Street Smart : Latinas Who Date Gang Members Are Trapped in a Life of Parties, Marriage

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rosa pauses in front of the bathroom mirror to study the results of her evening makeup ritual: Bangs, resembling peacock feathers, shoot stylishly three inches above her forehead; frosted lids highlight thickly lined eyes; cheeks have been brushed with a burning rouge hue.

This meticulous beauty routine has made her late for the cross-town drive into her gang-member boyfriend's Santa Ana neighborhood. And that will make him angry. She is used to that, but shouts anyway at her best friend, Monique, to hurry up.

"You know he hates to wait," says Rosa, 19, dabbing her dark burgundy lips with a piece of tissue. She checks a 12th and final time in the mirror then heads for the door.

The two young women could be the girlfriends of any gang member in any predominantly Latino neighborhood of Orange County. Like their boyfriends--who are easily identified by their khakis, T-shirts, gold chains and tattoos--Rosa and Monique (not their real names) fit a mold. Their stylized hair and heavy makeup--topping off a trendy wardrobe of cropped tops, miniskirts and high-top sneakers--makes them easily identifiable.

They are not typical Latinas. They have been unable to overcome the adverse social and economic forces that rule the barrio. They run with the wrong social clique, sometimes for years. Their language is rough, often laced with obscenities and gang slang. Their view of the world is focused on a narrow plane: Either you're cool or you're not worth hanging out with.

They are also not gangsters, as gang members refer to themselves. None of the more than a dozen young women from central Orange County who were interviewed for this story claim gang membership.

But they date gangsters, and that puts them in a category all their own. The county's approximately 9,000 gang members commit 35% of the felonies in Santa Ana and are responsible for 20% of the city's homicides. As such, the Latinas are marked by anti-gang investigators as gang sympathizers, a role many accept with a bravado matching their male counterparts.

The story of young women who date gang members may seem like any romantic teen-age adventure--of partying all night and sleeping most of the day. But because a gangster's life is so consuming, his girlfriend can find the life style inescapable.

It is an existence that is of growing concern to a group of professional Latino women in the Santa Ana area who are working to expose young Latinas to lives and professions that are different from the traditional roles of wife and mother.

"We want to show girls," says Irene Martinez, president of the Mexican American Women National Assn., that "there are many alternatives in this life. . . . You don't have to (just) marry, and you don't have to have children."

Martinez views Latinas who date gang members as strong and fiercely independent young women who have loyalty and leadership qualities. But, she says, they channel these energies into such outlets as gangs and boyfriends because they have not been introduced to alternatives.

About 120 professional Latinas have volunteered as big sisters for MANA's Hermanitas project; hermanitas means little sister. They will be paired with younger women for friendship and exposure to different life choices.

To provide an introduction to MANA and the project, the organization is holding a daylong orientation today at Saddleback High School in Santa Ana. Among the ideas for activities are trips to university campuses and outings to theaters, concerts and other cultural events.

"Our whole purpose as an organization is to promote the advancement of the Hispanic woman," Martinez says. "We want to expose (the young women) to as much as we can. There's so much talent and potential in these girls. There's a lot of bright girls out there who just need a little support and direction."

In contrast with the cocaine-filled all-nighters with drug-dealing former boyfriends, Monique, at 22, has mellowed out.

She still cruises. And she still drinks beer with the homeboys. But she hangs out with gangsters who are "down," those who are less active than younger members. She is looking to settle down herself.

And like the veteranos of the gangs, she knows the way things go in gang neighborhoods and has advice for younger women.

"The No. 1 thing is, you don't talk, you don't pass messages," she says. "I know people from everywhere. I've gone out with guys from Delhi, Golden West, 1st Street, 6th Street, 17th Street. They come up to you and they'll play tricks: 'So-and-so told me . . . is it true?' Because they know you know. I don't tell them anything."

Such unspoken rules of being a gangster's girlfriend--loyalty to the boyfriend, no passing information to rival gangs or police--are simply known and abided. Most of the time.

Monique and Rosa disagree on how far that loyalty goes.

Being the rebel and the romantic, Rosa is the one to break the rules to help out her boyfriend. She recalls the time her boyfriend's gang was "banged"--attacked--by rivals. He wanted to know which guy from the rival gang was responsible. Rosa knew. So she drove him down the street, right past the home of the rival gang member who was responsible for the shoot-out.

By Monique's standards, that was a crazy move.

"I made him get down in the car, because if those guys saw him, they'd start shooting," Rosa says. "They don't care what they hit, they're just gonna start shooting at him."

Most women who date gangsters do not see other men. But those who do say jealousy and possessiveness dictate that the gangsters never learn about the indiscretion.

Rosa does it by never telling a boyfriend where she lives. Unusual in that she is mobile, with her own car, she dates gang members in different county cities. And she never lets any of them too close to her own life.

"I always get their phone number. I always call them, " she says. "You just gotta be very careful."

Seeming both proud and angry at the memory of a beating she once took from a jealous former boyfriend, Rosa remembers his warnings: "You better watch what you do, you better watch the gangs you see."

"You get these guys who are jealous and possessive of you," she says. "When you're going out with them, you're theirs. That guy wouldn't let me out of his sight."

She now laughs at his demands for her not to wear her trademark dark lipstick and not to dress in miniskirts, in fear that other guys would go after her. Still, when she goes out with her girlfriends now, her current boyfriend tells her: "You better check your rear-view mirror--I'm watching you."

Despite their boyfriends' intense jealousy, the girls enjoy the attention a possessive boyfriend gives. They say they like being with someone who always wants them within eyesight. They are moved by the crazy, romantic passion of a gangster who would literally kill for his woman.

They proudly exchange stories of jealous boyfriends and ones who slap them around, just as their gangsters tell tales of fighting a rival gang or fending off the police.

But while they half-seriously, half-jokingly complain about their gangsters, most would not have it any other way.

"There's always something going on in a relationship like that. There's competition, and I like that," says Rosa, who can flash any local gang's sign.

She unhesitatingly says that she will always date gangsters. "They show that they care about you a lot," she says. For her, life without a gangster "wouldn't be exciting."

The young women who date gang members say they enjoy the married-to-the-gang life style.

They say they like being at the hub of gang life. They like knowing what is going on in different gangs and being welcome at the houses where gang members congregate.

"There's always something going on, whether it's fighting or this or that," Rosa says. "And they always want you right there."

Most say they would not feel safe in some neighborhoods if they were not hanging out with or dating a gangster.

"If anything happens to us, they're right there with their guns," Rosa says. "They protect you."

Diane, who is 15 but easily passes for 19, has been dating since she was 12.

"Nowadays," she says, "the girls that are 12 look much older, and the girls that are 13 are all burned out."

Most of them are looking for cocaine, and when they figure out which guy has it, they flirt with him until they get it. It's a two-way street, she says. Guys want information or sex, and girls want a line of coke.

Summing up the party-sex scene, Monique says: "You have it all there (alcohol and different kinds of drugs), and he pays for everything. . . . These guys have been down the road and back, and if the girl is young, she'll just go for it. The guy is drunk and saying, 'Don't worry, I'll take care of you.' You find out later he's married."

Diane says the only type of contraceptive she knows about are "those pills that some girls take."

In fact, many of the Latinas interviewed stare blankly when asked what type of contraceptives they use, and most laugh at the idea of their boyfriends using a condom.

"Birth control? It's up to the girl," Monique says flatly. "Most girls want protection. Most guys don't care."

However, most of the girls who date gang members do not use contraceptives and have no idea what safe sex is about, says Estela Martinez, director of education at Planned Parenthood in Santa Ana, which covers Orange and San Bernardino counties.

Because they often ditch classes or simply never go to school, many of the women who date gangsters do not receive adequate sex education, she says.

"A majority of Latino families have a problem with talking about sexuality openly," says Martinez, who operates a program through Planned Parenthood to help Latino families communicate about sexual issues. "In the family, it's still a taboo subject."

Most of the young women say their pregnant friends tend to keep their babies. Because most Latinas come from Roman Catholic homes, they say abortion is rare.

Also, most of the women do not have the money to pay for an abortion. And, they say, most of the men will not help.

"Just in my day-to-day experience, I would say it's more likely that there are more women who carry through the term," Martinez says.

Having a pregnant girlfriend has its benefits for a gangster. Fathering children by different women is something of a status symbol among some of the more irresponsible men.

Diane says one F-Troop gang member she knows is notorious for the number of babies he has fathered: "That guy, I guess he thinks he's big because he's got a lot of girls pregnant."

But more than status, the responsibility of a pregnant girlfriend or wife is a legitimate way for members to ease out of active gang participation.

Colleene Hodges, supervisor of the gang-suppression unit for the county Probation Department, says a gangster can tell his homeboys that his girlfriend wants him at home more often. Or he can say he needs to spend more time with his children.

"That's a respected way not to be active in the gang," she says. "He may be called upon at some point. But the members respect that. They leave him alone."

Hodges adds that many gangsters see their girlfriend as the only person in their life who can help them. When they find a woman who plays a rescuer role, she says, they do what they can to keep her--even if that means purposely getting her pregnant.

"That guy latches onto her," Hodges says. "She's the only stable part of his life."

For most of the women who date gang members, marriage is the end goal. Many do not have high school diplomas and most do not work.

Gangsters they hang out with--whether a current boyfriend, a former boyfriend or just a gangster she is dating--financially provide for them, although most of the women are too proud to admit to their dependence on boyfriends.

Younger women say they save their lunch money to afford weekend nights out. But older ones do not think they can ask their parents for spending money, especially because many--such as Monique and Rosa--live in single-parent households where money is tight.

Marriage offers the perfect transition into adulthood and the perfect solution to surviving in life. "The guys take good care of you," says Monique, who adds that her mother tells her to take her time and find herself a good man, one that will not beat her and who will provide for her.

"When you see a guy who isn't working, you want to leave that guy," Monique says. "I mean, where does it get you? Nowhere."

When it comes to school, most of the women say they plan to finish high school and apply for college. Others are certain that they will soon return and take the remaining classes they need for high school diplomas.

"Yeah, I'll go back," says Rosa, who is just a few courses shy of receiving a high school diploma.

She says she was recently in an auto accident and is taking time off from school and work. She talks of eventually going to college and taking business courses.

But the County Department of Education says at least a third of all county Latinos never finish high school, and Martinez of Planned Parenthood says 25% of those Latino women drop out because of pregnancy.

Monique says she had been attending a local community college, but the inconvenience of not having a car and relying on buses finally wore down her academic enthusiasm. "It's hard," she says. "I tried it and stuff, but it just gets to you."

Diane was looking for a job, but the appointment interview conflicted with a court date on a curfew violation, so she canceled it.

Their high aspirations are not surprising, says Martinez of MANA: They are strong, intelligent and passionate young women, but they lack the skills and direction to fulfill their goals. And they lack alternatives.

So, not knowing which way to turn, they turn to what they do know: how to be a good girlfriend.

Monique mourns the sudden end to a relationship she wanted to last. She had given up seeing other gangsters to make a particular romance work. Still, it didn't. He left her for another woman.

Rosa comforts her friend. She says Monique will be fine: "She's such a pretty girl." They laugh a little together. Things will be all right. They always are.

And their nocturnal schedule continues. So does the drinking, the parties, the dates, the games.

Not one to lose her edge easily, Rosa laughs at her own romantic dreams. "I wanted to have a kid and be married by the time I was 19," she says.

At not yet 20, she says with a smile: "I'm still trying. I haven't given up yet."

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