“La Vida Loca”

On the news yesterday there was a report on gang violence in the Mexican communities around Los Angeles. It got me thinking about a book I read awhile back entitled “Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA” by Luis Rodriguez. The book looks at life deep inside the Mexican gang in Los Angeles, and reveals the tension and emotion of their struggle for acceptance and the events and circumstances that shape the young Chicano gang members life.The experiences are frighteningly real and mirror the experiences of Chicano gang members everywhere.

The book serves to remind us of the major problem facing Spanish speaking communities and chronicles the emergence of the Mexican Movement. The book also brought back many memories of my own teen years. How well I remember Whittier Blvd., lowriders, Thee Imperials Car Club, UMAS, MEChA, gang violence, vatos locos, the East L.A. riots and sadly, the death of Ruben Salazar.

I am a  59 year old, second generation Mexican American and I’ve had my share of gang related experiences. My experiences, however, were quite different. I saw gang life from the outside looking in. I grew up in the city of Azusa which, when I was growing up in the Sixties, was predominantly Anglo. Mexican-Americans were the minority. I didn’t grow up in the barrio though Azusa had one, and I was not a member of a gang. I also didn’t speak Spanish, but I did understand it. I was not your typical Mexican-American teenager. My parents were a new generation of Mexican-Americans and were doing everything they could to Americanize us so we could have a better future.

Most of my friends were Anglo which put me in an unfavorable position with both Mexican gang members and non-gang members. For the most part I got along well with both groups and had several close friends who were gang members. Two of these friends died before their sixteenth birthday, victims of drug overdose.  As time passed getting along became more difficult. I was often challenged to choose between my Anglo friends and my friends in the gang.

The situation got worse when I began dating an Anglo. For nearly two years I was hassled, followed by car, pushed around, nearly beaten up, threatened and even had members of my family threatened. I often thought they did this to me not because I wouldn’t join them or didn’t see thing their way, but because they were jealous of me. They couldn’t stand seeing one of their own breaking away, making it in the white world. In my senior year I was harassed by the teacher who supervised the UMAS Club at AHS, just because I told him I didn’t believe a person should get something just because of the color of his skin, and wouldn’t join UMAS. He actually grabbed me by my shirt and shouted, “What kind of a Mexican are you?”

After school that day I was met at my car by a dozen or so Mex-Am students. I guess I was supposed to be beaten up because of my views on UMAS. Fortunately for me the leader of this group was a kid I’d known for years. He arrived after I’d been surrounded. He broke through the group and approached me and simply said, “Sorry man i didn’t realize it was you.” With that they turned around walked away, leaving me shaking in my desert boots. Ahh, the good old days.

Ultimately I was labeled a coconut (brown outside, white inside) and for the most part left alone. I believe it was my friends within the gang who were revered by the other members who got them to leave me alone. Over the next four years, three more of my gang friends died, one from a drug overdose, one was stabbed and one was killed by the Azusa PD.  He was high on drugs, and allegedly came at them with a barbecue fork. What a waste. Eventually I grew up and moved on with my life. Sadly some of those gang members that I knew never moved on, the gang was their life. Some are now dead or in prison.

I believe that there is an answer to the gang problem. Although the problem is widespread and seems out of control, it can be resolved. Through the consorted efforts of  family, schools and the local community progress can be made. The family and family values are the most important part of the solution. Latino boys and girls need the love, support and encouragement of their family. They need to feel wanted and accepted. They need to feel good about who they are and what they are doing. Like everyone they need an occasional pat on the back.  In addition they need structure and guidance within the home. They need to have a framework to follow: rules and expectations. When they fail to meet those expectations they need to be consoled and encouraged not to quit, but to continue trying. They need to understand that failing isn’t always bad. They need to see failure as a part of life, a lesson on improvement. When they break the rules they need to be disciplined in a firm but fair manner, not whipped or abused. They need to understand the importance of rules and regulations as they relate not only to family but society as well. I realize this is a tall order but I believe that eradication of gangs begins in the home.

Once children develop these values in the home and realize their lives have a purpose they will begin to feel better about themselves and see that there is an alternative to gangs. Their attitudes about the community they live in will change and school will become more important. Only when parents, schools and the community work together to offer these kids hope, will the gang problem begin to be alleviated. It can be done. It will take time and effort, but it can be done.

Just a thought

J S

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