The young man said it seemed only natural to join a neighborhood gang along with many of his friends. His father was a gang member, and so was his grandfather.
"We all try to take care of each other, watch everybody's back," the youth said in a recent interview at a Norwalk park. He asked that his name not be used.
Gangs have been a part of Norwalk for generations. But they have come under increased scrutiny from law enforcement officials and community leaders because of the May 9 shooting death of a high school football star, a gang-related shoot-out that left two wounded on May 28, and other recent incidents.
Officials say Norwalk's gangs--which operate primarily in Latino neighborhoods and involve youths battling over turf--are far less violent than the groups that fight over drug profits in other parts of Los Angeles County.
Still, statistics provided by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department show gang crime is on the rise in the area served by its Norwalk station. Gang-related crime incidents in the area, which includes Norwalk, Santa Fe Springs, La Mirada and an unincorporated county area near Whittier, exceeded the 2,000 mark for the first time last year.
City officials, fearing that gangs will become more violent and threaten the city's economic and cultural future, recently approved Norwalk's first comprehensive anti-gang program.
"We could very easily become the slum area of Southeast Los Angeles," Councilman Marcial (Rod) Rodriguez said in a recent interview.
Gang activity in Norwalk dates back to the 1940s when Councilman Rodriguez was a teen-ager.
"You'd see the guys out there then, just like today, walking the streets, standing on the corner," said Rodriguez, who ran with members of a local gang but never considered himself a member.
The councilman was 13 years old in 1945 when his family moved into an area known as Varrio Norwalk, a pocket of working-class Latino families in a predominantly Anglo area. Today, the mostly Latino neighborhood of modest homes and corner markets stretches north from 166th Street to Hopland Street, and east from Pioneer Boulevard to Norwalk Boulevard. It is the largest barrio in Norwalk and one of the most active gang areas. It was about one-fifth as large in the 1940s, Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez became friends with Varrio Norwalk gang members shortly after he entered the seventh grade. He began hanging around with them, and later, partying and fighting alongside them.
"You're part of it. You're part of the environment," Rodriguez said.
Then, as today, the battles were turf oriented, fed by neighborhood pride and youthful bravado.
"A guy from Norwalk starts dating a gal from (Varrio) Carmelas and that would set it off," Rodriguez said.
The city's oldest rivalry, which has existed for decades, involves gangs from Varrio Norwalk and Varrio Carmelas, a small enclave of homes on the southwest corner of Carmenita Road and Rosecrans Avenue. Locals do not remember exactly when the rivalry started between the city's two oldest barrios.
Rodriguez recalls jumping into a fertilizer truck with about 20 other youths and heading into Carmelas--a turf violation. Not much happened that night, but two days later, youths from Carmelas paid a return visit.
"We were knocking on doors telling everybody 'There's Carmelas. They're invading our turf,' " Rodriguez said.
Varrio Norwalk youths pelted several carloads of Carmelas with rocks. Carmelas answered with gunfire, Rodriguez said. No one was hurt.
Looking back, the councilman denounced the violent, destructive actions of the gangs.
"I came that close to going that way instead of this way," said Rodriguez, who is an insurance broker as well as a councilman. "I look back today and it was scary. How stupid it is, so senseless."
The longtime resident said the number of gang members has grown over the years, as has Norwalk's population. And he said he considers contemporary gangs to be more dangerous because of the availability of guns and increased drug use by gang members.
But Rodriguez said the gangs fill a need, one common to virtually all people.
"You belong to the Rotary, the Kiwanis, to the PTA," Rodriguez said. "We all have a sense, a need of belonging. What makes these kids so different?"
Grew Up in Neighborhood
Several youths, who were hanging out on a street corner in Varrio Norwalk on a recent afternoon, said they were members of a local gang.
Their turf is in the "One Ways," an area of Varrio Norwalk north of Alondra Boulevard, between Pioneer and Norwalk boulevards. Most of the youths said they grew up in the neighborhood, where narrow streets are restricted to one-way traffic and graffiti is plentiful. They spoke of partying, girls, pride in their barrio and defending their turf. "You just don't let anybody walk over you," one said. They also spoke of the periodic, aggressive strikes at other gangs.