Identity Policing

One issue that comes up across the stories that photojournalist Danielle Villasana and I are pursuing is the policing of identity. We have especially noted this with transgender women and adolescents in urban neighborhoods; for this post I’ll focus on the latter.

The parents of teenagers in the neighborhood of Rivera Hernandez teach their children to carry their birth certificates with them. This is because, they say, if the police stop their children for a random search, as the police often do, they will arrest the kids if they don’t have a certificate on them. The kids must prove their identity: that they belong in this neighborhood and are not members of gangs, bandas or narco organized criminal groups. If not, they will likely be arrested. After arrests, police have sometimes turned kids over to a gang or organized criminal group, or disappeared or killed the kids themselves. Parents and teenagers fear falling into the hands of the police as much as they fear that same fate with gangs and other groups. Parents told us about their children’s near-death experiences of traveling only a few blocks away from home, crossing borders from one gang, banda or narco group to another. Your identity is determined by the group that dominates the street you live on, so if you cross into territory run by anyone else, and if they catch you and prove that identity, the sentence is often death. Conversely, teens in the Rivera Hernandez say they face no problems from the gangs and bandas that run their streets; they respect their decision not to join, they say. The problem is crossing identity boundaries – to go to school or to the gym, for instance. A teenager simply cannot cross into territory run by other groups without risking death. And whether gang affiliated or not, young people from Rivera Hernandez say they struggle to be hired for jobs; they’re discriminated against for coming from the notoriously violent neighborhood.

– Danielle Marie Mackey