In Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc follows the lives of a Dominican-American family living and growing up in the Bronx in the 1980s and 1990s. Jessica, her brother Cesar, and Cesar’s girlfriend Coco face poverty, drugs, children, abuse, and incarceration over the course of a decade or so, and all of it is faithfully reported by LeBlanc. Much like Always Running (review here), Random Family is a sometimes- unpleasant read, but an important one. For many Americans, the effects of extreme, generational poverty are invisible. LeBlanc forces you to look–to care.
First, I very much appreciated that LeBlanc kept herself out of the narrative. I think the tendency to insert oneself into stories like this can be tempting, especially when you are following the same individuals for years, becoming enmeshed in their lives. LeBlanc wisely realized that this book was not about her, but rather, about the lives of Jessica, Coco, and their families. Readers will already recognize that LeBlanc is an outsider to this neighborhood and this culture, and any attempts to include herself more firmly in the narrative would have only highlighted the contrast even more.
The world of Random Family is fascinating–morbidly so. The Bronx of the ’80s and ’90s depicted in this book is, in many respects, an unforgiving place. Gang violence is prevalent, as is gun ownership. Drug use and dealing is merely a way of survival. The cycle of poverty appears unending. Parents are either absent, addicts, abusive, or incarcerated. Everyone suffers. It will weigh very, very heavily on your mind, and you will cheer every time Coco, Jessica, or Cesar make the slightest bit of headway against such overwhelming odds. LeBlanc does a commendable job in making the environment painfully real, even to readers who have never been to the Bronx.
LeBlanc also faithfully shows the love and loyalty that blooms in even the harshest neighborhoods. Social bonds can extend past nuclear families to include friends-of-friends and neighbors, creating the feeling that each block in the Bronx is its own microcosm. There are many instances where families share whatever they can with one another, even if they are barely scraping by: Lourdes, Jessica and Cesar’s mother, for example, happily feeds their friends and neighbors whenever she is able to find groceries to cook. Even distant family members and the mothers of Cesar’s ex-girlfriends find a few dollars to put in his prison commissary. Coco stumbles, but you know that she is trying her best to provide for her children; her missteps are often only the fault of a system that allows people like her–poor, uneducated, a single mother–to slip through the cracks.
And that brings me to my main criticism of Random Family: the lack of meaningful context provided. So many questions are raised by the lived experiences of our family and their friends and acquaintances: Why do young men in the Bronx feel like dealing drugs is their only viable form of employment? Why do sexually-active young couples refuse to use birth control? Why is sexual abuse of young girls so prevalent?
We get some sense of why our main characters choose to do what they do–Coco moves to Troy, for example, to escape from the overwhelming situation at her mother’s apartment, and because her friend Milagros lives there–but we are not afforded a larger sense of the societal and cultural pressures that force those decisions. LeBlanc alludes to institutional oppressions only in the afterward, and only very briefly. And in one of his letters from prison, where he has taken advantage of adult education classes, Cesar tantalizingly says,
Poverty is a subculture that exists within the ghetto. It goes beyond black or Hispanic, at least in my mind. Overworked teachers. Run-down schools. It looks like they designed this system to make our children fail. Socioeconomic conditions. Why are we so passive? We accept conditions that don’t benefit us–economic oppression we’ve been suffering for years.
I don’t think, however, these glimpses of broader societal issues were enough. As a journalist, LeBlanc could have done research into the socioeconomic factors and systemic inequalities that lead to situations like Jessica’s and Coco’s in order to provide a deeper understanding of the limited options available to Bronx youths; and yet, the reader was left to speculate on their own. I think if someone began this book with conservative views, reading Random Family could actually encourage them to decry social programs like SNAP benefits and welfare even more, which is extremely problematic.
One of the more encouraging sections of the book highlighted the efficacy and importance of nonprofit interventions. Coco’s children have the opportunity to go to a summer camp for at-risk youth, and you get the sense that it was transformative for them. Unfortunately, as LeBlanc mentions, initiatives like these are understaffed, underfunded, and of a short duration, with little follow-up once the children return to their homes. Still, in the book, the children’s experiences with nonprofits represent some of the brighter spots in their lives.
That leaves me with my hopes for the novel. I hope that Jessica, Coco, and their families received some of the benefits of the book’s popularity–either some of the money earned from its sale or some assistance from LeBlanc herself. There was no explicit mention of this in the book, and I couldn’t find anything online regarding compensation for the book’s subjects.
I also hope that the readers of Random Family–rather than taking any sort of voyeuristic thrill from the individuals’ lives–use it as an opportunity to examine their own privilege, to volunteer their time and donate their money to nonprofits, to talk to their children about poverty, and to vote for candidates who support social programs. If everyone who had the means to do even one of those things did them, perhaps we would someday have a world where each and every random family had access to good education, healthy food, and a safe environment to raise their children in.
Bookwanderer Rating: Four out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “They wanted to leave the familiar world behind, but no one knew the direction out.”