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Los Angeles Gangs

An Urban Ethnography of Latino Street Gangs










The Notorious Gangs of Los Angeles

Some Latin gang members in front of a wall full of gang writing.
Do you hang out with a certain group of people? Do you have your own little inside jokes and lingo? Do they live near you and spend a lot of time with you? I'm sure everybody does. When you spend a certain amount of time around particular people, you develop unique relationships with them. Junior high school is a good example: everybody has their little cliques with whom they hang out, and we as students, teachers, principals, and society as a whole attach labels to those certain groups. You have the preps, jocks, skaters, gangsters, punks, and so on. Everybody knows that we shouldn't label people or attach names to a way that someone dresses or talks. But it seems as a society, we always label and classify each other. These different groups are essentially how gangs came to be. Different people lived near each other, and people in the city started to label people by which neighborhood they lived in, such as Eastside versus Westside.

A large percentage of the gangs in America are made up of Hispanics. Why is that? Well, gangs more or less started in Los Angeles. More precisely, they started in East Los Angeles. Mexicans have been in the East LA area since before California was part of the United States. California used to be part of Mexico until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican American War. East Los Angeles has traditionally been the heart of the Latin community. Throughout LA County, there are several other communities which have deep Mexican roots, such as San Gabriel, San Fernando, Pacoima, Canoga Park, Pomona, and Hawaiian Gardens, just to name a few. But East LA is the most urban and most conglomerated. It is the densest gang region in the entire USA, with the most gangs per square mile. There are about two hundred gangs within a ten-mile radius.

Jen at her old high school in Chatsworth after she graduated they put a fence around the school to battle teen violence.
So how did these gangs all begin? Well, it can be traced all the way back to how the Mexican community was treated in the USA throughout history. The people who make up the Mexican community have almost always been treated like second-class citizens. First we took their land in the Mexican American War. Then we segregated them from society by making them go to separate schools. We took advantage of their hard working skills by exploiting them in the grape fields of California, and so on and so on. Ever since the US took their land, they have been in a constant struggle.

The birth of gangs today can probably be traced all the way back to the zoot suiters. The zoot suiters wore baggy suits tapered at the bottom. The suits were looked at as unpatriotic, but that's the reason why they wore them. They wore them in protest, to express their feelings on how they were being treated. This led up to the Zoot Suit riots in 1943.

Behind Nick is Juvenile hall where many of LA's youth gang members end up.
With the zoot suits gaining popularity among the Mexican community, many of the zoot suiters started organizing clubs. Soon, the way you could enter these clubs was being "jumped in." This meant that you had to fight more than one member of the club, resulting in your getting jumped in. But, after it was all over, you were accepted into the club. This has carried on to the modern gangs of today. These zoot suit clubs started to gain popularity among the youth. As with any other groups of young people, there were often fights. The philosophy of these clubs was that once you fought, the problem was solved. Once you joined these clubs, you gained the honor and respect of the people in your club. The clubs became very close, with tight-knit groups becoming a second family to many of their members. And, in many cases, the club became a first family to many members, because of the generation gap between the zoot suiters and their parents. Many of the youth in clubs didn't have a family structure, so these clubs became their family. The little things that the clubs fought over were the honor of their girlfriends, popularity, who had the nicest clothes, who was the best fighter, and so on. These were the same problems that all youth faced; the zoot suit clubs were no different.


The Long Night on the Treks

The things that changed the clubs were guns and drugs, which appeared during the Vietnam War. Many Mexican members of these clubs went off to war, where they experienced violence and drugs. Many Mexican Vietnam veterans came back on drugs and angry for what their country had put them through. Carrying a gun became a common thing, and instead of fighting their enemies like they did in the past, they killed them. Selling drugs and guns became the main force behind the gangs. They retained their beliefs of honor and respect, but now that the guns and drugs were mixed in, it was hard to determine what was honor or respect. The introduction of crack cocaine to the streets of LA just fueled the problem. Now the gangs weren't just fighting over girls and popularity, they were fighting over drugs and the marketing and selling of drugs. This led to disputes over territory and who had rights to sell certain drugs in certain parts of the city. Thus the modern gangs were born.

Nick and ex gang member Oscar hanging out on Oscar's lunch break.
With the huge influx of immigrants, not only from Mexico, but also from Central America, gangs were growing faster than ever. Some gangs started in places like Honduras, El Salvador, Panama, and Guatemala. Then, when the members immigrated to America, they brought the gangs with them. An ex-gang member named Oscar recalls his move from Guatemala, "I got involved with a gang in Guatemala at age fourteen. Then I moved to America when I was seventeen. When I got here, I didn't even have to be jumped into a new gang, because my tattoos already represented that I was in a gang." I ask Oscar why he joined a gang. " I joined the gang because I was young, and I thought I would get respect and honor from it. Now that I look back on it, I didn't get any respect or honor at all. I was young; I didn't even know what honor or respect was. After I saw a good friend of mine get shot right next to me, I realized that gang life wasn't about honor and respect. Since then I have left the gang." Leaving a gang is the hardest part. If you try to leave, it's like you're disrespecting everybody in the gang. The only way Oscar was able to leave the gang was to move away from LA. When he goes into the city to visit his family, he has to do it very carefully, because his life is in danger from his old gang.

A gang member of the Bloods throw's up his gang signs.
During the times when the Hispanic gangs were growing, so were the African American gangs. They grew out of the same reasons that the Hispanic gangs did, the poverty and despair of urban America. Like Hispanics, African Americans have struggled throughout history and continue to struggle today. Many former gang members were the ones who helped form the Los Angeles chapter of the Black Panther Party. The African American gangs started out as community-based organizations, but then crack cocaine was introduced to the streets of LA. This created an all-out war on the streets. The two main African American gangs then and now are the Bloods and Crips. These two gangs are in turn made up of several other gangs. There are currently 274 Blood and Crip gangs in Los Angeles County. They can also be found all across the nation in over one hundred American cities.

A meeting of the no guns organization who work to get guns off the streets.
Gangs are a part of society and have been throughout history. They are a social problem that shouldn't be overlooked. The gangs in America exist because of the way we have treated certain people. Gangs are lasting reminders that there are many social problems that minorities face. I'm by no means glorifying gangs, but I am saying that gangs were started as a result of youth reacting to the government and society. The gang situation in America was fueled by the aftershock of the Vietnam War. It introduced drugs and guns to the streets. The formation of modern gangs today was put into high gear by the introduction of crack cocaine to the streets. Both directly and indirectly, our government and our society have played an important role in the gangs that exist today. If we as a society want to stop gangs and the lifestyle of violence that surrounds them, we must solve the problems of poverty and equality first, because this is where the seed for gangs was first planted.


Please email me at: nick@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Jennifer - A day at juvie - doing time in your teens
Stephanie - Military boot camps for teens gone bad
Irene - Don't mess with Texas or 'Old Sparky' may call for you!
Neda - The prison industry - too many people, too many prisons
Nick - Police brutality is a problem that needs our attention