An Urban Ethnography of Latino Street:Gangs in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, Chapter 6: The Problem of Definitions

Francine Garcia-Hallcom

Professor emerita of the California State University (Northridge)
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First appeared: 1999 published at the California State University (Northridge),
First redistribution at MarkupDancing: 2010-10-05 00:10:18,
Last modified: 2020-02-19 10:17:44.

On the surface, one may think that kids gone astray need to be rescued, not defined. Nonetheless, there are subtle differences between topologies: between being gang-involved and committing gang delinquency, between non-gang and gang delinquency, and between gang graffiti vandalism and tagger insignias. When these fine distinctions are overlooked, techniques aimed at lowering gang delinquency in and of themselves do not prove fruitful in lowering over-all crime rates (Decker & Van Winkle 1994:169).

Even Frederic Thrasher’s 1936 premiere study of gangs was criticized for lacking a “core definition.” As a result, a host of youth group activities as diverse as fraternities to street corner gangs were analyzed in that now classic research work. Today, astute journalists, prosecutors, legislators, and scholars generally evade definitions, yet there is a tendency to be completely unfettered about using the words “gang member” and even applying them to individuals.

In the prominent sociologist Malcolm W. Klein’s definition of gangs perceived impressions were allowed, so that public surmising often determined a gang’s traits (1995). However, public perception, as it turns out, is more often than not unreliable, although in the current research same-age-peers seemed to know exactly who was and who was not gang-affiliated.

At any rate, definitions run the risk of initiating a wave of anti-gang hysteria and the ensuing array of ineffective and costly anti-gang activities: namely, curfews and sweeps –the unfortunate, but prevailing strategies currently used in many parts of the country.

Without some kind of working definition, another commonly occurring predicament soon surfaces. Generalizations are applied to white supremacy groups, bikers, Asian gangs, African American and Latino gangs alike when in reality there are clearly discernable differences among these groups (Bureau of Justice. Assistance-Program 2, 14,30- l991).

Among social scientists in the academic world, definitions are most often determined in terms of variables many of which are derived from social learning theory (Akersl985)(l992). Other studies use personal-biographical characteristics. And still others depend on observations and reports of various kinds like those used in the current research (Moore 1987)(Vigil 1988).

Like the city of San Diego’s definition, most descriptions depict gangs as groups that have identifiable leadership, a geographic, economic or criminal turf, regular and continuous fellowship, engaging in criminal activity. San Diego’s definition may be a bit too broad in that it does not require ethnic or social group membership and could, therefore, be applied to any criminal organization.

Police departments across the country have similar definitions. Some add that the individual to be defined as a “gang” member admits gang membership, has tatoos, wears gang clothing and paraphernalia associated with a specific gang, has a police record and engages in criminal activity. Thus, if a youth is arrested while in the company of a known gang member, the errant youngster is considered a gang member as well–and on record! Ironically, the truly anti-social criminal can altogether escape being labelled a gang member by working alone like the “independent operator” described above. (Wake Forest Law Review).

Additionally, strict adherence to a broad definition obviously creates a gang, at least reportedly (and customarily creates with it the accompanying public panic) where perhaps no gang exists at all!

Some parts of the country call gangs ethnic, organized, and engaged in criminal activity –Kansas City Police Dept for example. Kansas City’s criteria also includes age range 13 to 24, and comments that the gang member is usually from a dysfunctional family (i.e. single parent or abusing parent).

And herein lies a topic for yet another investigation in and of itself: single parent homes are not always dysfunctional. Many two parent homes are! The loopholes in the various definitions are unwieldy.

The California Youth Gang Task Force drafted a definition of a youth gangs to serve as the conceptual focus of its 1988 publication entitled “Guide for the Investigation and Prosecution of Youth Gang Violence in California.” It established procedure for investigations of youth gang-related crimes–i.e. how to set up gang files, etc.–and to that end criteria are listed: (l) subject admits being a member of a gang. (2) Subject has tattoos, clothing, and gang paraphernalia (3) Subject has close association with known gang members.

Many non-gang affiliated subjects admit having “close associations” with gang members, and in most cases non-gang affiliated youths have boyhood pals, cousins, uncles, and even brothers who are in gangs. Although the former distance themselves from the gangs, many non-gang affiliated youths are compelled to associate, at least to some extent, with gang members in order to keep the peace. (See “Non-gang affiliated essays – Case Studies”). Often they not only live on the same street, but in the same buildings! The rule of this jungle is to avoid trouble by saying “hello ” and looking away quickly. To completely ignore someone can be misconstrued.

Another reason to seek out a formal definition for the word “gang,” which does have some impact on striking a blow against their terrorizing the streets, concerns the accessibility of services available for marginally involved youths who might be salvaged (Meda et al. 1994) (Spergel 1990). A very restrictive definition limits the numbers and subsequent funds available to a community. Thus, police agency statistics are sometimes a bit exaggerated in order to maximaize the benefit to the community.

Defining who is and who is not a gang member is further complicated in many cases by suspects who lie to police. Certainly, a good many wannabe’s identify themselves as gang members for the prestige they gain among peers.

Clearly, other political considerations and complications taint available data. However, because no funds are being solicited in the current study –either to begin or sustain programs of any kind–this investigation, along with its definition of Latino gang members attempts to remain uncluttered by the usual political considerations.

Instead, the gang-affiliated are classified here according to their own testimony and seconded by that of their contemporaries as well as by that of non-gang affiliated peers from the same neighborhood. To a lesser extent this study also addresses some of the same characteristics delineated by other research scientists in other studies. After all, gang members do indeed have a number of qualities in common.

For example, Latino gang members are unquestionably groups from the same neighborhood as defined in other data; however, in a good many Latino barrios there are also ex-offenders from the same penal facility, but not necessarily the same neighborhood who are “adjunct members,” for lack of a better term. These were all males in the current sample and were consistently referred to as “o.k. guys,” “a good vato,” “firme,” “mi carnal,” etc. These individuals are free to come in and out of the turf at will. They “hang-out” with the gang and are perceived as members although they may reside clear across town or even in another part of the state. The literature gives no mention of this type of member who may be “hard core” and participating fully with the gang members when he is in their turf.


Latino gangs, like other gangs, clearly tend to develop along ethnic and racial lines. While some have a white member, or a black member or two, the gang members are typically one ethnic group–Hispanic, that nebulous term that often includes indigenous Chicanos, Mexicans, El Salvadorians, Cubans, South Americans, and anyone else from a Spanish-speaking country.

Therefore, “Latinos” would probably be more appropriate, although like any other label, it also summons a number of questions. Nevertheless, it needs to be understood that the term “Hispanic” is merely a political designation to refer to people of Latino descent as a distinct populace. Of course, they are not one group capable of fitting under an umbrella term like “Hispanic,” because they represent a number of not only culturally different, but highly discordant groups as well.

Latino gangs are also primarily male as described in past research. (Bodinger-deUriarte 1993). The current investigation concurs. However, a section on female street gang members follows discussing female gangs as separate entities from the male street gangs. These girl gang members can also be defined by the way they display their affiliation; that is, through distinct styles of dress, gang colors, signs, & prescribed patterns of behavior. There is also strong loyalty to territory. Girl-gangs are described in a number of other studies as well (Gaustad, 1991).

However, in the current investigation, most males interviewed did not consider the females a part of their gang per se. Females who seemed to be with the gang all the time were perceived as more of a support system, companions, girlfriends, and some were referred to as “party animals.”

Leno: “Rosie and her friends are always there for me and the rest of us no matter what.”

Interviewer: Who are the homegirls? Not their names, but just what do they do?

Leno: The homegirls are everything –from tecatas (heroin users) to school girls. It depends –”

[note from the editor] 上記はインタビューの発言内容なので、ドキュメントのマークアップを地の文(単なる P タグの要素)ではなく引用(BLOCKQUOTE の子要素)として書き換えた。


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