Gangs, Colors and Teen Life

Red and blue clothes dot the Mission's streets.

Red and blue clothes dot the Mission's streets.

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.”

11 Comments

  1. blonko

    i’m sure the bologna family will love this article. you know…the good with the bad, who you roll with, where you’re from.

  2. elcalifornio

    This article really lacks content. A poor piece of reporting on a serious topic. The fact that it sucks lets me know that you have no idea what it was like to have been a latino male growing up in the Mission. This article could have been so much more. Thank you for doing a half-ass job.

    • Thank you for your comment. And, you’re right this isn’t a complete consideration of the issue, but we wanted to get something up quickly to answer questions about safety that readers might have after the incident on the Muni. It was at my request that the reporter did something in a day. But yes, it’s a complicated story and one we intend to do more on. If you have any insights on life in the Mission for a Latino, we would love to hear them and please get in touch at missionlocal@gmail.com Best, Lydia Chavez

  3. Don’t know what to make of this reporting or what the reporter thinks about the subject. Got to get more sources than the cops and folks hanging out.

  4. robby

    Sure the article is just scratching the surface. But stop hating! All you commenters are just dead weight. Tearing down other people’s work, complaining just because you can. Does that help the author or editor understand what a good article would consist of? Make a suggestion. Write an article yourself. Post a link to a better article. But don’t just complain and criticize, it’s what everyone does in forums, and it’s just weak.

  5. elcalifornio

    Robby,

    I disagree with the “stop hating” comment. I think the editor realized that the article was incomplete and more needs to be written on the subject.

    I agree that it would be helpful to offer insight, but that’s the editor’s job, not mine.

    Here goes some insight, realize which population is most affected by this issue, not business owners or young women.

    This is a bigger issue for Latino males, and thus most of the insight should come from them. When some one is killed in the Mission from gang violence, it is usually a Latino male.

    Hit the streets, talk to students from various middle and high schools.

  6. Alissa Figueroa

    Thank you for your comments. You’re right, young Latino men are the most targeted by gangs. Other Latino man I spoke with in the Mission on Saturday echoed what Jose said, they avoided certain colors and had been stopped and asked who they claim. By adding the store owner and the girls’ perspectives in my story I tried to give a broader community reaction to the Muni incident. But I agree, we need to focus on Latino males in our coverage of this issue. Thank you for your suggestions. Best, Alissa Figueroa

  7. elcalifornio

    Alissa,

    You have the opportunity here to write a great piece, or even a series.

    I think there is a lot of material here, you just have to ask around.

  8. Andree

    The article is scattered, but there’s much to cover. What is it specifically people want to know about? What do people that live or work in the Mission want to say? What do gang members want to say?

    Sometimes a sweatshirt is just a way to keep warm. And shoes a way to protect the foot. It may have NOTHING to do with gang colors.

    There IS a problem with perceptions though. At a grocery store, three youths were seemingly angry at the Coinstar machine.

    They stated they had put money in, but did not get their receipt for the cash. I believed them. I asked the manager about it. He said the kids were lying, and made some kind of reference to the appearance of the kids.

    I then went to the kids, listened some more, went over to the customer service desk. I was told they had checked the machine for the kids and nothing was wrong. It wasn’t out of paper.

    I asked the kids more questions, and still not satisfied with the results from the stores personnel, I put money in the machine myself.

    It MADE printing sounds but NO receipt came out.

    I took my results back to the manager. Told him I put a quarter in and no receipt came out. He still thought the kids were lying and got mad at me and slammed a quarter down on the counter.

    I said that wasn’t the point. The point was that money had been put and nothing came out.

    After getting the customer service person over a second time, it was shown that the receipt paper was JAMMED and had just printed over and over on the same section of paper.

    The young men WERE given their money.

    But only because *I* stopped and worked with them and listened to the problem and believed them.

    They were thankful and appreciative. I mentioned to both the kids and the adults that not all of “the other” are bad or don’t listen or lie or don’t care.

    Bad things happen when people stop listening to each other. Or when people make snap judgments.

  9. Andree

    Lydia, what ARE young folks supposed to do when they get “hate” from adults?

    The word “dis” as in “disrespect” has been around for many years. I think it comes from prejudice and those preconceived notions that THIS person, as a result of their appearance or name or income…ANYTHING that can be considered from a Driver’s License in order to give someone else an advantage.

    If you consider a Driver’s License, you’ll realize that most all information on that card can change. Yes.

    People can choose their hair color or eye color. Folks might gain or lose weight from health problems or exercise or disability (temporary or permanent). A change in address can be instantaneous for young people if their parents move or get transferred via work (the latter of which I experienced).

    The young folks get a lot of crap from peers. “Oh, you live in THAT section…” or “you live in THAT kind of home”. As if the young folks demanded their parents move to a certain area.

    Hello?

    If folks have nutritious food and clean water and protection from the elements, they’re better off than a whole lot of other poeple in this world. Truth!

    Know how many kids DIE each year from not having clean water?

    So, yeah, there should be a pride in where one comes from, and other people who have MORE than basic necessities should shut up. LOL!

    Because another truth is that anyone can end up in anyone else’s position.

    Again, when people stop listening, problems result. “Those people” or “that neighborhood” or “people with that appearance/name” …already puts people in a bad position.

    Unfairly.

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