Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=164963
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Alissa Irei/ MEDILL

"Where you from?" For a kid walking down the street in Little Village, those words could be the last he ever hears. The question refers to gang allegiance, and if he answers wrong, he could be beaten up – or worse. Yovani Vasquez, 15 years old, walks home from school alone.


Gangs give members sense of purpose, belonging – but there's a price

by Alissa Irei
May 20, 2010


"We've had both good and bad"

“Maybe about five years ago, I was putting on my tie in the morning, listening to the morning news, and found out one of my former students was shot in the head. I had him as a freshman, and this was sophomore year. My heart just dropped. He was such a friendly kid – always had a smile on his face. It was surreal … I didn’t even realize how entrenched he was in a gang. I’ll never forget that moment. I went to the funeral, and it was very tough. But there have also been a lot of real good success stories too – kids that have gotten out and have come back from college and said some really good things about their experiences at Farragut [Career Academy]. So we’ve had both good and bad.”

 –Jason Siegellak, teacher and administrator at Farragut Career Academy high school

“There is a lack of resources in the community. There’s hardly any after school activities or green space available … There’s one park, but it’s only accessible to Two-Six [residents].”

“Marco made a total 360 turnaround and is on a college track [since becoming involved in our mentorship program]. He was on probation and now is currently off. He’s worked in our summer jobs program for three years ... [Little Village needs] more people to help mentor youth, because I think that one-on-one relationship is important and I think it makes drastic changes."

 –Diana Rivera, outreach supervisor at community group ENLACE Chicago

 “I don’t think there are any real easy answers. There are a number of things [the community needs], from what I’ve experienced. The kids need stronger role models, and people pulling for them. They need to be able to connect with someone. They need a strong figure in their lives.”

 –Jason Nava, youth worker at Nueva Vida church and former Little Village resident

“[Rafael] really loved music, and in our school we did have a little music program, and he would stay [after school] for that. I know he loved soccer too. I think [more extracurricular programs] would have helped him a lot. It would have kept him busy, and it wouldn’t have led him to that tragic death.”

– Xotzitl Guerrero, Little Village resident, on the stabbing death of her classmate Rafael

“It’s not just the police that should do something. It’s the parents too, because they should be calling their kids or telling them to come home soon … If [my parents] see that [my brothers and I] are doing bad, then they try to talk to us – try to make us change our ways. They know that we’re going to be under a lot of peer pressure, so what they fear is that we’re going to fall for it, and join a gang or do drugs.”

–Alejandra Vazquez, student at Little Village Lawndale High School

“In order to change culture, you have to incorporate all the people involved. That’s staff development, that’s student development and that’s community development, along with the parents. That’s the whole idea of the culture of calm – to pump money into those areas to affect all of those different stakeholders.”

–Kevin Bacon, Farragut Career Academy high school administrator, regarding a new culture of calm initiative in Chicago Public Schools


Accountability. Structure. Discipline.

These are the intangible means by which good parents, teachers, mentors and military commanders elicit the best from those they lead.

And they’re the means by which Little Village’s street gangs inspire respect and engender loyalty among their followers.

Jorge Melendez is 15 years old. He plays soccer at his neighborhood high school. His favorite subject is math. His favorite teacher is Ms. Lopez. And in the next few months he’ll be initiated into the Latin Kings.

“You have to get beat up,” Jorge said. “And then they’ll introduce you to the leader, the one that is commanding the branch, and then after that you’ll turn [King].”

The Latin Kings and the Two-Six are the largest warring gangs in Chicago’s Little Village, and they boast complex social structures. The groups are run like businesses or military units, with conventions, protocol and pecking orders.

Kevin Bacon is the dean of attendance and discipline at Farragut Career Academy, where Melendez is a student. He said their organizational complexity sets these groups apart from many other Chicago gangs.

“Typically they say that a lot of the African-American gangs are more motivated by where the money is and drug trafficking, and they can co-exist as long as everyone is getting paid,” Bacon said. “It’s not as strict by territory. Like you might have a [Gangster Disciple] on that corner, and on the other corner a Vice Lord, and if money’s good it’s not a problem.”

Bacon said he has found in 10 years working in Little Village that the area’s Latino gangs have “more traditions and rules.”

“They have charters; they have different chapters, and there’s a hierarchy,” he said. “They have meetings. It’s highly structured; it’s not just hanging out.”

That structure, hierarchy and concurrent sense of identity and sociopolitical orientation seem to appeal to those whose lives lack shape, consistency and boundaries.

“I see a lot of kids raising themselves,” said Jason Nava, a youth worker at Nueva Vida church in Little Village. “[They’re] raising each other, and raising themselves and not really having anyone to guide them.”

Xotzitl Guerrero is an office worker at St. Agnes of Bohemia in Little Village, where she grew up seeing friends and classmates dying in episodes of community violence. One Sunday morning in late January she sat behind her desk at the church, remembering her friend Rafael.

“I had been in school with him since elementary school. He was a really good student, but he only had a mom,” Guerrero said. “And she just really worked hard, and really abandoned him in a way – leaving him alone, getting home really late from work, trying to give him [a life] she didn’t have.”

In his teens, Rafael became involved with gangs and was ultimately killed.

“He was stabbed,” Guerrero said. “It was a block from here.”

Jorge also lives with a single mother who works long hours in a low-paying job. He doesn’t know where his dad is.

The high school sophomore said he began following the Latin Kings in the eighth grade, when he became the target of bullying. He sought out the group for protection, and the bullying stopped.

Jorge said that’s because they have his back. Maybe it’s because there are no bigger bullies in Little Village than the Latin Kings.

But Jorge doesn’t see it that way.

For the past four years he’s been a “neutron.” That means he’s not yet acknowledged as a full-fledged member, but he associates with the Kings, he identifies with them and he’s at the their beck and call.

Jorge and the other neutrons are often sent to stand sentry on the streets. And if someone isn’t present, it’s noted. For kids whose parents are largely absent, that accountability can be reassuring.

“If a neutron is standing outside on the corner, the Kings have to see him to know that he’s representing,” Jorge said.

While a gang banger standing watch on the sidewalk might look threatening to some residents, Jorge insists he and his friends are there to defend everyone, not just the Kings.

“[We] have to protect the whole neighborhood,” he said.

An elderly woman who lives in Latin King territory, and asked not to be identified out of concern for her safety, said that’s not the case. She said her house has been damaged by area gang members, and she still suffers from injuries sustained in a gang-related incident years ago – when she was violently knocked to the pavement while out walking.

The woman said she’s known many of the neighborhood gang bangers since they were babies. They were good kids, she said, but they didn’t have enough supervision or direction.

Guerrero agrees.

“I don’t want to blame the parents,” she said. “But they work so hard, and especially because most of them are undocumented around here, they do try to give their kids what they didn’t have as a child. So it leads them to leaving their children alone most of the time during the day, and they end up going to the wrong crowd.”

The members of that crowd were highly visible one recent spring afternoon, just north of 26th Street – where King territory begins. Young and middle-aged men slouched on street corners, patrolled sidewalks and lounged on front porches. Many acknowledged that they are Kings, but all refused to be interviewed. Bacon said it’s easy to see when the troops have been mobilized.

“They get the word that it’s mandatory,” he said. “Everyone’s got to be at their post, and then you’ll see everybody start standing on corners. Anytime there are shootings, you’ll see an increase in it. They’re well-connected; they’re communicating.”

Chicago has a history of highly organized and even politically active gangs who worked to fill perceived or real community needs – from the Blackstone Rangers to the Puerto Rican Young Lords to the Black Panthers of the 1960s.

In a community with many undocumented immigrants – who often distrust government and traditional law enforcement – the idea of a local vigilante group defending the neighborhood carries some appeal.

“Gangs probably most of the time started off with maybe even good intentions,” Bacon said, “with the ideal of protecting a community from violence. And then it became corrupt.”

But Jorge thinks corruption is a bigger problem among Chicago police than among gang leadership. He said if he witnessed a crisis on the street, he would call the Latin Kings, not 9-1-1.

“If [someone] kills somebody, the police don’t take long to investigate who did it,” Jorge said. “They get it wrong. They just blame it on somebody.”

The gangs also supply financial incentives, according to community violence expert Dexter Voisin of the University of Chicago.

“These gangs provide an alternative form of commerce,” he said. “So you have gangs actually buying single-family homes in order to run drug operations. You have gangs buying Laundromats. They’re getting into the marketplace.”

Farragut teacher and administrator Jason Siegellak agrees.

“You give that kid the first $10 or $20 to do something, and it seems like a lot to them,” he said. “Then that money becomes addictive, and they look for more opportunities. You have to try to be an opportunist sometimes when you don’t have a lot of money. We hope everyone does it in a legal way, but unfortunately that’s not the reality for some underprivileged communities.”

According to Voisin, groups like the Latin Kings and the Two-Six fill multiple sociopolitical vacuums– infrastructural, financial, familial and social.

“[They] provide money-making potential, status and protection,” he said. “A sense of belonging is a normal developmental need, and these kids are not getting it through other social outlets.”

But belonging comes with a price. About a year ago, Jorge was walking with a few friends when someone opened fire from a moving car. One of the boys – a Latin King – was killed.

Still, Jorge stubbornly insisted that hanging with gang bangers doesn’t put him at risk. But when asked if he’ll let his 10-year-old brother join the Kings someday, Jorge hesitated for a long moment, then finally shook his head.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” he said softly. “It’s too dangerous.”