An Urban Ethnography of Latino Street:Gangs in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, Chapter 8: Latino Street Gang Organization

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),
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Last modified: 2020-02-19 10:37:46.

Some Latino gangs displayed colors although not all did so, or were not willing to discuss it. The matter did not seem to be so much a part of the protocol as it reportedly is to Black gang members. Attire in black, brown, khaki, and white appeared to be universally preferred, but bandannas and such were often also black or other colors with no set visible reason for the choice.

As a group, the gangs had given themselves a name which they were usually willing to discuss. If they had developed an initiation rite, not all were willing to talk about it. Individual members sported tattoos and flashed hand signs; the latter can be perceived as aggression when flashed at rival gang members.

Many members have nicknames, some of which they picked up long before joining the gang. Not all gangs have a specific leader or leaders although some members can be readily observed to command more authority than others.

There are two positions in the debate about gangs; (1) those who maintain that they are formal, structured organizations with explicit leadership hierarchies, with set precepts reining over members.(Skolnick et al l988) (Skolnick l990) (2) those who argue that gangs are loosely confederated groups (Klein, Maxson and Cunningham l991)and (Sanchez-Jankowski 1991).

Latino street gangs most definitely appear to be the latter and are a far cry from the monolithic, well-ordered Asian gangs at least those described to be tied to the Hong Kong Triad, Wo Hop To, or linked to the tongs and triads of China –(all of whom would have to be very old men by now). And ironically enough the Mafia is not labelled a “gang” even though it has many of the characteristics frequently cited in attempts to define gangs.

Latino street gangs do not exactly issue membership cards, nor are they an ant hill society, nor a highly structured military or corporate formation. They don’t hold regular meetings. According to those who have worked in bringing about the “truces” among ethnic gang groups of all kinds, the individuals who call the shots, are not part of a chain of command. Other research agrees (Kroeker and Haut l995:32).

The different levels of membership further complicate the issue of gang organizational structure. Thus, when a person is identified or voluntarily self-identifies, very little is being conveyed about that person’s authority over others or even about personal involvement in gang activities.

Among the varying degrees of membership, there are the so-called “hardcore,” who are able to mobilize the others, although 100% mobilization was reportedly never possible nor expected.

There are also peripherally associated members, or “associates” some of whom hang out with the others for the status and recognition they receive, and some of whom do not necessarily reside in the area all of the time as previously described. While they might sport the tattoos, the jackets, colors, signs etc., often these members are only tangentially affiliated. Some said they had never been through the initiation, yet they were with the gang all the time.

According to much of the available literature, tattoos also serve as a badge of protection against coercion from other gangs (Jackson & McBride l985). In the current study, tattoos signified a number of different and personal matters, only one of which was gang membership and, thereby, a warning to others.

At any rate, it is clear that some youths engage in more gang activities than others; some might be called “the wannabes” who move out of the influence of the gang on the basis of whether or not a program or other interest intercepts drawing them completely away from the gang. Within the “wannabes” there are many little brothers and sisters, sometimes referred to as “pee wees.” As a matter of fact, on two separate occasions these youngsters were sent home by the older siblings when something was about to happen for which members were being mobilized.

On the other hand, these same youngsters sometimes feel an extra special need to prove their malevolent side, their courage and fearlessness, and reportedly have been known to act quite ruthlessly.


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