NEW YORK TIMES
March 28, 2005
Gang of Our Own Making
By Luis J. Rodriguez
San Fernando, Calif. - In 1996, I was present at a meeting of gang members and community leaders in San Salvador. Heavily tattooed young men, one with a hand mangled from a hand grenade blast, told of the horrifying violence and gang warfare that had succeeded the battles of the 12-year civil war on El Salvador's streets. Aside from their tattoos, what was striking about these gang members is that they had grown up not in El Salvador, but in the United States, and that the gangs they were in - Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street - were started in Los Angeles.
That gathering was startling evidence of the globalization of United States-based gangs. Just how much Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, has grown since then was evident this month when the Department of Homeland Security announced the arrests of 103 gang members in New York State, Miami, Washington, the Baltimore area and Los Angeles.
Mara Salvatrucha is now reported to operate in 31 states and five countries, with 100,000 members across Canada, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. The government says MS-13 is the fastest-growing and most violent gang in the country. It describes MS-13 as having "cells" that smuggle people, guns and contraband across international lines, and some federal officials have mentioned possible ties between MS-13 and Al Qaeda.
While there's no proof that MS-13 has any connection to Al Qaeda, it has something in common with it: American policy played a role in the creation of both groups.
MS-13 is a result of our policy in Central America, specifically the policy that fueled the civil wars that sent more than two million refugees to the United States in the 1980's. Some of their children confronted well-entrenched Mexican-American gangs in the barrios where they landed. For their protection, they created their own groups, emulating the style of older Chicano gangs like 18th Street. MS-13, for instance, was born in the crowded, crack-ridden Mexican and Central-American community of Pico-Union, just west of the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles.
After the Los Angeles riots of 1992, government officials declared the main culprits to be young African-American and Latino gang members. In the mid-90's as many as 40,000 youths accused of being members of MS-13, 18th Street and other gangs were deported every year to Mexico and Central America. Sophisticated, tattooed, English-speaking young men raised and acculturated in the United States were sent to countries with no resources, no jobs and no history with these types of gangs.
Soon the deported members of MS-13 and 18th Street began recruiting among homeless and glue-sniffing youth who had never been to the United States. In a few years, these new members were making their way to the United States, ending up in far-flung corners of the country and recruiting a new generation. When the Department of Homeland Security deports the men it arrested last week, the cycle will start again.
When I was growing up in East L.A. in the 1960's, I was a member of a Chicano street gang. I was shot at a half-dozen times and arrested on several occasions. I understand why a teenager finds joining a gang necessary. But thanks to a few teachers, youth workers and community leaders, I eventually left the gang life.
What would have happened to me if I had been deported to a homeland I barely knew? The gang members at the 1996 meeting I attended were trying to find alternatives to violence and drugs. They wanted to be incorporated into the country, to be allowed to rebuild, to learn skills, to make decisions about bettering their communities and to stop being harassed or beaten by the police and attacked by death squads.
While the meeting ended on a high note, with people applauding and promising changes, in the end little happened. A group of former MS-13 and 18th Street gang youth formed a peace and justice organization called Homies Unidos, but their efforts over the years to obtain jobs, training, tattoo removal and counseling were largely ignored.
Instead, El Salvador instituted a "mano dura," or "firm hand," policy. It became illegal to be a member of a gang, whether a crime was committed or not. Jails became filled with gang youth from Los Angeles. The same policy was instituted in Honduras. According to news reports, these governments were getting advice from American law enforcement agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department.
Today we're confronted with the same choice: we can continue the repression, arrests and firm-hand policies that only guarantee more violence and more lost youth. Or we can bring gang youth to the table and work to create jobs and training, providing real options for meaningful work and healthy families. In other words, we can help sow the seeds of transformation, eliminating the reasons young people join gangs in the first place.
We have the means to do both. Both have great costs. But one choice will worsen the violence and terror; the other will help bring peace, both in the streets of the United States and in the barrios of America's neighbors.
I survived, however, to take part in the Quinto Sol Chicano Literary Awards celebration in Berkeley, hosted by Dr. Octavio Romano and Herminio Rios. In 1973, I was given an honorable mention for a group of vignettes I called “Barrio Expressions.” I had been writing bits and pieces of my life and thoughts in juvenile hall and adult jails since I was 15. Then with the help of a teacher and a school administrator, my pieces were retyped and submitted to this prestigious contest that had given recognition to Chicano greats Tomas Rivera and Rudy Anaya.
The winners of the Quinto Sol award that year were Rolando Hinojosa and Estela Portillo Trambley. I was honored to meet them. I was the least known and, for sure, the least skilled. But they treated me with respect and dignity.
A year after this trip, I quit heroin, cold turkey. And I began to seriously dream about a real writer’s life (which I finally embarked on seven years later).
I have just received news that Dr. Octavio Romano passed away this past week. I am deeply saddened by this loss. I want to convey my deepest condolences to his family and many countless friends.
Dr. Romano will forever stand as the leading light of Chicano letters. He had the vision and fortitude to go far beyond whatever existed before. He helped launch the careers of so many Chicano writers and artists in the literary publication “El Grito,” and later through his Tonatiuh Publishing.
I am indebted to his efforts--and to being able to see this once lost indigenous Chicano youth and find a poet and writer. He was so encouraging and supportive of my small but important writing attempts those many years ago. Now I have eight published books in poetry, children’s literature, fiction, nonfiction, and memoir. My first novel, “Music of the Mill,” is being published this April by Rayo Books/HarperCollins; in the fall, my poetry collection, “My Nature is Hunger: New & Selected Poems,” will be out by Curbstone Press/Rattle Magazine.
I can truly say I would not be here today if not for Dr. Octavio Romano. Descanse en paz, hermano.
What could we do for more justice and peace in this world? Many big ideas are out there--nothing wrong with the big ideas. We need more of them. We also need new ways of looking at history, the truth of it, not the idealized version we have in our history books or mass media. There's much to learn, although it appears moments of justice and peace have been few and far between. Even the so-called bastion of freedom and modernity--the USA--has a bloody and unjust past. I don't need to reiterate what these are--there are plenty of ways to find out. The point is the root of violence and war today goes back to our beginnings.
An unjust land, unless it has a prolonged and conscious period of healing, reconciliation, and transformation, will keep repeating its worse sins. Our country is called great. Of course, it's great. What country wouldn't be great with free land (taken brutally and mercilessly from the native inhabitants), free labor (for more than 400 years, slavery, mostly of black Africans, made this country the richest, most industrialized in the world), and freedom from the past (no feudalism, for example, as most of Europe).
Capitalism in this country has been the most energetic and productive based on the freedom to exploit people and resources, extended throughout the world. Yes, we're "free."
Yet there are other freedoms in our blood--freedoms that I value and use to challenge the "freedoms" I've mentioned above. They include the freedoms to organize, to write, to create, to dream. The struggles for these freedoms have been hard and bloody as well. In my own lifetime, I've seen one of its pinnacles in the Civil Rights and freedom struggles of the past 50 years--with African Americans, leading the way, but also rapidly involving Chicanos, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, Women, Gays, the Disabled, workers, and more.
So let's be clear about what's made this country great--it has a bad history, that's true, but it also has correctives in the words, poetry, art, organizations, and visions of the most far-sighted, spiritually-engaged, and human-and-earth connected people.
Fighting for freedom in Iraq is meaningless unless we're clear about which freedom we mean. The freedom to control the political process? To exploit oil? To bring in U.S. based industries (like McDonald's) to a country that doesn't need it?
Or the freedom to organize, challenge, think, write, and create--even if we don't agree all the time. Real freedom is inherently bound up with justice and peace. Any other claims of "freedom" may only benefit the few, for exploitation and power. Again, let's be clear about what we mean. Freedom is a word used often by news people and policy makers--it doesn't always mean what you may think. I'm for freedom. But mine doesn't come with tanks, invading armies, and radio-controlled bombs. Mine comes with books, films, architecture, sculpture, dance, music, ideas, songs, and wholesome/healthy lives.
And that's a world of difference.
We need more trouble in this world--not the trouble we get, but the thoughtful, purposeful trouble that comes from having a vision, a clarity of issues, or even just a stubbed toe. As part of the many fields of interest and work, I'm also editor of Xispas Magazine, an online Chicano magazine of politics, culture, and art.