Randol Contreras, author of The Stickup Kids, Race, Drugs, Violence and the American Dream, recently visited a BMCC urban sociology class—via Skype, a software program that enables people to talk with each other through a live image on their computer screens.
Contreras spoke to the students from his office at California State University at Fullerton, where he is an Assistant Professor, teaching theories of social behavior, criminology and other subjects.
“I assigned The Stickup Kids because it is a rich, complex sociological ethnography of violent drug robbers in the South Bronx,” says BMCC social science professor Rose Kim, who invited him to “visit” her class.
The “Stickup Kids,” or Dominican drug robbers featured in Contreras’ book made their name raiding dealers of their heroin, cocaine, marijuana and cash.
They are also friends from his youth.
Contreras grew up in the South Bronx in the 1980s, a time when arson and building abandonment, cuts in social services and the rise of crack-cocaine devastated the neighborhood. It was the decline of the crack market, he explains, that finished setting the stage on which a generation of drug robbers emerged.
Coming of age in the “crack era”
“I came of age when the crack era was in full swing,” Contreras told the students in a BMCC classroom 3,000 miles away, his image projected on a large screen at the front of the room.
“It was the South Bronx, the eighties, lots of abandoned, burned-out buildings. The only people making it were the drug dealers. They wore a lot of jewelry; gold and silver, the big rope chains, medallions, anchors—do you know what I’m talking about?”
The students called out, “Yes!” and Contreras continued.
“We have this message in our society,” he said. “We have to make it big, to show people our status. I wanted to be a capitalist… and so a friend and I set up a drug spot in The Bronx, but the crack market was in decline.”
Contreras “failed miserably” as a drug dealer, he says, “so I went with my second option—community college in Upstate, New York. And whenever I had to write a paper for my class, I’d go back to my neighborhood and interview the guys I knew.”
Eventually, he told the students, those interviews evolved into a dissertation, and he earned a Ph.D. in Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center.
A foundation set in early childhood
Contreras draws many comparisons between himself and the two central subjects of his book—his childhood friends, Gus and Pablo. The three men grew up in the same neighborhood, within the same social and economic environment, yet their lives turned out quite differently.
He shares some thoughts on factors leading to their dissimilar paths.
“Since I was a young child, I always enjoyed reading,” he says. “I suspect my love of reading started when my mother, who worked long hours at a sweatshop, and left my brother and I under the supervision of my older sister after school.”
Contreras was in the third and fourth grade at that time, and his sister, who was four years older, would take him to the local public library where she would meet her friends to study and talk.
“So I would be left alone in the children's section,” says Contreras, “reading fiction and biographies. I then got a library card and sometimes went by myself to the library to take out books.”
The library outings stopped when the Contreras family moved to another neighborhood, “and I started spending more time on the streets hanging out and playing sports,” he says. “From that point on, I only read books that were assigned in school, but I guess the foundation had been set and I read all the required readings with relish.”
As for writing, Contreras never wrote “for fun” or kept a diary, “but I always enjoyed my creative writing assignments and felt most excited writing stories,” he says. “Perhaps my love of reading and writing got me into Brooklyn Technical High School.”
It takes more than love of learning, though, to thrive in high school, and Contreras soon chose to leave the elite environment of Brooklyn Tech and begin attending a high school in his old neighborhood, citing “social class and structural factors” for his decision.
Pipelines and family lines
After high school, Contreras took another step that set him apart from the “Stickup Kids” Gus and Pablo, featured in his book—he attended college, starting with a community college upstate.
“I worked extremely hard to eventually attain a Ph.D.,” he says, and “benefitted greatly from the availability of affordable public education.”
He also, he says, benefited from the CUNY Pipeline Program.
“This program provides CUNY undergraduate minority students who desire research and teaching careers with financial resources, with graduate application and GRE workshops, with lots of mentorship, and with research experience,” he says.
In fact, Contreras adds, "I could truly say that without these public support systems and programs in place, I would've probably never attained a Ph.D. or been able to pursue my passions.”
Pablo and Gus, however, “had different experiences,” he says, “especially Gus. He grew up in a drug-dealing family and everything he learned from about the third grade on, prepared him to be a successful drug dealer and robber. The tragedy is that he always had a love of learning—I remember him convincing his mother to by him a junior chemistry set when he was around ten years old.”
In the end, says Contreras, “Gus’ family environment in conjunction with his neighborhood conditions, in conjunction with the Crack Era, in conjunction with the loss of well paying, low-skilled, legal work … all shaped and influenced his life course.”
A compelling role model
Unlike Gus, who was “intellectually curious, always thinking deeply about social issues,” Contreras says, “Pablo just didn't do well in school. Rather, he was highly skilled football player, who, in terms of foot speed, was a step too slow to make it into a top college program. He also had an older brother who sold drugs, which made his transition into drug dealing easier.”
By the time Pablo was eagerly pursuing legal business success, says Contreras, “his criminal record made it difficult for him.”
Contreras, on the other hand, “was fortunate enough to avoid arrest during my attempts at drug dealing,” he says, “so when I decided to go the legal route, I had no felony convictions to get in my way.”
Professor Kim points out that Contreras’ educational experience echoes that of many of her students, a number of whom grew up in the South Bronx, and that his book provides “a perceptive analysis of a milieu familiar to them, as well as the fact that the author’s educational experience echoed theirs.”
She adds that, “Dr. Contreras, the graduate of a community college, City College, and the CUNY Graduate Center, is a compelling role model, especially for BMCC students.”
“Easy entry points” versus “being an outsider”
Q & A is one of the perks of a live “chat,” and students weren’t shy with their questions for Contreras. They started by asking if he ever thought about going back to the South Bronx, to do “Part Two” of the book.
Contreras explained that currently, he’s busy doing field research on the “Black and Brown” tension that exists between Latina/os and African Americans in Los Angeles—where he is an outsider.
Having grown up in the South Bronx gave him an advantage when he completed the research for Stickup Kids.
“You have easy entry points,” he says, while his research in Los Angeles “is going much slower. And it’s different there. It’s generational. You have kids growing up in families where the grandfather was part of a gang.”
Students weigh in on content and process
When Contreras signed off from the Skype session, the class broke into spontaneous applause.
“It was a great experience, hearing the author’s perspective,” said Alisha Noboa, who grew up in the South Bronx, herself. “It gives us a better understanding of how he came to write about that topic.”
“It’s a very personal book, said her classmate Teenish Toussant. “I feel like he came from a genuine place.”
Nelson Ortiz added, “You’re talking about issues that need to be talked about. I grew up in the South Bronx. I totally relate with this book and understand why it was important to him, to write about it.”
Through the Skype session, said Professor Kim, “Dr. Contreras was able to interact quite intimately with the class, despite being in California… I think education makes an impact when it most reflects and examines the reality of people’s lives.”
She makes the point that, “Too often digital technology is used as a convenience, replacing what could be done face-to-face—for example, taking exams or hearing a lecture … How can we use digital technology to expand and enhance the classroom experience, rather than just replicating or degrading it?”
Her student Gary Lucero adds that, “We hear about CUNYfirst all the time; there’s a focus on technology on campus, and the Skype interview we had today, this is why it’s important it’s in our classrooms, too.”