ERIC Identifier: ED405157
Publication Date: 1997-02-00
Author: Vigil, James Diego
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Rural Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Learning from Gangs: The Mexican American Experience. ERIC
Gangs have become a fixture in the Mexican American populations of southern
California and other regions of the nation. Beginning in the 1940s as a small
number of neighborhood-based youth groups given to periodic outbursts of
destructive behavior, gangs have evolved into very deadly and violent street
entities. Today, a still-small number, between 4 percent and 10 percent, of
Mexican American youth belong to gangs. Aggression and group conflict have
always been a part of the Mexican American gang experience (Klein, 1971). With
the recent introduction of drugs and weapons, however, intergroup violence and
homicides have spiraled out of control; and bystanders, unaffiliated with gangs,
often become the victims. Chicano gangs were once confined to the many
low-income barrios (neighborhoods) in the southwestern United States. Today, the
influence of such urban street gangs (of all ethnic groups) is compounded by
widespread media exposure. Gangs have appeared in working-class and
lower-middle-class suburban areas, in many instances recruiting White youth as
gang members (Huff, 1996).
ORIGINS OF MEXICAN AMERICAN GANGS
Many factors have played
a role in the development and institutionalization of gangs. Among them are
historical experiences stemming from racial discrimination and economic barriers
that have detrimentally affected Mexican American families and their children.
Particularly noteworthy in the context of large-scale and continuing immigration
since the 1920s are where the newcomers settled, what jobs they filled, and how
these beginnings affected other aspects of their lives. Many immigrant parents
lost control of their children during their initial struggle to adapt to urban
American culture while still retaining some rural Mexican identity. Next, they
too had to cope with economic hardships compounded by prejudice and
discrimination. All too often, other institutions of social control (especially
schools and police) were unable or unwilling to adequately address the needs of
these children. Left to their own devices and the influence of older peers
encountered in the streets, the youth formed gangs. Over the years, a gang
subculture has been elaborated by successive generations of young people.
Multiple marginality. Multiple factors contribute to the sense of
displacement, isolation, and alienation that such Mexican American youth feel.
The concept of "multiple marginality" (with ecological, economic, sociocultural,
and sociopsychological components) best describes the complex nature of the
aimless adaptation that has produced street gangs, and the dynamic interactive
actions and reactions that reverberate among all these forces (Vigil, 1988).
First, the early barrios were situated in ecologically marginal areas of the
city, places such as gullies and other lowlands that developers considered
undesirable. These enclaves were socially and physically separate from Anglo
American neighborhoods--"the other side of the tracks"--sometimes literally.
Visually distinct in their appearance and their amenities--dirt roads, limited
public utilities or none, outhouses, older run-down homes, and so on--these
barrios were stigmatized as the places where poor, unskilled, "dirty" Mexicans
lived (Moore, 1978, 1991).
Early immigrants' lives were affected by economic marginality as well.
Entry-level, low-paying jobs in agriculture, ranching, and light industry were
typically their only opportunities for employment. Much later, when service
industries emerged as sources of jobs, many immigrants became gardeners, car
washers, janitors, dish washers, domestics, and the like. In spite of the
obstacles, most of the Mexican immigrants fashioned productive lives for their
families, and their Mexican American offspring often became even more
successful, though faced with continuing racial and ethnic discrimination. A
life of persistent and concentrated poverty, however, ensued for a substantial
minority of barrio dwellers who could not escape the secondary or segmented
labor market. These are jobs with no room for advancement, with very low wages,
and with few or no benefits; in short, jobs that generally exploit and
manipulate a marginal labor force (Moore & Vigil, 1993).
The repercussions of poverty and exploitation have had wide-ranging
consequences in the social and cultural life of youth. The breakdowns in social
control, as well as cultural and ethnic identity conflict, have had a major
impact on the making of gangs and the shaping of gang members. What began as
wayward kids hanging around the street, almost detached from family influences,
unfamiliar with and uncommitted to schools, and in fear of the "law," gradually
became rooted as a new subculture: the street gang. Moreover, because a gang
subculture now dominates the streets, youngsters who become street socialized
must adjust and conform to the culture that these "street elites" have
fashioned. Where the parents, schools, and police have left off, the gang
subculture has taken over and become the substitute caring, teaching, and
THE GANG SUBCULTURE
Integral to this shift in the
socialization process from the home to the streets are the effects of culture
shock and conflict. These have led to a decidedly "cholo" (derived from early
Spanish and Mexican usage, meaning racial or cultural marginals) street
subculture. In part a result of a fragmented cultural adaptation with both
Mexican and Anglo American traits and habits mixed together (the language that
some call Spanglish), this cholo orientation becomes internalized in the
streets. While most Mexican American youth find solace as assimilated
"Chic-Anglos" or stable, fluently bilingual biculturals, the cholo culture
reflects a poverty-ridden, unguided, and largely unfettered process of street
socialization and identity (Vigil, 1997).
It is no coincidence that youth enter and participate in gangs during a
period of status transition from childhood to adulthood. Known as the
"psychological moratorium," adolescence is a time of confusion and ambiguity
when age and gender identity must be formed. Youth who are already street
socialized are inclined to solidify a street identity. This is particularly so
for boys, raised in the female-dominated households that often emerge from the
familial stresses of poverty and social marginalization, who must now adjust and
conform to the male-dominated streets. As in other cultures that face this
gender dilemma, the street gang has formalized a gang initiation ritual to help
newcomers take on a new "tough male" identity. In addition, the solidarity among
gang members helps to reduce the anxiety involved in life on the streets.
With gang association comes mind-altering drugs, hair-trigger weapons, and a
"locura" (quasi-controlled craziness) mindset to act out personal aggressions
and rage. The gang subculture itself has values ("ought-tos") and norms
("blueprints for action") that guide and direct gang members. Protection of
barrio territory or honor is what usually generates and ignites the gang
conflict, including drive-by shootings and other violence, that pits barrio
against barrio, gang against gang. Mirande (1987) attributes the values of gang
youths to the effects of systemic suppression of the Mexican American people,
while Horowitz (1983) tends to emphasize the protective role that gang members
play for others in their kinship and friendship networks.
Many daily activities and habits of gang members are much like most normal
adolescent and youth socializing, including talk about courting and local news,
sports and recreation activities, and eating and drinking. But because their
educational and job history is so poor, they are often unemployed and have time
on their hands, time often spent drinking alcohol and taking drugs. During these
times, aggressive and violent thoughts often rage to the surface, and an attack
or retaliation against an enemy barrio may be planned and initiated. Acting
"loco" (crazy) in this fashion takes on a special importance because the violent
acts are carried out to avenge the deaths of gang associates lost in previous
battles. Younger gang members are expected to learn how to do loco acts, if not
become loco actors.
Subcultural signs. Gang signs and symbols also reflect the subculture. Ways
of dressing, talking, and walking, as well as overall demeanor, are patterned.
Younger gang members attempt to dress even more "baggy" (loose, khaki pants) and
act more "cool" than the older members. A nickname is affixed to a new member
and in the future, he will apply this name (along with the barrio gang name) in
graffiti on walls, as well as tattoo it on his arm or other part of his body.
Dancing, car culture (adornment and cruising), and music styles reflect the
syncretic style of the cholo--a little of this and a little of that.
WHAT CAN WE LEARN?
The barrios that spawned these gangs are
still around, as are the poverty, stressed families, and the conflicts of
schooling and cultural identity. Immigration from Mexico and, increasingly,
other Latin American nations continues. The children of these new immigrant
families are pulled into the cholo life of the streets even faster than previous
generations. As in earlier decades, crowded housing and troubled familial
conditions continue to push children out to the only space available--the
streets. Without more effective intervention by social welfare and social
control agencies--especially in the areas of family support, schools, and
policing--the Mexican American gang problem will worsen. At present, suppression
strategies appear to dominate the way we deal with gangs. A balanced approach is
required--i.e., carrots as well as sticks. Parental training and counseling,
early remediation and support in school, and a community-focused law enforcement
relationship would help alleviate the worst effects of the gang problem
(Morales, 1982; Vigil, 1993).
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Klein, M. W. (1971). Street gangs and street workers. Englewood Cliffs, NJ:
Mirande, A. (1987). Gringo justice. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame
Moore, J. W. (1978). Homeboys: Gangs, drugs, and prison in the barrios of Los
Angeles. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Moore, J. W. (1991). Going down to the barrio: Homeboys and homegirls in
change. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Moore, J. W., & Vigil, J. D. (1993). Barrios in transition. In J. W.
Moore & R. Pinderhughes (Eds.), In the barrios: Latinos and the underclass
debate. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
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