An Urban Ethnography of Latino Street:Gangs in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, Chapter 14: Why join?

Francine Garcia-Hallcom

Professor emerita of the California State University (Northridge)
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According to social learning theory, individuals acquire certain behaviors and attitudes via a process of social learning–in this case from gang peers and delinquency (Akers 1985, 1992). Social learning theory claims that if behavior is rewarded and repeated episodes are met with reinforcement, it continues. Of course, if behavior is punished, the perpetrator is discouraged from engaging in the conduct and the behavior decreases. Hence, the notion- gangs facilitate instrumental conditioning.

Certainly, if there are no interested parents to step in with moral and ethical values of their own at this point, a potential recruit learns through close interactions with the gang members what is “appropriate or inappropriate” at least according to their reverse value system. Several other studies agree. (Winfree,& Vigil-Backstrom :231)(Akers 1985: 44-45)

Actually, for many years research has pointed out that the gang merely speaks to most adolescent needs; that is, the need for affiliation, belonging, and for status or at least estimation. Gangs provide the necessary audience for deeds of bravado and for positioning and strutting. The gang fulfills a number of not-so bizarre needs after all; it provides a sense of family and of group membership by furnishing friends and camaraderie to unloved and often unwanted youngsters.

In this milieu with its own system of rewards, even though many realize that education could provide upward mobility, harsh socio economic reality does not advance education as a realistic option unless there are parents or extended family members who promote hard-work and striving as a value.

Instead, the immediate surroundings (and often even wayward parents) say to the youngster, “You’re going nowhere from here.” Or, as Veto put it, “My step-father always said I would end up in prison.” Not a very nourishing or encouraging climate for a boy like Veto!

Some young people in the neighborhoods are genuinely afraid of becoming victims of gangs (Trump l993). Some join for the protection the gang gives them. Standard gang methods of intimidation range from extorting lunch money to physical beatings. (Spergel:98) The current investigation concurs. Two boys said they were tired of being assaulted:

Veto: “Finally, I said –Man, if you can’t beat ‘em. Join em.”

Interviewer: So you joined to get away from all the hassles?

Alex: No hombre –dile la verdad –He was going with the tirachas too (dating African-American girls).

Interviewer: So that’s why they were giving you a hard time?

Veto: Yeah — but there was lots of things. One time these two dudes jumped me on the way home from school for no reason. I was 10 years old — the f—— broke my nose–see here. (Pointing to a ridge on his nose) Orale! That was ugly.

Alex: (laughed the whole time Veto told his story)

Veto: He was one of them (pointing to Alex). Finally when I was about 16 I started going to things with them — you know? I don’t like pain esa! Do you like pain?

Interviewer: What other reasons did you have –come on. Why else did you join?

Veto: You know — it all just happens. One day you’re in. It’s not like I planned it–sabes? Pero si — estos cabrones siempre estavan detras de me al chingaso. (Peppered with cursing, the translation is something like, “These jerks were always after me with their fists.”)

Thus, the profile of the youth who joins might include the following: a youth with low self-esteem and a stressful home life. A youth who is friends with gang-members and experiences peer-pressure to join. A youth with poor academic performance, lack of alternatives, lack of positive support, feelings of helplessness, and hopelessness, as well as a very frightened youth who is intimidated by the gang. Other studies concur (Lopez:29).

Gilbert: “I was a good student until junior high. I always did my homework and all that. But still I was behind. I could tell. My cousins went to (name of school- a parochial school nearby) and they knew more than I did. We would go visit them on Sunday sometimes and I could see that I wasn’t going anywhere with school. They didn’t teach us nothing.”

Interviewer: “So why did you drop out?”

Gilbert: “I got a job. I got tired of never having any money –not even a dime! You wouldn’t believe it. I didn’t have no money–and I got fed up with that and I went to work.”

Interviewer: “How old were you?”

Gilbert: “Twelve.”

Interviewer: “What kind of job could you get at twelve? Who hired you?

Carlos: ” You could say he went into sales.” (gales of laughter–Carlos bent over and did some hand signs)

Gilbert: “Yeah, sales and distribution.” (more laughter)

In addition to an underground economy for the jobless, a gang extends club membership and belonging as described. Other studies concur as well (Shields l993: 8-11). Both are powerful incentives to join.

Of course, a number of individuals sell drugs outside of and completely apart from the structure of the gang–as private peddlers, so to speak. Others have subgroups with whom they deal, usually the same individuals over and over again ever suspicious that a new buyer is a “narc.” Almost all the gang affiliated participants in the current sample reported having sold drugs at some time or other whether in large or small quantities. This also concurs with Decker & Van Winkle’s findings (l994:593) as well as with Fagan’s 1992 findings.

However, before one feels too sorry for Gilbert, it is important to remember that there are young people in the very next apartment living on the same street in the same type of environment who do not join gangs, who do not sell drugs, who also get beaten up, but who rise out of these environments triumphant. What appears to make the difference? The pattern that emerged in the current research is having a parent, or parents, a grandmother, uncle, brother — or other family member who is supportive and with whom the youth has such a bond that s/he would do nothing that would seriously jeopardize that relationship.

It appears that for youths in poverty-ridden areas, success in education soon becomes a fraudulent aspiration. As a result, getting a decent job, a high-paying job is also untenable. Then, too, because of the poor job market in economically disadvantaged areas, for minority youth there is no real “future.” Many who did not affiliate “settled” as one individual put it, but these young people repeatedly had bonds with someone they chose not to disappoint at any cost.

Tony: I took a job–at a super market. I knew it didn’t have no future–like getting raises or promotions, but I just took it to have money. I settled for that for now anyway, and started right away trying to find out what other people at the store were into. Stuff like that. I knew I couldn’t just stay here- I come and see my Mom and my family and like that, but I don’t hang out very much. I work over time and all the time. Hell, I don’t even want to be here right now. I’m just coming to see my Mom and my aguelo — just visiting. It’s like a cancer here. You can get any kind of drug or weapon you want around here.

Tony was working in a super market in a neighborhood not far away that he perceived as less gang-ridden than the one in which his mother and her wheel-chair bound gradfather lived. Although he did not see his current employment as a career, he had settled for it even though he reportedly was experiencing many financial hardships. The present job was a passport out of his neighborhood. Tony was just visiting at the time of the interview.

The need for money is clearly a driving force for youths like Tony as well as for those who opt to join gangs or sell drugs.

Money from drugs is not administered by the gang as an entity. Actually, money from drugs gives individual members status. If such monies are in any way pumped back into the gang, it is via highly indirect avenues. For example, individual or group monies obtained from drug sales were not used for what might be called “gang equipment” i.e. guns, cars, crash pads, etc. Instead, money of any kind was spent on partying — providing food, beer, rides, gasoline, etc. Most members use the money they acquire for personal matters –to buy clothes and other goods. Some use drug sales revenue to buy things for their kids. This data concurs with similar outcomes by other investigators. (Decker and Van Winkle 1994)

It is hard to distinguish activities as (l) gang activities or as (2) sub group actions or as (3) individually motivated activity or (4) spare-of-the-moment, impulsive activities.

In trying to uncover the reasons why some youths join gangs and others do not, there is a passing parade of unfulfilled needs to which the gang responds admirably. Reputation repeatedly came up in the interviews. It seemed to take on exaggerated proportions. The entire notion of status and reputation was utterly exaggerated and out of sinc with the rest of the world. The young men more so than the young women expressed a need to maintain an image; they were at times excessively needy in this respect yearning to be important and craving recognition as fervently as a star struck youngster coveting fame and celebrity.

Of course, being in a gang causes others to fear them, and in their reversed value system, striking fear in the hearts of others gives status and prestige thereby bolstering their reputations.

Consequently, to insult a member via signs, trespassing onto turf, or any other seemingly inconsequential transgression, is to insult reputation with all the significance it carries. These little infractions become an affront not only to the individual, but to the entire group. To the rational mind, the violence with which gangs often react to many of the seemingly trivial transgressions is inexplicable.

According to Berland, Homlish & Blotcky, “Psychologically, gang membership occurs during the developmental phases between childhood and adulthood, when disruption is common in respect to self-identity, establishment of trustworthy relationships, and determination of vocational choice.” (1989)

In the surveys, a number of gang affiliated adolescents report having been fairly good kids throughout grades K through 6. They also reported a surprising number of positive experiences in school as well as good feelings toward a number of their teachers.

However, at this crucial point, somewhere between grades 6,7, and 8–between childhood and adulthood, many grow weary of the harsh living conditions that surround them, of never having any spendable cash on hand, and of waiting for love and reward from remiss parents. In the interviews, many said it was around junior high that they joined, or first began keeping close company with the gang. In the current study, this pattern appears to emerge again and again.

Gang activities entice many youths. Drinking, drug use, creating disorder, and vandalizing property are all seen as fun. Partying, getting high, bullying people, and robbing designated targets are just part of the merriment and amusement.

It is important, though difficult, to remember that the youths themselves, including some of the non-gang affiliated, did not consider the gang to be altogether deviant. Many gang as well as non-gang affiliated also perceived the gang as a source of love and respect for those who become members. Even the non-gang affiliated said that those who join do so because, “It’s like a family.” This statment was made repeatedly in the interviews. On the street, they greet each other with signs, slaps on the back, secret hand-shakes, and quite often with embraces!.

There were sometimes siblings who joined and others who did not. Irrefutably growing up in the same household does not insure the same up-bringing for each child no matter how much parents may think so.

In the current investigation, families very obviously had preferred children even though they vehemently claimed to deal with each child in the same way. Sometimes the eldest children had special privileges. Sometimes they had a tremendous burden of chores and responsibilities. Sometimes the baby was spoiled and pampered (and became the gang member) as in Karen Joe’s “Just Every Mother’s Angel” (l995). In other families the baby virtually grew up on his/her own–utterly unattended. Some families appeared to have whipping boys, or “bad apples.” By virtue of nothing more than the label in itself, this individual was treated differently. Therefore, this particular child was growing up in an environment unlike that of his/her siblings (the good apples) even though they were all living under the same roof. Of course, these are merely parenting topics and strategies known to the more educated members of our society, but unknown to most of the parents in impoverished neighborhoods.

For example, in the case of “Lolo,” a gang affiliated boy, there are three other brothers in the family, none of whom are gang members. Lolo’s parents did not understand why there had to be one “bad apple” in the bunch. Both parents were interviewed; both were hard-working, cordial and warm human beings. According to Lolo’s mother, the boys were all treated and loved equally. According to Lolo, however, he was always picked on, teased, and humiliated by the others who went unpunished for their behavior. Lolo expressed a great deal of resentment and hostility toward his mother and brothers. It is probable that as he got older, he acted out more than the others, was therefore punished more than the others in an ever escalating vicious circle. There were no other family members –aunts, grandmother, etc. — for whom he had any regard. Lolo claims he was always taunted by all of them.

Lolo: “I was always the f___-up. Everyone said I was no good ever since I was a little chavalito. Now, they don’t say anything to me anymore. Nobody messes with me.”

Lolo’s girlfriend tended to confirm most of his examples arguing with only one or two minor points. She added that his family wouldn’t dare say anything to him now! This, of course, was spoken in adulation. Lolo was “bad from San Berdu,” short for San Bernardino, now living in Montebello acccording to his peers.

Most gang members do not respect the opinions of parents, guardians, and such, nor do they hold much regard for the opinion of most adults in the community. Other research concurs (Winfree, Mays & Vigil, 1994:237).

Social scientists carefully distinguish between social and nonsocial reinforcement. The former requires other human beings to approve; the latter is rewarded at more psychological levels (Akers 1985) which in this case is the reverse value system of the gang.

Something else that needs to be considered is ethnic identity which more often than not is unquestionably negative in both Los Angeles and Ventura Counties where anti-Mexican sentiment abounds.

Shirley Brice Heath tells us that the self concept of inner city youths is plaited with ethnic identity and gender (1993). How a youth like “Lolo” develops a bad attitude is indeed complex: Brice-Heath claims young people’s identities are multilayered self-conceptions, that represent far more than simple labels of ethnic or racial membership. Add to that the disparaging view of the society at large, the labels, seemingly harmless — “pendejo” “stupido” that Lolo was called as a child, and self-concept clearly is undermined. Gangs are almost always expressions of social disaffection–the politics of intransigence.

In these communities, car cruising and low-riding have become a way of life. The car culture, which is subscribed to by both gang and many non-gang affiliated youths, also serves as a rite of passage. The very act of driving a car with a few friends symbolizes adulthood and even rugged manliness. To see and be seen makes every day a veritable parade.

Other rites of passage exist as well. Some spoke briefly of an initiation, but most would not elaborate. Some youths claim they did not have to give up non-gang friends, and said they have remained on friendly terms with neighborhood pals as part of loyalty to the “hood” or “el barrio. ” This concurs with the Torres work and that of others as well. (l980) (Vigil 1988)

However, according to other literature gangs do not encourage members to have friends, especially close friends, outside the gang (Spergel 1990:233-236) (Winfree, May & Vigil-Backstrom).

In the current investigation, although members repeatedly claimed they could run around with anyone they wanted, the non-gang affiliated tended to distance themselves from long-time friends once those individuals became gang members. In addition, the gang members tended to prefer their gang friends to their former buddies who were non-gang affiliated.

However, it might well be that the greater the proportion of gang affiliated friends an individual accrues, the greater the social forces sucking that person into the gang and into more and more gang activity. Other research agrees. (Winfree, Mays & Vigil Backstrom:232).

This whole issue becomes particularly important for those who work in intervention and prevention programs. Can the non-gang affiliated be useful in pulling at-risk or even inducted gang members out and away from the gang? Or should we keep the non gang affiliated as far away as possible from those on the edge?

Teens are also bombarded with MTV music videos, concerts and other programs glamorizing and promoting “bad boy entertainment,” “East Coast/West Coast rap feuding” and the violence perpetrated by the drug culture and street gangs. Back-to-school sales gimmicks promote the drudgery of school itself, but the fun of buying new clothes. There is never a word about the joy of learning–nothing about securing a solid education, nothing about upward mobility through education!

If there is any hope, it may be in the pattern that emerges here; that consistently in this study the teens who thought highly of their parents or other extended family member(s) were those who were non-gang affiliated and who planned to stay in school. More recent research considers a dearth of parental or teacher role models good predictors of gang membership (Wang 1994).

The exception here is a group of young men categorized as “Mama’s Little Darlings.” This group parallels Karen Joe’s “Every Mother’s Little Angel (1995) classification. (See the section on “Parents” below).

“Mama’s Little Darlings” are young men many of whom became gang affiliated even though they enjoy strong relationships with their mothers. However, they were individuals who evidently received no discipline or clear-cut parameters from these ladies. The mothers were supportive of anything their boys did (there were no girls in this category, nor time within the scope of this study to inquire thoroughly into such a category for females). These mothers even blamed the police for harassing their little darling who was only smoking a little marijuana or snorting a little coke. A “boys will be boys” attitude pervaded most of these mothers’ outlooks concerning their sons no matter how serious the charges.

In the barrio, traditions of unity and group run deep. Internally discrimination in the barrio, Latino against Latino, lies in loyalty to country of origin; thus, Mexicans are sometimes not fond of Guatemalans, who are not fond of Honduranians, who think Columbians are conceited, and on and on. Even second and third generations are frequently afflicted with this malaise. Add to this the rejection experienced by most Latinos from the predominant culture and it becomes a bit easier to conceptualize the compelling inner need for acceptance expressed by so many Latino youths. Among gang members, it is a need that some profess even in their dying breath. The need to belong also translates into the need to tell others where s/he is from–ergo the signs, the colors, the tattoos.

Partying and “getting down” with the others is an integral part of gang life, which in turn offers members many social contacts that may not have been previously available. Loyalty outweighs personal interests. An individual cannot merely assimilate into the gang without proving worth to the group. Members see themselves as security guards protecting turf in an ongoing feud with rival gangs, police, or anyone else who threatens them. The gang comes first and is the most important part of a member’s life.

See also R. Jackson & W. McBride Understanding Street Gangs. In short, a teen with no criminal record will soon have one once having joined a gang. For many the neighborhood is the only thing over which they have any physical control–given the other circumstances in their lives.

Repeatedly in the literature as well as in this study, pro-gang attitudes were related to breaking the law. (Winfree, Mays, & Vigil Backstrom:242,250) As a result, we have teens who covet criminal behavior because they become deeply associated with persons from whose point of view criminal behavior is admissible and even encouraged. The value system of gang members is the only one they “respect” in a bizarre sort of way.

Curiously enough, in the current study almost all the gang affiliated thus far in the interview process have remembered with fondness at least one teacher they had between grades K-6. However, most have lost touch with that person. Some knew where he or she was, but had not maintained an on-going relationship with the person.

In the 1994 study by Wang, “Gang members had significantly lower levels of self-esteem regardless of ethnicity and they manifested negative racial stereotyping toward racial out-groups.” In the current research, gang members did not display any more racial prejudice in their interviews per se than did non-gang affiliated or adults interviewed–however, this topic was not addressed in depth in this study.

However, gang members did display greater emotional cohesion with peers than with family. Non-gang affiliated repeatedly expressed having a bond with someone in their family whom they would not want to hurt by joining a gang or even by committing acts of vandalism; thus, demonstrating greater loyalty to family than to peers.

Elfido: “I would never do anything that I thought would really, really hurt my Mom.”

Manuel: “I wouldn’t want to do anything that would wreck my relationship with my brothers, and joining (the gang) –Hey, that would be it.”

Andres: “I know that if I joined, my `jefita’ would — Man, she would cry for days! She works all the time and sometimes she comes home and screams at us, you know, we lose stuff and my younger brothers are always breaking her stuff. She gets so upset she just cries and cries. Then she gives us all a big hug and says, `I love you Mihitos-malcreados- brutos.’ Hey – we do a lot of stuff that we shouldn’t, but join a gang? Man, I couldn’t do that to her. She wants us to go to school and be somebody someday.”


Young males especially have a hard time growing up in dysfunctional neighborhoods, although young females endure endless cat calls and other harassments as outlined in the following essay excerpt:

“People who are standing on their front porches or yards make it discouraging to walk down the streets of the neighborhood because of the way they stare at you. Either you ignore it, and if you can’t do that, you had better have a friendly face. You cannot show that you are intimidated by such incidents. You can never feel comfortable on the streets” (In an essay by Diana Corral l996)

“There is a street ethos in my neighborhood that includes the way people act. For example, one person may be walking along a street and pretends not to see the other person. One reason for this kind of behavior is racial. Latinas really can’t look at Blacks or even at our own gang-members straight in the eye. They take it wrong and a girl could get more trouble out of a simple look than she ever dreamed. There is a street wisdom that girls learn about on how to approach guys, or how to act on the streets.” (In an essay by Sugeisy Reynoso l996)

“Students in schools with a gang presence are twice as likely to report that they fear becoming victims of violence than their peers at schools without gangs” (Trump,l993) It has been fairly well documented that gangs furnish an infrastructure in which violence can thrive. (Gaustad l991:24) Non-gang affiliated youths make an uneasy peace with local gang members. It is a truce of sorts enabling them to move to and fro from store, to school, to work, or home within the neighborhood–for example,

“On the street, you try to let the gang members know that you are a part of the community. Knowing this they are less likely to bother you. Most of the time you try to avoid them by taking another route, but when this is impossible and you have to interact with them, you must show that you are not intimidated. As time passes they start to show you respect. For instance, when my uncle first moved into our house, he would get intimidated by the gang members. But after he was seen walking with me, the gang members did not bother him anymore. In my community you have to build an unwritten agreement, a sort of trust with everyone that you interact with to show that you belong to the neighborhood. Many Hispanics in my neighborhood are also afraid of African American males. But respect can be shown in many subtle ways — by facial movements resembling a greeting, with body movements, or with an occasional ‘hi’ which means that you are both part of the neighborhood. Respect comes in many colors and forms.” (In an essay by Jorge Varela l996)

“There are rules for people in my neighborhood. The rules are fairly easy. Everybody sees you and you see them sooner or later. Then when you go out shopping or whatever, people give you looks which mean ‘Hi,’ without saying it. They give you a nod of some sort which establishes recognition. They know and you know; you are both from the same neighborhood. Even though I do not know who the person is by name, I have seen him or her before and I must acknowledge that in some way through body language. There are rules about keeping quiet, too. You never witness anything; you never know anything about the crimes that you see committed right under your nose, unless you want to get killed. (In an essay by Leonardo Bocanegra l996)


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