The Criminalization of the Latino Identity Makes Fighting Gangs That Much Harder

David E. Hayes-Bautista and Gregory Rodriguez, associate editors at Pacific News Service, are, respectively, executive director of the Alta California Research Center and research fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy

Lately, many Californians have been lamenting “there goes the neighborhood” over the prospect of an increasingly Latino state. Images of streets overrun by menacing gangbangers with shaved heads, tattoos and baggy pants are their worst nightmare.

News and the entertainment media have reinforced these anxieties by seemingly adhering to an unwritten rule that the only Latino stories worth telling are about troubled youths or the people who strive to steer them straight. One local-TV news program even handed out spray paint to Latino youngsters in order to better catch them on videotape for broadcast during “sweeps month.” Having bought into the ‘60s glorification of outlaws and criminalization of minority identities, some Latino artists and intellectuals have depicted the cholo, the Latino gang member, and his refusal to conform to society as heroic and representative of the Latino American experience.

But too many school therapists, teachers, activists, reporters, movie-makers and others mistake gang culture for the larger Latino culture or view Latino social ills as if they were either the norm or the natural reaction to the Latino American predicament. Past and current incidents of police brutality reinforce these misconceptions by buttressing the idea that Latinos are either wildly overrepresented in the ranks of criminals or disproportionately jailed by overzealous and racist cops, judges and juries. Compounding this impression, many Latino spokespersons are wont to run to the defense of hoodlums as if the youngsters had no other choice but to break the law. Antisocial behavior is exactly that, regardless of ethnicity.


Throughout, the countless victims of these young men’s crimes--members of a strongly pro-law-and-order Latino population--are routinely forgotten. Civil-rights lawyers and community activists don’t stage protests or hold news conferences when an 11-year-old girl is shot in the back of the head with an automatic weapon on her front porch.

There are nine times more Latinos in California’s colleges than there are in its prisons and jails. An estimated 11% of Latino males aged 20 to 29 were in the state’s criminal-justice system--prison, jail, probation or parole--in 1995, compared with 39% of African Americans and 5% of whites in the same age group. James Q. Wilson, a crime scholar, suggests that while he would expect higher overall rates of incarceration for Latinos, because a greater proportion of the group’s population is young, poor and living in socially disorganized neighborhoods, he suspects that if age and income are controlled, Latino rates would not differ markedly from the norm.

Indeed, when controlling for youth and income, the estimated rate of incarceration for the state’s Latinos is roughly equal to the state norm. At 34%, Latinos currently make up the largest group of inmates in the state’s prison system. But they also comprise 36% of all 20- to 29-year-olds in the state, the age group who commits the majority of all crimes. (Latinas have lower rates of incarceration than either white or black females.)

Thirty-six percent of those arrested in California in 1995 were Latino. The only major felony category for which Latinos record above-average arrest rates is driving offenses. For misdemeanors, Latinos have a higher-than-average arrest rate for driving under the influence and for gambling.

For the crimes of forgery, arson, drug offenses, prostitution, assault and battery, lewd conduct and indecent exposure, Latino rates are below average. For all major misdemeanors and felonies, Latino rates remain average.

Anne Piehl, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, has found that Latino immigrants, most of whom are of Mexican origin, have lower rates of incarceration than do the U.S.-born, including native-born Latinos. She also contends that although recent Latino immigrants may fit the assumed demographic description of a criminally prone population (youthful with high rates of poverty and low levels of education), cities with dramatic increases in the Latino immigrant population don’t experience higher-than-average increases in crime.

According to the California Department of Corrections, however, illegal immigrants are overrepresented in the state’s prison system. While the overall undocumented-immigrant population usually mirrors the legal-immigrant population in behavior and values, a large percentage of rootless, single males among the undocumented may account for this aberration. Another explanation is that because of their immigration status, illegal immigrants are more likely to be sentenced to longer prison sentences and have little chance of receiving probation once convicted of a crime.

None of this, though, gets to the root of the real crime that burdens lower-income Latino neighborhoods. The statistics don’t shade the fact that Latino gangs were responsible for a quarter of all homicides in Los Angeles County last year. They don’t soothe the nerves of first-graders who sometimes are forced to hit the floors of their classrooms because of gunfire outside.

The numbers do, however, put Latino criminality in perspective. And such perspective may go a long way toward combating gangs, the most serious Latino crime problem.

Undoubtedly, alienation from mainstream culture plays a role in the appeal of gang life. In addition, much of today’s mainstream American culture glorifies--even fetishizes--marginality, particularly among non-Anglos. To a great extent, gangs are a lamentable holdover from when Latinos were truly marginalized, when we were defined by our apposition to the mainstream. Gangs are the default lifestyle for those who have fallen in the cracks between mainstream Latino and Anglo cultures.

But now that Latinos have reached critical mass in Southern California, they are holding onto their own norms and values more than ever before. Being American no longer means forsaking traditional ideals and bonds that give life meaning. Reinforcing the strong family and religious ties, as well as the healthy work ethic of the majority of Latinos, is essential to containing the destructive, deviant behavior of the few. For any community, two of the most important crime-fighting elements are its residents’ intolerance for anti-social behavior and its acknowledgment of the successes of average youngsters. Unfortunately for Latinos, rarely do normal youngsters see themselves in the policies that affect them and in the portraits that fill the media. But there are plenty of ads for the gang lifestyle.

Diana Chavez, a 21-year-old student at Cal State L.A. who grew up in a housing project in Boyle Heights, complains that throughout her youth, most programs, government and private, and attention were aimed at gang members. Two years ago, she helped form a group of similarly frustrated Latinos. They call themselves The Chain of Strength, and their mission is to keep each other on track and to recruit and support younger kids. “It was up to us to make a change here,” she says. “But because we were the ‘others’ and not the gang members, we had to support each other on our own.”

Effectively combating Latino crime requires that both social institutions and the media first decriminalize Latino identity. Our grim “Escape From L.A.”-style visions of a Latinizing future are not only uncalled for but dangerous.