An Urban Ethnography of Latino Street:Gangs in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, Chapter 15: The Politics of Education and Recent Immigrants As Gang Members

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 13:25:21.

Occasionally, gangs recruit from recent immigrants who are able to maintain a strong ethnic identity in a group within which many of the members speak Spanish. Gangs provide a good way to break into a circle of friends. Immigrants especially suffer from isolation in schools and even in the barrios where indigenous Latinos generally will not associate with them. Instead, many actually shun and berate them with name-calling such as “guaras” and “mojados” and “wetbacks” irrespective of their legal or illegal status.

In many instances because of poorly implemented bilingual programs and other forms of “miseducation,” many Spanish-speaking immigrants spend several years in bilingual classroom and still do not learn English. The price is alienation from peers who have been here longer, and who subsequently feel superior to the more recent arrivals.

Failure to learn the language and resistance to assimilation is not so much a matter of wanting to hold on to the old or of unwillingness to join the mainstream society, as it is a matter of disenfranchisement and poor implementation of educational programs. Politics also take their toll on recent immigrants.

Many Spanish speaking children are kept in limited English proficient (LEP) categories because school districts get twice as much money for LEP designated students as they do for mainstream pupils. Thus, the youngsters are not transitioned into “regular” classes even though their English-speaking skills are often quite good both in social and academic interactions. This not only holds them back, but limits their chances of mixing and thereby making friends with mainstream students. In the end, their self esteem suffers immeasurably because there is unequivocally a negative stigma attached to the various English acquisition classes that immigrants must take.

In the last decade or so, gang membership has increased among immigrant first generation teens, who in the past, rarely affiliated. Some data suggests that young people who do not feel assimilated join gangs as resistance to assimilation. They feel more at home in the gang culture. (Calabrese and Noboa: 1995)(Clabrese l995: 226-235) The current study does not concur.


It is of paramount importance to stress that the gang culture is not the same as Mexican culture. Based upon interviews with teachers and other school personnel in the present study, there seemed to be a good deal of confusion on this matter.

In the current investigation very few (total of 5) recent immigrants were actually gang members and very few other recent immigrants (14 in all) were even peripherally associated.

As a matter of fact, although a head count was not taken, very often it seemed that immigrant youngsters had to work with their family members moreso than indigenous youngsters who seemedto be allowed agreat deal more leisure time.

Youths who become gang members come not so much from the unassimilated, as from the disenfranchised and the disenchanted. Most gang members have terrible problems at home i.e. addiction, violence, abuse, filth, etc. Others were the children of children — very young, unwed mothers, more interested in their current relationships with men friends than in their children; others had been married, often as teens, and divorced soon after. Some mothers lived with a male friend, but had no prospects of marriage or of stabilizing their household either financially or in other way. Most gang members were born here in the United States, and were second, third and even fourth generation indigenous Latinos.

The roots of their discontent was not related to assimilation issues. As a matter of fact, many spoke very little or no Spanish. A good many used borrowed words from Spanish stylistically sprinkled in here and there throughout their speech, but they were not fluent enough in the language to carry so much as a simple conversation. Ironically enough, some spoke Spanish with great difficulty and with an English accent. Others were totally fluent and bilingual, but one thing is certain: they do not esteem Mexican culture very much at all. If anything, they often disparaged their parents’ or grandparents’ customs, and in no way embraced Mexican traditions and outlooks.

The gang does not provide Mexican cultural awareness, pride, and certainly not cultural education; however, it does give restitution for alienation. It provides a strong family unit, which appeals to troubled youth even to those who reject Mexican culture and the strong family value central to that culture.

As a matter of fact, many teachers were not aware that research shows high acculturation of Mexican Americans in general on PSI scores (Psychological Screening Inventory) but serious differences on the “alienation” subscale between them and Anglo Americans (Negy 1991).

Maybe it is alienation that is a significant predictor of future gang affiliation rather than lack of assimilation, and perhaps manipulating this aspect of children’s lives in the early grades would yield more fruitful intervention results. Further study is recommended in this area.


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