Mexican American Gangs Essay, Research Paper
Mexican-American Gangs: The Other Side of the Tracks
Originally the word gang did not have a negative meaning. In Old English, a gang can be defined in four basic ways: 1) an organized group with a leader, 2) a unified group that usually remains together during peaceful times as well as times of conflict, 3) a group whose members show unity through clothing language, etc., and 4) a group whose activities are criminal or threatening to the larger society (Moore, 1978). Gangs are one of the results of poverty, discrimination, and urban deterioration. Some experts believe that young people, undereducated and without access to good jobs, become frustrated with their lives and join gangs as an alternative to boredom, hopelessness, fear, and devastating poverty. Studies have attempted to determine why gangs form in certain communities, but there has been no definite answer. Gangs have multiplied in the Mexican American populations of southern California and other regions, spreading from low-income neighborhoods in the Southwest to working and lower-middle class suburban areas.
The development and institutionalization of gangs have involved many factors, including racial discrimination and economic barriers faced by Mexican American immigrants and their children; immigrant parents loss of control over their children during the struggle to adapt to urban American culture; and the inability or unwillingness of other social institutions to meet these children s needs (Hernandez, 1998). The sense of isolation and alienation that many Mexican American youths feel is associated to multiple conditions dealing with home-life, economic structure, and cultural factors. What began as limited option 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. People working to solve gang problems have great difficulty. They find the situation overwhelming, and the violence continues. Gangs were not that big of a national problem as long as they stayed in the lower class ghetto.
Chicano gangs were once confined to low-income barrios (neighborhoods) in the southwestern United States. Today, they appear to be spreading into working class and middle-class white suburban areas, in many instances recruiting white youth as gang members. Now it is being identified in the national spotlight as a major problem that needs to be addressed. Members are usually males between the age of 13 and 24, and Los Angeles is considered the nation’s gang violence capital (Vigil, 1988).
Early Gangs In America
No groups completely fitting the above description of gangs existed in America until the mid to late 1800 s, but from the beginning of the European settlement in America there was some gang-like activity, especially when class distinctions came into being. Gang members tended to be from the poorer classes and tended to be from the same race or ethnic background. They stayed together for protection, recreation, and financial gain. It was not until the 19th century that “criminal” gangs first formed. They formed as a result of a worsening of the economy, a growing population, and increased competition for jobs (Takaki, 1997). Gangs began to specialize in crime that played a major part in America s larger cities. The worsening of the economy led to a larger gap between the rich and poor.
Mexican Immigration to the U.S.
Gangs have been reported in all 50 states and come from many backgrounds (Huff, 1996). For example some Chicano gangs form in large-scale immigrant communities populated by recent arrivals from Mexico, Latin, and Central America since the 1920 s. A study taken in 1998 stated that nearly one of every five children (14 million) born in the U.S. is the child of an immigrant, and the proportion of children in the United States who are non-Hispanic whites is projected to drop from 69 percent in 1990 to about 50 percent in the year 2030, and over 40 percent of under-18 children of immigrants live in California (Hernandez, 1998). In his first national survey, Miller (1975) estimated that 47.6 percent of gang members in the six largest cities were black, 36.1 percent Hispanic, 8.8 percent white, and 7.5 percent Asian. In a later survey by Miller (1982) found that 44.4 percent were Hispanic, 42.9 percent black, 9 percent White, and 4.0 percent Asian. Miller speculates that illegal Hispanic immigrants, especially from Mexico, may have played a large role in the increasing numbers of gangs in California and in their spread to smaller cities and communities in that State.
Traditional Chicano gangs in certain parts of East Los Angeles have declined in membership, but that membership in immigrant gangs from Mexico and Central and South America is on the increase (Duran 1987). 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. The parents are sometimes working two low paying jobs just trying to survive. The types of jobs open to many illiterate and Spanish speaking immigrants are served with jobs of no room for advancement, very low wages, and with few or no benefits-jobs that generally use a minimal labor force. An example would be a job at a meat packing plant or something of similar descent. Many adults of public control (especially in schools and police force) were unable or unwilling to properly work with the needs of these youth. Left to the influence of their older friends and family on the streets, the Mexican American youth gang formed.
Some Mexican street gangs in Southern California have existed within particular localities for two or more generations. “Parents and in some cases even grandparents were members of the same gang. There is a sense of continuity of family identity” (Jackson and McBride 1985). “Today a Hispanic in Los Angeles may be a forth generation gang member, and gangs compromise a distinct Hispanic subculture with their own stylized dress, language, and rituals” (Vigil, 1997).
In most cities in the United States today, approximately 15 percent of the citizens are living below the federal poverty level, defined as $12,156 for a family of three in 1995 (Horowitz, 1995). Twenty three percent of the children in the U.S. live in poverty, and no other industrial nation even comes close to this figure (Horowitz, 1995). The neighborhoods with a high number of ethnic populations also have much higher drop out rates in the schools. For Hispanic youths, dropout figures start to range around 50 percent and higher varying from school to school (Moore, 1994). Having no spending money is a common condition of these dropouts. Many youngsters have no opportunities and often no dreams or ambitions, because plans of any kind are just grounds for disappointment and more failure. This often leaves gang members unemployed and with a lot of extra time on their hands.
This time is often spent “hanging out” as they so call it. To make money many of the members might resort to drug trafficking, illegal weapons sales, robbery and theft. Many gang members engage in activities such as drinking alcohol and taking drugs. Three of the most common drugs used are marijuana, heroin, and cocaine. A recent sample of incoming inmates in California prisons indicated that the percentage of African Americans and Anglos is decreasing, and the percentage of Mexican Americans is increasing. The study also stated that at least 80 percent had used illegal drugs and 63 percent had substance dependence or abuse (Farabee,1994; Nixon, 1996). Mexican Americans typically start abusing substances at younger ages and drop out of school at younger ages than either African Americans or Anglos (Codina, 1996; Foley, 1993).
Many of the tests, scales, and evaluations used to determine placement in school as well as treatment have traditionally been Anglo-biased (Vigil, 1997). For years Mexican American in the U.S., like African Americans, were segregated from Anglos in society. They were not allowed to speak their native language in school and their names were changed without consent. In school all children learn about the Battle of the Alamo and how it set the stage to defeat the “bad” Mexicans in war. Their collective memory reinforces the bitterness of these events with each generation, in part because discrimination has now become institutionalized (Foley, 1993; Takaki, 1997).
Mexican American children have few professional role models, such as teachers or counselors. They often grow up believing that school won t make any difference so why should they try? High percentages of Mexican Americans are not only dropping out of school, but also becoming alienated from mainstream society which is increasingly based on technology and the service industry, where jobs either require higher education or provide low pay (Vigil, 1997). School dropouts find themselves locked into poverty with no chance to move up to better-paying jobs. The resulting stress, depression, anger, frustration, and hopelessness often lead to substance abuse. Sanchez says (1977), “Perhaps drugs has been one way of coping with that society, and one way of dealing with the frustration and inferiority fostered by the limitations imposed by the same society.”
Some gang activity might consist of tagging graffiti on one s own or an enemies turf. Turf refers to the protection of a few blocks or maybe an entire neighborhood that a gang might claim to be theirs. This means that they are the only ones who can sell drugs in that block, and they rule the streets in this area. It is their homeland or their “turf” that they defend from outside gangs. Turf protection or honor, and drug dealing among many other factors lead to a great deal of violence among these youth and often ignites gang vs. gang conflict. Fights, drive by shootings, and homicides can be the direct results of these conflicts.
Gangs can often be recognized by appearances or certain characteristics that make them noticeable. Gangs are sometimes affiliated with certain colors, hairstyles such as shaved or dyed hair, clothes that may be excessively big and baggy, bandannas are sometimes worn on the head or tied on a limb of the gang member, tattoos representing the name of the gang or street number they call their turf, hand signals and gang-slang, and many others traits.