Barrio Gangs

[ Latino/a Studies ]

Barrio Gangs

Street Life and Identity in Southern California

By James Diego Vigil

Drawing on many years of experience in the barrios as a youth worker, high school teacher, and researcher, Vigil examines the complex factors that give birth and persistence to gangs.



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ISBN: 978-0-292-71119-8

Within the Mexican American barrios of Los Angeles, gang activity, including crime and violent acts, has grown and flourished. In the past, community leaders and law enforcement officials have approached the problem, not as something that needs to be understood, but only as something to be gotten rid of. Rejecting that approach, James D. Vigil asserts that only by understanding the complex factors that give birth and persistence to gangs can gang violence be ended.

Drawing on many years of experience in the barrios as a youth worker, high school teacher, and researcher, Vigil identifies the elements from which gangs spring: isolation from the dominant culture, poverty, family stress and crowded households, peer pressure, and the adolescent struggle for self-identity. Using interviews with actual gang members, he reveals how the gang often functions as parent, school, and law enforcement in the absence of other role models in the gang members' lives. And he accounts for the longevity of gangs, sometimes over decades, by showing how they offer barrio youth a sense of identity and belonging nowhere else available.

  • Foreword
  • Preface
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Ecological and Socioeconomic Background to Emergence of Street Gangs
  • 3. Sociocultural Factors in the Choloization of the Mexican American Youth
  • Population
  • 4. Four Life Histories—Wizard, Geronimo, Freddie, and Henry
  • 5. The Gang Subculture as a Lifeway: Structure, Process, and Form
  • 6. The Notorious Side of the Gang Subculture
  • 7. Psychodynamics of Gangs
  • 8. Conclusion
  • Glossary
  • References
  • Index

A look behind the scenes of Chicano youth gang behavior is long overdue. It is important to know how the streets have become such a strong socializing force in the barrios of Southern California and why certain adolescents and youth there are particularly motivated to identify with the street gang. Many of the street gang habits and customs make better sense when considered in the context of street pressures and group identification processes. To survive in street culture, one must have a street identity. It will be revealed in this study that there are many intricacies and complexities to this street identity.

Chicano street gangs in Los Angeles and Southern California have been around for several decades (Bogardus 1926). Over the past forty years they have been viewed as a menace to society, wreaking crime and violence on the rest of the populace, or as a serious social problem with roots in the urban experience of low-income minority groups. Several explanations of Chicano gangs (McWilliams 1968; Griffith 1948; Tuck 1956; Heller 1966; Rosenquist and Megargee 1969; Klein 1971; Snyder 1977; J. Moore 1978; Horowitz 1983) advanced our understanding of the problem. However, the complexity of the street gang requires a careful separation of the cluster of factors that contribute to its formation and persistence. The lives of the street youths who comprise the barrio gang reflect multiple stresses and pressures, which result in a multiple marginality. This multiple marginality derives from various interwoven situations and conditions that tend to act and react upon one another. Although interrelated, the unfolding and interpretation of these ecological, economic, social, cultural, and psychological features of the street gang suggest a developmental sequence.

All of these considerations are integral to the relationship between multiple marginality and gang patterns. In particular, it will be clear that barrio children whose lives are most intensely affected by marginality in these dimensions are more at risk to become gang members. Moreover, use of the concept will permit an examination of gang violence and related behavior within the context of a cumulative, additive experience. My self-reflexive life history involvement with various facets of street and gang life and the life histories of different types of contemporary gang members provide insights and nuances and shifting levels of insider/outsider analysis to this perspective. This combination of ways of examining and describing the street gang will promote theory building and the integration of more narrowly focused explanations for gang phenomena that have emerged over the years.

Anyone who regularly works with street gangs can learn the answers to such questions as, Where they are located? Who are the members? What do they do and how do they do it? However, even after having gained such knowledge, few observers understand what the sources of this behavior are or when in a person's life does such behavior emerge. It is these and other such questions that should guide our discussion if we are to better comprehend the gang phenomenon. Partial, incomplete, and narrow assessments do injustice to the general public as well as to the communities where gangs are common. As an example of this narrow attitude, I once inquired of a city official, the director of community programs and affairs, what recreational and social programs were offered to the local barrio youth and whether he was familiar with some of the conditions that caused the formation of the gang. He gave a testy response: "We don't want to understand the problem, we just want to stop it." While desiring to "stop it" is understandable, such lack of analysis can only impede the official's desire.

Chicano gangs are made up largely of young males, from 13 to 25 years of age. The gang subcultural style is a response to the pressures of street life and serves to give certain barrio youth a source of familial support, goals and directives, and sanctions and guides. Although gang members typically constitute a small minority of the young in a barrio, they represent a street style that both conforms and contrasts with familiar youth patterns (Klein 1969). On the one hand, most of their time is spent in the usual cohort activities found in any neighborhood where adolescents and other youth congregate. They talk, joke, plan social events, and exchange stories of adventure and love. Their alcohol consumption and drug use shows some parallels with that of other American adolescents. Yet it is their other, violent, socially disruptive activities that distinguish gang members from most adolescents.

Reflecting the tendency among adolescents to develop new modes of dress and speech, Chicano gang members have adopted a distinctive street style of dress, speech, gestures, tattoos, and graffiti. This style is called cholo, a centuries-old term for some Latin American Indians who are partially acculturated to Hispanic-based elite cultures (Wfolck 1973). The term also reflects the cultural transitional situation of Mexican Americans in the southwestern United States; it is a process strongly affected by underclass forces and street requisites. Many of the cholo customs symbolize an attachment to and identification with the gang, although many individuals copy the style without joining the gang. As we will note, there is a wide difference among members in degree of commitment to the gang, but generally it is those members with the most problematic lives and intense street experiences who become regular members. Over the decades, the gang has developed a subculture, that is, a social structure and cultural value system with its own age-graded cohorts, initiations, norms and goals, and roles. These now function to socialize and enculturate barrio youth. Though the emergence of a gang subculture initially resulted from urban maladaption among some segments of the Mexican immigrant population, it is now a continuing factor to which new Latino immigrants must adapt. To understand developments in this area we must look to the starting point, the inception of this country's urban revolution.

Gangs in Urban Immigrant Communities

Gangs have been an urban problem in the United States since the beginning of large-scale immigration to this country before the turn of the century (Thrasher 1963 [1927]). The processes and patterns of immigrant adaption, although different in important ways, stemmed from remarkably similar sources. The early groups were European immigrants, especially from southeastern Europe, who came to this country to find work and a better life. Most of them settled in urban areas and established their own communities. The process of finding work, locating a place to live, and adjusting to urban life was repeated many times over for different ethnic groups, and the Mexican immigrant population is no different in this regard.

What characterized most of these groups was their poverty, their lack of skills. As a result, they were treated as a cheap source of labor. In addition, they came from different cultural and (by contemporary definition) racial backgrounds that contrasted sharply with the dominant Anglo-American one. Anglo native-born Americans tended to view the ethnically different newcomers' appearance, behavior patterns, and poverty as a single entity; the immigrants thus faced discrimination from the native born. Their cultural difference acted in two ways to affect them. One stemmed from the changes they had to make in their own cultural values, beliefs, and patterns to adjust and acculturate to Anglo-American lifestyles. The other was a result of how the dominant Anglo culture received and accommodated them. Their own attitudes and behaviors and those of the predominant society operated to affect where they would live, what they would do for a living, and how, when, and even whether they would become "Americanized" (Handlin 1951). Exploitation and discrimination, in particular, dominated the early period after their arrival and extended to the lives of their children. The pressures and anxieties of urban poverty, of the struggle toward a better life, and of overcoming feelings of ethnic and racial inferiority made immigrant cultural adaptation problematic. Such an experience often resulted in gangs.

Throughout most of this century, researchers and writers have compiled evidence on urban gangs. The focus of these accounts varies as to ethnic group, time, and place and the theoretical emphasis. Nonetheless, there is widespread agreement among writers that gangs are an urban phenomenon, particularly so in the cases of ethnic minorities (Clinard 1968), and they represent a pattern found among lower-class adolescents (Cloward and Ohlin 1960). In fact, there is a complex of other factors that make the urban experience so remarkably uniform: a breakdown in social institutions, especially the family and schools (which often impede rather than accommodate adjustment); a first- and second-generational conflict within each ethnic group, which creates loyalty discord and identity confusions; and a noted predisposition among youth to gravitate toward street peers for sources of social associations and personal fulfillment.

Within a generation or two, most members of each early ethnic immigrant group improved their standard of living and stabilized themselves as wage earners and homemakers. Problems associated with urban adaptation, such as youth gangs, crime, poor housing, and unemployment, were initially severe. Eventually, these problems were worked through and became less serious as each group acculturated. Hence, after two generations of severe culture clash both within the ethnic community (intergenerational) and between it and the other communities, the issues that sometimes became a source of national concern, such as culture conflict, economic exploitation, and associated social disruptions, tend to dissipate.

The Nature and Persistence of Chicano Gangs

Although Mexican Americans in urban settings largely share with earlier, mostly eastern U.S. ethnics a similarity in how adaptation proceeds, there are also distinct differences between them. For one thing, Chicano youth gangs (unlike those of other immigrant groups) have shown a remarkable longevity. Moore, Vigil, and García (1983) suggest reasons for this difference: "the gangs are long-lasting, not transitory phenomena ... With few exceptions, the Chicano communities of Los Angeles never have been invaded by another ethnic group, nor has another ethnic group succeeded them, nor has there been total cultural disintegration. Instead, there has been more or less continuous immigration of yet more Mexicans, with a reinforcement of some of the traditional culture" (p. 183). Mexican Americans remained more visually distinct from the majority than did the third-generation descendants of European immigrants, and the continued presence of fully unacculturated Mexicans made their communities more culturally distinct.

Many familes and their children experience acute poverty and limited social mobility opportunities in these barrios, and thus, over time, there developed an underclass with its own set of problems. It is from among these children that the youth most intensely involved in the gangs tends to come. As members of a persistent underclass within the Mexican American population, these youths come from households with even lower incomes than those of other barrio families and a higher incidence of stressful family situations. (This is perhaps reflective of what Auletta [1982] refers to as the 9 million, a subgroup of the 25 million below the national poverty level, who experience a grinding cycle of poverty. Recent reports seem to support the existence of this strata in urban centers [Bearak and Meyer 1985:14; NALEO 1985].) Poor school records and limited job options have combined to make them even more street oriented. As part of their survival on the streets, especially during adolescence, they adopt cultural values and customs that help shape their personal identities.

The youth gangs of Mexican Americans have arisen in the context of the broader pattern of Mexican adaptation to urban life in the United States. Mexican immigration has been the primary factor in the growth of the Mexican American population. The first large wave (1920s) brought anywhere from 1.5 million to 2 million immigrants, doubling the native Mexican American population (Samora 1971). In subsequent waves in the periods from 1940 to 1964 (4 million) and from 1969 through the 1970s (anywhere from 6 to 12 million), the population has continued to swell (Cornelius 1978). Throughout these decades of immigration, the population increasingly settled in urban areas, and today close to 90 percent of the Mexican American (native and immigrant alike) population is in urban areas (Alvírez, Bean, and Williams 1981). A recent report (Muller 1984) on foreign immigration to California since 1970 found that, of over 2 million who have legally settled there, "at least 1.3 million of them have settled in its seven southern counties" (p. 1); and this figure excludes the uncounted and undocumented (Cornelius, Chávez, and Castro 1982). Southern California, and Los Angeles particularly, is the urban area that has received most of these immigrants. Their adjustment and its social and cultural developments have taken different forms, depending on the work opportunities, places of settlement, and, generally, the standard of living attained by immigrants. Such continuous waves of immigrants ensure that there is always a large pool of secondgeneration Mexican Americans.

Bogardus (1926) noted that in the early years of Mexican immigration there was a "boy" gang problem and characterized it as an incipient form that could be remedied. However, in the following decades it was clear that the gang problem was becoming a serious one, with a formal structure and emerging set of norms and rules to attract and guide members (Bogardus 1943). Cultural change over the years was affected by barrio and underclass life and was particularly acute during the Depression, when even more Mexican youths experienced the intense pressures of urban poverty, especially the second generation. It is a second-generation urban American experience that, in the Chicano case, is a continually renewed phenomenon because of continued immigration. The second generation in the 1930s-1940s originated the pachuco lifestyle (a label created for those who wore zoot suits and spoke a mixed English-Spanish slang language that borrowed heavily from caló—this in turn, was a continuation of what the Gypsies had started in Spain and later was diffused, by bullfighters it seems, to Mexico [McWilliams 1968; G. C. Barker 1950]). Pachucos were a group who strove to reconcile the conflicting values and nascent pressures that urban adaptation brought; prolonged lower-class status and immobility shaped how Mexican culture was relinquished and American culture integrated into a street style. This style served as a mechanism of adaptation for many youth who needed a source of personal identification and human support, especially during the adolescent self-identification process where ego and peer groups merge to simplify age/sex identification. Pachucos were more than a "boy" gang of loosely aligned street children who participated primarily in street mischief. They had passed the incipient phase of gang formation, as pride in barrio affiliation, barrio conflicts, and some amount of drug use and abuse became a part of their lifestyle. Because most pachucos preferred to look "cool" in their zoot suits and have a good time, these damaging group activities were not as widespread or intense as those practiced in more recent decades. As the practice of negative group activities has escalated, the early generations of gang members, even most pachucos, can be viewed as a transitional form of gang.

A gang subculture eventually formed and became a pressing force in barrio life. Earlier, youths would join the boys on the street for play or mischief. Later, pachucos began to add their distinctive elements to the emerging street gang style. With the passage of time, and the perpetuation of situations, conditions, and social practices that helped to create it, the street style now works to socialize and enculturate youth to a rooted gang subculture with its own group norms and cholo role fronts. The street violence and other debilitating activities that are common features of barrio life can only be understood in terms of this subcultural socialization and its appeal to barrio youths with particular types of personal backgrounds that give rise to articular forms of self-identification processes.

In the 1980s, Chicano gangs comprise at least one-half of the four hundred gangs that exist in Los Angeles County (Decker 1983). This number, of course, is larger when the counties adjacent to Los Angeles are included. Notwithstanding the absolute number of Chicano gangs, however, only a small percentage of Chicano youth, perhaps only 4 to 10 percent of most barrios, are affiliated with gangs (Morales 1982). Of this relatively small percentage, there are subcategories (based upon degree and level of commitment) of regular, peripheral, temporary, and situational. For the most part, gang affiliation and gang-related behavior are primarily male phenomena, although many barrios also have smaller female cliques. The great majority of youths, as in other ethnic groups (cf., e.g., Whyte 1973), find other sources of identification and emulation.

The cultural style of the gang subculture arose partly as a response to street life. However, its major cultural forms are a reforging of Mexican and American patterns. This recombination, of course, borrowed heavily from the earlier pachuco syncretic formulation of creating a culture of mixed and blended elements (e.g., language). Cholos (the present term identifying the style as well as its bearers), share a cultural orientation that makes them distinct from other barrio youth. Although cholos are Americanized, either by accident or by design, they refuse or are unable to be totally assimilated (Vigil 1979; Buriel et al. 1982). In important ways they consider themselves traditionalists and retain certain Mexican customs, however attenuated, as part of their cultural repertoire. For example, they have retained the cal- idiom of expression; the strong sense of group as family; the adolescent palomilla cohorting tradition (Rubel 1966), which includes many daring and bravado male patterns; and an antiauthority attitude, which is, perhaps, a reaction against gabacho (originally a term used for foreigners, such as the French in Mexico during the 1860s intervention, but now designating Anglos) racism (Vigil 1984).

The gangs that have been addressed by researchers range from those that began in the 1940s, and that have over time established more than a dozen identifiable age-graded cohorts (Moore 1978), to those of more recent vintage. An individual gang might include as many as two hundred or more, or as few as ten or twelve, members. It is mainly in the suburbs that the newer, smaller gangs are found. Older, larger gangs, on the other hand, are usually located in long-established urban and semirural barrios. Semirural barrios, and the gangs associated with them, have often been engulfed in recent years by rapidly expanding suburban growth. The deep-rooted presence of older barrio gangs has become a model and a stimulus for gang formation in other areas, as well as a major socialization factor throughout the barrio and nearby areas.

Acculturation is a major factor in a large urban region, such as the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. Barrio and underclass life has shaped each new immigrant population in different ways, however, creating generational contrasts. As the decades pass, each generation, depending on sociocultural environment and historical conditions, becomes part of a process of cultural change and accommodation. What once began as a Mexican subculture is now transformed into different subcultures. It is in the second generation where the children of Mexican immigrants undergo acculturation shifts resembling a transitional (cholo subculture) phase. Sometimes the phase involves culture conflict, whereby both the donor culture and the host culture become problematic. This ambivalent cultural (and personal) identity makes the gang subculture attractive for a small but significant minority of barrio youth. Their lives are often regulated by the age-graded klikas (cliques, or cohorts within the gang). Older gang members also lend some sense of order to their often confused interpersonal interactions by providing vertical lines of organization (Klein 1971); and the gang's involvement in some forms of criminal behavior affords avenues for prestige and income to those who have limited chances of acquiring meaningful jobs (Moore 1978; Chicano Pinto Research Project 1979, 1981). Increasingly, in recent years, both immigrant youths from Mexico and third-generation Mexican Americans have become peripherally involved with street gangs. The Chicano Pinto Research Project (1979, 1981) has found small numbers of third-generation Chicanos, who are themselves offspring of gang members, involved in the core membership of some younger age cohorts.

Multiple Marginality and Street Adaptation

The Chicano youth gang began and grew in ecologically marginal areas of the city and surrounding countryside. It was fed by pressures generated by a marginal economic role. It is peopled by youths with marginal ethnic and personal identities. Each feature of gang life merits scrutiny by itself, but once this task is completed the next step is to search for the links between these features. For example, the interrelationships between socioeconomic condition (e.g., mothercentered households) or social event (e.g., sex identity strivings) must be assessed to understand why gangs are so important during adolescence. A multiple research strategy employing the concept of multiple marginality, which is especially useful with broad and indepth self-reflexive and life history information, will enhance this understanding. This type of information reflects various times, places, thoughts, and events that must be unpeeled layer by layer, and thus a multiple construct facilitates such a discussion. It is a construct that views reality as a constellation of forces tending to act and react upon one another.

Multiple marginality encompasses the consequences of barrio life, low socioeconomic status, street socialization and enculturation, and problematic development of a self-identity. These gang features arise in a web of ecological, socioeconomic, cultural, and psychological factors. The use of such a concept in an analysis of Chicano youth gangs will help to avoid the difficulties stemming from single-cause examinations of previous gang studies; Cartwright et al. (1975:25-45) have addressed such problems in the second chapter of their review of juvenile gangs. The use of the concept multiple marginality can lead to what Geertz (1973:3) has called a "thick description." Looking at various circumstances and forces in a combinative way increases our understanding of the similarities and variations found within and across groups. It also affords an opportunity to make use of an analyst's personal experiences when merited. Having watched gangs and gang members for many years as an insider has enabled me to chart the flow of events and decision-making processes of street gangs.

An eclectic multiple marginality analysis makes it possible to integrate key elements of the several theories that have been formulated to explain gang delinquency and that emerged in the middle 1950s to early 1960s. (This is no coincidence, as the post-World War II urban explosion led to the development of problems among new minority groups, such as Puerto Ricans, blacks, and Mexican Americans, that were perhaps even more threatening than what had transpired earlier with white ethnics. These new phenomena led, in turn, to the reformation of old theories and the development of new theories.) In summary fashion, these theories are (1) male maturation process, "becoming a man" (e.g., Bloch and Niederhoffer 1958); (2) subcultural, collective solution of lower-class boys to acquire status (e.g., Cohen 1955); (3) lower-class cultural values (e.g., W. B. Miller 1958); (4) lower-class means and upper-class goals disjunctures or simplified means-goals discrepancy (e.g., Cloward and Ohlin 1960); and (5) sociopathic personalities that make "near-group" (e.g., Yablonsky 1959). There are several ways to assess these theories: they can either be reclassified as sociogenic (e.g., 3, 4) and psychogenic (e.g., 1, 2, 5) or, examined another way, as fitting within explanations that focus on strain (2, 4), cultural deviance (1-4), and (in varying degrees, all five) social control (Edgerton 1973; Dembo et al. 1984; Cartwright et al. 1975). Although the authors argue that their particular theory is most salient to the gang phenomenon, each theory accounts for only an aspect of the gang pattern. Yet, all the authors in fact rely on a number of related factors to arrive at their theoretical formulation. For example, Bloch and Niederhoffer (1958) maintain that the gang outlet for becoming a man results because society (through such phenomena as poverty, family stress, and urban disorganization) has failed them; and Cloward and Ohlin (1960), working on a variation of Merton's (1949) means/goals disjunctures, elaborate on the nature of low-income slum life to explain gang subculturel variations. This suggests that a cluster of factors needs to be examined to understand gang delinquency; Cloward and Ohlin say as much with these words: "gangs, or subcultures ... are typically found among adolescent males in lowerclass areas of large urban centers" (p. 1; cf. Short and Strodtbeck 1965:19).

The multiple marginality framework better allows for descriptions and interpretations of particular (and perhaps peculiar) facts of people, time, and place. Such a larger framework simultaneously provides for a broader and more in-depth portrayal of the various realities that gang members experience. The intensity and duration of the individual or group experience in gangs as such are better gauged in this broadly integrative way. There are several marginal situations and conditions that are a part of the Mexicans' overall adaptation to urban life. In such circumstances of "long duration ... the individual can be born into it and live his whole life in it," becoming a participant in "even the development of a 'marginal culture' " (Dickie-Clark 1966:24).

Some researchers have noted that the concept of marginality should be carefully applied because it tends to diminish the important role of lower-income workers in a capitalist economy (Peattie 1974). Perlman (1976), in providing a sweeping critical summation of marginality theory, nevertheless recognizes the need for a construct that looks "to some set of circumstances outside individual control," such as one that "explains these conditions as expressions of the social structure and the historical process" and that looks at "different dimensions of marginality and seeks rather to examine the specificity of their interaction in each instance" (p. 251).

Mexican and Mexican American labor has definitely been significant in the economic development of the southwestern United States, for example, in mining, farming, railroading, and so on. These contributions, however, have not assured them of commensurate political and economic power, as they are excluded by leaders from decision-making processes. This marginality, moreover, is maintamed by structural features in the environment to which they must adapt (Kapferer 1978; Lomnitz 1977; Barrera 1979).

The background to the current gang situation is also important, for multiple marginality has cumulative, diachronic sources, especially in group history. A macro (group history), meso (family history), and micro (life history) descending order of analysis is undertaken to show through time how ecological and economic conditions create sociocultural stresses and ambiguities, which, in turn, lead to subcultural and psychological mechanisms of adjustment. Descriptions of group and family history are well documented in the archives (Bogardus 1926, 1934) and in such studies as the longitudinal investigations of Moore and her pinto (ex-convict) associates (Moore 1978; Chicano Pinto Research Project 1979, 1981; Moore and Mata 1981). Moreover, my personal life experiences with numerous families who exemplify the multiple processes that lead to gang patterns provide for a unique insider/outsider interpretive perspective to inform these life histories and to show how these personalized events of places and living actions are refracted through the prism of multiple marginality. For example, I have gone through many experiences similar to those of gang youths recounted in subsequent chapters, including being set upon and beaten by gang members into whose "turf" I had strayed. Such personal experiences inform my interpretation of such events.

A macroexamination of Mexican adaptation provides the backdrop for understanding Chicano youth gangs, for there are several areas that need to be traced. Clearly, a key focus is to examine how an emergent underclass life has affected many Mexicans. The underclass phenomenon entails the longitudinal effects of poverty. The youth groups that are produced in such nascent circumstances are quite different from, for example, the earlier nonviolent "street corner" groups reported by Whyte (1973). In fact, endemic racial barriers and cultural strains have combined with status to make this so (Wolfgang et al. 1972; Bogardus 1943). The historical record of cultural and social disparagement experienced by Mexicans is indicative of such developments (Moore and Pach-n 1976; Acu-a 1981; Vigil 1984).

Urban adaptation for immigrant Mexican families was problematic initially and continues to be so today. Low-paying jobs led to residence in older, run-down interstices of the city, such as sections of East Los Angeles (Gustafson 1940:25-40; Ginn 1947:18-19). Such circumstances created repercussions in other social, cultural, and psychological realms. Moreover, and similar to the experience of other immigrant groups (Feldstein and Costello 1974; Shaw and McKay 1942), schools and law enforcement often operated to aggravate rather than ameliorate problems in Mexican cultural adaptations (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights 1970, 1971). This segmented integration into American society and subsequent fragmenting of traditional social practices and cultural customs resulted in a new cultural orientation. In short, economic hardships undermined social control institutions: family life became stress ridden and schooling and contacts with law enforcement were problematic. The streets and older street youths became the major socialization and enculturation agents, with the gang representing a type of street social control institution by becoming in turn a partial substitute for family (providing emotional and social support networks), school (giving instructions on how to think and act), and police (authority and sanctions to enforce adherence to gang norms). The experience created a new social identity and thus a need for a new personal identity, and for street youth, the gang, both good and bad features, became a coping mechanism to ameliorate social pressures and develop avenues for personal fulfillment.

Collecting Data for This Study

This study has developed in several phases, both informal and formal, beginning with my youth in downtown Los Angeles in the early 1950s and continuing to my current research affiliation with the Community Systems Research, Inc. (formerly the Chicano Pinto Research Project). As a youth I was in moderately close association with street life, having more than casual acquaintanceship with the Thirty-Second and Thirty-Ninth street gangs. The former was in my own barrio, and one of the main hangouts was at the Santo Niño Community Center, a Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) agency and mission church on Sundays. Thirty-Ninth was a congeries of Chicanos just southwest of the Los Angeles Coliseum who made 39th Street and Normandie their hangout. Later, as a young adult and high school teacher, I worked with various youth groups in Carmelas (Norwalk 1964-1965), at the Barrio (Montebello 1966-1967) and Pico Viejo (1967-1968) Teen Posts, at the Norwalk Centro Aztlán (1969-1971), and at the Cucamonga Contact Station (1971-1973); and I was high school advisor to the Mexican American Club at Excelsior High School (1966-1968), which included youth mostly from the enclaves of Varrio Norwalk and One-Ways. The work in the Barrio was particularly intensive and involved daily interactions with mostly male youth in such areas as work, family, school, and social and recreational events (including problems associated with alcohol consumption and drug usage). Interestingly enough, I happened to return to the Barrio the summer of 1986 to do a qualitative ethnographic study for the U.S. Census Bureau (Vigil 1987). Several associates from the Teen Post days (now adults) remembered me. In Cucamonga the involvement was also intense, since I lived nearby and watched several generations of youth experience the "Cucamonga Kings."

When I undertook an acculturation and school performance study among Chicano adolescents in the early 1970s (Vigil 1976, 1979, 1983), the issue of marginal cultural placement and gang membership figured prominently in the findings (1979:183). Following the lead of the research, with the experiential background noted above, I undertook a formal study of the gang phenomenon in the 1976-1981 period.

The first years, 1976-1978, were spent in fieldwork with the help of my students from Chaffey College in various barrios in the area (Cucamonga, Chino, Ontario, and so on). I was introduced by students to new youth groups and gangs and some students assisted me in gathering life histories, conducting interviews, and administering survey questionnaires. When I had established rapport with some of the respective gang members, I was able to spend time with them at the hangouts, street corners, parties, car cruising sorties, and homes as participant observer (Brandt 1972). Some of these individuals became key informants on the general nature of their barrio and gang; older adults, usually supervisors in a youth program, did likewise. In 1978, I became research associate and consultant with the Chicano Pinto Research Project (CPRP), a collaborative team of academic and community-based researchers in East Los Angeles. This experience gave me insights into the histories and dynamic qualities of two traditional urban gangs, El Hoyo Maravilla and White Fence—barrio gangs I had known about when I was a youth. Many of CPRP's data and findings (partly reported in Moore 1978; CPRP 1979, 1981) on older tecatos (habitual drug users) and pintos and their relatives have been made available to me.

In addition to this experience, I independently embarked on fieldwork in East Los Angeles, beginning in 1978, employing similar life histories, questionnaire interviews, key informants, and so on. Some special gang programs (the Gang Violence Reduction Project [Torres 1979] and the Probation Department Specialized Gang Unit) and detention facilities (Nelles School for Boys and Chino Youth Training Services) provided me with numerous opportunities to interview gang members from throughout Los Angeles. Later, in 1983, I was able to accompany the Los Angeles Sheriff's department's Special Gang Unit (termed OSS, Operation Safe Streets) in their patrols throughout East Los Angeles. In sum, the data that follow are composed of evidence on mostly younger gang members (and some older members who recounted early experiences) who are found in urban, suburban, and rural barrios. Sixty-seven complete life histories highlight some of the main points in the above experiences. There are twenty from the Los Angeles County areas (urban barrios like White Fence and rural ones like El Monte Flores), forty-two from San Bemardino County (urban Casa Blanca, rural Cucamonga), and five from Orange County. The ages range from 12 to 40 at the time they related their story, with more than one-half (37) under 19 years of age. In terms of the extent and intensity of their involvement, twenty-nine of these informants were regular gang members, thirteen were peripheral members, twenty were temporary members, and five were situational members.


By James Diego Vigil

James Diego Vigil is Professor of Social Ecology at the University of California, Irvine.

"This book is a major contribution to understanding Chicano gangs, and the multiple marginality framework will prove helpful in understanding other Chicano subcultures in very different contexts."

—American Anthropologist

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