"[My relationships were] like I was in these movies where the script was only half-written. When I’d get to the end of this half-script, the other actors wanted me to ad lib. But I had never gotten the hang of that. That’s why these movies were always box-office failures. Six of them in the past twenty years. I always blew the lines." ~ from my horrible first novel "Learn How To Pretend." (unpublished)(obviously)

Sunday, April 07, 2013

The Yanomami and "A Bronx Tale": A Comparison of Cultures

This essay was written for a sociology class I took with the University of New Mexico around 2007

  A civilized American neighborhood in the Bronx and a tribe of naked primitives in the Venezuelan jungles are literally a half a world apart. Yet, an examination of both cultures reveals great differences as well as unsettling parallels. Though the Yanomami New World culture has roots that fade into the mists of time, and that of the Bronx neighborhood has its roots in the “cradle of civilization,” there are some strong similarities.
            The most evident similarity between the two cultures involves the societal norm of reciprocity. In the parlance of the street, it is called ‘payback.’ The Bible refers to it as ‘an eye for and eye.’ It is a deeply ingrained sense of justice that seems to be a mark of humanity worldwide. From early childhood, the Yanomami are taught that every blow should be responded to in kind. Likewise, in the Bronx culture any slight was reason for payback. Taking someone’s parking spot could mean death. A severe beating paid for rudeness. Yet, among the Yanomami, there seemed to be a stronger sense of egalitarianism. The Bronx neighborhood had a very top-down pecking order. If you were going to seek revenge going upward in the pecking order, you had better be sure to make it  permanent. We may seem shocked that such an unyielding desire for revenge could exist in a modern society. Can’t we all just get along? An examination of modern street gangs and even our own government show that this is an all-American norm. You can’t let anyone get over on you. There is a saying (that is supposed to be extremely clever) - “I don’t get mad - I get even.” Unfortunately, we seem unable to restrict it to “getting even.” We have to get one up.
A Bronx Tale (1993) (Dir. Robert DiNiro)
             Both cultures have strong, shared religious beliefs within the respective cultures. The Yanomami believe evil spirits possess their sick and that elaborate rituals should be performed to exorcise these demons. Always alert to spiritual dangers about them, misfortune was a sure sign of a spell cast by an enemy. While the Bronx neighborhood seems to us to be more “rational,” they still had their little charms to ward off evil such as making the sign of the cross when passing a church.
            In the culture of the Bronx neighborhood, the worst thing you could do was to be a ‘rat.’ As [a discussion group member]pointed out, when someone “ratted out” someone from the neighborhood, they were guilty of exposing the culture to outsiders.   Moral arguments against the criminal acts perpetrated aside, this exposing of culture weakened the structure of Cee’s neighborhood. If there is safety in numbers - if numbers are needed for survival of the culture – then to rat becomes a more serious crime than murder. In fact, it may border on genocide.
            This equating of ratting with exposing the culture to outsiders is played out among the Yanomami in a very real way. The Yanomami were constantly engaged in little battles of reciprocity, fighting over slights whose origins were nearly forgotten. In the NOVA documentary, when they decided to invite the enemy into their village, the Yanomami were extremely wary and vigilant. They went about and loudly warned these outsiders of what would happen if they got out of line. This situation is similar to when the bikers come to the Bronx. They are allowed in, politely, but with an implied warning; mind your manners or we will mind them for you. 
            The bikers were also allowed in with the understanding (by Sonny and his people) that this was an outsider element that could easily be removed. The bikers were not a stronger element. Unfortunately, the Yanomami failed to recognize who the true outsiders were.  When they exposed their culture to the Napolean Chagnon, and later, the NOVA film crew gold miners and other outsiders, they weakened the structure of their culture. The Yanomami allowed in a stronger element. Although not shown in A Bronx Tale, in later years, a stronger element was allowed into the mafia culture in the form of informants and federal agents.
            When we speak of the differences between the two cultures, some, such as the folkways regarding dress are obvious and glaring. However, it is in regards to the form of solidarity that holds them together where we have to examine things a bit closer. The Bronx neighborhood is clearly held together by an organic, or contractual, solidarity. Within the culture there is a definite set of roles for the members to fulfill. In the subculture of the Sonny’s gang, there is en even sharper delineation of roles and places in the pecking order.  Everyone knows his or her place. While many people may play similar roles, the neighborhood’s overall unity is based on the variety of roles and in the implied contractual understanding of what those roles entail. By contrast, the Yanomami are a much more egalitarian group with a mechanical solidarity model in place. There is little differentiation in roles. With minor exceptions, the community has set expectations that apply to all members. A likely reason for this would be the homogenous nature of the Yanomami culture, which was untainted by outsiders until quite recently. The Bronx culture on the other hand was being constantly buffeted and shaped by outside influences in the areas of education, entertainment and the media.
            The group solidarity and its effect on creating ethnocentrism are apparent in both cultures. In both cultures, the desire to keep outsiders away removes any outside influences to thinking. Within the Bronx group, verbal reinforcement of us versus them is constant, especially when there were greater differences with the outsiders, such as race. Among the Yanomami -- as with most American indigenous tribes, their name says it all. Yanomami means “human beings.” In most cases, tribal names (i.e. The Navajo name ‘Dineh’, Arapaho, Ute etc.) means “the people,” or some variant of this concept. The idea that “we” are people and “they” are something else, is reinforced constantly.
            There were opportunities for the agents of socialization to effect positive changes in their cultures. As the textbook notes, everyone is an agent of socialization, yet men like Sonny in the Bronx, or the Shaman in the jungle, were the respected ones. Sonny, and perhaps to a lesser degree, the Shaman, were “victims” of role-taking. Sonny clearly saw himself as other saw him, and he took that role on. People saw him as a dangerous hoodlum. They expected the worst out of him and he delivered.
            Though there were many cosmetic differences, these cultures seemed to share some basic human desire for what may be regarded as real or implied justice. That desire, shared by all peoples for all time, is tied into our survival instinct. If our people are treated justly, they will survive. If we keep on God’s good side, we will survive. If we stay alert to witchcraft and evil spirits, if we keep the outsiders at bay, and do not expose our culture to outsiders, we will survive.

©2013 Rick Robb. This essay may be reproduced, but not to use to turn in for a grade you lazy butt!

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