Gangs, violence and drug use are realities that most people in communities where poverty proliferates. While poverty, in itself, is not the major factor, it is certainly a risk factor and leads to further complications. Those who are poor and homeless definitely have less choice in the way they live their lives. In this regard, they are forced to engage in dangerous and even criminal behavior just to win their next meal or protect themselves from other people who may be eyeing the same source of income or subsistence in the community.
When a sufficient number of people within the community experience extreme poverty and they resort to extra-legal behaviors, the community will deteriorate and its citizens will have to live with the reality of gangs, violence and drugs. The book of Luis Rodriguez, Always Running, is an attempt to present the situation in East Los Angeles. Amid the splendor and the richness of Los Angeles, the community of East LA is America’s version of the third world.
More than just a psychological and sociological reflection on the realities of gangs and violence, his is reflection of someone who really went through the ordeals of gangs, violence and the use of drugs in the neighborhood. By writing his memoirs, Rodriguez (1994) depicted the scenes of his neighborhood with urgency and the poignancy of someone who truly experienced the events he portrays in his book. Gangs, Violence and Drugs in East LA The prevalence of gangs, violence and drug use in any given neighborhood may be easily blamed on the adventurous spirit of young men and women who seek life outside of their families.
Or to the people behind the gangs who just manipulate the lives of these young people for their own personal gain. Based on the memoir of Rodriguez (1994), however, a number of reasons may be pointed to. One is the homelessness and continuous search of protection for oneself and one’s family. The title of the book is Always Running. The status of the family and one’s relationship with the family has an impact on the kids who decide to join the gang. To protect themselves from harm and to help find food for themselves and their families, gangs are an alternative for these kids.
Another reason for this proliferation is the search for belonging and camaraderie they find in gangs. Gangs often function as a surrogate family, albeit a dysfunctional one, to those who choose to belong to them. Through the process of initiation, the togetherness and the invitation to “toughness,” the kids who decide to belong to gangs become caught up in a vicious cycle that becomes very difficult to break. Rodriguez (1994), himself, learned how to run away from the police, how to steal, rob, and even engage in rape and other criminal behavior.
Gangs also give a semblance of order and direction for the kids who belong to them. By trusting the older and more senior members of the gangs, the young people get a semblance of direction as other gang members tell them about the things they should do to remain as members of the gang. Through the difficulties that they face in their own lives, they can achieve a level of control through their membership in the gangs. It is a destructive process but since these gangs are available in the neighborhood, the temptation to be a part of these is too great to resist for most young people.
The whole community is affected by these gangs and violence. Although most of the families in the neighborhood are fragmented by poverty, divorce and other issues, they were still a force that most kids respected. As such, to a certain level, families were heeded by gang members. Yet, the community often responds by trying to ignore these events and engaging the police and other authorities to bring order. More than that, they also live in fear of the constant fighting among gangs and the violence they leave in the wake of such fighting.
Those who do not belong to the community tend to look negatively to the community and shun it. This way, the gangs may feast on strangers who happen to wander into their territories. Since gangs are territorial, they would not tolerate other gangs from wandering into their territories. Yet, as the police becomes involves, such scenario is difficult to avoid. Therefore, some gangs do get in trouble with the police and with other gangs at the same time. This scenario becomes commonplace in the community and they cease to fight it and actively go against such culture.
When this happens, they simply accept the reality of gangs, violence and drug use and do their best to minimize their impact on their lives and activities. Yet, they cannot get away from these realities. There are also members of the community who feel protective of the members of the gang, but not necessarily of the gangs. This is because of the perceived way in which they contrast their situation with the situation of more affluent people in the outskirts of their community and beyond.
As such, they reason, albeit subconsciously, that the gangs are a natural outgrowth of the desire of these people to protect themselves from other groups seeking to take advantage of them. Such stance therefore justifies in their minds the existence of such gangs and the necessity for violence. Aiming for Change There are instances, however, when the community is mustered to action and inspired to spearhead some changes in the community. When the culture of the people who belong to the community is affirmed, they are moved for action.
When a particular cultural group manages to prove itself, the community rouses from slumber and they respond in kind. They then affirm their collective power and empower the young people in the community to aim for their best so that their lives would improve. This also helped the young people affirm the culture that they have even if the school system did not have provisions for such. The achievements of such kids, therefore, became the achievement of the community and became a symbol of what they can do if they choose to rise above their economic and social standing. Another important aspect of the issue of gangs is the issue of race.
Cultural groups such as Chicanos would need to band together so that they would not fall prey to White kids who are intent on waging violence against those who do not belong to them. Conclusion The issue of gangs, violence and drug use is multi-faceted. As such, the solutions that would be proposed should also take into account the issues of culture, family, school, and poverty. Sociological, political and economic analyses have been made. Yet, the memoirs of Rodriguez are a stark reminder that more than just academic curiosities, the kids who belong to gangs are real people who need empowerment.
Rodriguez told the story of his life with gangs, violence and drugs as a means of showing his son what it was like to live a life that was always running. By documenting his experiences, he hopes to deter his son from his foray on such a risky life. Gang members can make choices to move away from their gangster lifestyles. But they will need the economic stability and the support of the community if they were to do that. The case of Rodriguez is an example of a man who thought about his life and decided to change it for the better. Reference Rodriguez, LJ (1994). Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L. A. LA: Touchstone.
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