An Urban Ethnography of Latino Street:Gangs in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, Chapter 18: Gang Girls

Francine Garcia-Hallcom

Professor emerita of the California State University (Northridge)
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Female gang-members have not had explicit attention either in scholastic research or as the locus of media concentration. If female gang members are even mentioned at all, they are generally described as merely adjunct to male gang members. Formal academic research in crime and delinquency focusing on young women has been erratic at best and shallow at worst.

Some research contends that many of the existing theories on crime and delinquency can be adapted to explain female behavior (Figueria-McDonaough and Barton 1985) (Sommers and Baskin 1993) Other research has indeed been adapted, sometimes in the most outrageous, if not senseless methods. For example, some data is weighted. In other words, each female’s response counts for 2.3 persons because fewer females have been interviewed in that or in past studies! Thus, data are extrapolated based on the numbers of males surveyed and conclusions and recommendations are at least tentatively drawn based upon those deduced figures.

Unfortunately, Latina female gang members have been overlooked not only by researchers, but also by the designers and directors of programs developed to deal with problems of gangs (Moore 1994:1124). This is a profoundly distressing oversight since it is the female gang members who more often than not end up with children to rear. Statistically their babies will also be gang members one day–an intergenerational duplication that might be curtailed by a suitable and timely program for young mothers.

Actually, the first truly large and intensive formal academic study on gang members involved 1,313 separate gangs–Thrasher’s survey in l936. However, he summarily dismissed the girl gang members stating only that there were a half dozen female gangs out of the l,313 in his survey, and that participation in the gang culture for the young women was auxiliary in nature. In other words, their involvement was purely for social and sexual activities, which at that time may very well have been the case.

Other research indicates that for a long time girls had little success gaining status in the gang world (Bowker and Klein l983). This may still be partially true today, and may even be the reason for separate girl gangs. Nevertheless, female gang-affiliation has grown and is in itself an established entity to be dealt with.

In the current study, the males did not want the females vigorously participating with them in gang-related activities. As a matter of fact, many of the women nagged their boyfriends not to get involved in one incident or another, and many seemed always to be nagging their boyfriends about their gang-style way of life. Some women reportedly nagged their boyfriends until they got out of the gang!

David: Sometimes a girl is in a car when something goes down, but it wasn’t supposed to be like that. Somebody just happens to be there sometimes. Usually–well, I personally don’t want them around.

Alvaro: Speaking for myself, when I have to — like — it’s business you know? It’s not party time.


The female gang-affiliated members came from the same dysfunctional environment and noxious types of homes as the male members interviewed in this research.

They expressed a preference for gang affiliated males, and a good many voiced distaste for men who wore suits and ties. Others said they weren’t sure why they were attracted to the gang guys. Many had not been treated right, yet they went back to the gang male, or became involved with another one. On the positive, though satirical side, one female said, “They don’t let no one mess with them,” and this toughness was, at least for her, a desirable trait.

Many females had poor relationships with their parents.

Angela: “I hate my mother, and I hate my step-father even more. Hijola!”

Comments of this sort were commonplace.

Rebecca: “You can depend on the homies. They’re like family to me. They’re there for me. Anything I need — a place to stay.”

In several cases, disgusted parents had actually thrown the girls out of their houses–literally casting them out to the street. In the Latino neighborhoods surveyed, the parents word was consistently tested by gang-affiliated youths. Fights and screaming bouts were common; finally, one day the parent(s) literally seem to give up and kick the wayward youngster out.

Banishment from one’s parents’ home appears to have greater shame and stigma attached to it in the Hispanic community than it might in the mainstream culture, where youths leave the nest early usually to get an apartment and be on their own. Here, the children remain with the family longer. The Latino (father especially) tends to stick to his/her word and enforces banishment once it has been pronounced.

Unfortunately, with no place to go, the evicted individual goes to a friend’s house, or to a converted garage, to a friend’s apartment, or a sympathetic friend’s parents’ home. Often they take in the dejected youth, who is also a close friend of their own daughter or son.

Other banished youths simply experience life on the streets for a few days and return home to make an uneasy peace. Sometimes they challenge the parent(s) and intimidate them, so they can come and go as they please. Others simply promise to repent –a penance which lasts until the next gang activity. Other gang girls live on the streets most of the time, but have a place to go to when they so choose. Some live with a male boyfriend. In some of the latter situations, the girls appeared to act as virtual servants and valets to the male. One said she liked a guy that tells her what to do and when to do it. Others felt protected under this type of tyranny. “He’s the boss,” said another live-in.

Still others hate males who are bossy and made derisive comments about such women.

Elena: She’s so “tapada,” he even tells her what to wear!


A good many gang women become hard-core drug abusers, i.e. heroine users who are referred to as “tecatas.” When most reach the age of 30, they have a child or two in tow and a good many fade out of gang life as a result.

Those that did not, often had expensive drug addictions to support. They focused almost exclusively on drug getting, dealing, and such other related activities much to the misfortune and endangerment of the children both physically as well as psychologically.

Many younger gang girls said with contempt that their mothers were drug addicts. Two different girls blatantly said, “My mother was a whore!” Clearly, these are the dysfunctional parents raising the future gang members of society who may, in turn, provide the future noxious homes, and on and on!

What Moore has called the “cholo, or street-oriented family ” is one in which family members are engaged in illicit activity. (Moore,1994:1117) This “cholo” style family, as it were, generally fails to exercise very much control over its children. Instead, “cholo” parents teach them to hustle and to operate like con-artists whenever the opportunity to swindle someone out of money or goods presents itself. Children are often instructed to lie to social workers, law enforcement representatives, teachers and other authorities to cover for their wayward parents who know next to nothing about parenting. These parents even dress their toddlers in gang attire, and doom their babies before they have so much as learned their first words!

In the traditional Mexican culture, it is undesirable but certainly more acceptable for boys to be out roaming the streets; it is never appropriate behavior for females. Therefore, Latinas who either join a gang or in any way affiliate themselves with the cholo lifestyle, are subsequently stigmatized by the more traditional Mexican community (Moore l994:1117). The current study concurs. In the present field investigation, parents and members of extended family who were interviewed had nothing but negative remarks concerning the “Cholas”–the gang girls.

On the other hand, the young women had completely rejected the hardworking ethic, the good wife and mother role model so common among Hispanic women, for the Cholo lifestyle. They, in turn, had nothing positive to say about the more traditional women either.

The term “Cholo,” which also refers to a fashion selection and make-up style, is used by the community members to refer to a type of Latina who more than likely is directly or indirectly affiliated with a gang or gang members.

There has been historically and frequently a good deal of bad blood between barrio residents and law enforcement. Then if there is also friction at home, the gang subculture is skillful at socializing many youths to their value system. For many of these teens –not just the females– their Mexican self-concept has already been altered. They recognize that they do not belong to the mainstream Anglo culture, but they know they do not belong to the Mexican culture either. Those who have ever travelled to Mexico to visit grandparents and other relatives have soon learned that they are considered outsiders in their ancestral land as well. Their speech is ridiculed and they are called “pochos.” Thus, Mexican values about home and family do not carry very much weight for some youngsters.

Different individuals experience varying degrees of cultural conflict. Those who experience severe marginalization are easy targets for the gang paradigm, especially if parental influence is lacking or not respected by the youngster. Young women living on the margins of both cultures are easy prey.

Frequently such young women are confronted with a double standard at home. In many Mexican culture homes, it is normal for boys to be treated more leniently than girls, enjoying more privileges, being allowed to stay out later, and even dominating their sisters who must often iron their shirts to perfection and wait on them at the dinner table. In the traditional Mexican family, the joys of motherhood and family security are highly prized. Typically, Mom always seems happy and both she and Dad are primarily concerned with providing for the children. The family is sacred. In the traditional Mexican family, Mom also stays at home and cooks and sews–even today with the economy virtually forbidding this practice any longer. In some Mexican homes, Mom has to work; nevertheless, she returns to the nest and puts in another shift cooking, washing, ironing, and nurturing.

Many young women are fed up with this double standard and expressed their exasperation vociferously. Given a few other displeasures and grumblings about home, and with the pressures provided by poverty stricken environments, they become likely targets for gang recruitment. In addition, in many of the homes, Dads were not always present and if they were, they were not necessarily able to provide very much of anything for their children. Some Mom’s were not at all happy with cooking and sewing. Others were themselves in gangs at one time.

Many of these youngsters have witnessed or experienced beatings, and a number of forms of parental violence.

Connie: “Mom always got between me and my Dad and she’d catch the belt in her hand sometimes so it wouldn’t hit me again. Sometimes my Dad would get so mad he’d start swinging at both of us. One time my older brother beat me up till I was black and blue”

In the traditional Mexican family, “spare the rod; spoil the child,” is still very much in style. The gang girls often reported other kinds of abuse as well.

Reina: “My Dad beat me so bad, I decided to forget it, man.”

Carmen: “She’s had black and blue marks all her life–since I’ve known her anyway.”

Interviewer: Did you ever get a beating like that too?

Carmen: No –my Dad left us when I was three and my Mom never hit us. I got grounded a lot, but that’s all.

Reina: “I never go back there to see my folks. I see my sister once in a while and I feel bad for her, but I never go back there. I won’t either. No way.”

Perhaps we need healthy homes first to produce healthy children. Instead, we have sick communities and noxious homes.

The double standard exists interestingly enough even among those parents who were either gang members or peripherally associated themselves. Their restrictions for their girls are much greater than for the boys. In other research, these restrictions sounded to other investigators like a litany of traditionalism, of parents trying to keep their daughters from being “bad” girls (Moore 1995:94).

Ironically even the young women who came from “cholo” families reported a number of traditional values imposed on them by parents who were themselves utterly out of sinc with Mexican culture. A few gang girls had been run-aways at one time or another, but not in the sense commonly portrayed on the news wherein a girl from Nebraska runs away to the streets of Hollywood. When these girls run-away, they generally go to a friend’s, relative’s, or boyfriend’s –sometimes in another city, but nonetheless to a given destination with a place of refuge at the other end.

For many of the gang girls, having their own child leads them to rethink their objectives at least momentarily. Many bow out of the gang at this juncture in their lives. Collecting data on this aspect of girl gang life certainly warrants further study, but was beyond the scope of the interviews in the current investigation.


A very brief comparison of biker women and Latino girl gang members indicates that male gang members have far more characteristics in common whether African-American, Latino, Asian or White, than female gang members. It should also be noted that not all “cholas” are necessarily gang affiliated. Being a “chola” can be merely a fashion and/or sexually permissive lifestyle statement without meaning that the young woman is also gang affiliated.

However, studies on biker women show some interesting differences between them and Latina gang members. Biker women are a bit older as a group, ranging in age from mid-20′s going well into their 30′s. They are often “cash cows” or working women, taking jobs in topless bars, nude bars, beer bars and such; and less commonly in regular jobs as secretaries and factory workers. (Hopper and Moore, 1990) (Sikes l994). A “cash cow” is a female who works to provide for herself and her children, but implicit in the term is a female who also provides for a male who is not steadily employed.

On the other hand, “Cholas” –who are also referred to as “homegirls”– are younger, live at home, with a boyfriend, or on the street from friend’s house to friend’s house. If they work, they are employed in mini-malls, fast-food joints, small shops, as baby-sitters, as food and cocktail waitresses, and at other similar, but less exotic “regular” jobs. If the “homegirls” continue to be associated with gang members into their 30′s, they are less and less affiliated with the gang especially if they have children. However, it is common for a young mother on welfare with children to be supporting a boyfriend with her welfare warrants.

As an important aside, “homegirls” as a term is also used to refer to young women from a particular barrio whether or not they are engaged in any kind of shady lifestyle. For example, even those young women who are currently matriculated in colleges would be considered “homegirls” by other young people in their former neighborhoods.

Whereas biker women are generally more widely traveled, homegirls have usually not gone much beyond their city or county. Some reportedly made an excursion to Mexico as children with other family members to visit relatives. There they discovered their marginalization –that they were neither acceptable to the U. S. mainstream culture, nor to the Mexican mainstream. There they often got in touch with their feeling of disdain for traditional Mexican culture as well. After that excursion most never seemed to go very far from their barrio again.

As the homegirls get older, they sometimes leave their children with a grandmother, aunt, or more stable sister freeing themselves up to tag along with a male companion. The literature suggests that a good many biker women transport their off spring where ever they go. (Hopper and Moore 1990). Also, some of the literature suggests that Latina gang affiliated women continue into their 20′s and 30′s (Galindo 1993). However, in the current research, except for those with expensive drug habits to support, by the time the women interviewed in this sample were in their 30′s they invariably had two or three children, at which point the Latino family value system seemed to kick in, at least to some extent. (Women over the age of 24 were eliminated from the sample because the age variable was set at 14 to 24 although many participated in post-questionnaire discussions).

Ironically, many of the gang girls with children did not want their youngsters to be in a gang when they grew up, although statistically they probably will be. Others didn’t seem to care one way or the other! Several said, “They can do whatever they want,” or “It’s up to them.”

Many women 30 years old and older, simply gave up the “cholo” and gang lifestyle to mind their kids (not always well). A few had actually been able to find full-time jobs; others were receiving AFDC (Assistance to Families with Dependent Children) or welfare allotments. But surprisingly enough fewer than stereotypically thought go on welfare at least among those interviewed in this sample. Three “homegirls” who had continued into their 30′s were referred to as “tecatas” (heroin users) by others in the neighborhood.

The number of Latina young women who actually join violent street gangs is, of course, unknown. But ultimately gang membership for these young women becomes a harsh and abusive experience leading only to lowered self-esteem, degradation, and despair.

Choosing names like “Playgirls” for their gang, some women briefly find glamour, attention, friends and protection within the gang. In the long run, they end up shattered by the episode according to their own testimony. Other data concurs (Sikes l994). In other research, many of the girls were experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder as well (Guevara dissertation 1992).

For some ex-cholas, a realization eventually guided them back to their families so that they might provide a better life for their children than they could as gang-girls. However, in most cases their families continue to live in dysfunctional environments, many times in noxious homes. Ironically, in most cases of this sort the very home that ravaged mom’s early childhood and youth experiences is bequeathed to her children to ruin their lives as well. Other young women stay away from the home in which they grew up and go on welfare making them the objects of derision among the majority of Latino tax-payers. These women also perpetuate negative stereotypes concerning Latinas, their children, and the welfare syndrome.

Many younger gang member “girlfriends” who claimed to me gang members themselves did indeed seem to be little more than the sexual chattel of male gang members. They also served as incentives in recruiting, and as previously mentioned, some were referred to as “party animals” by the males.


Most of the “homegirls” have children (94%) and many will raise them alone without a husband, on the income of some other member of their family, or with AFDC warrants (Campbell 1990:182). If they feel trapped and powerless, it is for good reason. They have quadrupled their handicap via racial discrimination, class discrimination, gender discrimination, and as single mothers as well!

Cholas who had a child by a male gang member appeared to have no expectations of marriage. Some said they didn’t want to get married.

Ana: “Who wants to be a housewife in the projects? I’d rather be alone.”

Perhaps they really do not desire a marriage to some of these men, but more than likely it is the men who are unwilling to make a commitment. Some of the women’s conversations sounded a bit like “sour grapes” and may have been merely excuses to save face in an environment where reputation and maintaining the image of toughness are revered among the female gang members with as much fanaticism as among the male members.

A good deal of the current research also suggests that girl gangs are on the increase and not just as auxiliaries of male gangs, but as highly violent entities in their own right.


Violent crimes among women include terrorism, rape, murder, theft, prostitution and gang participation. Many of the women interviewed admittedly participated in muggings and other thefts especially as their economic needs escalated because of loss of job, being thrown out of parents’ houses, and separating from or breaking up with a male boyfriend.

That women have gotten more violent was probably first brought to the public’s attention in an article entitled “You’ve Come a Long Way, Moll” which appeared in the Wall Street Journal, January 25, 1990 stipulating that the number of violent crimes had risen 41.5% for women while only 23.1 % for men. According to the article, young women were no longer committing crimes as accomplices to males, but as full-fledged criminals on their own initiative. The types of crimes most frequently mentioned in that article were stealing clothes, dealing drugs, and weapons-related violations. More girls are carrying guns and knives nowadays than ever before.

FBI data indicate that arrests of girls for murder are up as are arrests for robbery and aggravated assault.

In a study on African American women gang members, females were found to be more violent and more oriented to male crime than ever before (Fishman 1988:28). Later substantiation of these findings appeared in “Sisters Doin’ It for Themselves.” (Lauderback, Hansen & Waldorf l992). Similar outcomes among Latinas have also been established, at least in New York if not yet in the Los Angeles area (Campbell 1990).

In the current investigation, more female gang members used heroin than non-gang affiliated females. However, both gang and non-gang affiliated had used various types of drugs. Unfortunately, the extent of that drug abuse was beyond the range of issues being examined in the current study, but the topic came up incidentally in conversations frequently enough to warrant mention. Certainly, the “cholo” lifestyle promotes drug use.

In the last year or two, television has featured female gang members but only shows like Larry King Live, Oprah, and Geraldo Rivera. In the current study, no hyper-violent, amoral girls like those seen on TV came to the fore. However, many admitted participating in fights often concerning a male, or in support of another member’s personal altercation with someone. Daring someone to act out appeared to be a frequent development. Endorsements such as “you just try it” and “avientate” or “go for it,” were uttered when one threatened to smack a beer bottle in the face of another.

Although some social scientists claim that girls are more violent today than they have been in the past, there is little quantitative or qualitative evidence supporting the new violent female offender hypothesis according (Chesney-Lind 1993:339-340). Certainly for Latinas or “cholas” the data is not readily available.

What emerges is a more complex picture wherein girls solve their problems of gender, race and class through gang membership. This concurs with other research as well (Williams 1992:88). Possibly their violent behavior has in other decades been largely ignored, whereas today it may even be somewhat exaggerated by sensationalist journalism such as the daytime talk shows.

In this investigation, Latina gang and non-gang affiliated seemed to function in large measure as auxiliary, or as accomplices to males going along with criminal activity committed by the males.

Girls’ crimes appeared to be still largely “traditionally female” prostitution, shoplifting, running away, fighting with other girls, and drug related crimes. Actual scuffles among these young women involved knife assaults and/or scratching and kicking types of fights which reportedly occurred frequently sometimes against other women and often against males as well.

The female’s path to gang membership appears to be a bit different from that of males. Many of these young women adhere to a curious admixture of traditional values as well as gang values. Some shun traditional values and deliberately behave in what appears to be the most diametrically opposed manner to that prescribed by traditional Mexican values. But ironically most espoused traditional Mexican family values in what they wanted for their future even if that was not what they had in their present.

In the current research, most gang girls came from less conventional Mexican families. They seemed to be from more dysfunctional families, sometimes from “cholo” families. Many of their parents were at one time themselves gang-members, or associates of one kind or another. Other gang-affiliated females came from homes with parents who have given up, or who never cared very much in the first place.

Much of the current study concurs with older studies (Moore 1990)(Vigil 1991). The gang has been and still appears to be a welcome source of support for “cholas” (Harris l994).

Ironically, in view of the ill treatment, the infidelities and abuses the women receive at the hands of the males, it is surprising that so many women, gang as well as non-gang affiliated, found the gang members so appealing.


Research suggests that children of former gang girls, of cholos and cholas, are inclined to be chips off the old block and soon develop their mother’s and father’s cholo lifestyles (Moore 1123). On the one hand traditional Mexican values mandate that young women not associate with the cholos; thus, girls from cholo families or whose ties to the traditional family have been ruptured really have no place else to go for support, but to the gang. The cholo family and lifestyle, thus, is encapsulated–they are the “bad element” within the poor Mexican-community.

Yet the cholo look in apparel, hairstyle, and mannerisms is pervasive and copied by many youths who are non-gang affiliated. On occasion, one sees an adorable three year old dressed in baggies, or a 10 year old girl with a chola hair-do and make-up.

Of course, the gang look is really only a l990′s extension of the pachuco look, which while out of date, is a pervasive cholo/gang/drug subculture that tends to be inherited if a brother or sister, father or mother was once a part of it.

While the current barrio vernacular “cholos/cholas” or “homeboys” “homegirls” or “homies” may have changed, many other detrimental circumstances and events have not (Galindo 1993).


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