is heterosexual desire. Women are believed to have a relatively more passive desire to become the object of masculine desire. This is the central feature of the heterosexual matrix that defines the relationship between femininity and masculinity according to Butler (cf. Schippers 2004: 14). Heterosexual desire is an erotic attachment to difference and functions as the bonding material that fuses masculinity and femininity together as complementary opposites. Difference alone, however, does not constitute hegemony. Hegemonic features of culture are those that are normative and serve the interest of ruling classes and legitimate their dominance (cf. Schippers 2004: 14-15). Despite women embracing and expressing sexual agency at different historical times and in different cultural settings, symbolic constructions of heterosexual sex still reduce it to penetrating and being penetrated, and that relation is throughout constructed as one of intrusion, taking, and dominating. Thus the most natural and changeless part of masculinity and femininity is constructed as naturally and inevitably a relationship of dominance and submission (cf. Schippers 2004: 15-16).

Further, male dominance is solidified and legitimated through masculinent

In contemporary Western Culture hegemonic masculinity consists of heterosexual desire, physical strength, and authority (cf. Schippers 2004: 23). Hegemonic femininity consists of the characteristics defined as ideal for women that establish and legitimate a hierarchical and complementary relationship to hegemonic masculinity, and by doing so guarantees the dominant position of men and the subordination of women. Hegemonic gender relations depend on the desire for the feminine object, physical strength, and authority being decidedly masculine. Therefore, these characteristics must remain unavailable to women. To guarantee men’s exclusive access to these characteristics, different configurations of femininity exist which serve as the deviant, stigmatized other in order to define the norm for femininity, but also to ensure severe social sanction for women who take on or enact one or more of these three masculine characteristics. Having sexual desire for other women, being promiscuous, or sexually inaccessible, and being aggressive are examples of practices that are stigmatized and sanctioned if embodied by women (cf. Schippers 2004: 24-25). The possession of any one of these characteristics is assumed to contaminate the individual: by having one characteristic, an individual becomes “a kind [my italics] of person – a lesbian, a slut [...] or a bitch” (Schippers 2004: 25).


2.2 Defining Femininity

2.2.1 Physical appearance

2.2.1 Physical appearance
Susan Bordo, in Unbearable Weight, sums up the interdependence and importance of the physical representation of femininity and the cultural perception of thereof as follows:

And for women, associated with the body and largely confined to a life centered on the body (the beautification of one’s own body and the reproduction, care and maintenance of the bodies of others), culture’s grip on the body is a constant, intimate fact of everyday life (Susan Bordo in Maierhofer 2002: 254)

Desirability – being the object of desire for men - is the ultimate measurement for the women in Random Family. Due to their limited financial background, ascending in status is easiest through a man. “Chance was opportunity in the ghetto, and you had to be prepared for anything” (Random Family 2003: 1). This sentence occurs on the very first page of the narrative and sets part of its frame: The embodiment of chance and good luck usually comes to the Random Family women in the form of men, or at least it is perceived as such in the beginning. In order to analyze the degree of deviation that the women in Random Family perform as Bad Bitches, the prevailing stereotypes about the norm for femininity must be analyzed.

As a next step, the degree to which Latina female roles differ from ´white` femininity will be looked at. As a matter of fact, ethnicity has an impact on one’s definition of femininity, but relationships between the sexes vary tremendously with age, education, and time, among other factors, in the United States. As a first step, the bodies and looks of LeBlanc’s protagonists will be scrutinized, since “the body in the woman and the story in the woman are inseparable” (Maierhofer 2002: 249). Anthropologist Mary Douglas declares the female body to be a „mächtige symbolische Form, der Oberfläche, auf der die Grundregeln, die Hierarchien, und sogar die metaphysischen Belange der Gesellschaft eingeschrieben und durch die konkrete Sprache des Körpers gefestigt werden“ (Douglas in Maierhofer 2002: 250).

In Random Family, indexes for desirability in women are skin color, hair, and body shape. Especially in this matter, ethnicity must not be excluded from evaluation data in Random Family, since different ethnic and cultural backgrounds set different aesthetical ideals. Class, and its intersection with race, is a significant factor to consider when examining racial differences in body image (cf. González 2006: 4). A primary assessment of beauty is skin color – the degree of darkness or lightness – and phenotype (indigenous vs. European features). Women usually measure their skin color against whiteness as the norm; a phenomenon bell hooks explains as Internalized Racism. Especially Jessica and Coco come to carry the weight of the validating gaze of men. Lourdes is also highly sexually active; nevertheless her looks are less foregrounded. Coco is constantly under the validating gaze of her beloved Cesar who sets her standard. In fact it is Jessica who embodies the Puerto Rican ideal, as represented in Random Family:

[...] a sixteen-year-old Puerto Rican girl with bright hazel eyes, a huge, inviting smile, and a voluptuous shape, she radiated intimacy wherever she went (Random Family 2003: 1).

[...] a sixteen-year-old Puerto Rican girl with bright hazel eyes, a huge, inviting smile, and a voluptuous shape, she radiated intimacy wherever she went (Random Family 2003: 1).

[...] she seemed so comfortable in her body. She flirted easily with girls and boys, men and women alike. Jessica appeared to have no boundaries, as though she were the country of sex itself (Random Family 2003: 10).

Jessica, who was also home the day Coco met Lourdes, was the most beautiful girl Coco had ever seen: light skinned, with dead hair like a white girl’s, the bands and feathered edges blown forward like a commercial for a shampoo. She also had a perfect body: a big butt without a stomach, nice breasts, and nails polished by a manicurist in a beauty salon (Random Family 2003: 37).

She was an extremely white-skinned person, [...] lots of tattoos (Random Family 2003: 200).

Hair has a special significance: Its resemblance to ´whiteness` makes it desirable.

This issue is also broached in bell hooks “Black is a Woman’s Color” :

Good hair, that’s the expression. We all know it; begin to hear it when we are small children. When we are sitting between the legs of our mothers and sisters getting our hair combed. Good hair is hair that is not kinky, hair that does not feel like balls of steel wool, hair that does not take hours to comb, hair that does not need tons of grease to untangle, hair that is long. Real good hair is straight hair, hair like white folks´ hair. Yet noone says so. Noone says your hair is so nice, so beautiful because it is like white folks´ hair. We pretend that the standards we measure our beauty are our own invention – that it is question of time and money that leads us to make distinctions between good hair and bad hair (cf. Hooks 1988 in Soyini 1994: 215).

Racism is not a prominent matter in Random Family; nevertheless the standards against which issues such as beauty are measured against are white Anglo-Saxon dominant standards. This also becomes apparent when it comes to evaluating skin color:

Hernan was a short Vietnam veteran with thick black hair and dark skin. Coco thought he looked like a rapist, and that Foxy, whose complexion was light and flawless, was too good for him (Random Family 2003: 144).

It quickly becomes clear that dark is bad whereas light complexion is good. Not only is lighter skin associated with ideal beauty, but also with education and income. Darker skin is associated in each instance with lower socioeconomic status (cf. González 2006 9-10). bell hooks calls this phenomenon Internalized Racism:

Ironically, as black leaders called into question racist defined notions of beauty, many white folks expressed awe and wonder that there existed in segregated black life color caste systems wherein the lighter ones skin the greater one’s social value. Their surprise at the way color caste functioned in black life exposed the extent to which they chose to remain willfully ignorant of a system that white supremacist thinking had established and maintained. The construction of color caste hierarchies by white racists in nineteenth-century life is well documented in their history and literature. That contemporary white folks are ignorant of this history reflects the way the dominant culture seeks to erase – and thus deny – this past. This denial allows no space for accountability, for white folk in contemporary culture to know and acknowledge the primary role whites played in the formation of color castes (hooks 1994: 174).

There is a similar system to black color caste hierarchies pervasive in Random Family. Nevertheless, the system differs slightly due to cultural constructions that operate more complexly than assigning ethnic identity due to skin color: Factors other than skin color influence racial classification in Latin America and the Caribbean. In particular, social class is based on skin tone, hair texture, and other social characteristics. Individuals of mixed racial origins are not automatically assigned to the subordinate group in a dichotomous classification of black and white, as typically occurs in U.S. society. Puerto Rican islanders often view race as equivalent to nationality, culture, or birthplace. Intermediate racial categories are recognized, as indicated by such terms as trigueño and moreno (cf. Landale, Oropesa 2002: 233). A detailed analysis of this will be found in chapter III “Bad Ethnics”.

ontinuing with the discussion of physical appearance and desirability, Coco is described as “a friendly around-the-way girl” (Random Family 2003: 27) and “pretty; real short and thick” (Random Family 2003: 33). Her measurement of desirability is the feedback she gets from her on and off boyfriend Cesar:

All I’m asking you is to leave your face ALONE. And don’t cut your hair by yourself, and dress the way I like you to dress. Coco go to the beauty parlor every one or two months to get your hair cut. Dress like you care about yourself. Don’t be wearing no dirty sneakers and stained clothes. Wash your sneakers and shoes. Do your hair, look pretty at all times. [...] That’s all I ask of you. That’s what you have to do impress yourself Coco (Random Family 2003: 176).

Coco has the nasty habit of picking her face, leaving red marks. Cesar reminds her in his letters from jail to “leave her face alone” since “a good-looking girl enhanced his stature, much as she would on the street” (Random Family 2003: 155). He orders her to go to the beauty parlor regularly; fully aware that she struggles economically and more often than not cannot even afford bus tickets to visit him in jail. However, it’s important for him to keep the false front. Jessica has a similar attitude; keeping up appearances is more important than anything else:

She didn’t have much of a wardrobe, but she was resourceful with what she had – her sister’s Lee jeans, her best friend’s earrings, her mother’s T-shirts and perfume. Her appearance on the streets usually caused a stir (Random Family 2003: 1).

A similar attitude is noticeable when it comes to clothes:

Children’s looks reflected the quality of mothering; sloppiness and dirt were physical evidence of failure, of poverty winning its battle against you.

Coco would keep the girls indoors rather than let them look busted-up outside. She spent hours on their hair, twisting and tugging, braiding and curling, liberally applying Vaseline. [...] “I want them to be perfect. They are so beautiful” (Random Family 2003: 145).

Nikki loved girlish clothes, but if Coco dressed Mercedes sexy – cropped tops that showed off her belly – Mercedes got anxious. A few times when she was younger, she’d wet herself. Like Serena, Mercedes was shy about showing off her body. So Coco gave Mercedes a sporty style instead (Random Family 2003: 152).

Beauty and style are, in short, highly important in the community: “Poverty, which limited neighborhood people to shopping in the same cheap neighborhood stores, meant looking like everybody else” (Random Family 2003: 51-52). Disguising poverty is an unuttered impetus for the women in Random Family, - even little children are customized: The morning Coco picks up her elder daughters Mercedes and Nikki from summer camp, she worries most about not forgetting their jewelry and matching outfits

Coco dressed Nautica in a canary-yellow shorts set matching her own. She’d bought similar outfits for Mercedes and Nikki and had them neatly folded in a bag. She’d also packed their gold jewelry, which they hadn’t been allowed to bring.

(...) Sniffling, Coco hugged them both with one arm. With the other, she burrowed in her bags for their jewelry (Random Family 2003: 271).

Another telling index of their lives lived tangled up in discrimination are the various tattoos Jessica and Coco have on their bodies; usually to prove loyalty to a man:

To prove her devotion, Jessica agreed to get a tattoo. “If you love me, you’ll do it,” George said. [...] The first tattoo, a heart with a rose high on her right thigh, was elegant. George. [...] Jessica´s next read Jess loves George, with an arrow over her actual heart (Random Family 2003: 80).

She continues with her public testaments of loyalty. Altogether, she gets six tattoos in Georges´ honor, including a banner reading Property of George across her buttocks and a poem, written on a scroll, which unrolled just above her shoulder blade:

George
No matter where I am
Or what I’m doing
You’re always there
Always on my mind
And in my heart (Random Family 2003: 81)

Coco arranged to get her first tattoo the following week. Like so many things in her life, the tattoo was less a sign of conviction than an attempt to redeem her. Jessica had been urging Coco to fight for Cesar [...] and a tattoo was an easy way to prove her loyalty (Random Family 2003: 183).

Coco boasted. She described the tattoo Jessica had over her bottom, Property of George. For her next tattoo, Coco wanted one like it, Property of Cesar, but with an arrow pointing down (Random Family 2003 186).

Jessica told Serena that the friend who’d given her the mole had promised to make over the six Boy George tattoos for free. She outlined her revamped body with her fingernail – the poem on the shoulder she’d cover with a butterfly, [...] she’d blacken the George in the heart high on her right thigh. She wanted a new tattoo on her ankle: two masks of drama, the inscription inverted – Cry now, Laugh later – in recognition of her new approach to life (Random Family 2003: 363).

Jessica and Coco use their bodies to, quite literally, mark themselves as the property of men, thereby increasing their status. Being ´someone’s girl` is inscribed on their bodies.

In the above discussion, we have seen how physical appearance can either increase or diminish one’s desirability within the Random Family community. As we will see in the next chapter, sexuality, and its relationship to power dynamics takes on a similarly important role.


2.2.2 Power Dynamics and Sexuality

The erotic is a measure of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. At the same time that the erotic may represent power and joy, it can also be objectified and represent a loss of power through voyeuristic fantastic reinterpretation (Morgan 2005: 436).

The above quote successfully captures the duality of experiencing sexuality for women in Random Family. On the one hand sexuality puts them in demand and provides them with a certain freedom within otherwise limited sphere. On the other hand it victimizes them and can be used to commodify them – within the community as well as from the outside.

When a guy had money, girls were everywhere. “One-night-stand girls who came back for more,” George explained, “girls who clung to me like a cheap suit. Then there were girls who were who were my regular jewels of the Nile, more upper class than these regular girls.”
One of George’s block managers got sex from a girl for allowing her to sit in his car- without even having to take her driving. Other girls gave it up for a pair of sneakers, or a pack of Pampers, or cigarettes, or a take-out meal. Sex was currency. Sex was also the boy’s right and his main girlfriend’s problem (Random Family 2003: 54)

In a community where “sex is currency”, it is debatable whether women are powerful because they have what men want, or whether women then “exist as objects and as such will be taken if they don’t give themselves” (Chapkis 1997: 19). Anti-Sex feminists believe that sex itself manifests male domination. Within the anti-sex framework, woman is constituted as and through sex. Thus, not only is sex synonymous with male supremacy and female objectification, but women is synonymous with whore. Andrea Dworkin in Intercourse states, “the metaphysics of male sexual domination is that all women are whores. This basic truth transcends all lesser truths in the male system” (Chapkis 1997: 19) thus woman becomes a passive condition rather than a place of active engagement within the social and cultural order. In short: men’s power over women means that the way men see women defines who women can be. Whether this is an essential truth will be the subject of further analysis.

Fact is, sex and engaging in sexual activities can have an empowering effect, but can be also be the source of discrimination and unwanted consequences such as sexually transmitted diseases or teen pregnancy. Ascribed gender roles play an important role whether a woman can freely and willingly engage in sexual activities or has to fight oppression and act within her ascribed submissive role. It is fact that Puerto Rican women who reside in the northeastern United States have been identified as being at increased risk for STDs and intimate partner violence (Dixon, Peters, Saul 2003: 531). Although not apparent at first sight, both concepts – risky sexual behavior and intimate partner violence – are intimately linked: immigrant Latina’s concept of sexual victimization is influenced by gender roles, religion, victim-blaming attitudes, cultural values and norms, and the level or extent of acculturation in the U.S. (cf. Adames, Campbell 2005: 1343) and thus make them both likely to engage in high risk sexual behavior and be the victim of intimate partner violence.

2.2.2 Gender Roles – Blood and Love and Need

Honey, the boys that are growing up now, are only for your pussy. A girl has to be smart now. Study. Be someone. So when you become somebody, you don’t have to have this straggly shit on your lips, sitting on your ass, to see if they could support you. You could support yourself. They respect you, because they know they could lose you right there and then. You don’t need them, you understand? (Random Family 2003: 388)

In the above quote, Lourdes who has been commodified by men all her life, warns her granddaughter about the ambivalent nature of the power of sexuality: it can enhance your sense of self, and be a source of joy, but it can also make you the victim of restrictive gender roles. Although often grouped together as Hispanics or Latinos/as they represent a diverse group of cultures and national origins. Therefore, all comments here are meant to be generalizations, not stereotypes

Male Roles

In general, the two key features of the men’s role in Hispanic context are machismo and patriarchal authority. Machismo is a term commonly associated with Hispanic men. It can have both positive and negative associations. On the positive side, it dictates that men are expected to behave valiantly to protect the honor and welfare of their family. The job of a man is to work hard and to provide for the family, to protect and be the decision maker. On the negative side, a man with machismo can also refer to someone who is a heavy drinker, can hold his alcohol, and participates actively in the subjugation of women - traits that are socially acceptable and proof of manhood (cf. Galanti 2003: 182-183).

In general, the male children in the book are given special attention:

Coco, if it’s not a boy and I want to have another one from you would you let me? Because I ain´t going to stop having kids until I have a son. I don’t care if I end up with 15 daughters, I’m still gonna keep on (Random Family 2003: 158).

Coco, can’t you do anything right? Three girls?” said her neighbor. Coco smiled her crumpled smile and shrugged. The woman added wearily, “That’s the only thing I done right. Had a son” (Random Family 2003: 178).

Coco felt guilty about favoring one niece, but she believed Milagros favored Brittany and Stephanie – and Kevin, who was special just for being male (Random Family 2003: 217).

Although Lourdes is a single mother, the underlying machismo of her Puerto Rican heritage is pervasive:

Coco felt guilty about favoring one niece, but she believed Milagros favored Brittany and Stephanie – and Kevin, who was special just for being male (Random Family 2003: 217).

Although Lourdes is a single mother, the underlying machismo of her Puerto Rican heritage is pervasive:

Although Lourdes is a single mother, the underlying machismo of her Puerto Rican heritage is pervasive:

Lizette thought Cesar acted less like Lourdes´ son and more like her man: he’d curse Lourdes out of her bad behavior and she would run crying into the bathroom; he’d order her friends out of the apartment; he’d decide whether she could go dancing and inspect the way she dressed. One time, he frog-marched Lourdes back upstairs for wearing something too revealing (Random Family 2003: 115).

Mothers may make the day-today decisions, but the man in the house must be consulted for important decisions (cf. Galanti 2003: 183), even if the man in the house is the own son. Cesar also feels this responsibility, even as a child. Nearly at the end of the novel he reflects what led his path to the ´thug life` - “constantly shuffling among the prisons, getting arrested or rearrested for parole violations or for new crimes, and occasionally getting released” (Random Family 2003: 324). The internal pressure of being in charge for his family, and the limited access he had to really change something as a teenager made him enter the downwards spiral of drugs and crime:

“For me, crime was attention. Responsibility got strapped on my chest when they said, ´There’s no food in the house`. You get praised for doing wrong. I didn’t see it as wrong, because helping my family is right. How I tended to my family was different. Why is because we didn’t have. The sequence led to the boy that created me” (Random Family 2003: 377).

Another example of reversed care-taking roles is when Lourdes visits Cesar in the Coxsackie Correction Facility, and he reproaches her for returning to her violent boyfriend Domingo:

Despite his family’s posturing, Cesar knew the trouble – whatever it was – was his to fix. From prison, the business of fixing it was just that much harder (Random Family 2003: 160).

One of the fundamental differences in the roles enacted by men and women in relationships involves decision-making power. Although Lourdes is the one who gets abused, clearly Cesar is in charge of “fixing things”, and has to decide what the appropriate next step to prevent further abuse of his mother from happening is.

Succinctly stated, Puerto Rican masculinity as depicted in Random Family is a celebration of male phallocentrism. The heterosexual males that the culture deems most desirable as mates or erotic partners tend to be pushing a “dick-thing” masculinity, in bell hooks` words (hooks 1994: 110). They can talk rough and get rough. Disciplining women is acceptable “to make sure the bitches respect them” (hooks 1994: 110). However, one has to be aware that this description of machismo duplicates in almost every detail the usual definition of European patriarchy (cf. Garza 1994: 14).

Female Roles:

Racialized Hot Tamale vs. Marianismo In order to enhance our understanding of female roles in the Random Family, and the Latino community in general, it is necessary to first discuss how Latinas are represented and perceived in popular mainstream culture.

The Racialized Hot Tamale

Latinas, inside and outside the United States, must operate within a complex system of culturally derived racialization and sexualization. Within majority communities, Latinas are racial 'others,' subordinated because their racialized ethnic origins separate them from the normative standards of personhood. Moreover, within their own communities, whether inside or outside the United States, Latinas become second class because of their sex, a deeply-imbedded cultural trope that is definitional of women's worth and particularized roles. Both locally and abroad, women's distance from normal can be exacerbated if they are racial (and sexual) others within their own communities (cf. Berta Esperanza Hernández-Truyol 2001). Barbara Risman explains the intersection of different coordinates of power as follows

We cannot study gender in isolation from other inequalities, nor can we only study inequalities' intersection and ignore the historical and contextual specificity that distinguishes the mechanisms that produce inequality by different categorical divisions (Risman 2004 in Degele, Winker 2007: 2).
Related to the idea of mechanisms that produce inequality is the ideal of ´tropicalization` that is introduced by Frances Aparicio and Susana Chavez-Silverman in their book Tropicalizations – Transcultural Representations of Latinidad (1997). They introduce the term “to tropicalize” to describe the process of assigning certain images, values and traits to certain spaces that are troped ´tropical`. These spaces are tropicalized out of a stereotype, and do not necessarily have to be tropical. Ascribing difference in such a way is the etymological correlative to “Orientalism”, the process of countries and cultures ´south of the border` being defined by Anglo and European discourse (cf. Aparicio, Chavez-Silverman 1997: 6-9). Not only physical spaces can be tropicalized, but also bodies.

The core of hegemonic tropicalization is to represent a primitive Other as exotic. The Tropicalization of gender and sexuality is a powerful variant of hegemonic tropicalization that circulates and exploits gender based myths. The marginalization of Latina bodies is defined by an ideological contradiction - that is, Latina beauty and sexuality is marked as Other, yet it is their otherness that also marks Latinas as desirable (cf. Guzman, Valdivia 2004: 209)./p>

Such a gender based myth is, for instance, Latino/a sexuality as over-eroticized and related to primal instincts and the inability to control oneself. It imposes a set of stereotypes and attributes encoded as tropical and exotic onto Latino/sexuality (cf.Aparicio, Chavez-Silverman 1997:10). Accurate examples of this notion are provided in Judith Ortiz Cofer´s The Latin Deli. As a well-educated Puerto Rican woman growing up in the U.S she repeatedly has to deal with stereotypes that have their origin in a false interpretation of cultural signals. She recalls that even in school, as well as later in her life, her „tight skirts and jiggling bracelets“(Ortiz Cofer 1993: 150) were interpreted as a come-on. According to her interpretation, mixed cultural signals have perpetuated certain stereotypes such as the Hispanic woman as the „Hot Tamale“ (Ortiz Cofer 1993: 150). Nevertheless, she experiences it as painful to be repeatedly addressed „Maria“ (referring to West Side Story) in public. “You can leave the island, master the English language, and travel as far as you can, but if you are a Latina [...] the island travels with you” (Ortiz Cofer 1993: 148). Ortiz Cofer herself uses a very accurate metaphor when saying that experiences, which depict her as a hyper-eroticized, commodified subject make her feel like an island, not so much a tropical paradise as an Alcatraz, a place nobody wants to visit (cf. Ortiz Cofer 1993: 148).

The concept of the Latina being in the white men/women’s imagination the racialized Hot Tamale, has also been certified by Editor Alex Alvarez internet research on the general implication of the word ´Latina`. In her article “Hottt Wired: The Currency of the Word ´Latina`” she states that “I’ve often noticed, as I spend many lonely nights, that on the internet, the word ´Latina` seems to be equivalent to ´sex object`” (Alex Avazrez 2007). Her findings suggest, that the idea of a “ghetto” Latina, in the parlance of today’s youth, is pretty prevalent, - meaning women with a “sweet personality and submissive tendencies and large backsides” (Alex Alvazrez 2007 ). She summarizes her research as follows:

I’m going to go ahead and say, yeah, the currency of the term “Latina” definitely carries a lot of, uh, porny connotations. I’d even go so far as to say we’re fetishized, as in, we are often viewed as less “individual people with thoughts and feelings” and more” a series of holes and curves (Alex Alvarez 2007).

Marianismo

In stark contrast to popular discourse about Latinas - a hegemonic image imposed on them from the outside – stands the traditional Latina female role.

A traditional Latina’s status is in large part derived from her role as a wife. If her husband leaves, she loses status and a large part of her identity. Marianismo refers to the expectation that women embrace the veneration of the Virgin Mary in that they are capable of enduring any suffering inflicted upon them by males (cf. Flake, Forste 2006: 20). The role of the traditional Hispanic woman encompasses taking care of her family and the household. Additionally, a good wife should be submissive, faithful, not question her husband but, rather, should stand behind whatever he decides. Moreover she must be tolerant of his behavior, since family matters are considered highly private. Family problems such as physical abuse are especially problematic in Latino families, since the notion of familismo, which refers to the Latino ideal of placing one’s family ahead of individual interests, in combination with Marianismo makes the Latino family an enabling context for abuse (cf. Murdaugh, Hunt, Sowell, Santana 2004: 113-114). Feelings of shame and embarrassment resulting from a worldview tinted by a traditional valuation of female sacrifice keep Latinas in general, and the Random Family women in particular, neatly ´in place`. Nobel Prize laureate Octavio Paz (1961) observed that a woman who does not conform to the traditional female ideal is viewed as a “mala mujer” in Latin America (cf. Flake, Forste 2006: 20).

It is highly important that not only the images imposed on Latinas from the outside and from the inside clearly contradict each other – the racialized Hot Tamale and the Marianista – in addition; within the community women are subject to contradictory messages:

A lifetime assault of contradictory messages- to be sexy, to respect, that all men were dogs but that without them women were nothing – reinforced her sense of powerlessness and futility (Random Family 2003: 250).

On the one hand sexuality is seen as a commodity that puts you in demand; sexuality has a market value and can serve as an entry into a better life, or at least make life’s little luxuries available to you once in a while:

One of George’s block managers got sex from a girl for allowing her to sit in his car- without even having to take her driving. Other girls gave it up for a pair of sneakers, or a pack of Pampers, or cigarettes, or a take-out meal. Sex was currency (Random Family 2003: 54).

On the other hand, virginity is highly valued, and submissiveness and sexual faithfulness are considered attributes of a good woman:

The high days of virginity put a girl in demand. For the girls, it was not simply a state but an asset that gave them a rare and coveted form of power; virginity could put sneakers on your feet. Ideally, it was something that a girl could make up her own mind about, something that really mattered. And, unlike good looks or real fathers or money, virginity was democratic. Even skanky girls who had it – while they had it possessed something tangible and clean (Random Family 2003: 33).

Nadine Naber reinforces this argument by stating that her research participants generally agreed that virginity, followed by heterosexual endogamous marriage were the key demands of an idealized womanhood that together, constituted the yardstick that policed female subjectivities in cultural nationalist terms (cf. Naber 2006: 92-93).

It becomes apparent that contradictory discourses about Latina femininity within and outside the community produce shifting constructions of femininity in general and Latina femininity in particular. In any case, because Latina’s identities are either defined by their roles as mothers and wives or homogenized sex-bombs, patriarchy, and Latino patriarchy in particular, denies women individuality on the basis of gender.

The prescriptions of good women have great consequence for issues of sexuality and violence among Hispanics. American-born Latinas begin childbearing at an earlier age than do non-Hispanic Whites and continue for a longer time. Children are highly valued, and women’s status is related to her ability to bear children. The concept of Marianismo mentioned above make Hispanic women one of the fastest growing AIDS populations in the U.S. In the contemporary context, gendered roles and behavioral patterns are not as strictly observed as in their original cultural setting. The degrees of acculturation in the U.S., as well as the increasing level of education, have an impact on how gender roles are executed. Nevertheless, data provided from the Health Care for Women International seems to attest a certain accuracy of the generalizations described above: In fact, Latina women represented 20% of AIDS cases reported among women through June 1999, and the most common exposure category for Latina women with AIDS was heterosexual contact. Among Latinas, the highest rates of reported HIV infections occur among Puerto Rican women who reside in the northeastern United States. According to surveys, Puerto Rican women report low or inconsistent rates of condom use (cf. Dixon, Peters, Saul 2003: 530-531). Although during the study 13% reported to have two or more concurrent sexual partners, fear of reporting sexual activities with nonprimary sexual partners kept them from inquiring about condom use, or suggesting condom use (cf. Dixon, Peters, Saul 2003: 532). Moreover, ascribed gender roles make Latina women hesitant to suggest condom use within a presumed intimate relationship if they fear risking the implication of either a lack of trust in their male partner or sexual infidelity on their own part. It is highly interesting that especially Puerto Rican women in this study were less likely to use condoms with their primary sexual partners, despite their perception that the behavior of their partners had increased their risk for HIV infection (cf. Dixon, Peters, Saul 2003: 538). Being found dirty or whorish by men is a serious threat, an argument affirmed in the chapter “Strategic Responses” in Live Sex Acts by Wendy Chapkis. For some women, the fear of disclosure outweighs their concern over the risk of infection. A respondent summed it up as follows: “I thought I’d better keep quiet…If I mention condoms, he’ll think I’m dirty,” (Chapkis 1997: 173). Sacrificing condom use becomes a demonstration of feelings of affection and loyalty; implying infidelity or drug use – and therefore taking care of one’s own health! – is overstepping the boundaries of ascribed gender roles: it is not a woman’s task to evaluate a man’s behavior.

The fact that a woman’s identity is in large part defined in relation to men is also mirrored in Random Family. Firstly, Coco´s identity is threatened every time Cesar neglects her legal status as his wife or girlfriend. From jail, he writes her letters, either addressed to her maiden name or to his own surname.

When he doesn’t write I get depressed,” Coco said. Envelopes addressed with his surname, to Coco Santos, promised good news; Coco Rodriguez letters, addressed to her own name, were ominous (Random Family 2003: 153).

Although they are not married, and in fact Cesar will marry another woman, Coco longs for the evidence that she is someone’s legal girl. A similar attitude is noticeable when Jessica loses the engagement ring given to her by George. Before she lost it, she has taken various pictures of herself wearing the ring. This seems to compensate for the loss: “She was glad she had taken the portrait: What Jessica valued, perhaps more than the relationship, was the evidence of it” (Random Family 2003: 93). It is noteworthy that both Jessica and Coco dedicate themselves to married men: “Jessica envied Vada´s position as George’s legal wife, but Vada rarely came to the Bronx “(Random Family 2003: 73). “Cesar did not love Giselle; he loved Coco [...] the marriage was initially a mercenary move. He had to be legally married to qualify for conjugal visits, and he needed a girl who could be relied on to visit and to keep money coming into his commissary account” (Random Family 2003: 222).

Here, marriage is not described in terms of romance, but as a pragmatic step. Monogamy in this context does not even enter the equation; as already introduced: “Sex was also the boy’s right and his main girlfriend’s problem” (Random Family 2003 54). Fidelity does not seem to be a basic more in Random Family. However, as Gayle Rubin points out, marriage is about power distribution and gender:

The ways in which societies organize marriage provide us an important window into how economic and political arrangements are construed. When people marry, they forge affinal alliances, change residence, establish rights to sexual service, and exchange property. Besides being about the reproduction of class and power, however, marriage is about gender. The marital exchange of women gives men rights over women that women can never gain over men. This feature of marriage provides a key to the political economy of sex, by which cultures organize “maleness” and “femaleness”, sexual desire, fantasy, and concepts of childhood and adulthood (Rubin in Scott 1993: 166).

Significantly, Cesar marries Giselle because of her economical reliability, and George has married a favorable, decent Puerto Rican woman who still lives in Puerto Rico. Both men have marital relationships with good women, in the sense that they follow the underlying rules of Marianismo and are faithful. Nevertheless, the men keep up relationships with various other women. It becomes apparent that fidelity is in fact stipulated by the women but not guaranteed to the women. Nevertheless, Jessica and Coco tie their identity to ´being someone’s girl`, and dedicate their loyalty to this premise, positioned even before their own well-being:

If Cesar chose Roxanne to be his legal wife, Coco planned to remain alone. Cesar vacillated about his marriage plans. He said Coco needed to prove her loyalty. Coco suspected that Cesar was waiting to see if she gave him a son. [...] She told the other girls about Cesar – their first meeting, his other girls, how they planned to marry if he decided on her. “I’d have binned him if he did al that to me,” one girl said. “You won’t know until you stand in my shoes why my love is,” Coco said her eyes filling with tears (Random Family 2003: 152 –153)

In this passage it becomes apparent that Coco is willing to put up with basically everything as long as her relationship with Cesar continues. She does not reproach him for his infidelity; she in fact protects him from offence from the outside. Her devotion is clearly outlined in the following excerpt:

It’s unlikely that another girl would have changed Coco´s devotion to Cesar. “To me,” Coco said, “I was always with him. I knew we wasn’t together, but to me, the way I looked at it, I was always with him. He didn’t worry because I never was going toward anybody else. He knew that if he was with another girl, Coco would take me back. I would” (Random Family 2003: 126).

She obviously takes pride in her devotion. Loyalty to your man is an unspoken impetus in the Random Family community. This loyalty is to be maintained at all costs; but in contrast to other women, Coco never had to put up with intimate partner violence: “What kind of man is he? I’m a violent person and I don’t hit my girlfriend. Look at all I done to Coco, but I ain´t never hit her” (Random Family 2003: 161). When it comes to violence and relationship, Coco and Cesar are the exception, not the rule in Random Family. Jessica, for example, is the victim of various aggressive attacks by Boy George and shows classical victim blaming behavior:

Periodically, George beat Jessica and kicked her out. [...] Whenever George was ready to take her back, though, Jessica was ready to go. She left her daughters behind with Milagros. Jessica said, “I did just what my mother did to me” (Random Family 2003: 52-53).

George’s rules at home were as strict as those he imposed at the mills: no visitors – not family, not friends. [...] She met George’s rigorous standards for a clean house. “He always liked everything spotless – house, clothing. He never liked to see anything dirty,” Jessica said. [...] I didn’t have to get a job. I was to cook and clean and take care of things, and I would get an allowance at the end of the week” (Random Family 2003: 51).

Jessica understood the consequence of breaking George’s rules – vicious beatings – but she broke his rules fairly regularly. She knew a beating had been bad if she came to consciousness at his mother’s; George brought her there because Rita worked at a hospital. Jessica would wake to Rita’s frowning face. “What did you do this time?” Rita would whisper; she also feared her son. When there was serious damage, such as the time George cracked Jessica´s skull, he turned her over to a private doctor who was paid generously in cash (Random Family 2003: 55).

It is not initially clear whether Jessica is financially dependent on George, or what other reasons there might be for her willingness to return to him, and even to leave her children behind for his sake. On more than one occasion she defends her status as his mistress:

Bitch, if I can’t put up with him, you gotta be fucking Wonder Woman! But she just kept quiet, listening in. A girl who did confront her boyfriend was likely to be reminded that there was plenty of pussy everywhere (Random Family 2003: 55).

Evidently, for fear of losing him to another woman she is willing to cope with brutal physical violence. The fact that her motherhood does not keep her from abandoning her children or guarding her safety better, is an indicator that being someone’s girl is indeed more highly valued than being a woman or a mother.

George would have given Jessica money if she’d asked, but Jessica was more interested in winning his love. [...] He teasingly referred to Jessica’s need as her “attention attraction”. It would be years before he understood that Jessica’s desire for attention had the strength of a weed pushing through cement (Random Family 2003: 56).

Money can, therefore, not be the motivating factor for perpetuating a violent relationship. The status Jessica receives from being Boy George’s girlfriend makes her cope with intimate partner violence as well as the neglect of her children; a topic which will be further discussed in the following chapter “Fighting Families”.

Cognitive and behavioral processes that allow intimate partner violence are learned socially in a patriarchal environment characterized by power inequalities that in turn serve as a basis for the continuation of intimate partner violence. Machismo and male domination are pervasive components of the social fabric of Latino culture that are perpetuated from generation to generation. Women’s experiences with aggression and abuse become normative and common, making the struggle against male violence a private matter. This normalization of violence against women is transmitted in the socialization process, which limits the development of efforts to address this concern in Latino culture (cf. Adames, Campbell 2005: 1341–1342).

Interestingly, Jessica was not raised in a classical patriarchal environment, since her father is absent. However, seemingly Lourdes has raised her daughter in the awareness that it is part of a woman’s lot to bear suffering and violence: “Take it like a woman” (Random Family 2003: 259) is the message Lourdes gives her daughter on her way. In prison Jessica reflects on this arguable advice:

“The way I see it,” she said, “in co-dependency you re-create your parents` problems.”

Jessica came to believe that her exposure to Lourdes` abusive boyfriends had caused her to confuse love with violence. She remained loyal to George, with whom she was still in touch, but she grew publicly less protective of him. And she blamed herself less. She began to discuss scary memories, such as the times George played Russian roulette with a gun to Jessica’s forehead. After she realized that the gun was loaded, she figured that “the bullet wouldn’t hurt me because I was so numb from fear” (Random Family 2003: 259)

Lourdes’ attitude of loyalty even to violent men is also carried out by herself.

Across her belly, one arm rested in a sling. The stories of how she came to have a cast were lively and various: she preferred the tale about a trip she took with her man, Domingo, to buy chickens, his admirable intervention in someone else’s domestic trouble, and her diving in front of him to block the bullet that the enraged husband had sent his way. [...] Elaine believed that Domingo had beaten Lourdes for stealing his drugs. Elaine told Cesar about the resulting shoot-out between Domingo and her husband, Angel, how Domingo had threatened even Robert when he went to retrieve Lourdes´ things. [...] What Cesar didn’t know, was that while Robert was making arrangements to get his mother to Florida, Lourdes had bailed Domingo out and returned to him (Random Family 2003: 159-160).

Lourdes was still denying that her new boyfriend had anything to do with why her arm was in a cast. [...] Mercedes stroked her grandmother’s cast. “Who did that?” “A boy,” Lourdes said mischievously. “Domingo did that,” stated Mercedes. “No, Mercy, “said Lourdes, glancing at Domingo significantly. “Domingo did not do this,” said Lourdes with emphasis. “He wouldn’t do this to Abuela. Two morenos did this to me” (Random Family 2003: 194-195).

Lourdes defends her violent boyfriend and lies in favor of Domingo, and according to Jessica, who talks about “her exposure to Lourdes` abusive boyfriends” (Random Family 2003: 259) in the past, has done so before.

Lourdes defends her violent boyfriend and lies in favor of Domingo, and according to Jessica, who talks about “her exposure to Lourdes` abusive boyfriends” (Random Family 2003: 259) in the past, has done so before.

In this section it has become apparent that Latinas are embedded in two contradictory discourses regarding their femininity; both notions position them as objects of masculine authority. Traditional power dynamics, the inequality and physical abuse which can result from them locate them in the realm of helplessness again. From this position, they can either willfully contest subordination – and be mala mujeres – or perpetuate power dynamics that suppress those at their command.

2.2.2.2 Fighting Families - Why Bad is good

A fog of despair so pervaded the ghetto that the smallest gesture of rebellion could seem like a bold, piercing light. Bad, said with fond exasperation, was almost always a compliment.

[...] Bad meant the opposite of cowed or frightened (Random Family 2003: 242).

In mainstream American society, being bad most often has a negative connotation. In the Random Family community, by contrast, being bad is seen as a way to break the circle of street life. Learning theories assert that behaviors are learned throughout our lives through our interactions with others. These interactions teach individuals in subtle ways what behavior is and is not appropriate, as well as what rewards and consequences these actions will have. In this way, an individual learns the emotional and physical tactics of domestic violence and incorporates them into his or her behavior. Learning and generational models claim that motional, physical, and sexual violence are learned behaviors, most often modeled after witnessing violent behaviors of family members, whether the violence was inflicted against the child or just observed being inflicted on a parent (cf. Kernsmith 2006: 163). Individuals create the social reality for their behavior according to how they interpret norms in particular milieus – for children from violent homes, use of violence can be interpreted as the norm in intimate relationships. Children from violent homes do not believe that physical violence is always acceptable – most understand, to some degree, that abuse is wrong by the time they reach adulthood. However, children from violent homes may be more likely to find rationalizations for their physically abusive behaviors, and view the emotional tactics such as extreme jealousy, intimidation, and monitoring the behavior of the partner, as normal and acceptable in future relationships. It is theorized that children learn that conflict is resolved through violence, family interactions involve violence, and this violence is an acceptable means of stress management and conflict resolution (cf. Kernsmith 2006: 163-164).

Both Coco and Jessica use physical violence as stress management. Whereas Coco seems to be overwhelmed by circumstances and enacts corporal punishment on her daughters only to instantly feel guilty; Jessica deliberately uses violence to relieve her stress and enacts this violence without feelings of remorse:

Coco corralled the girls indoors; they got restless and cranky; Coco lost her patience and hit them; then she would feel guilty and indulge them with candy or toys she couldn’t afford from the dollar store (Random Family 2003: 218– 219).

When George was mean to Jessica, she would sometimes turn her rage and frustration on her little girls, calling them stupid and crackheads, then mocking their tears. “Stupid bitch, what the fuck is your problem,” she would snap, pushing them aside. “Turn on the TV” (Random Family 2003: 70).

In this way, an individual learns the emotional and physical tactics of domestic violence and incorporates them into his or her behavior.

A number of factors contribute to the learning and replication of violence. It is possible that individuals who have been abused or witnessed abuse lose faith in the fairness of the world and use violence as a means to avoid being further victimized (cf. Kernsmith 2006: 164). This seems to account for George’s general unsuccessful anger management. As a child he suffered from physical abuse by his mother. However, it is stressed that it was not the physical pain, but the unconnectedness of punishment and action:

George said that his mother, Rita, beat them, sometimes with an extension chord. Most mothers hit their children; what was more disturbing to George was the unpredictability of Rita’s rage (Random Family 2003: 38).

Such men, but also women, see relationships as continual power struggles in which there must always be a winner, the dominant partner, and a loser, the dominated partner. Violence is used to regain power and self-esteem. As children, abusive individuals learned that they must identify with either the abused or the abuser and model that behavior. It is either fear of being hurt again that makes the individual choose the role of the abuser, or witnessing the effectiveness of abusive behavior: The abuser gets what he or she wants. The utility and rewards of abusive behavior appear to outweigh the consequences; especially in cases like those in Random Family when the abused subject – be it Lourdes, or Jessica – do not counter-react in any way. Therefore the behavior is learned and repeated.

Along with learning the skill to abuse, witnessing domestic violence has profound emotional impacts that carry through to adulthood: increased levels of feelings of guilt and shame for not being able to stop the abuse. Shame can cause the person to feel inferior – a characteristic of domestically abusive adults. Shame and guilt have also been linked with hostility, including anger arousal, the tendency to blame others, and irritability.

Cesar gains insight into his patterns of behavior in jail. Jail becomes the location from which he can view all the components of the vicious circle that creates aggression and violence:

While I was growing up I put up a shield. I couldn’t let the neglection and pain get to me so I closed up. But that was how it affected me. It caused me to become frustrated. That’s why when I was a bit older I took to the streets. [...] I went and took my problems out on innocent people. Because my family was bad I made other people suffer. [...] Mom knows how her, the family neglected me. But I forgive Mom, she’s been through so much as it is. I get angry at her a lot, but she’s still Mom. We really come from a dysfunctional family! (Random Family 2003: 285 – 286).

Cesar gains insight into his patterns of behavior in jail. Jail becomes the location from which he can view all the components of the vicious circle that creates aggression and violence:

While I was growing up I put up a shield. I couldn’t let the neglection and pain get to me so I closed up. But that was how it affected me. It caused me to become frustrated. That’s why when I was a bit older I took to the streets. [...] I went and took my problems out on innocent people. Because my family was bad I made other people suffer. [...] Mom knows how her, the family neglected me. But I forgive Mom, she’s been through so much as it is. I get angry at her a lot, but she’s still Mom. We really come from a dysfunctional family! (Random Family 2003: 285 – 286).

Cesar gains insight into his patterns of behavior in jail. Jail becomes the location from which he can view all the components of the vicious circle that creates aggression and violence:

While I was growing up I put up a shield. I couldn’t let the neglection and pain get to me so I closed up. But that was how it affected me. It caused me to become frustrated. That’s why when I was a bit older I took to the streets. [...] I went and took my problems out on innocent people. Because my family was bad I made other people suffer. [...] Mom knows how her, the family neglected me. But I forgive Mom, she’s been through so much as it is. I get angry at her a lot, but she’s still Mom. We really come from a dysfunctional family! (Random Family 2003: 285 – 286).

Cesar gains insight into his patterns of behavior in jail. Jail becomes the location from which he can view all the components of the vicious circle that creates aggression and violence:

While I was growing up I put up a shield. I couldn’t let the neglection and pain get to me so I closed up. But that was how it affected me. It caused me to become frustrated. That’s why when I was a bit older I took to the streets. [...] I went and took my problems out on innocent people. Because my family was bad I made other people suffer. [...] Mom knows how her, the family neglected me. But I forgive Mom, she’s been through so much as it is. I get angry at her a lot, but she’s still Mom. We really come from a dysfunctional family! (Random Family 2003: 285 – 286).

Cesar gains insight into his patterns of behavior in jail. Jail becomes the location from which he can view all the components of the vicious circle that creates aggression and violence:

While I was growing up I put up a shield. I couldn’t let the neglection and pain get to me so I closed up. But that was how it affected me. It caused me to become frustrated. That’s why when I was a bit older I took to the streets. [...] I went and took my problems out on innocent people. Because my family was bad I made other people suffer. [...] Mom knows how her, the family neglected me. But I forgive Mom, she’s been through so much as it is. I get angry at her a lot, but she’s still Mom. We really come from a dysfunctional family! (Random Family 2003: 285 – 286).

Cesar gains insight into his patterns of behavior in jail. Jail becomes the location from which he can view all the components of the vicious circle that creates aggression and violence:

While I was growing up I put up a shield. I couldn’t let the neglection and pain get to me so I closed up. But that was how it affected me. It caused me to become frustrated. That’s why when I was a bit older I took to the streets. [...] I went and took my problems out on innocent people. Because my family was bad I made other people suffer. [...] Mom knows how her, the family neglected me. But I forgive Mom, she’s been through so much as it is. I get angry at her a lot, but she’s still Mom. We really come from a dysfunctional family! (Random Family 2003: 285 – 286).

Cesar gains insight into his patterns of behavior in jail. Jail becomes the location from which he can view all the components of the vicious circle that creates aggression and violence:

While I was growing up I put up a shield. I couldn’t let the neglection and pain get to me so I closed up. But that was how it affected me. It caused me to become frustrated. That’s why when I was a bit older I took to the streets. [...] I went and took my problems out on innocent people. Because my family was bad I made other people suffer. [...] Mom knows how her, the family neglected me. But I forgive Mom, she’s been through so much as it is. I get angry at her a lot, but she’s still Mom. We really come from a dysfunctional family! (Random Family 2003: 285 – 286).

Cesar gains insight into his patterns of behavior in jail. Jail becomes the location from which he can view all the components of the vicious circle that creates aggression and violence:

While I was growing up I put up a shield. I couldn’t let the neglection and pain get to me so I closed up. But that was how it affected me. It caused me to become frustrated. That’s why when I was a bit older I took to the streets. [...] I went and took my problems out on innocent people. Because my family was bad I made other people suffer. [...] Mom knows how her, the family neglected me. But I forgive Mom, she’s been through so much as it is. I get angry at her a lot, but she’s still Mom. We really come from a dysfunctional family! (Random Family 2003: 285 – 286).

In Random Family, the rules of the street and the rules at home seem to go hand in hand. But what makes you fail in intimate relationships can be a vital skill for life on the street. Cesar attributes his own aggressive behavior to his neglectful childhood. However, these survival skills make him get through his jail sentence. Lourdes is actually proud of having taught him not to surrender:

Lourdes willed herself to believe Cesar could protect himself in juvenile. She knew machismo often wilted under pressure, but he’d owned up to the consequences of his bad actions, and Cesar was a fighter. She said: “A ratter will never become a man. He will become an insect.” They could say what they wanted about her, but when it came to her baby, she could hold her head high on the street (Random Family 2003: 94).

For her, she has fulfilled her motherly duties, since she raised a kid that cannot be crushed by the willfulness of life.

Once an individual has learned to use abusive behaviors, either through societal support or childhood experiences with abuse, the individual is faced with the choice of whether or not to use these tactics in intimate relations. Certain factors exist that allow some to choose to use violence while others do not. It is usually talked about the intergenerational cycle of violence, however there are mediating variables emerging in popular research:

Firstly, it does make a difference whether domestic violence is witnessed or experienced personally as a child. Secondly, because memories of abusive incidents are frequently distorted over time, it is likely that some experience with adult violence may either increase or decrease the likelihood of remembering and enacting violence (Kernsmith 2006: 164). Interestingly, Cesar stated repeatedly in the novel that he is a violent man but “I don’t hit my girlfriend” (Random Family 2003: 161) and in a letter he states clearly that “I made other people suffer. But never to ladies, old people, or kids.... I regret what I’ve done because it wasn’t fair” (Random Family 2003: 285).

Jessica, in contrast, takes out her rage at her own kids:

Sometimes Jessica deliberately antagonized George on the phone, and she could turn as abruptly on her children. When Jessica would head out to go dancing, she ignored Serena, who would claw at her legs, ripping her nylons, desperate for her not to leave (Random Family 2003: 98).

Theories of the intergenerational transmission of violent perpetration have primarily examined males. These theories are often based on traditional gender role assumptions that girls identify with the victim while males identify with the perpetrator. While great efforts have been made to explain male use of domestic violence, these theories have not generally been tested for their applicability to female perpetrators. In Random Family, however, women are not only victims but also perpetrators of violence. According to recent studies, it is possible that females, like males, are directly modeling the behavior of an abusive parent, who may have been either male or female. Alternately, exposure to violence makes these women more likely to choose to get back at the perpetrator or someone else, because of hyper-awareness of the consequences of abuse, or determination not to be a victim of violence again (cf. Kernsmith 2006: 170). Alternative studies engaging with violent women found that more than one quarter of all women using violence had experienced parental aggression and nearly half had experienced sexual assault as an adolescent (cf. Kernsmith 2006: 165).

Jessica has experienced violence from Lourdes abusive boyfriends and “Jessica came to believe that her exposure to Lourdes` abusive boyfriends had caused her to confuse love with violence” (Random Family 2003: 259) and in addition from her primary caregiver:

Jessica and Cesar also looked out for each other. One night, Jessica went missing and Lourdes found out that she had been with an off-duty cop in a parked car; when Lourdes kicked Jessica in the head so hard that her ear bled, it was Cesar who ran to the hospital for help. [...] Cesar had learned to steel himself of his mother’s beatings. By the time he was eleven, when his niece Little Star was born, Cesar didn’t cry no matter how hard Lourdes hit (Random Family 2003: 7).

Nevertheless, it seems as if Jessica’s childhood experience was more traumatic than Cesar’s, who escaped to the streets and put up an emotional barrier that kept him from taking out his rage on family members: “I was acknowledged out on the streets. I was taken in and they showed me love (or so I thought)” (Random Family 2003: 285).

Consequently, there must be additional factors for Jessica’s inability to channel her rage away from her offspring. Firstly, it is her continual confusion of love and violence with Boy George:
When Jessica laughed, George went berserk. “Ever since I was little, whenever somebody starts hitting me, I start laughing,” Jessica later said. “And if I laugh, he thinks I’m laughing on him, and he just keeps beating me” (Random Family 2003: 70).

Laughter in this case can already be identified as a surrogate action for crying, which has probably not brought her any relief in her past. Secondly, she in fact experienced severe trauma through sexual abuse in her past:

Jessica had also been sexually abused, by Cesar’s father from the age of three (Random Family 2003: 10).

She told George what she had never told Lourdes: that Cesar’s father had sexually abused her for years (Random Family 2003: 20).

This fact seems to support the theory that the likeliness of the transmission of violence in females is heightened by sexual abuse in childhood. Moreover, these findings seem to indicate that survivors of sexual abuse frequently experience after-effects of the abuse, including fear of intimacy, low self-esteem, sexual promiscuity, depression, suicidal ideation (cf. Kernsmith 2006: 169), all of which applies to Jessica:

  Jessica’s depression grew. She started gouging small cuts on her inner thighs. Nobody wanted her – she had been neglected by her own father; then by Puma; and even by Willi, her second choice. She said: “I was never loved the way I wanted to be. Nobody in my family ever paid any attention to me.” That spring, after receiving a vicious beating from Lourdes, Jessica tried to kill herself by swallowing pills, and Bid Daddy whisked her to Bronx Lebanon Hospital. The drastic action worked, but only briefly (Random Family 2003: 10).

However, her special case does not indicate that those who have been sexually abused may be hyper-vigilant in relationships. In fact, when Jessica discovers that her baby daughter Serena might have been abused, she does not react at all:
That summer, Serena started to cry whenever she peed, and after a few weeks, Lourdes threatened to hit Jessica if she didn’t bring Serena to the hospital to be checked. When Jessica and Elaine finally took Serena to the hospital after a few weeks, the doctors discovered that she’d been sexually abused. She was two years old. [...] Serena had been unsupervised in the company of so many different people it was impossible to know whom to blame. [...]
All the women in Serena’s life had been sexually abused at one time or another, and their upset seemed to be less about the child’s trauma than the overwhelming need to revisit their own, (Random Family 2003: 15).

 LeBlanc´s pointed assessment: “Everyone and no one was responsible. Serena had been unsupervised in the company of so many different people it was impossible to know whom to blame. Underneath all the indictments and posturing, however, bad mothering was considered the true culprit: Lourdes blamed Jessica; Jessica blamed herself. And somehow Serena got lost in the noise” (Random Family 2003: 15) shows that hyper-vigilance might occur where clarity and consideration take place. But in Random Family the intersection of randomness of family, culturally specific definitions of extended family members and economic limitation that will be the topic of the following chapter The Welfare Family make it almost impossible to pin-point a culprit:
The sexual threat men posed to little girls was so pervasive that even the warnings meant to avert it were saturated with fatalism. For the mothers of girls, this threat hung over the whole of life, like a low cover of dread; it was one of the more commonly given reasons why expectant parents wanted boys. Good mothers didn’t go from men to men not only because promiscuity was frowned upon, but also because protecting children meant limiting the number of men that passed through a house. The rules sounded clear if you listened to what people said: Never leave your girls alone with a man who wasn’t blood. In practice, however, that expectation was unrealistic, and women frequently failed to meet it: a neighbor would mind a baby while the mother would make an emergency visit to the hospital, a sister would need to run to the store and her brother’s friend would watch her niece; a friend would offer to keep an eye on the kids to give an exhausted woman a break; children often stayed awake long after their mothers fell asleep. And all of this was further complicated if adults were drinking and using drugs (Random Family 2003: 250).

 George berated her for being a rotten mother, but he had even less tolerance for children than she did. Even his jovial paternal moods were mixed with cruelty. He pitted the twins against one another to playfight, which was common-families routinely toughened up their kids this way- but George always crossed the line. He’d force the twins to fight even after they cried- not the early cries of hurt that everyone seemed to ignore, but deep sobs of distress (Random Family 2003: 70).

Jessica gets lost in her own need and perpetuates a lifestyle that victimizes her and in which she victimizes others. This kind of bitchy selfishness stands in stark contrast to Coco´s intervention when a similar suspicion falls on her oldest daughter Mercedes:

  The doctor diagnosed Mercedes with genital warts. He explained that he had to notify BCW.

[...] Coco believed she was vigilant. From their infancy, she’d admonished her girls to keep their legs closed and to stay off men’s laps. She never let them go away with strangers but, given her profound insecurities and the fluid kinship relationships on which she depended, it was impossible- and sometimes rude- to draw a harsh line between who was like family and who was not. A lifetime assault of contradictory messages- to be sexy, to respect, that all men were dogs but that without them women were nothing – reinforced her sense of powerlessness and futility. In a sense, Coco had been both fighting this eventuality and waiting for it all her life, so that now her guilt and failure trumped the very real question of whether the abuse had actually happened or not (Random Family 2003: 250).

 Coco unconsciously names all factors that are known to account for child psychopathology: Mother’s marital status, socioeconomic status, community environment, general stress and parental substance abuse (cf. Hazen, Connelly, Kelleher, Barth, Landsverk 2006: 100).

  Coco is consciously aware of all the obstacles her lifestyle encompasses, the fluid kinship relations and the contradictory messages of being sexy and being cautious she imposes on her children:

Nikki loved girlish clothes, but if Coco dressed Mercedes sexy – cropped tops that showed off her belly – Mercedes got anxious. A few times when she was younger, she’d wet herself. Like Serena, Mercedes was shy about showing off her body. So Coco gave Mercedes a sporty style instead (Random Family 2003: 151).

 Wetting oneself when being forced to expose one’s body could be interpreted as first missed sign of child abuse. The narrative even links Mercedes´ behavior to Serena, whose history of abuse has not been revealed to Coco so far into the story. However, Coco does not avoid inconvenient questions that would not allow her to continue her lifestyle. She steps into action and reveals the Morales families history of abuse:

  Back in the Bronx, Coco stopped by Lourdes´ to report what had happened, but Lourdes was “all into her business”. Coco next tried Elaine (...).

“It never happened in your family,” Elaine said quietly. “It never happened in your family,” she repeated, her voice getting firm. “It happened in my family. I said to my mother, ´Mom, if it happened in our family, and the only place the baby was, was with our family and her family; don’t you think that it means it probably happened in our family? She said she never left the baby with her boyfriend except for when she went to the store. And you know my mother, Coco. She wasn’t at the store for no five, ten minutes. Forty-five minutes every time.

  “And who gave the girls a bath while you were cooking? And who went to hit the girls to go to bed? And who stayed with the girls when you went to the store? ` My mother just cried.”
Coco cried during the ride back to Foxy´s. Mercedes and Nautica watched her silently. Coco´s thoughts returned to something Elaine had said about Jessica – how Jessica didn’t do anything when the doctor discovered Serena’s abuse. Elaine had emphasized the point. “She chose to not hear. She chose it. But you are doing something about it, Coco. You are trying to find out,“ Elaine had said (Random Family 2003: 252).

It is highly important that Elaine states that “It never happened in your family” (Random Family 2003: 252). Moreover there is no hint that Coco has experienced violence in her family. Several studies have suggested that experiencing intimate partner violence can have a negative impact on the quality of maternal parenting. Victimized women have reported more stress associated with parenting, display less warmth, and often experience more conflict with their children in relation to nonvictimized women (cf. Hazen, Connelly, Kelleher, Barth, Landsverk 2006: 100).

However, Elaine also stresses the importance of choice. Coco is made aware that choosing not to hear is the essential fault. She does not do so and investigates throughout the novel. Finally Mercedes opens up to her:

It took a while for Mercedes to calm down enough to speak. She told her mother that during the summer visit to Grandma Foxy´s, Foxy´s boyfriend, Hernan, had done something nasty to her. (...) When Coco first called Foxy and told her what Mercedes had said, both mother and daughter cried and cried. Foxy told Coco that she had been repeatedly abused as a child, and then Coco confessed that she had been molested several times by a cousin, when she was nine. Foxy was shocked that Coco had never told her. Foxy also promised to confront her boyfriend the following day, when he was sober (Random Family 2003: 369).

Both mother and child seem to break out of the vicious circle of abuse and silence, however Coco underestimated the impetus to stay loyal to violent men as discussed before. Foxy´s status as Hernan´s girlfriend is valued higher than her status as the grandmother of an abused child:

An official inquiry began in the ensuing weeks: Mercedes and her sisters were individually questioned at school, and an investigator went to Hernan´s and interviewed him, but did not pursue the matter.

Coco had never held her mother responsible for what had happened to her when she was a little girl. But that fall, when she realized Foxy wasn’t going to leave Hernan –even though Coco has made it clear that Foxy was welcome in Troy – something in Coco´s feelings for her mother changed. Coco´s years of anger and frustration with Foxy had been based on the belief that Foxy could fix her life if she really wanted to – if not for herself, at least for her grandkids. Now Coco understood that her mother didn’t have the strength. Finally, Coco saw that her home was no longer in the Bronx. Within weeks, she was called back to Garden Way, and this time, she would remain there for almost a year (Random Family 2003: 389).

Coco is identified as the one who is finally able to value something higher than her secondary rate status of being ´someone’s girl` She leaves the Bronx, which will continuously be associated in this paper with repetitious patterns of behavior that fail to elevate the Random

Family women from their ascribed gendered roles.

Moreover, the passage above characterized the authorities as an unreliable institution, a motif that will also re-occur in the paper: “In her community, good mothering was premised on keeping one’s children away from authorities” (Random Family 2003: 264). Coco is the strong bitch who does not model her behavior after her mother but who creates her own rules, which she writes down and consequently manages to escape the vicious circle of victimization and abuse:

Life is Bitch BUT I’m a strong woman!

I’ll give these girls the world!

I’ll never put anyone before my Kids (Random Family 2003: 212)

In this section the family as violent unit has been analyzed. As a consequence of victimization the Random Family women are faced with two choices: they can either adopt the role of being a perpetrator against others, or they can take an active stand against abuse and the imposed silence.
Since, when women are faced with these two choices, they do not always make the decision a good mother would, the general concept of motherhood in the text should be examined. ..... 


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