by Robert Lanz, LCSW
Since this happened to me a lot has happened in gang culture. A lot less fun and games than used to be. Check The Mexican Mafia by Tony Rafael to see where this has gone to lately.
Gang behavior is so insidious. But this was a humorous night and I was on a role, having to combine the insidiousness of gang violence with a twisted sense of humor. Psychosocial hardball so to speak and not a lot of players are up to it, but tonight, I was. It truly was one of those nights where nothing could go wrong. Well, not with my end of things anyway. My delivery was crisp. My lines were tight. I was on…
Julio and his brother and two friends were from gang A. Gang A has a major problem with gang B and they fight a lot. They fight at school on those rare days when they actually go to school. As part of their code they fight on neutral turf if they run into one another. They fight on their own turf if one of the other gang members is foolish or brave enough to go onto their turf. The guys from gang A know if they go to gang B’s area they will get beat up. The guys from gang B know the same. They also both know that if the bad boys from either side come onto their turf with any sort of numbers they are looking for the home team, if not for a full on attack, at least for a little snipe. Sort of a West Side Story with a different soundtrack, live bullets.
Well tonight, Julio, coming form the dysfunctional family that he did, ended up staying in a local motel with them after they were evicted from their house on their own turf. The problem was, they moved into a motel on the fringe of the other team’s turf and the other team saw them because Julio and the boys didn’t have the sense to stay indoors and be low profile on hostile ground. Maybe they would have felt too much like wimps if they would have done that. Maybe they couldn’t stand another minute in the motel room with their parents, I don’t know.
What I do know is these guys are never going to score big on Jeopardy. Not only did they move onto the turf of a gang dedicated to trying to beat them up, they even went so far as to have some of their friends come over. Local gangsters felt that was a direct affront to their honor so they called all the homeboys, loaded up several cars, collected all the blunt objects they could find…baseball bats, car jacks, 2×4’s, what ever it took, and went to the motel where they caught Julio, his brother and two friends out in the open. Then they had batting practice with Julio having his face crushed, a gang bangers home run equivalent. For all the possibilities, it was a wonder that no one was killed or more seriously injured. Julio’s brother took a glancing hit on the head– home with no stitches and a small Band-Aid. Their friend Mike took a hit to the head too and also required no stitches…home with a larger Band-Aid. The third victim didn’t even have to come to the hospital. But Julio got it big time. Facial lacerations. Multiple facial fractures. Eye damage.
Julio, of course, had no health insurance and had worked his way up to about three thousand dollars in the ER alone. What with CT scans, X rays, plastic surgery and the like, this was going to cost someone a lot of money. Let’s see, who can that be?
The state of California has a special fund to pay for victims of violent crime. To be eligible, all the victim has to do is cooperate with law enforcement and spend about an hour going to city hall or a local police station and filling out a form. Most victims without insurance don’t do it so like everything else, in some way, the guys that have it together financially have to take care of those that don’t, even when those that do have absolutely no control over those that don’t. How we ever got into this position of having total responsibility and no control, I’ll never figure out. Anyway, I’m digressing and this was supposed to be fun.
To set the scene I will continue the digression a little longer because it is important to understand the context. Humor is nothing without context. Latino gangs, almost exclusively only have problems with other Latino gangs, unless they are in prison then they have problems with everybody but on the streets, if you are not in a Latino gang, you will probably not have a problem with a Latino gang. The kids look upon gang membership as a team sport and if you don’t want to play they won’t make you get into the game. When they are not involved in gang activities they seem to be nice enough and during the 7 years I worked in juvenile hall and forestry camps, the Latino kids were some of the best I ever had. They will swagger around like any teenager. They will lie to the police. They will brag about how tough they are. But they have respect. When they come to the hospital they are usually good patients and they get along good with staff despite their injuries, hostilities and seemingly antisocial behavior. They frequently joke and are playful if their injuries are not too severe.
Julio and his homeboys were typical in their behavior. They compared wounds. They laughed about the events that could have gotten them killed. They were supportive of Julio and cursed the other gang for beating up on an innocent 14 year old. They plotted revenge right in front of me. I knew how to be with these guys because I had worked with gang kids for years. I knew how to act around these guys because I knew guys from their gang when I was their age. And I knew before the night was over and they all went home, I was going to blow their minds. I have, on my office wall, as a constant reminder of other days, an 8×10 black and white photo of me, dressed down in gangster clothes, in front of a big wall that is covered with graffiti with the central focus being the name of their gang, FROGTOWN, in fancy gang lettering prominently painted with the name Flaco over it and Alfredo written off in the corner. It was a photo I had for over twenty years, taken when I was a probation officer and still living in the neighborhood where I grew up It was a private joke between me and some of the gang kids on my caseload, my own badge of courage. I got a lot of mileage out of it when I was a probation officer and knew I would tonight too.
After I had ensured the boys were stable and safe, I started to loosen up and told them I was living near their turf and that I had actually lived there as a kid too. They were looking at me just a little sideways, finding my old guy stories a little unbelievable so I escalated and told them more stories about some of the guys who were probably their uncles or parents. They laughed. They went to the waiting room and found their parents so they could hear the stories too. Then the parents laughed at the stories but they told me they thought I was joking to make the kids feel comfortable after their evening’s difficulties. I couldn’t resist a good punch line so I set them up.
“What would it take to convince you that I was a homeboy?” I asked. They laughed again, thinking I was just joking.
“Really” I said. “What would it take?”.
They drew a blank. They didn’t know what to think. I grabbed one of them and made him go to the office with me and when I showed him the picture he was convinced. We went back out to the busy waiting room and he told the rest of the guys and they all wanted to see the picture too so I let them and I got more respect. Then they went and got their dad so he could see the picture too. I took him into my office alone, showed him the old photo and then told him the truth, that I had done it as a joke with some of my gang kids when I worked for the probation department. Dad laughed. Dad laughed harder than he should have. Dad laughed really hard.
“Alfredo was my cousin and I knew the real Flaco,” he told me. “One’s dead, the other’s in prison.”
He promised to tell Flaco next time he wrote to him in prison or when he got paroled, whichever came first about the old white guy in the gang photo. Then he laughed some more. The kids were laughing too. I never did understand what was so funny. Neither did my staff.
We sent Julio down to the county hospital where he could get to see a plastic surgeon, an ophthalmologist and a facial bone specialist for about fifteen thousand dollars worth of repair. Julio was the only one who wasn’t laughing. He tried to but it hurt too much.