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PERSPECTIVE ON GANGS : <i> La Vida Loca: </i> Crazy Life, Crazy Death : How can we be hopeful for young men whose lives are marginalized by the fatalistic mentality of barrio warfare?

<i> Carlos A. Chavez is director of community and public relations at Occidental College; the opinions expressed here are his own. Antonio H. Rodriguez is a civil rights attorney in Los Angeles. </i>

For the last week we’ve held vigil over Jaramillo Rodriguez, our 19-year-old nephew. His body lies inert, invaded by tubes and tethered to electronic machines that do the basic biological work that this strapping, 6-foot-4 boy is currently incapable of sustaining. Once a promising athlete, he lies near death, another young victim to the brutal gang warfare plaguing the City of Angels.

He and his two “homies” were cut down by gunfire from rival gang members over disputes that are totally baffling even to those familiar with the self-destructive lifestyle called la vida loca, the crazy life. It’s irrelevant whether the dispute was over control of territory (usually involving short stretches of bleak barrio asphalt), or personal insult (perceived as violating the integrity of an exaggerated sense of pride and honor) or simply the chance encounter by rival members of kamikaze-like youth gangs.

What is shocking is the degree to which this formerly romanticized rite-of-passage lifestyle has degenerated into a self-destructive, alienated, fatalistic ideology that holds sway over so many of our children. Spawned by the fraying fabric of barrio life and fueled by popular culture’s steady diet of conflict resolution through violence, this view of life as mayhem is causing too many of our intelligent, eager school-age kids to mutate into teen warriors without a cause.

During the early part of the Chicano power movement in the late ‘60s, the vato loco ( crazy guy) was cast as the embodiment of resistance to sinister cultural aggression. His unconventional clothing, colorful calo dialect--a unique blend of Spanish and English-- and insolent demeanor made him the definition of “cool” in the barrio. Chicano college student activists adopted the cool look: white T-shirts under plaid Pendleton wool shirts with a military press and sharply creased khakis or jeans.

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But in those days, most vatos became veteranos by their 20s and outgrew the crazy life. Some led a dual life, going to school or work during the week and hanging out in the neighborhood on weekends. Guns were a rare commodity and drive-bys were just beginning to be used as a gang tactic. Most veteranos made the transition to the work force as semiskilled and skilled laborers and as professionals. While Los Angeles was just as segregated and racist a city as it is now, there were job opportunities and the evidence for believing in the future was found on every Eastside street: Guys working for a living as did their fathers and grandfathers before them.

The loss of blue-collar jobs, combined with the curtailment of social spending, has eroded employment and educational opportunities for our children to the point that they are extremely marginalized. In the process, the adolescent lifestyle for many of them appears to have become a life sentence.

Barrio life for most gang youths is marked by self-destructive activity often terminated by incarceration or death. Confronted by armed gangsters on one side and police on the other, a homie’s life is dictated by a live-for-today attitude in which the goal is to stay alive by warding off attacks and inflicting attacks on rivals without getting arrested. Behind bars, the mayhem and, often, killing continue.

These children have no hope. For them, fatalism has replaced faith. At the hospital this week, one of our nephew’s friends commented on the tragedy: “It’s messed up, hey, but everybody has to go some day. I know it may happen to me. But that’s all right. I’ll die for my barrio.” The young man was no older than 15, but he already presented a chilling and disheartening combination of attitudes: childlike idealism and a reckless disregard for human life.

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The gang mentality alienates these youths from their families and from the community. Their mind-set has them in a constant battlefield superconsciousness, like soldiers in battle, that numbs them to the sensitivities and the needs of others. When they grieve for their fallen friends, a frequent occurrence, they do so profoundly, intensely, but only for a very brief period--they must remain hypervigilant and combat ready in the low-intensity warfare their lives have become. To relax or drop your guard could mean death.

As we wrestle with the pain, the remorse and self-reproach about how we could have done more to prevent the tragedy, the deadly hold that gang life has is haunting us. Our nephew and his friend were hit after they had made a commitment to bail out of the gangbanger life. Our nephew had begun to make arrangements to move out of Southern California. His friend, also on life support, had gone back to night school to earn a diploma and qualify for the armed forces. He had about one month to go. (The other friend has recovered from his wounds.)

Where can we find hope in the future when young men like this see none for themselves? Our family’s tragedy is but one of many in this city. And like so many other families, we continue our vigil for a young man on life support, with a hope born in an earlier era.


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