The Projects

[ Anthropology ]

The Projects

Gang and Non-Gang Families in East Los Angeles

By James Diego Vigil

A closer look into the reality of life in an East Los Angeles housing project where gangs have a longstanding presence.



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6 x 9 | 256 pp. | 41 b&w photos, 2 figures, 2 tables

ISBN: 978-0-292-71731-2

The Pico Gardens housing development in East Los Angeles has a high percentage of resident families with a history of persistent poverty, gang involvement, and crime. In some families, members of three generations have belonged to gangs. Many other Pico Gardens families, however, have managed to avoid the cycle of gang involvement.

In this work, Vigil adds to the tradition of poverty research and elaborates on the association of family dynamics and gang membership. The main objective of his research was to discover what factors make some families more vulnerable to gang membership, and why gang resistance was evidenced in similarly situated non-gang-involved families. Providing rich, in-depth interviews and observations, Vigil examines the wide variations in income and social capital that exist among the ostensibly poor, mostly Mexican American residents. Vigil documents how families connect and interact with social agencies in greater East Los Angeles to help chart the routines and rhythms of the lives of public housing residents. He presents family life histories to augment and provide texture to the quantitative information.

By studying life in Pico Gardens, Vigil feels we can better understand how human agency interacts with structural factors to produce the reality that families living in all public housing developments must contend with daily.

  • Foreword by Tom Weisner
  • Preface
  • Chapter One. Introduction
  • Chapter Two. Rationale and Methods
  • Chapter Three. A History of the Cuatro Flats Barrio Gang
  • Chapter Four. The Gang Subculture: Change and Continuity
  • Chapter Five. The Pico Gardens Clique
  • Chapter Six. A Gang Life
  • Chapter Seven. Cholas in the World of Gangs
  • Chapter Eight. Why Children Either Avoid or Affiliate with Gangs
  • Chapter Nine. Families Not Involved with Gangs
  • Chapter Ten. A Closer Look at Gang-Affiliated Families
  • Chapter Eleven. Gang Prevention and Intervention Strategies over Time
  • Chapter Twelve. Conclusion and Recommendations
  • References
  • Index

The strains and stresses of poverty in a public housing complex adversely affect family life, and those families that experience the greatest stress often lose control of their children to gangs. Losing children to gangs occurs in a social ecological arrangement, where there is already a generalized breakdown of major social control institutions. In this situation, street socialization of youths by one another and by slightly older youths becomes common. When street socialization takes over, a street gang with strong roots becomes a fixture. In the community this book focuses on, Cuatro Flats is this gang. Many youths in the Pico Gardens housing development in East Los Angeles have joined Cuatro Flats, but others have avoided doing so.

Why are some families vulnerable to having their children join gangs, and conversely, how have some families succeeded in having their children avoid gangs? How and why are there variances among poor families in a public housing project? If we know the answer to these questions, can we develop better prevention and intervention strategies that fit poverty-stricken populations?

I first learned of gangs as a young boy in this same Pico Gardens housing project. Pico Gardens became known to me when I was a thirteen-year-old selling newspapers on the street corner back in the early 1950s. Some of the other boys I worked with were from what we called "the projects."

My official introduction to the neighborhood came during a visit with one of its boy denizens. I remember the visit very well because it was that day that he related to me, in a low, awestruck voice, the adventures of "Geronimo," one of the infamous tough guys from the neighborhood. Geronimo, of African American and Latino parentage, was the leader of the Apaches, a gang from the projects.

According to the story, Geronimo was so tough and fearless that even the distant Los Angeles County forest fire authorities knew of him. According to the Paul Bunyan-esque tale, when there was a major forest fire, the forest ranger would pick up Geronimo and parachute him directly into the fire zone to combat the threatening blaze. Of such incredulous substance are myths born. Yet this myth captured at least some of the essence of Geronimo, as he eventually grew up to become Don Jordan, boxing's welterweight champion of the world.

The friend who told me the story was white—and probably "Okie." The projects in those days were populated by whites like my friend's family, along with African Americans and Mexicans. Over the decades there were many more tough guys and gangs in these same projects. By the time I returned to Pico Gardens again in the 1960s, twenty years after my first visit, that section of the projects was dominated by only one street gang—Cuatro Flats.

It was friendship that once again facilitated my 1960s visit to the projects. My associates, the Rodriguez brothers, were active members of the Chicano movement. Founders of a community center, they sought to steer youths in the right direction and away from drugs and gangs. "Casa de Carnalismo" (House of Brotherhood) was the center's name, and it was located on Fourth Street. The center achieved some success, yet struggled to stay afloat. Like many similar urban programs born of the War on Poverty, the center faced decreased funding over time. Its value was discounted, along with the population it was designed to help. In the end, Casa de Carnalismo was dismantled.

I reconnected again with Pico Gardens in the early 1990s, when I was asked to evaluate a drug intervention program. As I reacquainted myself with the area, I soon became aware of a government research grant that focused on family dynamics and street gangs. I wrote a proposal, funded by the Department of Health and Human Services (90-CL-1105), and soon was able to launch an in-depth community study of Pico Gardens, designed to expand understanding of family life in general. The focus of the investigation was to identify and explore the key forces that distinguish gang families from non-gang families.

Urban Poverty Research

Numerous ethnographic and survey investigations of low-income communities have addressed the many social, cultural, and emotional problems experienced by the impoverished (Anderson 1990; Hannerz 1969; Liebow 1967; Rainwater 1970; Suttles 1968). Utilizing a community study strategy, this book delves deep into the domestic and social habits and travails of family members, both adults and children, to show where and why larger forces and neighborhood effects have generated a gang and entrenched gang members.

Demographic characteristics of the population point to serious disadvantages that separate the projects from the surrounding area, the latter already a low-income enclave. What has transpired in this context of impoverishment is a gang with a long history and with deep cultural roots that persist into the present gang clique. The most marginalized males and females are the actors in this street drama, and it is clear that societal forces and family stresses are behind these developments.

As we unravel the differences between families, sifting through the structural and personal reasons, we can begin to understand why particular families have children in gangs and others do not; both family and individual histories shed light on and document these contrasts. Efforts to address and alleviate the worst effects of poverty, of which gangs are a part, are vitally important in the evolution of this community. Policy recommendations and practices must take heed of all information available if positive change is to occur.

This book adds to the tradition of poverty research and elaborates on the association of family dynamics and gang membership. Providing rich, in-depth interviews and observations, the present work examines the wide variation in income and social capital that exists among ostensibly poor residents of a mostly Mexican American background. Documentation on how families, from 1991 through 1995, connected and interacted with social and agency institutions in Greater East Los Angeles, helps chart the routines and rhythms of the lives of public housing development residents. Family life histories are presented to augment and provide texture to quantitative information. The latter are largely drawn from a random survey of project residents, followed by cross-reference with census data for the neighborhood precinct and with city, county, and state indices.

This investigation has confirmed what has long been suspected: Families of gang participants are poorer, have more children, and have less social capital than those of non-gang families. Furthermore, the gang family household heads in intensive interviews voiced a greater need for counseling, parenting training, and family therapy. From these candid discussions and interactions with parents and children, a series of policy recommendations have been generated to address other such low-income public housing developments and neighborhoods.

La Familia Reconsidered: Situating Analytical Frames

Despite my own early cultural and political ties to this area, an additional reason for selecting Pico Gardens as the research site for the study and book is that it lies in the heart of the Los Angeles barrios that have been adversely affected by the major socioeconomic developments of the past several decades (Moore and Vigil 1993). What has happened to the community has deeply affected families, children, and other caretaker institutions. Social control institutions (i.e., family, school, church, and police) in Pico Gardens are strained because of larger social and cultural forces. These include, among others, chronic unemployment and the pervasive lack of requisite economic or technical skills, as well as barriers based on race, language, and cultural practices, not to speak of the more than eight street gangs in the immediate vicinity. Moreover, youngsters in the projects are more likely to be socialized on the street. In previous work in two nearby barrios, it was found that substantially similar structural and historical forces existed (Chicano Pinto Research Project 1979; Moore 1978; Moore and Long 1981). At least three generations of gang members were identified in those two barrios, some coming from the same family; however, this trend was less true in Pico Gardens. Most of the members of these long-standing gangs were children from marginalized families who "grew up in the streets" (Moore and Vigil 1987). However, there is significant variation from one family to another within each barrio, as there is across barrios. Children from some families are much less affected by street socialization and are more likely to follow conventional lifestyles, avoiding the local gang. Residents of these two nearby barrios are subject to many of the same historical strains as those experienced by Pico Gardens residents, although the latter differed in many important ways. Toward this end, it was the main objective of this research to discover what additional factors make some families more vulnerable to gang membership. Further, the aim of the research was to determine why gang resistance was evidenced in similarly situated non-gang involved families.

Two conceptual frameworks have guided this investigation of gang families, and the interplay between the macro and micro levels. The first entailed a macro-level examination of how certain factors, which have been referred to as "multiple marginality" (Franzese et al. 2006; Vigil 1988a), additively and cumulatively have shaped the functioning of some families, and the youth within them, to become more "choloized" (marginalized) and thus more at risk to street socialization vehicles such as gangs. The second level of analysis applied in this research dealt with the micro-level functioning of social control in the lives of the youth. It is the mechanism of the family and associated institutions such as school and church that requires our attention (Loeber and Stouthamer-Loeber 1986; McLanahan and Sandefur 1994).

In previous work (1988a, 2002b), I have utilized the multiple-marginality macrostructural and macrohistorical framework to broaden and deepen the picture of which factors need to be considered, such as ecological, socioeconomic, sociocultural, and sociopsychological, in unraveling the breakdown of social control (fig. 1.1). This is especially the case in light of the maladaptation to cities that low-income, ethnic minority groups experience. All these factors intersect regularly with one another. To understand any of them, it is necessary to understand all of them in dissecting the gang phenomenon.

For example, Pico Gardens is bounded in such a way to make it a visually distinct and spatially separate enclave. Outside the mainstream of the city's economic life, a low-income, mostly immigrant group is subjected to low wages and unemployment, with a preponderance of families on welfare. Both private (family) and public (schools and police) institutions are attenuated and disconnected, making the residents' sociocultural experience disjointed and mixed. Finally, self-identification based on ecological, economic, and sociocultural patchiness and irregularities makes for fragmented and fragile sociopsychological moorings. Thus, gangs and gang members are found in marginal places, outside the mainstream of economic life, undergo social and cultural difficulties, and reflect a troubled identification trajectory.

The weight of all such factors leads individuals in each subsequent generation to repeat some type of gang adaptation, thus causing several siblings or relatives from two or more generations to follow older relatives into the gang. Living in the grips of poverty, or in a socioeconomic state bordering on poverty, gives residents of Pico Gardens considerably fewer avenues to improve their situation than those in other socioeconomic groups. Thus, it is common for youth who remain in the public housing development to model the path taken by older family members who have chosen to join gangs. Moore (1991) found that barrio family life was considerably affected by economic opportunities—which are, in turn, shaped by larger forces—and that when a neighborhood (again, such as a public housing development) experiences "persistent and concentrated poverty," the reverberations in other social and cultural realms are profound and must be understood.

Toward this end, a social control explanation is contextualized within a larger, macro framework (i.e., multiple marginality) that shows, in a second level of analysis, how major forces work to undermine or thwart family routines and functions and other control institutions that shape behavior (fig. 1.2). In short, a social control explanation is embedded in a macro framework (Barnard 2000, 17).

Barrio Life and Families

In a previous study (Moore and Vigil 1987), it was noted that four family types exist in most Mexican American barrios: (1) the "underclass," (2) the conventional/controlled, (3) unconventional/controlled, and (4) the conventional/uncontrolled.

In the first type, the underclass, or what I have called the cholo family, it was found that family members have taken an unconventional turn and become as influential, if not more so, than gang peers in shaping barrio youngsters. ("Cholo" evolved from the Spanish word solo [alone] and meant cultural or racial marginality; today it is a label for the street youth.) Ineffectual in controlling its family members, the underclass also is involved in the gang/criminal subculture. The polar opposite to this type of family is the second variant, the conventional/controlled, which closely approximates what is found in stable working-class family units. Usually two parents, but sometimes a single parent, provide exemplary models for discipline and duty to their children and routinely and effectively maintain control over their household. The third type, the unconventional/controlled, are families that have adult members who may be involved in the gang and some deviant activities, such as drug sales, but maintain a conventional facade and conceal their deviance from the family. These individuals are still able to provide leadership to the children. Finally, the fourth type of family, conventional/uncontrolled, simply comes up short, and there are many different variants in this category.

To reiterate, the breakdown of social control unfolds in the throes of these larger forces, and an examination of the breakdown must take this into account. Essentially, based on what I have witnessed and researched, I have concluded that the street gang is an outcome of marginalization, that is, the relegation of certain persons or groups to the fringes of society, where social and economic conditions result in powerlessness. This process occurs on multiple levels as a product of pressures and forces in play over a long period of time. Some of the gang members I have known have come from such stressed and unstable circumstances that one wonders how they have survived. The phrase "multiple marginality" reflects these complexities and their persistence over time. Other researchers have noted that multilevel and interactional analysis more accurately reflects deviant and delinquent behavior (Bronfenbrenner 1979; Elliott et al. 1989; Thornberry 1987).

Therefore, an examination of family structure and its relationship to delinquency was undertaken with an emphasis on the ways in which families facilitate or hinder gang involvement. Questions related to the ability of skilled parenting to serve as a buffer for youth who are otherwise feeling pushed and/or pulled into gang life were highlighted; in a subsequent chapter, a dynamic model of agent, push, pull, and interrupter explanations accounts for the variation among gang members. This topic is particularly relevant in light of both the popular and academic attention on the rise of single-parent families, along with the effects that such a family structure has on youth—effects that are particularly pronounced in urban areas characterized by economic stress (Smith et al. 1997; Thornberry et al. 1999; W. J. Wilson 1987).

By studying life in Pico Gardens, we can better understand how human agency interacts with structural factors to produce the reality that families living in public housing developments must contend with daily. In fact, this study examines the variety of ways the heads of households in both non-gang and gang families differ in their backgrounds and the choices that they make. Such backgrounds and choices tell us a great deal about the family situations and conditions that generate gang members.

Factors leading to both the broad category of delinquency and the more narrowly defined parameters of gang activity have long occupied scholars. Though the literature is vast, a number of consistent themes have emerged. Key to these discoveries are the social structural underpinnings of such behaviors (Loeber and Farrington 2001). In addition to family life and schooling patterns being altered under these situations and conditions, there has been a noticeable surge of violent gang activity in Pico Gardens during the last two decades. These developments can best be understood as an outcome of macro forces revamping micro ones; street socialization taking over conventional paths for social integration—in the voids left by schools, families, and religious or secular institutions—and thus turning out gang members.

The Economy and Housing

Many scholars in recent years have discussed the move to a global economy and the manner by which urban communities have found themselves without adequate opportunities for advancement, a process that was well under way earlier in public housing developments like Pico Gardens. This has certainly worsened the survival prospects for places like Pico, as manufacturing industries leave the inner cities of the United States and go abroad in the search for cheap labor (e.g., Hagedorn 1988, 2002; W. J. Wilson 1987, 1991, 1996); and Los Angeles is no exception to these macro changes (Moore and Vigil 1993; Vigil 1988a; Vigil and Yun 2001). This is particularly true for public housing communities, areas that suffer the indignities of urban poverty on an even more pronounced scale (Anderson and Massey 2001; Massey and Denton 1993; Massey and Kanaiaupuni 1993; McNulty and Holloway 2000; Vale 2000). Recent studies of public housing communities (e.g., Popkin et al. 2000; Venkatesh 2000) indicate that the multilevel disadvantages experienced by public housing residents are seemingly intractable and highly resistant to ameliorative efforts. As a result, residents are often left vulnerable to the forces of multiple marginality, restricted from economic routes to success, socially distanced from mainstream institutions, culturally disparaged, and personally disenfranchised (Vigil 1988a, 2002a; Vigil and Yun 2001).

In sum, the central and associated reasons for the rise of street gangs worldwide are poverty (i.e., where you work and live, or your social status and social space/place) and the repercussions and ramifications associated with it (Hazlehurst and Hazlehurst 1998). The nature of place and neighborhood effects is of primary importance when one considers the patterns of behavior present in Pico Gardens and other public housing communities (Vigil 2002a). One study of neighborhood effects on how residents develop, in both impoverished and economically stable areas, has shed light on this subject (Rubinowitz and Rosenbaum 2000). The authors demonstrate that in quasi experiments where families have been randomly moved from public housing to either urban or suburban environments, the latter environment proves to be much more beneficial to the development of the children, despite the discrimination that often accompanies the experience. In short, lack of exposure to chronic neighborhood violence and stress is among the factors that allowed these new suburban dwellers to achieve substantially more in the educational arena than their urban counterparts. Similarly, some Pico residents have taken advantage of Section 8 public housing opportunities, moving to suburban areas to help their children escape street gang influences. Sometimes their exit was hastened by the One Strike rule instituted during President Bill Clinton's administration, which specified that any household resident involved in crime or drugs caused the whole family to be evicted.

Thus, deleterious neighborhood conditions have affected public housing developments nationwide and ultimately influence the vulnerability of individual communities to crime and delinquency. For example, Venkatesh's ethnographic and ethnohistorical study (2000) of the Robert Taylor Homes of Chicago describes the gradual transformation of that community over four decades as social programs were cut and globalization began to affect the region. With federal funding priorities shifting, gang activity morphed into a violent caricature of its original form. Gang activity that had once served as nothing more serious than mere nuisance took on a different look with the increasing availability of automatic weapons and involvement in the lucrative drug trade. As will be noted, it appears that a similar transformation has affected Pico Gardens.

Over time, the social controls that kept the Chicago community in check were weakened. Respondents lamented the breakdown of "mamas' mafias," informal networks of women heads of households who agreed to watch over the happenings in their buildings and keep the children in line. Such informal social controls eventually lost their positive influence as economically instrumental drug commerce became increasingly violent and the building maintenance became steadily neglected. Local involvement in community decision making also became diluted. As will be noted, Pico Gardens had similar community-based efforts to combat crime and gangs and build support networks, but those efforts met with uneven success. For example, an intervention effort by a Catholic church's Comite por Paz (Committee for Peace), a grassroots-based informal group of mostly mothers from the projects, often butted heads with a Neighborhood Watch program initiated by the police department.

Nevertheless, Venkatesh argues that the experiences he documents do not amount to a simple case of the "enemy within" perspective on crime in public housing. This perspective suggests that outside policing or social control mechanisms are necessarily futile because the "enemies" that community members are fighting are the members themselves. (As the comic strip character Pogo once stated: "We have met the enemy and he is us.") Instead, Venkatesh states that the experiences of Robert Taylor residents are more a testament to the complexity of the problem; gang members are reviled at times because of their often destructive activities, while they are simultaneously depended upon for financial opportunities and protection that are not sufficiently provided by outside agencies. Their role as the "enemy" is thus problematized, and the potential for an easy remedy to the situation is rendered highly unlikely.

Pico Gardens, of course, is a different public development with distinct problems of its own. However, our study supports the conclusion that Pico Gardens has experienced a deteriorating relationship with the police, a transition from a virtual crime-free zone to a war zone replete with shifts from violent police encounters, almost mini-riots, to a complete absence of a police presence and routine patrol. The Los Angeles Police Department (rightfully) fears the youth in the community, as numerous incidents attest to the dangerous situations that police officers face daily. Some memorable examples include the torching of a police car; the shooting of a motorcycle officer at the freeway off-ramp adjacent to the projects; and the brutal shattering of an officer's jaw when a youth threw a rock at him in the midst of one of the mini-riots spoken of above.

Popkin and her colleagues (2000) report other types of problems in their multimethod study of public housing in Chicago and show how gangs sometimes are viewed more positively. They document that a number of crime reduction techniques employed in various segments of the larger public housing community were unsuccessful, partially due to the complex relationships of residents with those active in gang activities. Since gang members do embody a number of different social roles, often including that of relative and friend, non-gang residents are reluctant to participate in community crime prevention programs, due to loyalty as well as fear of retaliation. For example, as noted previously, consider in Pico Gardens the contrast and conflict between Comite por Paz and Neighborhood Watch, the former a grassroots-based effort and the latter initiated by the police and often regarded as a "snitch" network. This factor interacts with others, such as irresponsibility on the part of housing officials and poor building design, to produce a highly challenging environment; more on these community issues will follow in later chapters.

Generally, the process by which neighborhood factors affect the quality of life in a given geographical area has been viewed through a number of different conceptual lenses. The concept of "social capital" has attracted attention in recent academic discussions of the topic. Social capital is commonly conceived of as the social ties between individuals, either kin or friends, that facilitate life chances (see Putnam 1993). These ties appear to function at the individual level, yet they are very much a product of the environment. Recent studies have shown that the relationship between social capital and neighborhood effects sometimes presents an interesting paradox: although close social ties among neighbors sometimes increase informal social controls and prevent crime and violence, under some circumstances they also sometimes hinder the development of social control. As discussed by Popkin et al. (2000), this may occur when non-gang-involved individuals become unwittingly complicit in acts of violence transpiring in their neighborhood, by refusing to report them to the authorities due to personal loyalties. Conversely, in some suburban neighborhoods, there is a marked lack of social connections bridging ostensibly privacy-oriented residents, yet dutiful neighbors often informally patrol the neighborhood and report suspicious events to law enforcement authorities (Morenoff et al. 2001).

In order to elucidate the distinction between helpful and less helpful functions of social capital, Robert Sampson utilizes the concept of "collective efficacy" (Sampson 2002; Sampson et al. 1997, 1999). Collective efficacy refers to a characteristic of communities whose members share a modicum of trust and expect others around them to proactively behave in ways that protect the community from harm, including violence and crime. Morenoff et al. (2001) found that low collective efficacy predicts increased homicide rates across neighborhoods. Kinship and friendship networks are related to violence primarily through their impact on collective efficacy. A few veteran Pico Gardens gang members (veteranos) often lament the breakdown in such "efficacy" traditions and accuse contemporary gang members of turning their backs on these roots.

Clearly, the structural and environmental setting of public housing contributes to the commission of crime and gang activity and strongly affects families and child-rearing practices (Dubrow and Garbarino 1989; McNulty and Holloway 2000; Weatherburn and Lind 2001). The disadvantages experienced in public housing complexes chiefly operate through a reduction in neighborhood efficacy and a reduction in social control as conceptualized by Hirschi (1969), that is, through a lack of social bonding to conventional others and conventional institutions. A lack of involvement in conventional institutions has been commonly noted in communities characterized by gang activity (Moore 1989; Short 2001). This observation holds true for the many families in Pico Gardens who have become involved in gang life.

Attention on the Family

Among the social control institutions that have received the most attention by scholars is the family. The connection between poverty, the family, and delinquency is an oft-examined topic in the scholarly literature; Farrington (2002) provides a summary of such family factors. Although some are wary of the implications that such studies hold for contemporary families (e.g., Hil and McMahon 2001), the majority of scholars of delinquency, dating back to the Gluecks (1950), have cited the family as one of the primary factors related to delinquency (McCord et al. 2001; Shelden et al. 1997).

Family-structural variables such as large family size, family disruption (divorce, abuse), and single-parent households (usually female-headed) have all been found to increase the likelihood of juvenile delinquency (Geisman and Wood 1986). In addition, family-functioning variables are important; Loeber and Stouthamer-Loeber (1986) found that four salient family functioning factors were (1) parental neglect, (2) conflict, (3) deviant behaviors and attitudes, and (4) family disruption. These factors closely approximate the family typology developed by Moore and Vigil (1987) noted above, although often labeled in different terms, and are generally agreed to be important in the discussion about delinquency and families (see Farrington 2002; Hirschi 1995). We will see later how these explanations are evidence in the family life histories.

Gorman-Smith et al. (1998) examined the manner in which these four salient factors were related to patterns of delinquency in an inner-city community. They found tremendous variation in how different factors were uniquely related to the different types of behaviors by juveniles. What this indicated to the researchers is that blanket statements about family factors and delinquency may be inappropriate. They found that youth who were "nonoffenders" generally came from homes that were not characterized by multiple problems. Similarly, what I have referred to as multiple marginality is more than a laundry list of factors and more rightly suggests sequential linkages that additively and cumulatively shape delinquent behavior. According to Gorman-Smith and her colleagues, chronic juvenile offenders tended to be associated with families characterized by neglect, disruption, and conflict. In contrast, although youth who began getting into trouble at a later age were associated with disruption or conflict in the family, they seemed to have families without multiple problems. Their later involvement thus indicated that peer influences were more central to their experience.

Sampson and Laub (1994) reanalyzed the well-known study of the Gluecks and found four factors to be highly associated with official delinquent status among the five hundred juveniles studied: (1) parental rejection, (2) parental discipline, (3) mother's supervision, and (4) emotional attachment of the child. They found parental deviance, family disruption, and socioeconomic status to be less important. Significantly, family size and residential overcrowding were additionally found to contribute to the likelihood of delinquency. As in the present Pico Gardens study, it was found that gang-involved families were significantly more likely to have more people per household than non-gang families (Sampson and Laub 1994).

Overcrowding of residences is generally reflective of overall neighborhood disadvantage (Park and Burgess 1924; Sampson and Groves 1989; Shaw and McKay 1942; Vigil 1988a), and the question of how parenting processes can mediate the effects of the environment looms large. One highly influential factor in the development of delinquent behaviors is involvement in a delinquent or deviant peer group; but protective family factors can often mediate peer influences (Anderson 1999; Brody et al. 2001; Walker-Barnes and Mason 2001). Parental affection and nurturing have been shown to be negatively related to delinquent peer involvement, whereas harsh discipline and inconsistent parenting have been positively linked to deviant peer associations (Johnson and Pandina 1991); the more disadvantaged the community, the more noticeable the protective influences of effective, or authoritative, parenting (Brody et al. 2001). Additionally, Haapasalo and Pokela's study (1999) found that harsh or punitive, authoritarian discipline by parents can backfire, predicting later delinquency. The manner by which parental factors influence behavior may not hold true across all racial and ethnic groups, however; there are indications that African American youth are more responsive to stricter parental discipline than are other groups of youth, primarily due to culture and socialization (Walker-Barnes and Mason 2001). In the case of the overwhelmingly Latino population in Pico Gardens, authoritarian parenting is actually counterproductive and can be harmful, as will be discussed in subsequent chapters. Not surprisingly, researchers have concluded the need for "precision parenting" in poor, urban neighborhoods (Gonzales et al. 1996; Mason et al. 1996). These studies found that in urban neighborhoods the relation between parental involvement and monitoring is such that both too little (permissive parenting) or too much (authoritarian parenting) could result in problem behavior for children.

Yet, authoritative parenting clearly serves as a buffer that can lessen the influence of a violent environment or neighborhood on vulnerable youth (Tiet et al. 1998). Although effective parenting strategies tend to be hampered by structural adversity (Brody et al. 2003; Conger et al. 1994; Elder and Conger 2000; Gorman-Smith et al. 1999; Patterson et al. 1992; Weatherburn and Lind 2001), many resilient individuals nevertheless display substantial parenting skills in such circumstances. The effects of this buffer are further bolstered when the youth in a community have other healthy relationships with hardworking adults who are not involved with gangs or other criminal activities, such as drug sales enterprises. These relationships strengthen youth's social capital and often result in avenues to legitimate job opportunities that are not as readily available to youth without those connections (Coleman 1988; Short 2001; Sullivan 1989). Nevertheless, these positive and conventional relationships are harder and harder to come by in the most marginalized communities, as documented by Anderson (1990, 1999), Popkin et al. (2000), Venkatesh (2000), and W. J. Wilson (1996). Under these circumstances it is even more crucial that effective parenting be used as a protective influence against gang involvement, given all the obstacles that must be confronted.

In a synthesis of extant research on parenting and delinquency, Wright and Cullen (2001) partially replicate Sampson et al.'s concept of collective efficacy with their notion of parental efficacy, a term that refers to "parents who control and support their children." This notion is reflected in our own underscoring of how certain non-gang families used their time constructively, sought places for positive diversions and supervision, and built and cultivated social networks that exploited time and place to help build character in their children. In this vein, Wright and Cullen found that parental support is influential in and of itself—the affectionate parent who spends quality time with his or her children can oftentimes successfully prevent them from getting into trouble on the basis of the emotional bonds they have forged; even something as simple as sitting down to an evening dinner with the family reflects this orderly regularity. To reiterate, the non-gang families in this study demonstrate that parental efficacy can actually offset neighborhood inefficacy and assist parents in keeping their children out of harm's way. Indeed, the variation in household eating habits ranges from everyone eating together at an arranged time to a pot of food on the stove for members to partake in an irregular fashion to no food and no schedule, the latter being the most common practice among gang households.

Single Parents

The debate over single parenting and its relationship to decreased parental efficacy is a vigorous and ongoing one. There are many explanations proffered to account for the observation that single parents (often females) are less effective in preventing their children from getting into trouble. One explanation is that when there is only one parent to handle breadwinner and breadmaker roles and duties, there simply is not enough time or energy to do a good job of parenting (Matsueda and Heimer 1987; McLanahan and Sandefur 1994). The other is that the single mother is uniquely less capable of supervising and disciplining her children—especially her male children. As will be noted later, and as Rebellion (2002) discovered at the individual level, it is not single parenting in and of itself that accounts for the "broken home" and delinquency relationship. Rather, the conflict and tension that surround the "broken home" arrangement is what counts. Indeed, Rebellion's statistical analysis of three panels of the National Youth Survey indicates that any type of marital disruption is related to delinquency on the part of affected children. Clearly, familial disruption of any type can be problematic in its repercussions, as this study will further demonstrate. However, Amato and Keith (1991), using a sample of divorced families, discovered that oftentimes the disruption inherent by unhappy couplings can have a greater negative impact than the disruption sustained in the separation or divorce. Although family disruption tends to be associated with gang involvement, it can also be said that family disruption does not necessarily always equate to future parental inefficacy; the non-gang family case studies presented in Chapter Eight are a testament to this.

Organization of the Book

Toward the end of offering workable public policies responsive to the concrete realities of public housing residents in general, and specifically to the families still struggling in Pico Gardens, the following chapters are organized to build upon one another. Gang families and the conceptual and theoretical constructs formulated to understand them are summarized in Chapter One. Like any other social phenomena, families and gangs do not arise in vacuums, as they occupy and are embedded within specific historical, economic, social, and cultural realities.

Chapter Two describes the physical and social location of the study in relation to the larger metropolitan area of which the community is a part. Census and other statistical indicators are used to sketch a portrait of the community and the residents therein. Here too, an explanation of the rationale and subsequent methodologies employed in the study is provided. Ethnographic survey techniques provide rich, contextually specific data facilitated by culturally trained community field-workers on-site over the duration of the study. The resulting samples are described, and key data features are teased out in an effort to clarify key concepts underlying much of the ensuing work.

In Chapter Three, a brief historical analysis of Pico Gardens and its residents is coupled with an elaboration on the origins and rise of the Cuatro Flats barrio gang. This chapter addresses the social, political, and economic transformations that define the complex, dynamic, and sometimes symbiotic-like relationship between the community's residents and the gang. Building on this historical analysis, Chapter Four describes the subculture that channels and directs the gang, especially looking at motivations and behaviors. Chapter Five takes an in-depth look at the contemporary street cohort that dominated the streets during the study, recreating some of the incidents and stories that provide the gist for this book. Particularly important here are details on the Pico Gardens cohort that rules today. Chapter Six elaborates on a single gang member and his family life, providing a micro-level perspective that details his growth and the continuity of his development as a gang member. Gender in the world of cholas is dissected in Chapter Seven to determine how the sisters, girlfriends, and other street females fare in the Pico Gardens neighborhood.

Chapter Eight introduces a causal framework for gang- and non-gang-involved families using an oversimplified bipolar gradient model. The different classes of effects acting on this model (i.e., pushes and pulls) are applied to the aggregate case history data in order to identify broad analytical themes endemic to gang involvement, resistance, or, even possibly, desistance. Chapters Nine and Ten are then devoted to presenting an in-depth meso-level narrative analysis of non-gang-involved families and gang-affiliated families, respectively. Utilizing the themes culled from the conceptual model proposed in Chapter Eight, case history narratives are disentangled in order to distinguish the peculiarities of individuals' lived experience as they navigate public housing's precarious terrain, ultimately concluding with family members' involvement in or avoidance of gang participation. An important feature of the detailed nature of this ethnographic data set is evidenced by the surface similarities of both types of families in terms of the structural challenges raised by daily existence, subsistence, personal improvement, and social reproduction, even though the non-gang families are somewhat better off. Patterns begin to emerge through examination of the coping strategies of successful evaders and the multiple, interacting vulnerabilities of those who fail to resist the lure of gang life.

Chapter Eleven examines the history and role of prevention and intervention strategies that mark the Pico Gardens community, citing specific programs and activities that have been in place to generally assist the residents and especially the youth. Finally, Chapter Twelve summarizes the salient themes evoked from the study. The prominence of family structure and interaction with regard to pushing or pulling residents into gang activity is a key theme in this chapter. This is so even though families, as social units, are themselves engaged in ubiquitous, dynamic power structures whose effects filter down to the micro level of personal involvement. Based on the findings and descriptions of this study, a reconsideration of the family as a mechanism of social control is in order. The remainder of this last chapter offers grounded evidence to generate public policy recommendations based on the substantive and cultural reality of the Pico Gardens community.


In sum, this broader community study is contextualized within macro developments to underscore the many issues that must be considered in the breakdowns leading to gangs. In the voids and gaps left in the wake of these social failures, the gang subculture has deepened its roots to continue to redirect the lives of too many youth in Pico Gardens. Of the various explanations for the association of family life and gang delinquency, the one that stands out is poverty and its ripple effects and repercussions on family stability and continuity.

By James Diego Vigil

James Diego Vigil is Professor of Social Ecology at the University of California, Irvine. He is also the author of A Rainbow of Gangs: Street Cultures in the Mega-City and Barrio Gangs: Street Life and Identity in Southern California.

2008 ALLA Prize for Best Book on Latina/o Anthropology

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