July 2018

Issue Home >>

When you think of the kind of person who interviews local gang members to gain hidden insights, a soft-spoken linguistics lecturer probably doesn’t come to mind. But that’s exactly what Dr Renée Figuera did with the help of one of her former students. Figuera is Linguistics Lecturer and coordinator of the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) programme at UWI. Figuera has a lifelong obsession with how language is represented and its ability to empower and disempower people who are often overlooked by our society. Who gets to tell the prevailing narrative, and who doesn’t?

The first language Figuera learnt was Hindi, thanks to her time at Rio Claro Hindu School. It is here where she fell in love with language and later went on to do her Bachelor of Arts in French and Spanish at The UWI, St Augustine. Her PhD in Applied Linguistics enabled her to do studies in critical discourse analysis, specifically looking at inequality as represented through language. This training combined with her years of teaching students in the tertiary, secondary and adult continuing education sector, opened her up to worlds she didn’t know existed.

The span of her research projects are too long to list here, but her focus on needs-based curricula and programmes stems from her desire to always be socially relevant. So it’s no surprise that right now she’s passionate about some of the most misunderstood and talked about minority populations – gang members, migrants and refugees.

UWI Today interviewed Dr Figuera on the top floor of UWI’s Faculty of Humanities and Education Building in Figuera’s stomping ground, the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics (DMLL). She remembered a seminal moment for her: the time she assigned a rudimentary business writing essay to her students at the UWI Applied School of Business. The homework she got back eventually changed the course of her academic career.

“They were using language about gangs that they couldn’t have known unless they were an insider. I wanted them to know that their world view was important.”

Figuera encouraged a student involved to write about the experience, even becoming so invested that when the student dropped out, Figuera saw to it they got back into school and continued with education. Emerging from this, Figuera began research on language and gang culture. The specific study analysed the conversations of members of gang culture, exploring the sense of shared “moral agency” among seasoned gang players between the ages of 25 and 41 in the community context of the Patna-River Estate and the Northern Blue Basin community of Diego Martin.

Figuera was able to directly interview gang players and hear in their own words how they viewed gang culture and their role within it. The study honed in on the language used by six key people to provide a much-needed context on how in their own world, they legitimised violent crimes.

The study, playfully titled “Doh go Dey”, was one of the first of its kind to actually “go dey”. According to Figuera, “I had not previously come across studies done with an adult population, and more specifically, gang players, whose economic livelihoods were intertwined with gang activity and violence.”

By asking a series of questions in creole such as, “Okay… so what would you say is your role an function in de brodahhood?” and “Do you think dat gangsters are misunderstood an if yes or if no, wha would you like people tuh understan?” resulted in gang members giving micro-narratives about their upbringing and education, their routes into gang life, their roles as members within the gang fraternity and their experiences as gang players.

Figuera says the route to gang membership often defies predominant narratives echoed in daily newspapers. “People think that people get into gangs because they didn’t like school or wanted to go the easy route, but a lot of gang members are smart. They like school, they like to play chess, they like strategy.”

Just looking at the pseudonyms of the interviewed gang players, it’s surprising to see the name “Keyser Soze” – a character made famous by Kevin Spacey in the 1995 movie The Usual Suspects. (Movie spoiler alert: the character Keyser Soze plays the role of an unlikely suspect.) Gang players refer to giving the police a “keyser” or “hitting them a shot” or ruse, which is usually orchestrated by a cunning, intelligent playmaker.

Figuera also interviewed a female gang member dubbed “Barbie” (ironic as her role as a gang player is anything but light-hearted or frivolous). In Barbie’s words, “Practically I come like de moddah uh de broderhood, I deal all financial an lawyers an whatnot, am, basically I like de queen on de board, I cover all ovah an basically dais it.”

The study doesn’t glamorize or judge these gang players’ behaviour. It asks them to look at themselves, and puts Figuera in the role of an empathetic linguist closely analysing the language of their responses.

When the gang players were asked, “If yuh had to describe yuhself growin’ up, what would you say about yuhself?” – all six subjects seemed to tone down the matter of involvement in crime by pointing either to the nurturing life conditions of positive parenting, or to schooling and religion, which they used to construct their sense of self as inherently moral and law-abiding community residents. Here’s Keyser Soze: “Family was okay, moddah treat meh good, faddah dey fuh meh, sistahs, no broddahs.”

Most players also discussed their experience with being “failed by the system” thus resulting in a distancing of themselves as active participants or “deagentialisation.” They saw themselves as people who had “ended up in crime” as opposed to actively seeking out a criminal lifestyle from the outset.

Figuera finds this kind of insider perspective invaluable and a cornerstone for reexamining the sociocultural rationale for crime. She is working to develop this project (on gang language) into a paper which will be co-authored by one of her students involved in the project. It is possible that lawmakers, researchers and other groups interested in curtailing crime may follow Figuera’s example of “going dey”and use existing intermediary resources between insider and outsider groups to gain new information.

Looking at language critically is something Figuera doesn’t just practice; she demands it. As coordinator of The UWI St Augustine’s TESOL programme, she trains teachers to look at their position in the world as Caribbean English speakers teaching English to non-native English speakers. For example, what does being a Caribbean English speaker bring to the table? How is your perspective different when you are a yardie teaching in the JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching) programme? By looking at our own Caribbean varieties of English and accents, she aims to empower Caribbean English teachers to legitimise their brand of teaching and continue to make it in demand regionally and internationally.

The ability to look at how language affects groups on the margins of the mainstream is Figuera’s main obsession. “My students will tell you that I always say – ‘It’s not what you want to research, it’s why you want to research. What is your end goal? Whose lives will your research impact?’” There is no doubt that under Figuera’s tutelage, the research coming from UWI’s linguistics students will matter to the people that most need to be heard.