Mexican-American Gangs

Mexican-Americans gang members live at the margins of an already marginalized group, according to Tellez and Estep (1997). They typically come from urban, low-income areas and are subject to severe persecution by law enforcement. Mexican-American gangs, however, aren't just in low-income, inner-city neighborhoods, as surmised by Harris (1994). "Urban sprawl, population growth, high unemployment, changing immigration patterns, and urban recession have moved street gangs out of low-income, inner city neighborhoods where poverty, racial division, and high unemployment contributed to their formation." Today, Mexican-American gangs have reached even the more affluent suburban areas.

Yet, interestingly, Mexican-American gangs have become semi-permanent fixtures in many neighborhoods. The question then becomes -- What benefits and disadvantages does becoming a member of a Mexican-American gang have to offer? This paper investigates the pros and cons of Mexican-American gangs, through review of both Latin gang-specific research and gang research in general.

Mexican-American Gangs

Introduction:

Mexican-Americans gang members live at the margins of an already marginalized group, according to Tellez and Estep (1997). They typically come from urban, low-income areas and are subject to severe persecution by law enforcement. Mexican-American gangs, however, aren't just in low-income, inner-city neighborhoods, as surmised by Harris (1994). "Urban sprawl, population growth, high unemployment, changing immigration patterns, and urban recession have moved street gangs out of low-income, inner city neighborhoods where poverty, racial division, and high unemployment contributed to their formation." Today, Mexican-American gangs have reached even the more affluent suburban areas.

Yet, interestingly, Mexican-American gangs have become semi-permanent fixtures in many neighborhoods. The question then becomes -- What benefits and disadvantages does becoming a member of a Mexican-American gang have to offer? This paper investigates the pros and cons of Mexican-American gangs, through review of both Latin gang-specific research and gang research in general.

Hypothesis:

Despite the fact that there are both pros and cons to being in a Mexican-American gang, the negative effects of being in a gang far outweigh the benefits members receive.

The Stability of Mexican-American Gangs:

Mexican-American gangs have been a part of American culture in areas like the Southwest since the 1920s. As noted by Moore (2000), Bogardus talks about Mexican 'boy gangs' in 1926. McWilliams wrote about the 'zoot suit riots' and how these neighborhood youth gangs should be treated in 1949. Moore researched a Mexican-American gang that formed soon after its barrio was settled in the 1930s and was still active nearly seven decades later. Other ethnicities of gangs have not seen this level of continuity. As such, this stability adds a unique benefit to being a member of a Mexican-American gang.

Because Mexican-American gangs have been a part of the social life of the neighborhoods they are in, for generations, they have become quasi-institutionalized according to Moore (2000). Original gang members were drawn from poor and politically marginalized immigrant families. Since the 1980s, members are not only drawn from the new flow of immigrants from Mexico, but from second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans as well. With this institutionalization, being in a gang in some Latin neighborhoods is almost expected. It's a normal way of life, since they've been around for generations, and is one way an individual can become a part of the 'community'. However, in addition to this specific benefit of institutionalization with Mexican-American gangs, there are other perceived benefits that individuals have regarding joining a gang.

Perceived Benefits of Joining a Gang:

There are a variety of reasons why individuals choose to join a gang. Some of these perceived benefits are specific to Mexican-American gangs, while others are true despite the ethnic affiliation. Gangs represent a generalized rejection of the values of adult authority. As children mature it's normal for family to decline in importance as the child builds relationships with their peers from other environments. However, for Latino youth who are prone to join gangs, their neighborhood is familial-like and increases in importance, especially as academic failure becomes a problem (Tellez & Estep, 1997). Joining a gang builds on the already familial-like bond of the gang that has been part of their community for their entire life, plus the counter-school subculture of the gang reassures the youth that there is a place for them in society.

There are other perceived benefits by gang members, in addition to this sense of belonging. Parties, girls and the availability of drugs are an attractive lure to some potential gang members. There is also a sense of respect and power that accompanies being in a gang, especially in one that is so embedded in a neighborhood. Money, the great motivator, is also seen as a benefit, in addition to the respect, power, and parties that come with being in a gang. This is particularly true for those in low income and economic opportunity areas, such as Mexican-American barrios. Being able to sell drugs and being able to afford expensive cars, clothes, and jewelry can be seen as a great benefit. Protection is another benefit of joining a gang, especially if the individual is being picked on by another gang ("Why kids," 2008). However, despite the perceived benefits that lure individuals into joining a Mexican-American gang, the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages.

Violence, Drugs and Social Instability:

Becoming a member of a Mexican-American gang, may at first appear to be a good idea, with a new extended family, economic opportunities not normally found in the neighborhood, and a prevalence of drugs. However, the violence, drug abuse and social instability that occurs due to gang involvement is far more detrimental than the perceived benefits that often don't really exist. Violence has always been a component of gang life and is one of the most severe disadvantages to belonging in a gang. Huff (2001) noted that an insurance actuarial investigated the mortality rates of gang members and found that they had a significantly higher mortality rate than their non-member counterparts, due to the increased exposure to violence (p. 136). Even the induction process of gang membership is based on violence.

Gang induction, often known as 'jumping in', often includes ritualized violence. One instance of gang induction involved the new member walking between two rows of stick-wielding gang members. As they walked through, the gang members struck the new member repeatedly. Being beaten up by existing gang members too is often a part of becoming an official gang member ("Youth violence," 1998, p. 193).

Violence is an intrinsic part of gang life, and this component of being a gang member continues to increase. Although some of this violence is associated with the selling of drugs, much of it is unrelated to drug or other economic transactions. In fact, "historically, gang violence was evident long before drug selling was a major income source for gangs and gang members" ("Youth violence," 1998, p. 147). There are a variety of reasons theorized why gang violence has increased over the years.

The increased lethality of gang violence may be attributed to a larger number of older gang members. In Mexican-American gangs, where gangs have been in existence for multiple generations, this can be significant. The community contexts in which the gang operates may also be a factor in increased violence. Socially and economically isolated neighborhoods mean the exits from gang life are truncated for members. This is a factor for the institutionalization of Mexican-American gangs. When formal or legal income is not available, violence in association with other criminal activities, like robbery, can increase. Lastly, when social restraints are removed from gangs, as is the case with Mexican-American gangs so deeply embedded in Mexican-American culture, there are no restraints on the violence they conduct ("Youth violence," 1998, p. 147- 148). Whatever the source of the increased violence, this exposure and the likelihood of becoming a victim is a significant disadvantage to being a gang member.

Drug abuse too is a negative of being in a gang, although at first many may see the availability of drugs as a positive. The addiction that so often occurs transforms many gang members from recreational drug users to drug addicts. Drug use is widespread with gang members from all areas of the country. Spergel (1995) cited a Florida legislative committee that reported that 92% of gang members had used drugs, primarily marijuana and cocaine. In fact, Spergel continued, most gang members are heavy drug users, with 70% using drugs at least once a week, with an incidence four times higher than non-gang members (p. 45 -- 46). Delgado (2005) noted that Latino gang members were especially prone to drug abuse problems (p. 67). de la Rosa and Rugh (2005) are in agreement with Delgado noting that epidemiological studies clearly demonstrate the serious problem alcohol and drug abuse is for Latino gang members. "The very origins of marijuana prohibition and the emergence of drug enforcement in the United States are largely attributable to Mexican immigration during the depression era" (Miller et al., 2008).

Social instability is one of the greatest disadvantages to becoming a gang member. With the increased incidence of crime, drug abuse and violence,…