Where do kids get their myths today? They make them up themselves. This is why we have graffiti all over the city. These kids have their own gangs and their own initiations and their own morality and they’re doing the best they can. But they’re dangerous because their own laws are not those of the city. They have not been initiated into our society. – Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth (p. 9)
The need to belong to a group and be somehow initiated into that group are basic human needs that have been well documented (Campbell, 1988; Coopersmith, 1967; Glasser, 1985; Mendler, 1992). Young people in particular will go to great lengths to achieve a sense of connection, especially with peers (Menninger, 1963). Unfortunately, for some youth, the options for attaining this sense of connection are limited. Not all young people are invited to participate in such prosocial activities as local sports teams, fraternities, or choral ensembles, where they can achieve this sense of belonging in positive ways. And not all youth are prepared to join in one of our society’s most universal initiation rites by proudly joining their peers in the music of “Pomp and Circumstance:” For these young people who crave a sense of connection and cannot achieve it via prosocial means, the alternate routes to belonging, such as gang involvement, may be hazardous.
The origins of California gangs
According to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, there are 150,000 active gang members in Los Angeles County. The largest of these groups, the “Latino 18th Street Gang,” ranges in estimated size from 12,000 to 15,000 members, aged 11 through their thirties. The 18th Street Gang has almost nationwide membership, specifically in California and throughout the southwestern United States. California gangs evolved in the 1920s when groups of young men and adolescents formed to protect their fellow countrymen and women from aggressive or exploitative outsiders to the neighborhood. At that time, the members perceived themselves as soldiers “protectors of their communities.
Although many gang members still see themselves as protectors of the community, their definition of and approach to this job has changed. Whereas gangs once existed to defend people within their communities from outsiders, gang membership now involves victimizing people within the community. This shift in perspective may be related to new membership policies and farther-reaching recruitment tactics adopted by some gangs.
The 18th Street Gang’s growth strategy was to open up gang membership to all Latinos, including immigrants from Mexico and Central and South America. Perhaps in broadening and diversifying the membership base, the importance of protecting one’s own countrymen was diminished, while allegiance to the gang itself was emphasized as critical. Careful member recruitment and initiation processes have helped cement this fierce sense of loyalty to the gang.
Recruitment targets and initial courtship
With the decrease in adult supervision of children and the continued stretching of familial ties, children are being recruited into gangs at increasingly earlier ages (Joravsky, 1986). According to L.A. Police Department statistics, incidents of violence, weapons seizure, and other crime in the middle schools have increased dramatically over the last 10 years. While not all incidents at middle schools are gang related, middle schoolers are the most common targets of gang recruitment.
Gangs target potential members from the ranks of maladroit middle schoolers who may find themselves ill-prepared to cope with the relative freedom of the larger, more fluid school setting and their growing independence from family. Adrift and vulnerable, they are often seeking a niche for themselves, which makes them an easy mark for gang recruiters. In fact, in some neighborhoods in Chicago, there is no need for active recruitment at all, according to local gang experts. The environment itself presents gang involvement as the most promising avenue for peer support, status, and sense of worth in the community (Blankstein, 1996).
Youth who are targeted for recruitment are often angry, suspicious, and have a poor self-image (Harper, 1989). Moreover, these children tend to perform poorly in their academic work, have poor relations with their peers, have a history of drug use in the family, and/or relate to a male role model who has spent time in prison.
The courtship of these potential recruits can take anywhere from two weeks to two months, and leads to a full-fledged initiation. The process may be seductive and deceptively innocent, beginning with a simple question: “Where are you from?” followed by an attitude of “adoption” of the child: “We’re from that area too! You’re one of us.”
As the courtship progresses, the new recruit is slowly brought into the circle, where he or she learns to walk and dress like the others. These outward expressions of gang affiliation yield a new and often intoxicating sense of belonging and power as non-gang members respond with a newfound fear and/or respect. The process of induction continues with small tests of loyalty. The gang members begin to talk with the initiate about “backing him up” in a tough situation or a fight. This proffered loyalty to the recruit demands reciprocation; the new recruit will be required to back up other gang members when the situation calls for it.
This phase of gang courtship is not unlike those found in traditional and indigenous rites of passage, in which the initiate is first separated from the larger society (Schultz & Lavenda, 1987). For example, in the Malian society, young boys were taken out into the bush in preparation for the initiation rite. Among the Banaro tribe of New Guinea, after a young girl selected her husband, she was confined to a cell in her family house for a period of nine months before taking part in a sexual initiation rite (Thurnwald, 1916). Although gangs do not separate their recruits from the larger society in a geographical sense, they establish a sense of separateness via clothing, hairstyles, gait, and “perhaps most significant “an “us versus them” mentality. It is often during this phase, near the time of full initiation, that a nickname is given to the future member. Among Latino gangs, the nickname is based on physical characteristics. Common examples include “Flaco” for thin recruits, “Casper” for light-complexioned ones, “Sleeper” for those with droopy eyes, and “Boxer” for more muscular ones. Among African-American gangs, however, nicknames are not related to the members' physical characteristics. In these gangs, names like “Mad Dog” and “Shotgun” are intended to convey invincibility and are earned only through “jumping in”, the process of full initiation.
This nicknaming or “re-naming” of gang members is also similar to ceremonies found in traditional and indigenous rites of passage. A common thread in the initiation rites of many cultures is the theme of symbolic death and rebirth; the initiate dies as a child and is reborn as an adult. As a symbol of this rebirth, the new initiate may receive a new name and may be presented to the community as if he or she is a person the others have not known before (Liptak, 1994).
With the courtship phase drawing to a close and full initiation approaching, one of the final steps for the recruit is a test in which he or she is called on to demonstrate willingness to back up the gang. For example, a gang member may “mad dog” an outsider ““What are you looking at!?” – spurring a fight during which the recruit is called on for backup. In other cases, the recruit might be asked to steal something to demonstrate his or her loyalty.
Gang initiation serves to transition recruits into full-fledged members via a test of strength, conviction, and courage. Not surprisingly, this test puts the initiate in physical and legal peril. Traditionally, among Latino gangs, initiation is an unbridled physical assault by three to six existing members on the new initiate, during which he does not attempt to defend himself. This assault can last several minutes and is designed to demonstrate the initiate’s “heart” and loyalty to the hood. The message behind the initiation rite is that “there is a price to pay for being one of us, and it must be physical or everyone would be in.” Initiates must be willing to pay that price to join the gang.
Regardless of the physical price the initiate may have paid during the initiation, there is always a celebration following the event. The new initiate may celebrate with drugs, select a tattoo, and be given a gang nickname if he or she does not already have one.
The full induction rite of today’s gangs has its parallel in traditional societies. In these societies, this transitional, or “liminal,” phase is the second and most dramatic aspect of the rite of passage (Schultz & Lavenda, 1987). It commonly takes the form of a test of courage, endurance, or strength. For example, Australian Aborigines performed a fire ordeal as a final coming of age ceremony. In this ordeal, a young man had to lie down on the smoking boughs of a fire and not arise until the tribal elders allowed him to (Liptak, 1994). A rite of passage among the !Kung people of Botswana involved marking a young boy’s chest, back, and arms with traditional cuts that left scars (Liptak, 1994). Similar rites involving physical pain and self-inflicted wounds were also practiced in many Native American groups. Other traditional rites test the initiate’s strength and competence. Some tribes in Kenya, for example, require young men to kill a lion without the use of a weapon.
The gangs' recruitment, courtship, and induction practices are clearly compelling for youth who are otherwise disconnected from school, peers, or home. We need to understand why this process is so seductive, and to develop strategies for counteracting each phase of the process.
One of the first and most important steps for counteracting gang affiliation is early identification of gang involvement. By being aware of and watching for indications of gang involvement, you may be able to stem it. The list of early warning signs and intervention strategies below can help.
Find out who your children's or students' friends are. Know who “backs your kid up.” Get to know your students' or child's friends. If you detect suspicious behavior, or find they have nicknames that are often associated with gang membership, you may want to seek additional advice from school officials or the local police department.
Watch for a drop in grades. If your child's or students' academic performance takes a sudden downturn, address it immediately. Young people, like everyone else, want to succeed. If they cannot do so in one way, they will find another. The object is to direct their desire for success toward academics and other prosocial activities.
Look for changes in appearance, dress, and speech. New types of clothing preferences, jewelry, or hairstyle can often indicate actual gang affiliation or gang “wanna bes:” An increase in talking back and new vocabulary that sounds similar to what is heard in rap music can also be indicators.
Look for gang graffiti. Certain letters, numerals, or symbols that appear repetitively on a child's notebooks, locker, or belongings could be gang related. African-American gangs, for example, may use dollar signs or the Playboy bunny in their graffiti to indicate that their gang promotes partying, i.e., ladies and money. Gang nicknames may also be written out as a form of graffiti.
What to do
There are a number of strategies you can use both to lessen the chances of a child becoming involved with a gang and to deal more effectively with those children who are already affiliated.
Stay involved beyond the elementary school years. If you are a family member, you can decrease the chances of your child becoming affiliated with a gang by establishing positive communications between home and school early on, especially during the middle school years. Teachers cannot watch for signs of gang involvement or other problems all alone “especially with dozens of students, cultural and language barriers, and inconsistent parental support.
If parents cannot help, look for help from other relatives. Often, a grandmother, aunt, or older sister or brother can be an effective and positive influence on a child who is at risk. In East Los Angeles, the Los Padrinos, or “Godfather,” program is a formal approach to this strategy. Youth at risk in the program are “adopted” by these godparents, ages 20 to 40, who are from the same ethnicity and gender. Some of the godparents are even former gang members, but mostly the Padrinos are Latino male professionals who are positive mentors and role models.
Create job opportunities and mentorship programs. One example of such an initiative is a program in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The program offers part-time office employment at the school district administrative office to students who are least likely to obtain employment elsewhere. Instead of spending time in potentially destructive ways, these students are in regular contact with school administrators, being provided with job training, mentoring, and, again, positive role models.
Create positive partnerships with local police. The L.A. City Schools District and L.A. Police Department have co-founded the Community Police Academy for Young Adults “a program for high school students identified by the schools in high-risk, gang-challenged areas. Students recommended to the program can receive high school credit in part through the Academy, in which they learn from school district and police instructors how the government and court systems work. Parents agree early on to attend half of the orientation sessions along with their children. The final project, in which both students and their local school are involved, is the identification of problems at the school and community and the recommendation of solutions to the police and school officials. The problems identified and recommendations made tend to be insightful and often pertain to illicit drug activity and gangs.
Make children aware of the price of being in a gang. Many gang members have the misconception that they will live fast, die young, and miss any physical or psychological pain in between. Usually, however, a gang member who is shot – or who watches a friend be gunned down – will live through a great deal of pain. Additionally, there is a great likelihood that he or she will go to jail or have other problems with authorities at some point in his or her gang career. Stress to these young members that there is no future in a gang – no retirement plan, no finding a job with a criminal record – by asking questions like “How will you provide for your family?”
Be respectful, but do not be intimidated. If you know that a child is in a gang, treat him or her with the same consistency and respect you would show any other person. Most gang members have the same needs as other children and will respond well to firm, yet caring, fair treatment. If you respond to a gang member with either fear or disrespect, you will only heighten tensions and possibly induce aggressive acts.
Taking an interest in a child's life, trying to identify and meet his or her needs, and providing healthy and prosocial ways to achieve connection go a long way toward counteracting gang involvement. The needs children are today trying to meet through affiliation with gangs are the same ones that traditional and indigenous societies met with their rites of passage. While gang rituals are antisocial, the needs they meet are healthy. These needs can be met in prosocial ways when we take the time to create alternative rites of passage.
Blankstein, A. (1996). Building the Community Circle. Reaching Today’s Youth, ](1), 2-4.
Campbell, J. (1988). The power of myth. New York: Doubleday.
Collins, C. (1977). Street gangs of New York: A prototype of organized youth crime. Law & Order, January 6(5).
Coopersmith, S. (1967). The antecedents of self-esteem. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.
Glasser, William (1985). Control theory: A new explanation of how we control our lives. New York: Harper & Row.
Harper, S. (1989). LA’s gang busters Lessons learned. School Safety, Winter, 12(3).
Joravslry, B. (1986). The latest lost generation: Chicago’s 10,000 street gang members. Chicago, 35(2), 138.
Liptak K. (7994). Coming-of age: Traditions and rituals around the world. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press.
Mendler, A. (1992). What do ! do when ... ? How to achieve discipline with dignity in the classroom. Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service.
Menninger, K. (1963). The vital balance. New York: Viking Press.
Schultz, E., & Lavenda, R. (1987). Cultural anthropology: A perspective on the human condition. St. Paul, MN: West.
Thurnwald, R. (1916). Banaro society: Social organization and kinship system of a tribe in the interior of New Guinea. Lancaster, PA: American Anthropological Association.
This feature: Blankstein, A.M. and Sandoval, G. (1998). In Gangs We Trust: A Close- Up of the New Induction. Reaching Today's Youth, 3, 1. pp.24-27