A "law-and-order mentality" alone will not solve the problems created by youthful gangs, according to an expert on neighborhood gangs and adolescent Hispanic culture.
Calling such a one-pronged approach "baloney," James Diego Vigil said that as community clubs and interdiction efforts have decreased, "prison populations have doubled. I'm happy to see in the last two years, Los Angeles cops are recognizing it can't solely be solved by law enforcement."Vigil, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California and author of several books on gangs and Hispanic culture, was in Utah Thursday and Friday to discuss "Barrio Gangs and Substance Abuse" at the University of Utah, Salt Lake Community College and Centro Civico Mexicano as part of Chicano Awareness Month celebrations.
Youths may join gangs because of "multiple marginality," which Vigil defines as the knowledge that they are different or poorer or unwanted. As a Mexican-American born in the United States, Vigil said he saw the discrimination his father faced because his skin was dark. His father encouraged him to anglicize his name to Jimmy Vigil. A look at U.S. treatment of Mexican citizens reinforced that knowledge. In hard economic times, he said, America opens the borders so it can have cheap labor. In other times, the border slams shut, and immigration officials get busy.
"What happens when people are chewed up? They lose their coping skills. They create street gangs. It starts as spontaneous boy gangs, then becomes entrenched and the kids coming in (to neighborhood) have to deal with that. Some families have three generations of `gang-bangers.' "
Gangs are not new, Vigil said. In the 1880s, settlement houses and boys clubs were started to deal with "pavement children." The 1960s marked the last phase of that effort with its "War on Poverty." "Since the 1960s, we haven't had anything . . . . As a nation, we have a proud record of social policy and outreach. Still, in the past 20 years, we've had a strong law-and-order view.
"If the streets create that (gang) personality, we have to figure out how to change the streets. If it was just poverty, all the poor would be gang members."
Hispanic gang members tend to come from large families with little money, Vigil said. Homes are small and crowded, so for privacy they go out into the streets, creating a "street subculture." Most don't fall prey to hard-core street activity.
"A lot of kids come on with a stern attitude, come off tough. Break that facade, then you find a little beating heart," he said.
Hispanic gang members don't usually traffick in drugs, although use and abuse of illegal substances - particularly marijuana - is common.
"You have to steal time away from gangs," Vigil said. "They couldn't influence (the youths) if kids had something to do. We have to deal with the drug problem here. We can't stop it from coming in from Colombia. We've already shown that interdiction doesn't stop it."