Chicano gang history and culture

Chicano gang history and culture

Another excerpt from our complimentary study guide for Oedipus el Rey:

Mexican culture can be dated back to the existence of the Mexican population in the United States during the 16th century, when Spanish explorers settled what was then northern Mexico and is currently the American West.  In Los Angeles and Albuquerque, the downtown plazas were original settlement areas, around which these cities grew. Following the end of the Mexican American War in 1848, Spanish and Mexican settlers who already lived in that region became United States citizens (Mexican immigration in large numbers did not begin until the turn of the 20th century). Gang-like groups are said to have first appeared in the Western region as early as the 1890s. Widely recognized experts on Latino gang origins suggest that the precursors of Latino or Chicano (US-born) urban gangs in the Western region were the palomilla (meaning literally, flock of doves).  These are best described as small groups of young Mexican men that formed out of a “male cohorting tradition,” first reported in south Texas in the early 1900s.  These emerging gangs appear to have migrated along the trail that originated in Mexico and continued along a route through El Paso and Albuquerque, and onward to Los Angeles. The first Los Angeles gangs, called “boy gangs”, clearly were patterned after the palomilla.

The typical Chicano gang member lives in places like Wilmington, Pomona, Santa Ana, Norwalk, Canoga Park and East Los Angeles. These gangs grew out of the pre-existing Mexican culture in the Western region, and their growth was fueled by subsequent Mexican migrations.  El Paso, Albuquerque, and Los Angeles initially were populated by immigrant groups along the trail from Mexico to Los Angeles.  Indeed, the immigrants brought an embryo culture with them that was transmitted by youth who were named pachuchos—an expression for field hands that comes from a Mexican city of that name, and these pachuchos socialized with other immigrant youths in the streets.

Two forces served to incubate street gangs of Mexican origin in Los Angeles and in other Western cities: physical and cultural marginalization. The barrios in which the earliest and most firmly established gangs developed were well-demarcated settlements of Mexican-Americans and immigrants. They were located in geographically isolated areas that other settlers and developers had bypassed as less appropriate for habitation, and were further isolated by cultural, racial, and socioeconomic barriers enforced by ingrained prejudices of the Anglo-American community. This rendered the barrios more impervious to outside influences.

Immigrants were culturally marginalized between their society of origin and the dominant American culture to which they had migrated.  Cholo youth, the poorest of the poor marginalized immigrants, could not fully assimilate into Anglo culture or develop a unique identity that might incorporate both Anglo and Latino culture, and so created a subculture. Being a cholo allowed such youth to assert their own Latino identity, take pride in it, and deny “being enbacheado (Anglicized)”. In other words, these street youth shaped their own cholo (a derivative of the Spanish solo, meaning “alone”) subculture. Gangs were formed from youths who were culturally and socially alienated and who willingly gravitated to barrio hangouts.

More recently the significant street and prison Latino gangs operating in the Western and Pacific regions (particularly California, Nevada, and Hawaii) are La Eme, 18th Street, Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13), and Nuestra Familia. The most prominent Mexican gangs among these are 18th Street, La Eme, and Nuestra Familia. The FBI considers the California-based Mexican Mafia (La Eme) to be one of seven major prison gangs. The Mexican Mafia prison gang was formed in the late 1950s within the California Department of Corrections (FBI, 2008). It is loosely structured but has strict rules that must be followed by members. Altogether, the Mexican Mafia controls approximately 50,000 to 75,000 California Sureños gang members and associates. Most members are Mexican-American males who previously belonged to a southern California street gang. Although the Mexican Mafia is active in the Southwestern and Pacific regions of the United States, its power base is in California. The gang’s main source of income is extorting drug distributors outside prison and distributing methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, and marijuana within prison systems and on the streets. Some members have direct links to Mexican drug trafficking organizations.  The Mexican Mafia also is involved in other criminal activities, including controlling gambling and prostitution in prison.

At one time, within gang culture, there had been a code—born of remote, segregated barrios, forged in an era when most adults, let alone children, did not have cars, when the outside world was just that, when each neighborhood felt the need to huddle against unknown forces, when connections with Mexican culture were much stronger. The code included a distinct set of traditions, rules and taboos passed down for generations. Violence was not committed randomly, only to settle specific scores. You did not shoot into someone’s house. You did not attack bystanders. You did not jump a rival gang member if you saw him walking with his family. Much of this code has fallen by the wayside. The world has changed and there is growing concern in the U.S. government that the connection between gangs from Mexico and Central America with gangs in the Western and Eastern states is strengthening.

Deeply Rooted in L.A. Chicano Gangs: A History of Violence; BOB BAKER. Los Angeles Times.