When my sister was in junior high school she came home one afternoon, crying and frightened. She told my mother that two older girls, also students, had pulled knives on each other in the back of the bus and had gotten into a fight.
No blood was shed. The bus driver broke it up. My sister didn't want to go back to school, but my mother said she had no choice.
She had to ride the bus because our family of nine had only one car, and my father needed it for work.
The rest of us were concerned with how my sister, the oldest, would fare in the following days. But nothing terrible happened to her, or to us.
This was south Texas in the early 1960s. There were tough words and knives and cool nicknames and cigarettes dangling from the lips of hip-talking girls with teased hairdos. Guys tended to grease their hair into pompadours.
But there weren't any automatic weapons or innocent victims of drive-by shootings or drug dealing or even drug use, as far as I knew.
Switch to Southern California, Orange County, almost three decades later. A 17-year-old is gunned down at a pay phone. An 8-year-old boy is seriously injured when the bullet from another drive-by shooting tears through him and grazes a woman sleeping in the same house. A 15-year-old boy is killed outside another party.
Police in Santa Ana double the number of officers assigned to go after gang members. On weekends, they send out officers to pick up youths who look suspicious.
My newspaper writes stories about a community alarmed about gang violence. I write about it too.
But do I understand it? I don't.
Last week, at the funeral of Cesar Salgado, a 15-year-old who died from a bullet wound, a group of girls, friends of his, approached me when I was talking with some of Cesar's male friends.
"Just don't say lies about us," one of them said, almost threatening.
Just because some of them dressed the same, walked the same, talked the same, didn't make them all criminals, she said.
More than anything, I think she was talking about stereotyping people and neighborhoods. I remember that. I recall overhearing some kid in the predominantly Anglo school that I attended saying that you had to ride in an armored tank if you were going to go down Main Drive, the street where I grew up.
That's funny, because what I remember about my barrio is springtime, when mothers would pile cut flowers from their own yards in their daughters' arms, so that we could walk in a procession, singing songs in Spanish, to the church down the street.
I can't recall a single white-collar worker among the parents on Main Drive. For the most part, the people who lived there were trying to do the best they could for themselves and for their families.
The two girls at the back of that bus that day may have been La Susi and La Gata, two toughs from our neighborhood. They went on to other fights in other places. They never graduated from high school, as far as I can remember. Their boyfriends, also our neighbors, were involved in fights too, sometimes at wedding dances, or Quinceaneras--15th birthday party celebrations.
Tires were slashed at these dances sometimes. The adults--my parents' generation--worried about the turf fights between the Main Drive boys and rival bands of youths from Clarkwood or McNorton, other nearby barrios. They worried it gave the rest of us a bad name and a bad time.
I'm sure some folks in the neighborhoods where some of these recent shootings occurred in Santa Ana feel the same way.
I have talked with people in this county who work with youths, dynamic community leaders who are coming up with innovative ways to combat what is infecting a whole generation in certain neighborhoods.
It has to do with lack of self-esteem, they say, no one believing in some of these kids, a leadership vacuum that is being filled by thugs instead of positive role models. I understand some of that.
And, of course, there is the peer pressure to belong.
At Cesar's funeral, a woman my age, who graduated from Santa Ana High School and now works at a bank, said she didn't approve of the kids we saw dressed alike in their matching black sweat shirts or white T-shirts, and the girls they hung with.
But she remembered the tremendous pressure all of her life to become like them. When she was a student at Cal State Fullerton, she recalled, other Chicanos at parties would inevitably ask, "Who do you claim? Who do you claim?" Which gang did she affiliate with, in other words.
The idea of belonging to such a group can be at once seductive and intimidating.
But kids killing kids? Who can understand that?