Many youths from the same "dysfunctional" environments, sometimes from the same family as the gang members, do not affiliate with gangs although they live in the same crime-ridden streets. Many become productive citizens contributing to the community and general tax base. Others even have the spunk to seek out financial aid sources and get through college.
Unfortunately, there is a dearth of literature on these uniquely interesting young people. Evidently, those who survive in the face of terrifying odds are not as alluring to our society, nor to research, as those who do not. Yet these very youngsters might yield valuable data. What went right in their lives that went awry for those who become gang-affiliated?
Future well-honed examinations of the non-gang affiliated in these neighborhoods are profoundly needed and recommended for further study. Are there patterns that emerge among them? What factors, institutions, or individuals had major impacts on their lives? What kept them from joining gangs if they were all around as they grew up? Clues are revealed in the current study, but further research is clearly needed.
Actually, the non-gang affiliated are far more captivating than their gang-member counterparts who succumbed, because to all outward appearances, the two often look the same. They usually wear the same type of apparel popular among young people today. They talk the jargon and walk the same streets. But the surprising fact of the matter is that most young people growing up in barrios do not join gangs! Depending on whose data for which particular area is consulted, only 4% to 10% actually do become gang-bangers (Winfree, Mays & Vigil-Backstrom 1994: 240). This is not to diminish the stunning blow to the community struck by the gang problem; however, the fact remains that most Latino teens grow up to become useful members of society, enjoying varying degrees of success, defined here merely as holding down jobs and becoming ordinary members of society.
What makes the difference? What is life on the streets like for the non-gang affiliated? The following essays, written by non gang affiliated participants from the same dysfunctional neighborhoods who are now students at California State University Northridge, reveal at least two important manifestations: (1) the ethos of fear that exists in their neighborhoods and (2) the influence that parents or caring extended family had on their development.
Essay # 1: "In my neighborhood, if you see someone you don't know, you turn the other way. No words or expressions are exchanged. The gang members are ignored, unless they come up to you and start talking with you. If they need a favor, or ask what time it is or anything at all, you should try to cooperate and be very careful so they don't take anything wrong. Most people in my neighborhood feel that as long as they don't get in the way of the gang members, they have nothing to worry about." Naivi Tarrin (l995)
Essay # 2: "The kids who joined gangs were teenagers who did it to gain a feeling of power. They join because the gang makes them feel like they are part of a family. My family and friends kept me from joining and resisting the urge to join. There are lots of parties and advantages in a way. It may not look like it to outsiders, but the people in the gang can be a lot of fun, and when you have grown up with some of them, you feel like they are related to you in some ways.
But in my neighborhood there are many rules. For example, even if you don't know someone, but you see him around a lot, you should at least raise your eyebrows or say "Ho!" Some kind of acknowledgment is required, or that in itself can mean trouble. You don't want to totally ignore gang-bangers, because they might take it wrong and beat you up or worse. Santiago Natera (l996)
Essay # 3: While growing up in the barrios of East Los Angeles, I learned that my neighborhood could be violent. Everyday I walked to school, and I either got into a fight or saw one. Nevertheless, I did not grow paranoid. People who live in lower income housing like the projects are aware of the dangers. But they still enjoy their environment. I avoided certain paths to school that were dangerous and I avoided certain kids and their hang outs--the "cholos."
These were the kids that carried out most of the violence in the neighborhood. Even now, when I go home on breaks and I go into a mini mall or a store, and when these people walk in, a sudden tension builds up. People become quiet and quickly exit if at all possible without being conspicuous.
These individuals join the gangs for the power to cause fear. It makes them feel like real men. The shootings, the killings, the fights and other things --muggings, robberies just come into play as dues for them. I never joined because I was a bit chicken. I was afraid to die. I did affiliate with them and at times even committed vandalism, but I always knew that this kind of life wasn't what I wanted. It was a dead end. My mother always said that education was power, so now I'm in pre-med instead of in jail or dead. Enrique Hueyopa (1996)
Essay # 4: My family and I lived in a one bedroom apartment. We were three blocks away from the Van Nuys Police Division Station which is smack in the middle of the BVN (Barrio Van Nuys gang).
We lived in fear of being shot at times. The street was not cleaned by the city, at least not on a regular basis like it is in other neighborhoods. If the trash men made a mess when they did come, they just left it there with the trash barrels all over the place. Garbage was all over the sides of the streets and the sidewalks. Old crashed cars were parked everywhere, too. It was depressing just to look at when you walked home from school.
I didn't join a gang, because of my family. We were poor, but very close and full of hope and dreams for each other. Most of the kids that did join didn't have a family, at least not a family unit that cared. Some had parents, but they weren't a real family. Some of the parents were messed up on drugs or they were on welfare all the time. Their families were a mess. The gang gave those kids the feeling which was missing in their lives. Steve Bernal (l996)
Essay # 5: "In my neighborhood people stay inside their homes unless they really need to go out for something. On the street, they don't talk to anyone and they walk fast.
Kids who join gangs are those who want attention from their peers and those whose families have problems. The "MS13" or Salvadorian gang was the one that controlled the neighborhood where I grew up. What probably kept me out of gangs was my father. He always talked to me and made me want to become someone important, so here I am in college and still unimportant! Carlos Quezada( l996)
Essay # 6: I grew up watching gangsters selling marijuana, stealing all the time, and committing all kinds of crimes, yet I never joined nor felt a need to be affiliated with them because of my family. I wanted to make them proud, and becoming a chola would have upset everyone from my Mom to my Grandmother to my little brothers. I was determined to succeed without breaking the law. (Juana Mercado l996)
Essay # 7: I was exposed to a gang environment throughout my childhood and part of my teen years, but I never joined. My parents reminded me and my brothers that gangs only caused trouble for themselves and others.
All the cholos ever did was use drugs, and they never went to school. Their lifestyle wasn't great when you think about it.
But if my eyes met theirs, I would look at them for only a split second. Then I would walk quickly down the street before they said something or harmed me in any way. When I got a little older, my parents moved us away mostly out of fear that my brothers might get mixed up with the wrong crowd.
But even my brothers disliked the gang members. They would talk nicely to them. My brothers were also poor, but they didn't go out and steal from other poor people like the gang members did. Besides, if my brothers would have gotten into any real trouble, the gang members wouldn't have to shoot them, my Dad would have! Guadalupe Orozco (l996)
The current investigation has collected 49 similar essays from non-gang affiliated, college matriculated students, who grew up in the same neighborhoods presently being studied.
If there is a telling characteristic in these essays, it is the presence of a parent or parents. It did not seem so important among this sample whether or not there were one or two parents at home, as simply having extended family members or someone who provided a caring, nurturing environment, who provided the youths with a feeling of belonging to a "family," and who instilled a work ethic and the value of education.
In sharp contrast in the same neighborhood, there is also a component of adamantly non-gang affiliated youths, who brag about not needing a gang to back them up, but who are delinquent and commit crimes independent of gang affiliation. They also wear the baggies, the tattoos, the general look and would be impossible to distinguish from the gang-bangers except by the most in-group members of the street culture.
Clearly, defining who is gang affiliated and who is not, is quite complex. A further example of the complications involved is provided by the Portland, Oregon definition which fails in the situation of the independent delinquent. Portland defines a gang member as one who commits crimes --presumably but not necessarily with the gang; this definition would include the independents who so proudly boast about their lack of affiliation with a gang.
The "independent operator" also seems to peacefully co-exist with the gang members as do most of the teens trapped in the neighborhood ethos of fear described in the essay excerpts above. However, the independent delinquents appear to be "loners," who are clearly outsiders and often described as "weird" by everyone including the gang-bangers.
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