La Vida Loca : ‘THE CRAZY LIFE’: TWO GENERATIONS OF GANG MEMBERS
Late winter Chicago, 1991: The once-white snow that fell in December has turned into a dark scum, an admixture of salt, car oil and decay; icicles hang from rooftops and window sills like the whiskers of old men. The bone-chilling temperatures force my family to stay inside a one-and-a-half bedroom apartment in a three-flat building in Humboldt Park. My third wife, Trini, our child Ruben and my 15-year-old son Ramiro from a previous marriage huddle around the television set. Tensions build up like a fever.
One evening, words of anger bounce back and forth between the walls of our gray-stone flat. Two-year-old Ruben, confused and afraid, crawls up to my leg and hugs it. Trini and I had jumped on Ramiro’s case for coming in late following weeks of trouble: Ramiro had joined the Insane Campbell Boys, a group of Puerto Rican and Mexican youth allied with the Spanish Cobras and Dragons.
Within moments, Ramiro runs out of the house, entering the freezing Chicago night. I go after him, sprinting down the gangway leading to a debris-strewn alley. I see Ramiro’s fleeing figure, his breath rising in quickly dissipating clouds.
I follow him toward Division Street, the neighborhood’s main drag. People yell out of windows and doorways: “Que pasa, hombre?” This is not an unfamiliar sight–a father or mother chasing some child down the street.
Watching my son’s escape, it is as though he enters the waters of a distant time, back to my youth, back to when I ran, to when I jumped over fences, fleeing vato locos , the police or my own shadow, in some drug-induced hysteria.
As Ramiro speeds off, I see my body enter the mouth of darkness, my breath cut the frigid flesh of night–my voice crack open the night sky.
We are a second-generation gang family. I was involved in gangs in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early 1970s. When I was 2 years old, in 1956, my family emigrated from Mexico to Watts. I spent my teen years in a barrio called Las Lomas, east of Los Angeles.
I was arrested on charges ranging from theft, assaulting an officer to attempted murder. As a teen-ager, I did some time. I began using drugs at age 12–including pills, weed and heroin. I had a near-death experience at 16 from sniffing toxic spray. After being kicked out of three high schools, I dropped out at 15.
By the time I turned 18, some 25 friends had been killed by rival gangs, the police, overdoses, car crashes and suicides.
Three years ago, I brought Ramiro to Chicago to escape the violence. If I barely survived all this, it appeared unlikely my son would make it. But in Chicago, we found kindred conditions.
I had to cut Ramiro’s bloodline to the street before it became too late. I had to begin the long, intense struggle to save his life from the gathering storm of street violence–some 20 years after I had sneaked out of the ‘hood in the dark of night and removed myself from the death fires of La Vida Loca.
What to do with those whom society cannot accommodate? Criminalize them. Outlaw their actions and creations. Declare them the enemy, then wage war. Emphasize the differences–the shade of skin, the accent or manner of clothes. Like the scapegoat of the Bible, place society’s ills on them, then “stone them” in absolution. It’s convenient. It’s logical.
Gangs are not alien powers. They begin as unstructured groupings, our children, who desire the same as any young person. Respect. A sense of belonging. Protection. This is no different than the YMCA, Little League or the Boys Scouts. It wasn’t any more than what I wanted.
When I entered 109th Street School in Watts, I spoke perfect Spanish. But teachers punished me for speaking it on the playground. I peed in my pants a few times because I was unable to say in English that I had to go. One teacher banished me to a corner, to build blocks for a year. I learned to be silent within the walls of my body.
The older boys who lived on 103rd Street would take my money or food. They chased me through alleys and side streets. Fear compelled my actions.
The police, I learned years later, had a strategy: They picked up as many 7-year-old boys as they could–for loitering, throwing dirt clods, curfew–whatever. By the time a boy turned 13, and had been popped for something like stealing, he had accumulated a detention record, and was bound for “juvey.”
One felt besieged, under intense scrutiny. If you spoke out, dared to resist, you were given a “jacket” of troublemaker; I’d tried many times to take it off, but somebody always put it back on.
Soon after my family moved to South San Gabriel, a local group, Thee Mystics, rampaged through the school. They carried bats, chains, pipes and homemade zip guns. They terrorized teachers and students alike. I was 12.
I froze as the head stomping came dangerously my way. But I was intrigued. I wanted this power. I wanted to be able to bring a whole school to its knees. All my school life until then had been poised against me. I was broken and shy. I wanted what Thee Mystics had. I wanted to hurt somebody.
Police sirens broke the spell. Thee Mystics scattered in all directions. But they had done their damage. They had left their mark on the school–and on me.
Gangs flourish when there’s a lack of social recreation, decent education or employment. Today, many young people will never know what it is to work. They can only satisfy their needs through collective strength–against the police, who hold the power of life and death, against poverty, against idleness, against their impotence in society.
Without definitive solutions, it’s easy to throw blame. George Bush and Dan Quayle, for example, say the lack of family values is behind our problems.
But “family” is a farce among the propertyless and disenfranchised. Too many families are wrenched apart, as even children are forced to supplement meager incomes. At age 9, my mother walked me to the door and, in effect, told me: Now go forth and work.
People can’t just consume; they have to sell something, including their ability to work. If so-called legitimate work is unavailable, people will do the next best thing–sell sex or dope.
You’ll find people who don’t care about whom they hurt, but nobody I know wants to sell death to their children, their neighbors, friends. If there was a viable, productive alternative, they would stop.
At 18, I had grown tired. I felt like a war veteran with a kind of post-traumatic syndrome. I had seen too many dead across the pavement; I’d walk the aisles in the church wakes as if in a daze; I’d often watched my mother’s weary face in hospital corridors, outside of courtrooms and cells, refusing, finally, to have anything to do with me.
In addition, I had fallen through the cracks of two languages; unable to communicate well in any.
I wanted the pain to end, the self-consuming hate to wither in the sunlight. With the help of those who saw potential in me, perhaps for some poetry, I got out: No more heroin, spray or pills; no more jails; no more trying to hurt somebody until I stopped hurting–which never seemed to pass.
There is an aspect of suicide in gang involvement for those whose options have been cut off. They stand on street comers, flash hand signs and invite the bullets. It’s life as stance, as bravado. They say “You can’t touch this,” but “Come kill me!” is the inner cry. It’s either la torcida or death, a warrior’s path, where even self-preservation doesn’t make a play. If they murder, the targets are the ones who look like them, walk like them, those closest to who they are–the mirror reflection. They murder and they are killing themselves, over and over.
Ramiro stayed away for two weeks the day he ran off. When he returned, we entered him into a psychotherapy hospital. After three months, he was back home. Since then, I’ve had to pull everyone into the battle for my son. I’ve spent hours with teachers. I’ve involved therapists, social workers, the police.
We all have some responsibility: Schools, the law, parents. But at the same time, there are factors beyond our control. It’s not a simple matter of “good” or “bad” values, or even of choices. If we all had a choice, I’m convinced nobody would choose la vida loca , the “insane nation”–to gangbang. But it’s going to take collective action and a plan.
Recently, Ramiro got up at a Chicago poetry event and read a piece about being physically abused by a stepfather. It stopped everyone cold. He later read the poem at Chicago’s Poetry Festival. Its title: “Running Away.”
The best way to deal with your children is to help construct the conditions for free and healthy development of all, but it’s also true you can’t be for all children if you can’t be for your own.
There’s a small but intense fire burning in my son. Ramiro has just turned 17; he’s made it thus far, but it’s day by day. Now I tell him: You have an innate value outside of your job, outside the “jacket” imposed on you since birth. Draw on your expressive powers.
PHOTO ESSAY: “Fatal Bravado: The Life and Death of a Gang Member” on Pages 4 and 5.
Late winter Chicago, 1991: The once-white snow that fell in December has turned into a dark scum, an admixture of salt, car oil and decay; icicles hang from rooftops and window sills like the whiskers of old men.
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