I love to study different cultures...and I loosely define culture as groups of people who think the same way. Therefore, a culture could be a group of people who are of the same "race", or a religion, or people that are interested in the same thing i.e. homeschooling.
I work with teenage boys in a foster care group home. Several of them are members of gangs. Naturally I decided I have a unique opportunity here to learn more about "gang culture" by going to the source.
One evening one of the boys was drawing gang insignia on a poster board and I figured that was an invitation. So I hesitantly began asking him questions. I didn't really expect him to be very forth coming. Surprisingly he was as long as I asked direct questions.
I asked him which gang he belonged to. "Family," he corrected. I said, "ok whatever," and the conversation continued. I really didn't take the family idea very seriously.
I felt awkward at first so trying to be coy, I said, "So how did you join the gang? Did you just tell them you wanted to be a member?" He just looked at me as if to say, "I know you are not THAT stupid," and said nothing. So I rephrased my question being candid and honest this time. "Ok, I have heard that to join a gang you have to be 'jumped in', and I want to know if that is true."
He said, "Yes, in my gang you stand in the center of a circle of 13 guys." Thirteen seems to be an important number to hispanic gangs. "One guy gives the signal and they all start beating you for a couple minutes, then they stop."
You are probably thinking what I was thinking, "What an insane ritual! Why would anyone want to do that?" Then suddenly it hit me, why they do it. Because gangs are often involved in fights, they want to know that prospective new members can handle the pressure of a fight and not turn 'coward' and run when they need you. The reason someone would subject themselves to that is because the streets can be a dangerous place, and it helps to have "family" (we would say a gang), to watch your back. And he didn't mention...but I assume...assist you in getting drugs more easily. Of course, just being in a gang makes the streets even more dangerous, but the boys don't seem to think through this part of it.
"So what about girls?" I asked. Again he gave me the look and was silent. "Ok, I heard that girls who want to join a gang are gang raped or have to have sex with the gang members, is that true?" He said that in some gangs it is, or when a girl is the first female member of that gang. But in his gang, a girl who wants to join is "jumped in" by other girls, just as the boys are.
I asked him other questions and found out that it is generally true that there are higher up gang members who give out assignments to the lower level members. I asked him what kind of assignments he had as living in a group home he had very little freedom. He said his assignment is to do recruiting kind of work while he is at school. Lovely. . .
"Is it true that when you join a gang you are basically in for life? And what happens if you change your mind, can't you just move cross country and start a new life?" I wondered.
He said "yes you are in for life, and no you can't just move across country. Eventually, they will find you. There's always someone who knows someone who will recognize you. And when they do, they will be furious that you turned your back on the family."
Personally, I don't think it is impossible to leave a gang, I knew someone at church once that was an ex-gangbanger. But I don't really know if he was looking over his shoulder constantly for the first few years. What is interesting though is that the active members of the gang feel they can't leave (and in the case of the boy I talked to, don't want to).
"So is John," (not his real name,) "a member of your gang too?" He laughed at that and said, "No I think he belongs to his dad's gang." Holy cow, you mean this really is a family affair? Yikes.
On a different day I asked another boy why he had chosen to be in gang and he said, "Oh, it just seemed like the thing to do. My father, uncles, brothers are all in gangs."
These conversations left me intrigued, and I wanted to know more. All my life when I have wanted to know something I find a book and this time was no different. I found a book called, "Under and Alone"by William Queen. It is about an ATF officer who infiltrated the Mongol Motorcycle gang. They are said to be the most dangerous motorcycle gang in America. I bet you thought the Hell's Angels held that title. So did I. Apparently the Mongols and the Hell's Angels are bitter rivals, but the Mongols have a reputation for being the more violent.
Unfortunately, I can't recommend the book to you since the language is pretty harsh. Normally, I don't read books with that language either, but I hear it at work and I wanted to know about gangs so I made an exception in this case.
"Under and Alone" illuminated the idea of a gang being a family. In one part of the book, "Billy's" aunt died. She had been like a mother to him and he grieved her loss as one would a mother. He took some time off for the funeral and upon returning went to the office. He said he saw several ATF officers and other staff who all knew he where he had been and why, and no one mentioned his loss. Then he went to meet up with the Mongols for a "manadatory" bike run. The first Mongol that saw him grabbed him in a tremendous bear hug and said, "Billy, I'm so sorry about your loss." Then another Mongol did the same, and another and another. As the day went on, each arriving Mongol greeted him in the same way. He was stunned and deeply moved. He felt more friendship and compassion for his loss from this gang members than he had from his co-workers. At that moment he wanted to just get on his bike and ride off and truly be "Billy St. John" and leave his other life as an ATF officer behind. It was a difficult time for him, but he told himself, "Get a grip, if these guys found out you are an undercover cop they will shoot you on the spot." Still it was a difficult time for him.
That explains one aspect of the gang=family phenomenon.
Something else occured to me. Years ago, I lived in Bethel, Alaska (working with juvenile delinquents). Bethel is in "the bush", and I found it to be very lonely. One day I had an opportunity to talk to the pyschiatrist who came to see the kids. He asked me how I was adjusting and I told him it was hard because the people there won't invite you into their hearts and lives until you have been around for at least a year. "Why would I stick around for a year if I have no friends?" I asked. He explained to me that because of the harsh living conditions in the Bush, what starts out as an ordinary day can quickly become a life or death experience. When people live together in life or death situations, they develop a special sort of bond. And what is gang life if not a daily life or death experience?
All this makes me think, of course, about my family. Besides my biological family, I consider my church associates "family", and I consider some of my close friends as family. As you know, families can bring our greatest joy, and also be our greatest heartache. Fortunately neither of my families would try to kill me if I decided to leave them. Although at times, I might want to kill them!
To my families, I love you and thanks for being my "gang".