July 29, 2005

To Keep Kids Out of Gangs, Give Them Identity

By David Madrid

SAN JOSE—This year, there have already been six gang-related deaths here in San Jose, and our juvenile hall is reporting more violence than it has seen in decades. In response, the city is rushing to support existing anti-gang programs and start new ones. They need to re-think their strategy.

With $4 million in new resources, the city is educating youths on the negative aspects of gang life, reducing the availability of gang clothing and investing in mobile street outreach units.

While I applaud any action to stop gang violence, the city’s approach is based on a superficial analysis. The escalating gang problem is about more than just colors and clothing. It reflects deep conflicts between U.S.-born Chicanos and newly immigrated Mexicans. Since immigration is only increasing, policies aimed at reducing gang violence must address this root tension.

The mayor’s Gang Task Force has declared that its mission is to “reclaim [youths] from anti-social forces that have disconnected them from their families, schools, communities, and their futures.” But gangs are not “anti-social.” If anything, they are strong social movements. From the prisons to the streets, they are organized and have structured ideologies. In many cases, gangs affiliation is what binds families and even neighborhoods together.

Gangs provide social cohesion and cultural identity. Any alternative that will make a real difference must do the same.

Gang allegiances provide cohesion, but also lead to lethal conflicts. Tensions have escalated as those who identify as Chicano or immigrant band together to protect their people and identity. On the streets, the conflict is understood as being between the “North” (Chicanos wearing red) and “South” (immigrants wearing blue).

Chicanos see themselves as fighting to protect their neighborhoods from an invading immigrant force. In my neighborhood, I hear angry Norteños claiming, “Our city is being infested.” They feel compelled to “exterminate.”

Immigrant Latinos who claim blue identify with the Mexican struggle against discrimination in the United States, even discrimination on the part of Chicanos. When I asked a young Sureña-identified girl at the high school where I tutor why she hates Norteños, she said, “‘Cause they think they’re better than us. They don’t know what being Mexican is about.”

Of course, not all Latinos perpetuate the North-South rivalry, but there is an undeniable, unspoken segregation between Chicanos and Mexican immigrants.

The North vs. South belief system affects everyone who lives in gang-dominated neighborhoods. Youths get labeled whether or not they are affiliated. Whether or not a kid is “hardcore,” many are already deeply exposed to gang ideology by the time they hit high school.

Recently I was involved with an “alternative to gangs” program at a middle school in East San Jose. We ran a writing workshop that focused on the negative aspects of gangs. I sat with one student who seemed to be having trouble writing. Finally he wrote, “Gangs are bad because they are bad for the community.”

As he twiddled his pencil and looked at the floor, I asked him, “Is that really what you think?”

“No,” he answered with a scared look on his face. I asked him to write what he really felt. He gave me a page and a half describing how unified he felt with others like him in San Jose and throughout California; how powerful it felt being part of something bigger than himself. His gang identity gave him a name and a title that he could stand for and represent.

Gangs are not just a group of homies hanging on the corner. They represent a way of life, and for those who identify with that way of life, challenging the gang mentality means challenging who they are. “Just say no” tactics are useless, even counterproductive.

Some of the best anti-gang programs are the ones that don’t talk about gangs at all. Youths don’t need to be lectured about the dangers of the streets — they already know all that — but they do need places they can come to and just be kids.

Organic cultural activities that already exist in our communities, such as hip hop and low-riding, can give young people enough personal pride and group identity to replace the gang mentality. Common ground can be found in these cultural spaces, where young people can earn respect for what they have accomplished rather than where they are from.

For gang prevention and intervention to be effective, young people need the tools to construct a new identity, not just dismantle an old one.

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