Why Latinos Hate Stories About Gangs
These images have created the illusion that the unlawful, outcast lives of the gangs are emblematic of Latino society
Rosa Martha Villarreal
A few years ago, during a conversation with Hollywood producer Edgar Scherick, he asked me what kind of movie would appeal to Latinos. My response, "Not about gangs." Although several films and numerous books about U.S. Latino gangs have been commercially successful, the audience that has consumed these works consists mostly of white (usually liberal) literati and college students who are fulfilling required readings, not Latinos in general.
Published on LatinoLA: June 24, 2007
Even one of my favorite films, Greg Nava's My Family, which offered a nuanced portrayal of a gang member, was disdained by many Latinos, in of one of my uncle's words, as a pig's mess. Having grown up in a Hispanic family in California in the predominately Mexican-American neighborhoods of East San Jose and having lived Salinas for another 13 years, where I taught temporarily English as a second language to immigrants, I have a pretty good idea why Latinos hate stories about gangs.
The disdain that the people have for gang members is best described by the word "cholo," a 19th century Californio pejorative meaning "scoundrel." One of my adult student's despair sums up the consensus opinion: "I feel so terrible for my neighbor, maestra. She came to the United States to provide a better life for her children, and they became cholos instead." There are other anecdotes: the Mexican brothers who trapped a gang member who was tagging their house, stripped him naked and spray-painted him in retaliation; the mother who lost her beautiful 16-year daughter when a group of boys crashed a party and shot and killed her, an innocent bystander, as part of their gang initiation. One could fill volumes of books about the collective disgust and trepidation about gangs.
But the books written and films made are not about the point of view and feelings of the Latino community at large; rather, they are mostly about the gang members themselves. What bothers Latinos is that gangsters are portrayed as heroes, or more accurately, anti-heroes; the defiant pachucos of Octavio Paz's "Labyrinth of Solitude," whose self-destruction (and those of others in their way) is meant to elicit pity for their alienation and marginalization from the America mainstream; the finger in the eye of white America, which hardly noticed the alleged poke from the comforts of the suburbs. The willed not to be and death as identity. The exaggerated frowns and smug victimization. The rhetoric of self-pity. The phony pride. The blank, defiant stares to the question, "What do you want?"
What irks Latinos about the gang culture is the inertia and indifference: Do they really want to stop the meaninglessness of their lives? To make matters worse, the elevation of the gang member as hero, instead of incurring the sympathy and understanding of the majority of Americans, has had the opposite affect. These images have created the illusion that the unlawful, outcast lives of the gangs are emblematic of Latino society.
The counter-argument, of course, is that these portrayals are purely symbolic of the plight of Mexican Americans since 1846. Fair enough. But unfortunately, the symbolism has grown tiresome and dangerously problematic. When one reads the 19th century accounts by white Americans about their newly acquired (formerly Mexican) citizens, one sees a shocking emphasis, almost obsession, with the criminal element. Even in the newspaper accounts of the Sleepy Lagoon riot of the 1940's Los Angeles---which was an unprovoked attack by U.S. servicemen on U.S. Latinos---we see repeated references to the victims' heritage as blood-thirsty descendants of the human sacrificing Aztecs who are handy with knives. The Latino community, led by the veterans of World War II, went to great lengths to rehabilitated this horrible image that we were chaotic, violent, an irrational beings with a quaint love of celebration and fiestas. However, the symbolic, alienated gang member of literature and film has unintentionally reaffirmed the worst prejudices and the repressed loathing of many Americans towards Latinos.
But what to say to the aspiring young writer or filmmaker who wishes to expose these historical tensions? Simple: These prejudices touched all the lives of Latinos, yet the overwhelm majority choose to confront adversity with dignity and self-respect. You need heroes? What about the young men lined up outside the Marine recruiting offices in Salinas, CA, who are literally dying to fight for their country? Or the brave Californios, Tejanos, and Hispanos of yesteryear who fought off the squatters who tried to expropriate their ranches and farms? As one of my deceased friends, an African-American attorney and USAF Colonel, used to say about adversity, "Success is the best revenge."
Rosa Martha Villarreal:
Rosa Martha Villarreal is the author of "The Stillness of Love and Exile" (Tertulia Press 2007) and a member of PEN USA