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Girl Gangs: Female Members On Love And Motherhood

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The following is an excerpt from "Jumped In" by Jorja Leap [Beacon Press, $26.96]

No one believes I’m in a gang. My mama don’t believe I’m
in a gang. That’s because I’m a woman. And I got a baby.
And that’s supposed to make me different.
—Alicia Perez

Perhaps it is because I am now officially a mother, but I find myself increasingly drawn to the women in the neighborhoods. I want to understand more about their role in gangs. For months now, I have heard conflicting stories about how active women are. One thing was clear, however. Some women were full-fledged gang members, moving far beyond the more traditional status of baby mama. Kenny Green told me, “They’re a part of it now—they are bad—they roll up and start shooting.”

Various experts had as much trouble as I did trying to figure out just how active young women are. The National Gang Center highlighted a purposive study conducted in fifteen major cities revealing that 7.8 percent of females, compared with 8.8 percent of males, between the ages of eighteen and thirty self-reported that they were gang members. Law enforcement offered a different view—insisting there were far fewer female than male gang members. The only thing academics and practitioners agreed upon was that the actual number of female gang members was impossible to estimate.

In the past year, both Greg Boyle and Big Mike have insisted that probably less than 5 percent of “at-risk” young women became active gang members. The numbers weren’t the only area where information was soft. Early on, the accounts of “girls in gangs” mirrored mainstream society: young women were the second sex, playing a supporting role. But from the mid-1980s and into the aptly named decade of death—when Los Angeles experienced up to one thousand gang-related homicides a year—homegirls proved to be much more than Dale Evans with tattoos. Women did not just carry guns—they shot them. They did not just hide drugs for their homeboys—they dealt them, taking care of the cash and the transactions.

All this female activity in gangs ultimately gave rise to reports of sexual violence. The streets buzzed with stories of girls getting “sexed in” to neighborhoods by being gang-raped. In one rumored initiation rite, aspiring homegirls were forced to have sex with a gang member who was HIV-positive. There were tales of bloody beatings using fists and clubs, with no exceptions for gender. But all of this was secondhand. When I start talking to women in the neighborhoods, joining the gang sounds almost organic—evolving alongside criminal activity.

“We partied together and then they invited me to go on a drive-by,” Vanity “Dimples” Benton explains. “Next thing I knew, ’cuz I was the only one with a license, they told me to drive while one of my homies opened up shooting. After that I was in the neighborhood. When they caught us and locked me up—I still thought it was worth it, I wanted to gangbang and slang drugs and just hang out.”

Despite all the information and titillation, it takes me a long time to catch on to what happens with women in the neighborhoods. Too long. I am late to the party because, up until now, I have never been particularly interested in women. Hanging out with the homegirls was just not my speed. In my mind, there were two kinds of women—nuns and bitches—and I placed myself firmly in the latter category. Growing up in a Greek extended family, I watched how “good girls” exhibited a version of female dependency I wanted desperately to avoid.

Because of this I had no use for the girlfriends of gang members. These girls—some of them only fourteen or fifteen—surrendered their lives. As they entered the bloom of adulthood, they had no plans other than giving birth to multiple children and ensnaring a man. Marriage did not exist; pregnancy was the closest they would come to long-term commitment, and infidelity was the aftermath.

The attitudes of men in the neighborhoods resembled something circa the 1950s. Women were good for one thing—sex; sex with a beautiful woman was even better and, for God’s sake, domestic sex was bound to be supplemented. Of course, all this possession and infidelity caused unending problems between the neighborhoods. Kenny Green was my guide to the sexual politics in the gang world.

“Everyone thinks that gangbanging is about turf,” he instructed.

“No way. Most of it is about women—they make all the trouble. And now there are the women who want to be shooters and slang; they want to be part of the neighborhood.”

These are the women who catch my interest. I am not interested in the nuns—the girls who behave as if they are tattooed with the word victim. I stay as far away from them as possible. I want nothing of their silent suffering, their fortitude, or their devotion. Instead, deep down, I know I am just a tough little bitch with too much rage. I identify with the female gangbangers who are angry and “down for the neighborhood.” But, despite my empathy, the women I meet are even more suspicious than the men of the neighborhoods.

“What do you want?” Dimples questions me after I ask her if we can hang out together. I am blunt; I tell her I want to know why she gangbangs and deals drugs. I may be a chameleon, but I refuse to lie. Lying is dangerous; your street credibility—no matter who you are—depends on telling the truth. Gang members come equipped with a bullshit detector; they call you out for “fronting.” Slowly, Dimples and other women I meet react to the honesty I express. Their stories spill out while I am at Homeboy Industries, gathering information for a research proposal I am writing.

“This is not about girls becoming like guys,” Meda Chesney-Lind, a gang researcher at the University of Hawaii, tells me. “Although the themes are the same. The girls come from toxic, abusive families, and are re-victimized in the gang setting.” I wonder how the women I am getting to know would feel about being seen as “re-victimized.” They openly describe the trauma they have experienced, the abuse they have known. There are stepfathers who demand blowjobs or cousins who force them to have anal sex. But making the deliberate choice to become part of a neighborhood involves something beyond trauma. Sometimes the act of joining a gang is experienced as empowerment. It doesn’t really matter if it’s a male gang or a female gang—all that matters is the feeling of control, with the added attraction of rejecting both traditional female passivity and victimhood. Chesney-Lind sums it all up by saying, “Girls choose the gang for entirely understandable and even laudable goals, given the constraints that they experience in a society that is increasingly likely to police and pathologize girlhood.” The women I know want to rewrite the rules. These are not the nuns—these are the bitches, the girls who want, somehow, to have control.

In the midst of my research, I start spending a lot of time with Dark Eyes, whose real name is Joanna Carillo. Joanna is a self-proclaimed third-generation gang member. She grew up watching her grandparents, parents, cousins, and uncles all caught up in the life of different cliques that eventually merged into Florencia-13. Her father was killed in a drive-by shooting a week after Joanna’s thirteenth birthday. After he died, her mother supported the family by dealing drugs.

“Oh, she’s still dealing,” Joanna volunteers offhand, when we are discussing our relationships with our mothers and how we want to raise our daughters differently. “It’s never been a problem. I’ve always told her, don’t fuckin’ do it around me. You can deal, but go away from the house, go somewhere else. I’ve got values.” But a few minutes later, Joanna tells me that she is more worried than usual about all this “business” because her mother is moving in with her.

“After all, she is my mother,” she explains. “She can’t take care of herself. But y’know, we’ve talked about my house rules. She can’t do any business in front of the kids. There are enough bad influences around the kids without them seeing their grandmother dealing drugs.”

“How old is your mother?” I ask Joanna.

“She is sixty-one—but she seems older, y’know? Her back is bad, her health isn’t good, I need to get a daytime nurse for her. My ex-husband has said he would help out. He’s moved into the apartment downstairs from mine.” I calmly take in this tasting menu of insanity and then the stray thought enters: Well, she seems closer to her mother than I am to mine. Who am I to judge?

“I wanna meet your mother,” I tell Joanna.

“Why? She’s no damn good. She’s left me so many times. She’s never there when I need her. And she makes me feel like shit. I gotta take her in because no one else will take care of her. It doesn’t mean I love her or she’s part of my life.”

Women and their mothers—is there any way to escape it?

So many of the women I kick it with feel both tied to and emotionally abandoned by their mothers. This is not something I expected to find. But the words are familiar.

I understand Joanna. She is my sister under the skin, seesawing between two identities: the attentive mother, hovering over her baby girl as she feeds her applesauce, and the enraged homegirl, threatening to split open the face of some bitch who has disrespected her. Men, love, freedom. Joanna’s life runs along the same plot lines as mine—but it is much more complicated.

“It was always there—the neighborhood was always there,” Joanna tells me. “Everyone in my family was part of it, gangbanging and slanging and getting locked up. And of course there was always domestic violence, my dad beating my mom. Everyone feared my dad—he was high up, a leader—he had a lot of power. I figured the only way I could deal with it was when I said to myself, I am gonna do what I gotta do to earn my respect in the neighborhood. I was only seven years old when I started out there in the street.”

There are tattoos wreathing Joanna’s neck and upper arms. She is wearing polka-dotted acrylic press-on nails and they curl out like claws. Her nose is pierced, and I can see barely discernable scars on her face.

“Maybe I understand a lot more now that I am older. But back in the day, it became like an obsession—I stopped being a kid—I lost my childhood. And the weirdest part of it is that my parents were proud—they would look at each other and laugh and say, ‘Yeah, they’re our kids’—y’know in that proud kinda voice—they fuckin’ enjoyed what we were doing. No one ever said, ‘What you guys are doing is wrong.’ If my brothers got beat up or got arrested or got kicked out of school—they were proud of them. And when I started gettin’ into trouble, they were all right with it. They thought that was good.”

Adolescence brought on her first boyfriend, Flaco, and serial pregnancies—a son at fifteen, a daughter at eighteen. In between there were arrests, time spent in probation camps, and a trip to the California Youth Authority. But Joanna focused on being a mother.

“I’d dress my kids in gang clothes—I thought they were so cute. I thought I was so smart. I dropped out of school and there I was, a baby mama with two kids in Florencia-13 clothes.”

Then—at nineteen—Joanna attracted a boyfriend who was “totally different. Roberto wasn’t in a neighborhood; he had been raised in a convent school. I guess he was meant to come into my life . . . he was serious; he said we had to get married before we had kids. He was very Catholic and we got married in the Church.”

But even in a religiously sanctioned marriage—a rare occurrence—she continued to gangbang and slang drugs, refusing to settle down—attracting and discarding men. She also had two more children—another boy and another girl. There was a decade of marriage and infidelity until her husband finally left her. Joanna took up with someone new. But Juan was the one boyfriend who was stronger and bigger than she is and abused her repeatedly.

“I let him take over,” she tells me. “I don’t know why. He made me feel like he was good, I was bad. He would tell me, ‘Stop dealing
drugs, stay home, take care of the kids, I will make the money.’ I liked that for a while. But then he got crazy. He started beating me. He thought I was cheating on him. But it turned out he was cheating on me. One night he kept hitting me and said the next time he was gonna kill me. He got really drunk and then he crashed. When he was sleeping, I packed up the kids, started the car, and just when I was getting ready to go, I started to panic. I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t know if I could make it. But somehow, I calmed down and made myself drive. I finally got to a friend’s house—someone Juan never met—and she let me and the kids spend the night. In the morning she took me to see Father Greg. He helped me.” Joanna smiles. “He hired me. And he told me, ‘I’ll be here ’til the wheels fall off.’ ” Joanna started working at Homeboy Industries and promptly found a new boyfriend—

Silent.

“It was the first time I really fell in love with someone,” she tells me, “but then I found out—he was married. What a mess! I broke up with him, but I was so fuckin’ angry. I got stress seizures. I was twenty-nine and I sick. I would act out rather than say how I was feeling—I would look to fight with somebody to take my frustration out. And I was looking for someone to love. And that was Luisa.”

Joanna breaks down telling me this. I don’t know it but I am listening to the most confusing part of Joanna’s past. I have seen Luisa
around Homeboy Industries, but she defies any of the categories I have constructed for gang members. With her shaved head and swagger, her multiple tattoos, she is channeling Boys Don’t Cry, but no one is fooled. Everyone knows Luisa is fronting as a man—that she is actually a girl.

Greg Boyle calls her Baby Girl.

“We embraced her,” G—as the homies call Greg Boyle—remembers. “We surrounded Baby Girl with love.” The homies think Luisa is
strange or “mental,” but they also pity her. She has no mother, no father, no family. She meets Joanna—who takes one look at her underfed, overtattooed, androgynous frame—and announces she wants to adopt her.

The model of multitasking, Joanna mothers Luisa while she is breaking up with Silent and hustling and seeing a therapist and trying to go straight. Things deteriorate. Despite Joanna’s steadfast connection, Luisa will not stop her ninety-pound demolition derby of self-destruction. There is a long line of arrests and offenses—busted for murder, assault with a deadly weapon. And then she is gone.

Joanna is crying.

“It hit me harder than losing Silent.”

I ask her why.

“I was trying to save Baby Girl. I think at that point it still didn’t click––maybe I was trying to save my first son—he died when he was
five.”

Joanna stops. I wait, quietly.

“I need to think about this.” She puts her head down on the table in front of me.

She doesn’t elaborate; I don’t probe. Maybe we will come to a point in our relationship when she’ll explain what happened to her son. Maybe not. All I know is that we’re not there yet. She raises her head and moves on.

“I had always pretended my son was still alive. Every once in a while, Flaco—his father—would call. I would make up stories about our son, what he liked to eat, how he was doing in school. I would say he was asleep or he was out playing, lying about why he couldn’t come to the phone.”

But after ten years hiding out in Mexico, Flaco returns to Los Angeles, wanting to see his son and daughter. Joanna is finally forced to tell him the truth. In the days that follow, Flaco grows increasingly upset that his son is dead and Joanna’s other children, including her son and daughter with Roberto, are alive. Flaco reports Joanna to DCFS, saying she is gangbanging and slanging drugs. A children’s social worker investigates, removes the children from Joanna’s custody and places all the kids with Roberto.

“I don’t know how I got through it, but I did.” Joanna’s voice is flat. “When they took my kids away, I decided I was gonna concentrate on being a mother. I wanted my kids back, I was not gonna have another baby. I decided to get an IUD. The doctor told me this would guarantee I wouldn’t get pregnant.”

Joanna is decidedly not a nun. In a few weeks, she begins a relationship with Bullet, who belongs to a neighborhood that is one of her gang’s rivals. After they break up, Joanna discovers she is pregnant. “I had the IUD in, and I didn’t know why I was throwing up and not getting my period. I couldn’t believe I was pregnant. All the doctor said was, ‘These things happen.’ I kept thinking, Why? Then I thought maybe this was the baby I was getting back—because my son had died. So I couldn’t get an abortion. I told Father Greg what had happened, and I asked him if he would help me. I’ll always remember what he said: ‘I’ll be there till the wheels fall off the bus, kiddo.’ And he meant it.” I can hear Greg’s voice speaking those words. But there is more. The baby—a little boy—is born premature with underdeveloped lungs and one kidney instead of two. His first two years are punctuated by a series of medical emergencies. He cannot breathe on his own, requiring an oxygen tank. He is undersized and the doctors doubt he will ever walk. Then his kidney begins to fail. “Why did God give me another baby who isn’t going to live?” Joanna cried.

“These women,” Greg tells me, “their pain is so deep.”

A week later, Joanna calls me and says she wants to talk. We meet, and she tells me about Bullet. They are back together, trying to take care of their son, whom they call Poco Marcos—Little Marcos. That morning, she found the bag of works—spoons and syringes—that he had hidden from her. Bullet loves to slam crystal meth between his gers. He is a sad little bad boy who alternately lives with his mother and depends on Joanna. He will never take care of Joanna, which is the one thing she craves. Underneath her tattoos and her gold jewelry and her acrylics, all Joanna wants is to lay down her head. Instead, she is in charge of everyone.

“I don’t wanna go on this way,” Joanna tells me. “I don’t know why, but when I had Marcos, that’s when I decided I had to change.”
I know why. Little Marcos represents a chance for Joanna to try again—to have a normal family with birthday parties and friends, a life unfettered by drugs hidden in diapers or Daddy hitting Mommy. But she is not there yet. I know this because I am always meeting Joanna in public—at Homeboy, at a restaurant. Unlike the other women who ask me to visit them at home, I am never invited to Joanna’s house. I suspect it is crawling with Florencia-13.

“Joanna won’t have anyone over,” a homie tells me. “Her house is too crazy, trust me.” I am not alone. No one is invited to kick it at
Joanna’s.

“What do you want to do about Bullet?”

“Fuck him. He’s slamming again,” Joanna spits out. I am worried about Joanna—how on earth is she making it financially? Is she dealing again? I don’t want to ask, I don’t want to know.

Two days later, a group of homies and their kids, including Joanna and Bullet, all go to Magic Mountain. Joanna calls to tell me there has been trouble with Bullet. She begins reading the X-ray of their relationship. “I love Bullet,” she tells me, “but I am not in love with him. Do you know what I mean?”

Sadly, I do. I loved my first husband deeply—the way I would a brother. But my second marriage is different; with Mark I am truly “in
love.” I try to explain.

“See, you did it right,” Joanna says, sighing. “I was in love with Silent. I only love Bullet—not the ‘in love’ part. And we fight so much.” Joanna tells me that coming home from Magic Mountain, Bullet began to ridicule her. “I can kick your ass,” he taunted. She tells me that they were fighting inside of their minivan with children in the car. She looks at me anxiously.

“You think I am a fool in the car, banging with Bullet in front of the kids,” she starts.

“Not really. I am thinking that my husband and I bang too. Just like you and Bullet.”

Joanna is looking at me skeptically.

“I don’t hit him—but we bang—with words.”

As of late, things had been tumultuous at home. A few days before, Mark had announced he was traveling to the FBI Hazardous Devices School in Huntsville, Alabama; he would be gone for a week. The whole plan made me furious—but I couldn’t say anything. Intellectually, I knew I was being unreasonable. But emotionally, I did not want to stay home and be solely responsible for Shannon. I was worried about Joanna’s stability and Big Mike’s safety and my homies’ illegal enterprises. I try to explain my rage, but I also tell Joanna that Mark and I have gone to therapy.

“I need to get Bullet to go with me. I really love therapy. I think it would help him to talk. He never tells me his feelings.” Joanna is echoing what has been my mantra through two marriages and numerous relationships.

“Isn’t he in the Building Positive Relationships class at Homeboy?” I ask her.

“I kicked him out. I didn’t want him there. I think every woman should take that class alone. Without any men around. The men ruin it. They talk about themselves all the time. They should go away. We don’t need the men there. We should be able to talk openly. Bullet can go to therapy with me, but I need a place just for women.”

I remember the first consciousness-raising group I attended in the early 1970s and how men were banned from it. I tell Joanna I will call her the next day to see how she is doing, but when I call, her cell phone is disconnected. No one knows where she is.

A day later she calls. She is out in Chino, temporarily living at her aunt’s house.

“Bullet came over to my apartment and we started fighting and he hit me,” Joanna explains. “I can’t take it anymore. I don’t want him to know where I am. I told him I was going to Texas to visit some of my cousins. I just don’t wanna see him.”

Two months after this break, Joanna tells me that Little Marcos is sick. So sick that kidney surgery is scheduled for the first week in November. Joanna arranges for Marcos to be baptized at Dolores Mission Church, the tiny parish in East Los Angeles where Greg Boyle was once pastor. It is a heartbreaking ceremony. Her son looks so small and perishable, and Joanna is clearly terrified. It is the first and only time I have seen Joanna openly falling apart.

In my wildest dreams I could never imagine feeling close to someone like Joanna. But then again, there was a time when I could not imagine being a mother. Watching Joanna gently kiss the crown of her son’s head, I think about how I would feel if Shannon were endangered. We are not bitches, we are mothers. My heart cracks open.

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