March 2024


By Laurence Ralph
Review by
Sito is a harrowing, impactful account of a teenager caught in a cycle of violence and the juvenile justice system that failed him.
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Inexperienced and often impulsive, teenagers can make dumb mistakes that they may spend the rest of their lives trying to rectify. Rene Quiñones was a San Francisco gang member who went to prison, then turned his life around as a violence prevention counselor and business owner. Sadly, his son Luis, nicknamed Sito, didn’t have the time to turn over a new leaf. Because of one poor decision, he was fatally shot in a revenge killing when he was 19 years old.

Author Laurence Ralph, a Princeton University professor who specializes in justice reform issues, is part of Sito’s extended family, and Rene turned to him for counsel after the slaying. Ralph’s moving, thoughtful third book, Sito: An American Teenager and the City That Failed Him, explores the tragedy from Ralph’s dual perspective as a grieving, frustrated relative and a juvenile justice scholar.

Sito’s road was rough from the start: His parents loved him but were so busy staying financially afloat and building new families that he felt abandoned. He turned his fear into acting out, “embracing machismo,” Ralph writes, and “putting himself at risk or pushing away the very people he loved and needed.” At 14 years old, he let an acquaintance talk him into straying onto rival gang turf. There, the acquaintance fatally stabbed another teenager.

Sito was arrested for this murder and incarcerated in a juvenile prison for three months before a private investigator found video footage showing that he was innocent—footage that the police and district attorney’s office had all along. Sito was released, but the victim’s family refused to believe he was innocent, and five years after the stabbing, the victim’s brother killed Sito in revenge.

Ralph blends his knowledge of Sito, his own memories of being a terrified boy from an immigrant family and his research into minority teens caught in an ineffectual justice system to create a harrowing account of Sito’s life. He witnesses the family’s tense interactions with police and prosecutors. He worries for his own children. And he shows how the rituals of the African diaspora religion Santeria helped to bring solace and spiritual understanding to Sito’s family.

Not long after Sito’s killing, Rene, still reeling from his loss, sat down with his son’s friends and persuaded them that retaliation was the wrong answer. Ralph, an advocate of restorative justice, dreams of true reconciliation that ends these cycles of violence. But the challenge remains formidable.

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By Laurence Ralph
Grand Central
ISBN 9781538740323

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