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Catching Hell in the City of AngelsBy Joao VargasCatching Hell’s six-chapter ethnography is based in a community—South Central Los Angeles—where parenting, music, social interactions and community organizationsserve as vehicles for social transformation.Vargas, a community activist prior to his re-search, moved into a South Central neigh-borhood in the early 1990s where he livedfor two years and where gunplay is commonand police helicopters routinely monitoredhis apartment complex. He befriends the res-idents whose lives prompt him to analyze thepotential among this population to pursuesocial change. The first three chapters cap-ture how black identity is affirmed throughsolidarity between poor mothers and com-munity workers, and through shared musicalexpression. The next two chapters exploreblack identity as it creates spaces in whichjazz and blues artistry are affirmed as black-ness. In the last chapter, black identity oper-ates as a mechanics for self-help, for the kindof transformation that carries the potential forsocial change.Vargas presents fascinating portraits offour groups: women with drug problems, ac-tivists who fight against police brutality, for-mer gang members who try to maintain atruce between the Bloods and the Crips, andmusicians who perform in local clubs. Ineach case he describes the perceptions andthe definitions of “blackness” these peopleuse to cope with oppression.The book’s most powerful instrument isthe use of neighborhood maps to reflect thevariety and complexity within the popula-tions of both blacks and Latinos throughoutthe areas of Watts, Crenshaw, West Athens,and South Park. These neighborhoods ofconverted garages and homes protected byiron bars rank among the top four mostcrowded areas in the U.S. Vargas notes: “So-cial fault lines in South Central LA reflectboth contemporary social and economic dis-
parities and long-term struggles between andamong blacks of different social groups, gen-ders, and sexualities, places of residence,ages, political outlooks, and relations to thestate” (p. 15).