Elias Lopez never had a chance. He got sucked into something so much stronger than he was, something with a history so powerful, that there seemed no choice but to submit.
He was 17, a nice, quietly handsome young man with jet-black hair and a plan. He was going to be a cop, a narcotics investigator. Sure, there were street gangs in his neighborhood, but he did not want to join one. All Elias wanted to do was look like a gang member.
There was something about the way the gang guys carried themselves, the way they dressed, the simple white T-shirt, the khakis, the rebelliously, undeniably cool posture. "It got into me," he said. He began dressing that way.
Soon, gang members who did not recognize Elias were challenging him, the way they have always confronted rivals: "Where you from?" What gang? "I'm not from nowhere," Elias would answer. "Then why are you dressed like that?" they would demand. He had no good answer. He was miserable. "I couldn't take it no more," he said. He simply had to be from somewhere.
The gang in his neighborhood was called Clanton 14, a gang that had been around for decades. He told some of the guys he wanted in. Soon, he was.
Typical Gang Member
When people talk about gangs in Southern California these days, they usually talk about young black men, Bloods and Crips. But the typical gang member is not a Blood or a Crip. He is not confined to South-Central Los Angeles. He lives in places like Wilmington and Pomona and Santa Ana and Norwalk and Canoga Park and East Los Angeles. He is heir to a tradition of clannish violence that stretches back to the 1940s.
He is, like Elias Lopez, a Chicano.
Obscured by the nationwide public attention that has been paid to Los Angeles' black gangs this year is the fact that the estimated 45,000 Chicano gang members throughout Los Angeles County vastly outnumber the estimated 25,000 black gang members.
Although their membership is not large--no more than 10% to 15% of Los Angeles County's Chicano teen-agers belong to them--gangs are deeply rooted because they have existed for so long. In one East Los Angeles gang, for example, a social scientist documented 17 "cliques," formal generational layers, each with a separate name and membership, that sprouted one after the other since 1935.
In Pomona the other day, Leo Cortez, an East Los Angeles gang member of the 1950s who is now a county Probation Department gang worker, was driving to a junior high school, hoping to steer a 12-year-old away from gangs. Cortez figured he had an empathic edge. "I used to sell heroin with the boy's great-grandfather," he explained casually.
Despite this longevity, Chicano gangs have been easy to overlook in recent years.
For one thing, deaths from their disputes have plunged dramatically during the last decade, particularly in the nation's best-known Latino community, East Los Angeles, as black gang fatalities have skyrocketed.
For another, their violence is diffused through many barrios, rather than being concentrated in a single area like South-Central Los Angeles.
For still another, cholos, as Chicano gang members are known, are harder to recognize than they used to be. The cholo uniform of oversized Pendleton shirt and khakis, long considered part of Los Angeles' cultural landscape and popularlized in many movies, was abandoned by most gang members years ago in favor of more subtle and individualized garb.
Still, quietly and unspectacularly, the carnage continues.
In territory patrolled by the Los Angeles Police Department, 39 gang members died in attacks or fights among rival Chicano gangs during the first 10 months of the year, 11 fewer than were killed in black gang violence. Disputes among rival Chicano gangs produced 963 acts of violence during those months, nearly the same number that were committed by black gangs.
Small bits of violence, not quite horrifying enough to make headlines, percolate everywhere.
The last few months have been typical:
In Boyle Heights, gang members seeking revenge surround a car at a stoplight in a rival gang's neighborhood and fatally stab a 14-year-old boy whom they mistake for a gang member.
In Pomona, a gunman in a car packed with gang members shoots and wounds an innocent bystander. The bullet is intended for people in another car.
In Bell, six gang members beat a boy and his car with baseball bats, then run the car through the window of a pizza parlor.
In Santa Ana, gang members confront a car full of rivals and fire at them, killing one and wounding several others.
Near the Los Angeles Convention Center, two gang members, angered that several people are sitting at a bus bench in their territory, beat a woman to death with a baseball bat and pipe.
In Valinda, an unincorporated area near La Puente, a young man is fatally stabbed in a fight that breaks out when several local gang members crash a sweet-16 party.
Web of Rivalries