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A Rainbow of Gangs

A Rainbow of Gangs
Street Cultures in the Mega-City
Foreword by Joan Moore

This cross-cultural study of Los Angeles gangs identifies the social and economic factors that lead to gang membership and underscores their commonality across four ethnic groups--Chicano, African American, Vietnamese, and Salvadorian.

January 2002
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231 pages | 6 x 9 | 20 b&w photos, 2 figures |

With nearly 1,000 gangs and 200,000 gang members, Los Angeles holds the dubious distinction of being the youth gang capital of the United States. The process of street socialization that leads to gang membership now cuts across all ethnic groups, as evidenced by the growing numbers of gangs among recent immigrants from Asia and Latin America.

This cross-cultural study of Los Angeles gangs identifies the social and economic factors that lead to gang membership and underscores their commonality across four ethnic groups—Chicano, African American, Vietnamese, and Salvadorian. James Diego Vigil begins at the community level, examining how destabilizing forces and marginalizing changes have disrupted the normal structures of parenting, schooling, and policing, thereby compelling many youths to grow up on the streets. He then turns to gang members' life stories to show how societal forces play out in individual lives. His findings provide a wealth of comparative data for scholars, policymakers, and law enforcement personnel seeking to respond to the complex problems associated with gangs.


Best Book of 2002 on Ethnic and Racial Politics in a Local or Urban Setting
Organized Section on Race, Ethnicity, and Politics of the American Political Science Association

  • Foreword by Joan Moore
  • Preface
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Looking at Gangs Cross-Culturally
  • 3. Mexican Americans in the Barrios of Los Angeles
  • 4. "I Just Wanted to Act Loco": Puppet's Story
  • 5. Blacks in Los Angeles: From Central Avenue to South Central Los Angeles
  • 6. "I Noticed the Problem but Never Had the Cure": Mookie's Story
  • 7. Vietnamese in Southern California
  • 8. "You Couldn't Hang by Yourself": Huc's Story
  • 9. Salvadorans in Los Angeles: The Pico-Union Area
  • 10. "Where Is My Father?": Arturo's Story
  • 11. Charting a New Future for Urban Youth
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

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


In the second half of the nineteenth century, young immigrant men of Irish, Italian, German, and Polish origin gathered on the street corners of their respective neighborhoods to confront together the rigors of their new life in the industrialized cities of the eastern United States. They were often given colorful names by their society—one early Irish group was known as the Plug Uglies. What were these early gangs like, and how do they compare to today's gangs?

For the most part, they were Irish, joining together in the face of poverty, squalid conditions, and great prejudice. In general they were older than the gang members of today, although a considerable number were in their late teens. The products of unhealthy slums and malnutrition, ... [the gangs] were considerably larger than those of today, numbering in the hundreds; one gang claimed 1,200 members.... The weapons the gangs used were deadly and imaginative. Some were fortunate enough to own pistols and muskets, but the usual weapons were knives and brickbats and bludgeons. For close work, there were brass knuckles, ice picks, pikes and other interesting paraphernalia.

Today, at the beginning of a new century, the names of gangs are still colorful, though self-chosen—Nip 14, Crips, Maravilla, the Businessmen. Today, too, the processes young immigrants go through in dealing with life in a new country are essentially the same as in the past, and gangs continue to be a byproduct of migration, though migrants today come from more places throughout the world into more areas of this country. Unfortunately, one way the gang scene has changed, dangerously, is in the greater use of drugs and guns during the second half of the twentieth century.

The fact is that throughout the twentieth century the outcome of the acculturation process proved to be a negative one for many individuals, and thus also negative for U.S. society at large. In the early decades of the century, writers and researchers looked at the problems involved in the process of adapting to U.S. culture and produced compelling portraits of those who were struggling through it. Not much recent research, however, has taken another look at the lives of those who fall out of the system. This book seeks to do so by providing an in-depth, multicultural portrait of the contemporary gangs that dominate the street corners of Los Angeles, a city that has seen an extraordinary influx of peoples from all over the world. They have had to find their way in a local society that itself is undergoing great change, which makes them an especially rich source of information on the problems of acculturation at this point in time.

Los Angeles is a model of urban diversity, a growing megalopolis stretching in all directions from the city center. It is a place full of different languages and cultural traditions, but also one filled with ethnic and racial tensions that threaten to erupt at any time, as they did during the 1992 Rodney King riots. Relatively new as major cities go, in the first half of the twentieth century Los Angeles experienced rapid economic growth which led to expansion into suburban areas. When civil unrest threatened white working- and middle-class families in the 1960s, that expansion accelerated as many of them moved into the suburbs. At the same time the city was undergoing these demographic shifts, it also was experiencing changes in its labor market and structure. Both internal migration (from small towns and various regions of the country) and large-scale immigration from foreign countries increased exponentially. Los Angeles was no longer primarily a white working- and middle-class American city but a new global metropolis.

These dramatic social transformations strained the city's infrastructure and institutional support system. Housing became a problem for many, especially in older neighborhoods like Pico-Union, where Central Americans made their home. Up to a dozen persons crammed into apartment units meant for two or three, so that as many as one hundred people might be living in a single four-story building. Schools built for seven hundred students were expected to hold twice that number, and the needs of the large and growing number of non-English-speaking students could not be quickly and smoothly accommodated; bilingual programs were in place but greatly underfunded and overwhelmed. Long gone were the days when the Los Angeles Police Department, the city's "finest," enjoyed the wholehearted support and admiration inspired by Dragnet, the popular television police drama set in Los Angeles. For decades black and Chicano leaders had been railing against unfair and disrespectful treatment of the people in the mostly low-income communities they represented. As more and more new people, including thousands of political refugees, flooded into the city, police-community relations worsened, despite an increase in the number of minority and female officers in the department.

Los Angeles is more than a model of the mega-city; it is the prototypical mega-city with problems, problems that to some degree are also afflicting other urban centers worldwide. These cities have generated or are in the process of generating mega-gangs, mostly within their poor communities. This subcultural process unfolds in like manner from place to place, although as it does the unique history and culture of each place leaves its stamp.

It is unavoidably clear that gangs constitute one of the most important urban youth issues in the United States today. Recent estimates place the number of gangs nationwide at 30,533 and the number of gang members at 815,896. The Los Angeles area tops the list with close to 8,000 gangs and 200,000 gang members. These figures are for males only; female gang members are many fewer in number (from 4 to 10 percent of all Los Angeles gang members), but their significance is considerable, for studies show that nationwide a high percentage of all incarcerated females belong to gangs. Furthermore, the arrest rates of young women recently have increased at a faster pace than for nongang males, and the types of offenses committed by them are becoming more serious and violent.

Since the early 1980s, drug trafficking and abuse, gang violence (often tied to drugs), and all sorts of other criminal activities have increased markedly across the United States. In Los Angeles County, gang homicides have recently gone down, but in the 1982-1991 period they climbed from 205 to 700, and by the middle of the 1990s they nearly topped 1,000. As U.S. society attempted to keep up with the crime problem during that period, the prison population tripled. In Los Angeles, the use of gang injunctions, battering rams, specialized gang law-enforcement units, and harsher penalties such as "three strikes" attest to a pervasive law and order preoccupation in dealing with youth in minority areas.

Street gangs do emerge primarily in low-income ethnic minority neighborhoods. Some of the Los Angeles gangs can be traced as far back as the 1930s. Initially no more than small bands of wayward children in East Los Angeles Chicano communities, these "boy gangs" metamorphosed over the decades into a deeply rooted gang subculture characterized by a collection of gangs fashioned within the communities of various ethnic groups. Social neglect, ostracism, economic marginalization, and cultural repression were largely responsible for the endurance of the subculture. When the economic structure of the city changed and large-scale immigration swept into the city from the 1960s forward, gang formation accelerated. No ethnic community has been immune to the problem, although the Chicano, African American, Vietnamese, and Central American communities have been especially affected.

Looking at these four ethnic groups comparatively, as I do here, is important for a number of reasons. Besides revealing obvious differences between groups—their time of arrival in the city, their destination within it, types of intragroup variations, and so forth—the comparative approach can tell us a great deal about gang dynamics and street life. Ethnicity plays an important role when cultural groups live in close contact and their physical or cultural characteristics are used to create social boundaries. In Los Angeles, as elsewhere in the United States, ethnic minorities whose physical characteristics most clearly distinguish them from the white majority are most readily subjected to prejudice and discrimination.

As we shall see, the gang experience is shaped by the way in which the particular history and culture of each ethnic group and family interact with the overriding economic and psychological forces in the larger society. Time, place, and gender are central to this dynamic. For example, on the one hand, criminal justice practices are less gender-biased today: females who engage in deviant gang behavior are no longer perceived as immoral or mentally disturbed but delinquent. On the other hand, traditional mores of an immigrant culture can come into conflict with those of the host society: expectations concerning the role of the female can be quite different within the home than they are outside it.

Basically, 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. The phrase "multiple marginality" reflects the complexities and persistence of these forces. Macrohistorical and macrostructural forces—those that occur at the broader levels of society—lead to economic insecurity and lack of opportunity, fragmented institutions of social control, poverty, and psychological and emotional barriers among large segments of the ethnic minority communities in Los Angeles. These are communities whose members face inadequate living conditions, stressful personal and family changes, and racism and cultural repression in schools.

Again, consider the pressures and strains in the lives of females, which are especially pronounced. They must contend with major forces from without and from within their own ethnic group and social class that deepen their experiencing of marginalization: exacerbated sexism (such as male dominance and exploitation), family friction related to the conflict between traditional cultural attitudes toward females and those of the general society, barriers to achieving economic well-being, and childbearing and childcare burdens. For them the marginalization processes are doubly compounded, since the protection and supervision traditionally afforded girls in a family's country of origin is lessened and they frequently become vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse and exploitation, often within their own families.

Daily strains from many directions take their toll and strip minority peoples of their coping skills. Being left out of mainstream society in so many ways and in so many places relegates these urban youths to the margins of society in practically every sense. This positioning leaves them with few options or resources to better their lives. Often, they seek a place where they are not marginalized—and find it in the streets. Thus, a result of multiple marginalization has been the emergence of street gangs and the generation of gang members. The same kinds of pressures and forces that push male youth into gangs also apply to females.

Society and the criminal justice system have so far not fashioned adequate responses to curtail gang growth. Families, schools, and law enforcement merit special scrutiny in this regard for two main reasons. First, they are the primary agents of social control in society. Second, they are uniquely adaptive and responsive to the concerns of society. Although each of these institutions has made its separate contribution to the gang problem, it is their joint actions (or inactions) that make the problem worse. It is in the vacuum of their collective failure that street socialization has taken over and rooted the quasi institution of the street gang.


Family life and parenting practices play the initial role in the socialization of a child. It is within the family that individuals form their first significant relationships, and family training first guides and directs them onto a conventional path of participation in society. In short, parents are the primary caretakers who introduce the child to the world. They gradually expand the child's social space (i.e., from the cradle to the bedroom to the home to the neighborhood) to include other, non-kin influences. Disruptions in family life place stress on parenting practices and duties. In poverty-ridden, ethnic minority communities, these disruptions often result in abbreviated or curtailed supervision and direction of household children. Female gang members are often twice affected, since they generally become single parents—"stroller queens," in the words of one flippant observer. Despite the alarming statistics, however, it must be noted that some of these women successfully navigate a life of poverty, mature out of gangs, and become strong and committed mothers.


Clearly, educational institutions serve as society's primary arena for turning out citizens and trained members of the workforce. In the United States, schools are next in importance to the family in providing structure and meaning to children's lives and acting as an agency for social control. As a child grows up, schools eventually assume the responsibilities of the family for the bulk of each child's daytime activities.

The members of the ethnic groups included here have come mostly from an immigrant background, and so the U.S. system of formal education is new to them. The shift in care and supervision of a child from family to school, into the hands of non-kin, can be particularly troublesome for those who have migrated to Los Angeles from small communities where they enjoyed extensive kinship networks (which serve to provide what has been called social capital). If stressed parents, now without these networks, are already crippled in socializing their children, then sending them to school under the charge of schoolteachers compounds the problem.

Low-income and ethnic minorities have historically suffered negative, damaging experiences in the educational system. Research shows that standard school policies such as tracking by ability group and the use of standardized tests as the ultimate measure of educational performance and ability have worked against minority students. These students often attend segregated, underfunded, inferior schools, where they encounter cultural insensitivity and an ethnocentric curriculum.

The motivation and strategies for seeking a higher status begin in the family but are formally forged in the educational system and process. In complex societies, schools serve as the mechanism for youths to translate their aspirations into conventional, constructive goals. In terms of reaching for a higher status, many low-income children exhibit a gap between aspirations and expectations. Even though they might have high hopes, they are led (often unaware) to see their goals as outside of their world, exceeding their grasp. Being pragmatic, they assume they won't realize their dreams.

Law Enforcement

The acceptance of the "rightness" of the central social value system is pivotal to social control and citizenship, for individuals are obviously more likely to break the rules if they do not believe in the rules and regulations. Social order depends on the personal internalization of the values of society (the "ought-tos") and of patterned behavior that adheres to the norms of society (the blueprints for action). The latter are first and primarily inculcated by parents, followed by schools, and reinforced early on by peers, especially during the passage from childhood to adulthood.

Youths who are weakly (or not at all) tethered to home and school have weakened ties to society's conventional institutions and values. Because of this deficit, members of law enforcement—the street social-control specialists—often step in as the controlling authority of last resort for our youth. Law enforcement and the criminal justice apparatus serve as the sanctioning source for individuals who consistently fail to conform. When they enter the picture, it is clear that society has not only failed to properly integrate its low-income members but additionally, as we will shortly note, is making it easier for them to become street-socialized.

Street Socialization

Multiple forces working jointly lead to children spending more time on the streets, under the purview and guidance of a multiple-aged peer group. In various Los Angeles ethnic communities, this group often takes the form of the street gang. For girls as well as boys, the street becomes a haven and gang life is romanticized, even though it often ultimately brings them trouble and, for girls, additional victimization. What established gangs in the neighborhood have to offer is nurture, protection, friendship, emotional support, and other ministrations for unattended, unchaperoned resident youth. In other words, street socialization fills the voids left by inadequate parenting and schooling, especially inadequate familial care and supervision. This street-based process molds the youth to conform to the ways of the street. On the streets, the person acquires the models and means for new norms, values, and attitudes.

Macrostructural forces have all too often warped or blocked the educational trajectories of minority children, especially the most marginalized gang youth segments of the population. Dropout rates for ethnic minorities, especially for Latinos and African Americans, are notoriously high, and the children most affected are the street-based ones: in some South Central Los Angeles high schools, the rates are as high as 79 percent. Once out of school, the students drop into gangs and commit to the gang's values and norms.

Street socialization alienates youths from what is learned in the schools, while societal discrimination and economic injustice further erode allegiance to conventional commitments. Boys and girls from these backgrounds are regularly truant from school and organize "ditching parties," a practice that reinforces "we-ness" among street peers. (Ditching parties are get-togethers, often to share drinks or drugs, by adolescents who are "ditching," i.e., illicitly not attending school.). With such a weak educational foundation, coupled with family voids, it is no wonder that a conventional path to a higher status escapes the purview of most gang members. Generally poor job prospects exacerbate the situation for minority youth who already have family and school difficulties.

Through the marginalization and street socialization of urban youth and the creation of a street gang subculture, with values and norms of its own, the street gang becomes a subsociety. Once this subsociety has been created to meet the needs of its creators, it persists and becomes an urban fixture in certain neighborhoods, compelling future generations of youth to join it or otherwise come to terms with it. In these ways, at home and in schools, urban youth acquire a gang-oriented set of rules and regulations.

Gang norms perpetuate a state of male dominance, and females, with few exceptions, largely follow these rules and regulations. Once a member of a gang, a girl or young woman gains status recognition mostly from other homegirls and only occasionally from homeboys. Generally speaking, female street gangs are auxiliaries to the male set. The few autonomous or mixed gangs that exist do not last as long as the auxiliaries, even though the female members continue their street life and associations in another context. Of the few examples cited in the literature, one black female gang in San Francisco was reported to have separated from the males when they discovered that as drug traffickers they could keep all the profits for themselves.

To complicate matters, most of the experiences gang youth have with law enforcement are hostile and antagonistic. For example, special gang units sometimes fan the flames of conflict between rival gangs, police seek and arrest undocumented youths and turn them over to immigration authorities for deportation, and prison guards single out incarcerated gang members for special treatment. Overall, ethnic minority youths, gang or non-gang, resent the "dissing" (disrespect) meted out by patrol officers. These experiences further undermine the recognition and acceptance of the dominant value system, for once youths have begun to reject the law and its underlying values, they often develop a resistance orientation and take a defiant and destructive stance.

Toward a More Complete Understanding of Gangs

Although family, schools, and law enforcement are the key elements of social control in any industrialized, urban society and largely responsible for street socialization developments, they are also accessible and open to human intervention and alteration. Throughout the last half century or more, our society has attempted to aid and assist struggling families, introduced innovative schooling programs intended to spark learning among the less fortunate, and sought to correct and improve law enforcement strategies and techniques designed to increase conformity. Our leaders and policymakers who think they are heeding the concerns of the citizenry initiate many of these formulas for change and improvement in each institution. However, political leaders and policymakers typically miss the point in assessing the issue of urban gangs, failing to recognize the importance of formulating strategies based on the characteristics of a low-income population of long-term duration.

Adaptation and integration into the city for many racially distinct and culturally different newcomers usually entails starting off on the bottom rung of the ladder. However, some groups have had the rungs above them sawed off, in effect. Most of them are therefore unable to move up as quickly or smoothly as, say, white ethnics of the nineteenth-century. Some particularly talented or assertive individuals manage to stretch past gaps in the rungs to make their way up the metaphorical ladder, but others cannot escape the conditions they find themselves in. The persistent pattern of inferior living situations and substandard working conditions that they confront result in major family stresses and strains, deep-rooted schooling barriers and difficulties, and hostile and negative relations and interactions with law enforcement personnel. From this context the street culture and subsociety has emerged.

Structural causes must therefore be at the forefront of any serious discussions on what causes gangs and creates gang members, which is why the multiple marginality framework begins with ecological and economic factors that are at the root of the breakdown of social control. Those who set policy have lapsed into facile answers, thus allowing ideological arguments (e.g., moral evaluations) to cloud the debate on how to guide our approach to this problem. Often, perspectives and decisions on policy make for a triangulation approach that gives equal weight to every or any side. To help guide our thinking on policy, it is imperative that we examine more closely the multiple factors that affect the youths from various ethnic backgrounds who join gangs.

A cross-cultural, comparative look will sharpen our understanding of the similarities and differences among gang youths in various ethnic groups. We will learn more about how ethnic customs and habits play out when other forces begin to dominate the socialization routines of each group, especially during adolescence. When street socialization takes over, a remarkably similar street orientation and culture emerges for each group, irrespective of ethnic traditions, and, with only slightly greater variation, regardless of gender. Moreover, a comparative examination will afford us a broad, historical approach to how and why social control was disrupted, when and where groups and individuals became social outcasts, and what political forces overshadowed the process. By looking at different groups and isolating the key issues that collectively shape gang behavior and attitudes, we might better generate strategies and approaches to help alleviate and resolve the worst effects of gang life. If nothing else, we can begin to put to rest the contemporary politically tainted dialogue that interferes with a balanced consideration of the problem. Society needs objective investigations and evidence, not "moral panic"—in short, facts, not fears.

Ideally, the solution to the gang problem is linked to resolving all problems arising directly or indirectly from the tremendous social and economic inequalities in our society. Clearly, causes built into the social system are crucial to understanding gangs and gang members, even though not all poverty-stricken children join gangs. But poverty areas generate most gang members, and the poorest of the poor are often more marginalized and thus more subject to street socialization and joining gangs, an indication that even within poverty populations there is internal variation.

As the economic and social system prevalent in the United States increasingly becomes dominant around the globe, gangs likewise are becoming a worldwide phenomena, typically linked to the migration of large numbers of people to cities. The adaptation to cities by already poor people, sometimes made poorer in the transition, too often results in marginalization processes. Studies worldwide indicate that the migration of former peasants and rural workers often carries with it a series of living and working disruptions that strongly undermine traditional social control institutions, as it has for the youths focused on in this comparative study. Thus, many children in these situations are forced to grow up on the streets. To eliminate this marginalization process and the resultant street socialization would require massive changes in our way of life at the macrostructural level.

However, if we focus on the intermediate (meso and micro) levels of social control, such as families, schools, and law enforcement, we can do something for the proximate future. To pull off even this will require a great engagement and involvement and a retooling of the connections among these agents. Put another way, if we are powerless to address changes at the macro level, then we certainly can and must muster the resources to work at them at the intermediary or micro level. Though there are many worldwide similarities in the breakdown of social control resulting from unpredictable social and economic changes, this account examines only the situation in the United States and particularly in its gang capital, Los Angeles.

To begin with, ethnohistorical nuances and contours will be an important consideration when we look at the ways in which gangs unfolded within each ethnic population. This is because every ethnic group's history (as well as every nation's) differs in such important aspects as time, place, and people—that is, when and where the people settled, how their communities formed, and what distinguished them from other people in the city. Paying attention to time factors allows us to appreciate the specific conditions in Los Angeles that greeted members of each group when they arrived and to understand how those conditions affected the way they settled.

Two of the communities examined have been present in Los Angeles since its inception in 1781. Chicanos, descendants of the original inhabitants, were repressed and overwhelmed by Anglo newcomers in the nineteenth century as an aftermath of the Mexican War, then rediscovered as newcomers throughout different ebbs and flows of immigration in the twentieth century. As immigration augmented the original plaza settlement, the focal area of the Mexican population moved eastward into barrios (neighborhoods). These barrios were often located in ecologically inferior spaces (low areas subject to periodic flooding or hills that could only be reached by poor, winding roads).

African Americans also have a long history in Los Angeles. Blacks and mestizos of partly African origin were an important part of the Mexican population from its beginnings, but U.S. blacks did not migrate to Los Angeles in large numbers until after World War I and again after World War II, seeking to benefit from a somewhat booming economy and a tight labor market in each time period. Racism and prejudice in those decades segregated and isolated most blacks in a narrow belt along the Central Avenue district, and the migrants underwent a marginalization process that is still playing out today. The struggles to change those conditions grew during and after the 1960s with an acceleration of civil rights strivings and inroads.

In contrast to the above ethnic groups, the Salvadoran and Vietnamese populations share a more recent migratory background, in both cases from homelands wracked by civil war. Most of the Vietnamese immigrants and a large proportion of those from El Salvador arrived in the United States as political refugees. The unraveling of social control actually began for both groups in their home countries, where the United States played a prominent role in volatile military situations. Thus, geopolitical considerations are paramount for both groups.

The Salvadoran—and other Central American—populations in Los Angeles are relatively new. These groups had to find their way to the United States during a time of economic instability and an intense anti-immigrant social and political climate. The Salvadorans carry the burden of having had to leave their homeland in the midst of a highly charged civil war, with death threats propelling hundreds of thousands out of the country.

Along similar lines, the Vietnamese are best examined within the context of a war-torn homeland and an especially strife-ridden journey to the United States. Most found their way to the United States as members of a second wave of refugees known as the "boat people."

As we move across history and across different groups in Los Angeles that have produced gangs, we will find some obvious differences. What is remarkable is the similarities that underscore how multiple marginality acts and reacts within populations to drive children into the streets and how immigration or migration adaptation is a central part of this process. As children undergo street socialization they form a street subculture, namely a gang. Some of the street groups have formed gangs to protect themselves from the "street elites," while others have shaped gangs over several decades. What is important is that as we develop a better understanding of gangs we learn a better way to address the problems that generate gangs and gang youth.



“This is an ambitious and significant project—to map the ethnic diversity and gang subcultures of a major metropolis.... The book will almost certainly find a large audience. It makes the gang experience accessible to college students [and others] who might easily dismiss these people as only objects of fear and beneath notice as struggling human beings. The life histories are vivid.”
Joan W. Moore, Distinguished Professor Emerita of Sociology, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee