Posted on May 23, 2011

Element of Racism Among Rival Latino Gangs in Oakland

Scott Johnson, Oakland Tribune, May 22, 2011

Karina Najeva arrived in the United States from El Salvador when she was 13 years old. Behind her were painful memories of war and poverty.

“I saw a lot of violence in Salvador,” she said. {snip}

At first, life in the U.S. was difficult, much more difficult than she had imagined. {snip} And there was still violence, the same kind of violence she had hoped to escape. Much of the fighting was between Latinos and African-Americans.


But the brutality between black and brown that Najeva saw soon spilled over into wars between groups of Latinos, different shades of brown, she said. The gang violence and its effect on the larger Latino community is at issue this month as Alameda Superior Court Judge Robert Freedman deliberates on a proposed gang injunction targeting 40 people suspected of being members of the Norteño gang in Oakland.


Varied beliefs

Gang members, however, don’t always see eye to eye. In Oakland and across California, there is a tremendous amount of subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination within Latino gangs about the degree to which someone is legitimate, sophisticated or valuable. The criteria vary widely. Norteños, for instance, are often American-born citizens of Mexican ancestry. Many don’t even speak Spanish. They may detest other Latinos, like Najeva, who arrived more recently.

“They look down on new arrivals as being ignorant, not sophisticated, as dressing funny and talking funny; there’s no connection between them,” said Oakland police Lt. Fred Mestas, who ran the Oakland Gang Unit in the mid-1990s. “I’ve had Norteños walk up to me and say, this (violence) is easy to fix, just deport those (expletives).”

Sureños and Border Brothers, in turn, have their own set of ethnically or racially tinted guidelines. Border Brothers tend to accept people of all races.


There are illegal immigrants and African-Americans in some Norteño cliques, just as there are plenty of Chicanos, Mexicans born in America, in some Sureño and Border Brother groups. That inconsistency points to the complex nature of the way race is perceived and discussed in gangs, said Jeff Duncan-Andrade, a sociologist and expert on youth behavior at San Francisco State.

“That’s a legacy of colonialism,” he said. “Ranking people based on their value inside this racial hierarchy allows you to dehumanize people. It’s a classic racist thing: ‘You’re not like those others.'”


On the streets, however, the language Latino gang members sometimes use to describe one another is harsh and uncompromising.

Bloody, a Norteño, describes his Sureño enemies as “scraps.”

Drips, the Border Brother, said Sureños “are dirt to me. They ain’t nobody.”

‘We’re killing ourselves’


At least some of the purportedly racial distinction may come from a displaced sense of propriety and ownership about the land to which they have all come: the United States.

“It’s absolute madness that Norteños look down on people fresh over the border because they’re not as sophisticated, their haircut is different, or their clothing is different and not brand name,” Mestas said. “These guys are just a generation away from being in the same boat. Mexicans are killing Mexicans because one was here 15 years longer?”


That cultural thing has severe consequences for Latino youths in Oakland who are trying to navigate their way through the confusing constellation of gangs, allegiances and colors simply to survive. A Latino kid wearing too much of one color can get into trouble. So young people are forced into wearing drab colors just to avoid being drawn into violence.


‘Same struggle’

Ultimately, many experts agree that Oakland’s Latino gang dynamics have much more to do with turf and loyalty to specific streets and neighborhoods than they do to race or ethnicity. When schools and family have broken down or failed to provide the necessary social safety net, the streets step into the void.

“Kids are cliquing up around turf, and that’s misinterpreted as black or Latino,” said sociologist Duncan-Andrade. “At some level it is, but in those neighborhoods that are mixed, you have racially mixed gangs. So people conflate these various factors into a false racial solidarity centered around black or Latino culture. There’s some element of that, but it’s often overblown.”

Najeva agrees. The notions of street identity she so cherished as a young immigrant from a war-torn country have in the years since evolved into much larger notions of solidarity with the wide range of Latinos who form the basis of her now-American cultural identity.