The first time Jose had a gun pointed at him was five years ago, when he was 14 years old.
He was sitting on the curb at 21st and Folsom streets waiting for a friend when a car slowed and a pistol appeared in the opened window, aimed straight at him. The man brandishing the weapon said only two letters, “m” and “s,” for Mara Salvatrucha, a criminal street gang.
“I actually got angry,” said Jose, whose name has been changed. “I just looked at him and yelled, ‘Are you serious?’”
The gangbanger looked a little stunned by the response, said Jose. He cocked the pistol back and said “pow, pow,” pretending to shoot, but then the car drove on.
On Saturday, when Jose spoke with Mission Loc@l, he was riding the 9 San Bruno bus, which runs along Potrero Street. Christopher Borgzinner, a young actor from Portola who appears in the film La Mission, was aboard the same bus on his way to a class in the Mission last Monday, when a gang member asked him what gang he claimed. He denied any affiliation, and was beaten badly, left with bone fractures around both eyes. Borgzinner suspected he’d been singled out and attacked because he wore red sneakers that day.
According to expert testimony from officers in the Mission District gang injunction, the kind of attack that Borgzinner suffered is not unusual. It’s common for gang members to accost people on the street and demand to know which gang they claim. If they happen to be wearing a rival gang’s color, “the person will likely be physically attacked,” reads the injunction.
Jose doesn’t belong to a gang, and never has. He’s careful not to wear red or blue, the colors of the respective Norteño and Sureño gangs that have dominated the Mission. But trouble still finds him. Since the age of 13, Jose has been stopped a dozen times on the streets surrounding his home on 23rd Street by gang members demanding to know who he claims.
“At first it was scary,” the 19-year-old said.
“But now it’s normal,” he said. “It’s just become a routine.”
In and around the Mission District, wearing the wrong color in the wrong place at the wrong time can be dangerous, according to the gang injunction, which cited one example from 2004 when a pregnant tourist was beaten with a metal bat by an injunction-listed gang member after being forced to unzip her jacket to reveal a blue sweatshirt underneath.
The tactic, according to the gang injunction, is used to “foster a pervasive climate of fear and intimidation” in the community.
But hardly anyone interviewed Saturday in the Mission District felt threatened by the gangs.
“I’m wearing blue and this is supposed to be a red area,” said one young store owner on 24th Street.
“They usually mess with people that they know,” he said. “It’s not random — they know who they’re looking for.”
Still, he’s careful to maintain good relationships with the gang members that frequent his store, which is why he asked that his name be withheld. He knows who they are because they buy only red-colored merchandise.
“I know they’re doing their thing,” he said. “As long as you show a certain level of respect for them, things are alright.”
Two girls, aged 12 and 15, who were waiting at a Potrero Street bus stop on Saturday afternoon on their way to a movie, said they lived peacefully alongside gangs.
“It’s not really that important for us, because it’s what they’re doing — it’s their thing,” said the younger girl. Her brother and several of her cousins are in gangs in Fremont.
“It’s not about killing,” she said about her relatives’ affiliation with gangs. “They’re expressing themselves; they’re representing where they come from.”
Some of the 15-year-old’s friends are in gangs too — she lives in Valencia Gardens, a public housing development on Valencia and 15th streets. There, gang affiliations are shown by red or black rags that are tied to belts or stuffed into back pockets.
Sometimes she wears a red rag to school at John O’Connell High School. It’s led to a few arguments, she said, with people who are “beefing with VG,” she said, referring to Valencia Gardens.
When asked why she wears the rag, the girl, who is small and delicate with bright eyes and a shy smile, was unsure at first. After thinking for a moment she responded.
“I guess I just wear it to show where I’m from and who I roll with,” she said.
For Jose, the simple act of being young, Latino and male in the Mission often designates him as a gang member, whether he claims an affiliation or not. Even outside of the gangs he’s singled out. Once, he said, a middle-aged white man coming out of a bar near his home screamed at him, saying he and his gang were messing up the neighborhood.
But his family and friends are here, and he’s not planning on leaving the Mission anytime soon.
“I really love this city,” he said. “I take the good with the bad.”