by Randol Contreras
For the last two years, I have conducted field research on East Los Angeles to learn how the economic recession has affected gangs. In particular, I am studying members of the Maravillas, or the gangs that represent its various neighborhoods. These Mexican gangs stand proudly for their varrio, with numerous stories of violence, honor, and respect. Their most wistful stories recount the Boulevard Nights, those electric weekend nights spent on Whittier Boulevard. Vatos and rucas from all of Southern California gathered there to watch a parade of Lowriders and Bombs creep softly down the street: Orale! Que Ranfla! This is when the community celebrated itself, when the Maravilla neighborhoods stood firme, proud.
Yet those glory days are gone. The aging Maravillas struggle in our current economic recession. For instance, there is Emilio. At fifty-four years-old, he struggles to remain sober after a lifetime of violence, heroin addiction, and incarceration. Week by week, I see him consuming more liquor, beer, and marijuana. His relapse started after a few months of not being able to find a decent-paying job.
Drunk, he says, “I can’t find work that pays good ’cause I’m an ex-con, knaw mean [know what I mean]? They got me doing paisa-type work. I ain’t no fuckin’ paisa [immigrant]. How am I supposed to support my wife and my kids?” Then, like the other guys, he immediately follows such vulnerability with self-aggrandizing glorifications of violence: “Randy, I remember one time when I was in the pen[itentiary], this fucking vato tells me, ‘[Are]you from Maravilla? I’m a get you later.’ But I got that motherfucker instead, real good, Ha-ha. When he came to get me, I stabbed him like five times with my filero [shank], Ha-ha-ha.”
Everyone with us that sunny afternoon laughed loudly, affirming Emilio’s attempt to assert a violent identity in the face of economic marginalization. I laughed too. But I knew that, like others before him, the current economic recession might lead Emilio to a full-blown drug relapse and a return to prison (or an earlier death because of cirrhosis of the liver). Without viable work, this path was wide open.
Such moments resonate with my previous research on South Bronx drug robbers. In my book, The Stickup Kids, I document the lives of a group of Dominican drug market participants. At the Crack Era’s height, they achieved great economic and material success. At the Crack Era’s end, they maintained their drug market earnings by brutally robbing drug dealers that stored large amounts of drugs and cash. Sometimes, these men did try to exit the drug market. However, their criminal backgrounds blocked the legal jobs that promised a livable wage. This then led them to re-assert their criminal identity, to re-enter a criminal underworld that rewarded their past. This then led to their rising drug-use and violence, to taking a suicidal and self-destructive path.
The common theme in both my South Bronx and East LA research is how the absence of viable legal work keeps marginal criminals in a spiral of drug use and violence. Viable, full-time work provides daily structure, enough income for survival, and for participation in consumer culture. In short, it eases the reintegration of former criminals into wider society, giving them security and little reason to resume heavy drug use and crime.
Randol Contreras is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto.