“Sometimes you have to die”

Innocence can be a catch-22 in gang culture

Innocence can be a catch-22 in gang culture

By Lindsay Holst

Editor’s note: To protect the identity of the source, names and some identifying details in this article have been changed.

Jose is a young teenager and just shy of 5’3”, with a broad childlike face and eyes that wrinkle at the corners when he smiles. He has long, thick black hair laden with a thick, wet styling product. It seems to be popular with most teens that linger lazily on the grass-lined sidewalks of the small, sleepy townhouse community where Jose lives with his mother, stepfather and two little sisters.

He kicks aside a few pairs of tiny pink sneakers, settles onto a loveseat in the living room, rests his elbows on his knees, and then jumps up again, bounding up the carpeted stairs to retrieve his drawings—his white-stockinged feet pounding out a simple fact that, otherwise, is pretty easy to forget: Jose, first and foremost, is young.

And though you would not know it from looking at him, until roughly five months ago, Jose was a jumped-in member of a local Latino gang, just one gang whose activities contribute to Northern Virginia’s gang “problem,” a controversial issue debatable in its proportions—depending, of course, on with whom you’re speaking.

Born in the Nicaragua, Jose’s earliest memories of his home country include street soccer games, hot dog vendors and villages plagued by frequent utility outages.

“The gas and water were always going out,” Jose says. “I actually think they just recently got the water fixed so that it wouldn’t go out during the day. In our house, the lights were always going on and off.”

In Jose’s neighborhood, every family had its “own little thing,” as he puts it. “Our next-door neighbor had a tortilla shop; the family across the street made sandwiches,” he says. “My mom had the phone. If someone needed to make a call, they could give her a dollar, and then go use the phone.”

From his perch on the loveseat, Jose checks his cell phone, almost instinctively. He takes in his family’s comfortable living room, which is painted a sunny yellow and features couches and a large flat-screen television on the wall. Despite his comparatively plush surroundings, it’s clear that he still seems to be adjusting from his move to the United States, a long trek made with his grandfather in December of 2000.

“Nicaragua was tropical, you know? The people there were always outside, running around or playing soccer in the streets. Here…” Jose cuts himself off abruptly, and makes a sweeping motion with his arm. “I don’t really like all this. Like, all the technology, you know? In Nicaragua, we didn’t have all this. And at school, we didn’t have lunch—we had recess instead.”

Jose’s voice has a slow, easy cadence to it. His mannerisms are unlike those of many other teenagers, who seem to spit their syllables in a rush to get them out. He lingers thoughtfully on his words, often punctuating sentences with these sorts of “you knows.” You get the sense that he really wants to make sure you do “know.”

“When we first got here, I was a good kid,” he says seriously. “I was doing good in school, and getting good grades.” And then, sheepishly—“I used to stay at home, watch TV, eat, do homework, and that was my life. Then, we moved to this area, and I started riding my bike, started meeting friends. Met girls.” He laughs.

One of these girls became his girlfriend in 2009, during the summer before he was to begin his freshman year at an Alexandria school. While at a party, she introduced Jose to a group slightly older of boys—this group of 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds, many of them immigrants like Jose, would turn out to be in a gang.

“First, I met them at the party, and then I kept seeing them again, because they all lived around here. I’d see them in the streets, and they’d ask me if I wanted to come with them,” Jose explains as he shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “Well, they just mostly did robbery. That was their big thing. They weren’t into selling drugs that much. They’d ask me to come with them. And then at school—they were right there. Some of them were in my classes, and we all started hanging out pretty regularly.”

Though multiple gang experts claim that gang members are constantly recruiting aggressively—in malls, elementary-school playgrounds and anywhere else kids tend to congregate—Jose’s story reflects a slightly different reality.

“[The gang] was the only gang who needed members at that time, because they were pretty new,” Jose says. “All the other gangs already had enough members, so people had to walk up to the leaders and ask them—you know what I mean?”

The adolescent gang world that Jose describes paints gangs as desirable catalysts for social acceptance—invariably providing money, protection and simply a place to belong.

The notion of outsiders approaching the gang’s various members by the school entrance, in the park, or on the sidewalk brings to mind a sort of impromptu, delinquent career fair—and the image is both heartbreaking and confusing. How exactly do prospective gang members sell themselves?

“Well, you would introduce yourself, and tell them what you can do—what you can get for them, or how you can help them,” Jose says. “Maybe you have a lot of drug-type connections, you’re good at stealing things, or you know people you can hook them up with.”

Drawn toward the gang by his feelings of intense “loneliness,” Jose ultimately decided to join. “I just really liked that feeling of brotherhood that they had. So I told them that I wanted to be initiated.”

Once it was determined that Jose would join the ranks as a soldier—he explains that the gang was comprised of one leader with three “generals” under him, each with their own soldiers to disperse on various missions—it was time for him to be officially jumped in.

“For every gang, initiation is different,” Jose explains. “For some, you have to prove yourself. Like, some gangs make you complete 12 tasks—steal something, beat someone up, get them a certain amount of money, whatever they tell you to do. But for this gang, they just had the jump-in.”

As such, in order to become officially acquainted with his new “brothers,” Jose was taken to a parking lot next to an abandoned church, where one member counted and three others unceremoniously pushed, kicked and punched him for 30 seconds. Not allowed to fight back, he simply covered his face and stood in the center of the three boys as they kicked him in the back, causing bruises that would linger for days.

Jose is matter-of-fact about the details his initiation, shrugging as he describes it. “You just get beat up. It’s only 30 seconds.

Mostly, I think, they just want to take the fear away. You can’t be scared. Because if you’re scared, you bring your name down, and you bring the entire gang’s name down. The idea is, we shouldn’t be afraid of anyone—we’re the ones you’re supposed to be afraid of.”

Afterwards, everyone shakes hands using the gang’s handshake, which the newly initiated members learn after the punching and kicking ceases.

Jose demonstrates his gang’s handshake, clasping hands and then using his thumb and forefinger to form the letters of the gang, clasping again, letting go, and tapping fists. Every gang has a handshake, which serves manifold social functions—members shake hello, goodbye, shake to say thank you, shake to establish their presence in a particular spot. Every time a member sees another member of his gang, he must greet him with the gang’s handshake.

Different gangs also have different colors that members must wear “as much as they can,” Jose says. “You can just wear whatever isn’t dirty.”

If you are a member of a gang, there are certain implicit protocols to follow when you encounter members of another gang.

First, you throw up your respective “gang sign” to one another. (Gang signs are different than gang handshakes, involving complex sequences of rapid gesticulation, forming either letters or symbols with your hands. To an outsider, it resembles some rhythmic brand of sign language.) Then, as Jose puts it, you “see what happens next.”

Sometimes the members of one gang will simply leave, deferring to the gang whose territory they are currently inhabiting. Other times, a fight ensues to determine who gets to stay.

Jose describes his Alexandria high school as an intricate network of gang “chill spots,” assembled like patchwork squares across the various campus buildings.

He says the “Mexican gangs” have control over the school’s main building. His gang would congregate on one side of the front entrance, and another gang claimed the real estate on the other side. MS-13, a gang widely publicized for its violence, had control over the school’s second building, and Jose describes the third as a “free property.”

Other gangs who notoriously frequent the school include what Jose describes as the “trailer park crew.”

Each gang has their own spot, where they post up before and after school, and really, at any time in between. As Jose puts it, “we would just come and go whenever.”

One day, Jose was hanging out with a friend, an older member of his gang, in the hallway at school. The boy was opening his locker when suddenly a member of another gang came running down the hallway and stabbed Jose’s friend in the stomach without warning. Why? “It was just the beginning of the year, that’s why,” Jose says with characteristic nonchalance. “You need to make your mark.”

Though members of his gang didn’t know exactly who the perpetrator had been, they were confident that it was the work of MS-13 and conducted retaliation accordingly.

“We caught up with an MS guy who we were pretty sure did it—he was walking back from school, and we jumped him,” he recalls.

Similar to a gang initiation, a “jumping” entails a sort of group assault on an unsuspecting victim.

“Someone walked in front of him, punched him in the face, then someone else punched him in the stomach. We all punched him and kicked him. I think it was basically a way to get out our aggression.”

They stopped “when we felt like it,” Jose says, and left the boy bleeding on the sidewalk.

Most gangs use MySpace pages to further “make their mark,” Jose says. “We would take group photos, all of us throwing up our gang sign, and post them online.” Members post photos and other gang-related information, and gangs frequently trade warnings and insults as comments on one another’s pages.

The notion of gang-associated property is a consistent theme. Jose remembers a recent territory scuffle between two gangs at an apartment complex in Alexandria.

“[They] were fighting for it, each of them trying to get it for drug territory—they would sell a lot of weed, a little bit of coke. Pills, too. Heroin—I don’t know. A lot of members were living right there, and we’d see them fighting all of the time.”

Would they fight with guns?

Jose looks uncomfortable. “I mean, we’re still teenagers. From what I experienced, there weren’t a lot of guns. I’d see one here and there, but from what I could tell—no one had the balls to use it.”

Jose becomes almost apologetic when asked about the duties he had as a gang soldier.

“Well, the gang had just gotten started. We weren’t that organized yet. And the oldest guy in it was only, like, 18,” he says.

Seemingly embarrassed by the stigmas associated with his newfound status as a former gang member, Jose often slips into these sorts of responses.

He stresses that he and his former “brothers” were far too young to fully understand the implications of their actions. He balks at questions about serious drugs or killings, exclaiming, “We were just kids, you know?”

It’s jarring, then, when asked about the consequences of getting out of a gang, Jose responds gravely. “Well, sometimes you have to die.”

This article is the second in a three-part series addressing Northern Virginia’s gang issue. The next piece of the series will continue to focus on Jose and his attempts to break away from his gang lifestyle.

This article is the second in a three-part series addressing Northern Virginia’s gang issue. The next piece of the series will continue to focus on Jose and his attempts to break away from his gang lifestyle.

(August 2010)

Part 1: ‘They’re Kids Who Don’t Understand’

Part 3: “The beating up was the Easy Part”