This is a teen-written article from our friends at Represent Magazine, a platform for and by young people in foster care. Some details from this young woman's story have been changed.
At age 13 I got fascinated with the gang members in my neighborhood. About 20 of them—big, built Latino and black guys, plus a few girls—played handball in a small park near my home. They had tattoos, and they walked as if they were untouchable.
In the hood, being untouchable and feared earned you points and it attracted me. I liked the respect they got from people and how they protected each other. They always seemed to have each other’s back. If one of them needed to go somewhere, even if it was just to the store, they would all go with him to make sure that he was safe. If one were to fight, they all fought. They seemed to me like a family.
I hung out in the park by myself, watching them. After two weeks they started to ask me where I was from, what school I went to, and other general questions.
Meanwhile, there was a lack of communication at home with my own family. I had no doubt that my parents loved me to the max, and they provided me with everything I needed. But they didn’t try very hard to understand me.
It was a strict household: My parents were always right and I was always wrong. They wouldn’t stick up for me when I got in trouble at school. They never really took the time to listen to my problems; instead they criticized me. They never tried to understand where I was coming from or asked me if something was bothering me.
One girl was in the park all the time. She looked about 20 years old. She was always around the guys, and the other girls followed everything she did or said, like they feared her. She looked like a model with her long, curly, black hair, plump lips, and caramel skin. Her style was impeccable; she always wore designer clothes. She would sit next to me at the handball courts while I told her what was bothering me at home and at school. She listened to me and comforted me.
A Tempting Invitation
This beautiful girl turned out to be the leader of all the girls in the gang. One day, in the middle of our conversation, she said, “Feel free to join us. We have a meeting tomorrow and you can come and check out what we’re about and I promise you won’t be disappointed. We’re like real sisters.” With a smile on my face I said, “Bet I will be there.”
When I got to the meeting, she greeted me with a smile and introduced all the girls. She said, “We’re all about loyalty, respect, honesty, and unity. We encourage everyone to go to school and do the right thing, and we’re always by each other’s side through our times of adversity, like a real family.”
I had heard of gangs where you had to have sex or get brutal beatings by multiple members to get initiated. “What do I have to do to be down?” I asked the leader. With quickness she replied, “You just have to hold your own and act like a lady. Make sure nobody ever tries to bring you down, and never back down from a challenge because we fear absolutely nobody. Just live by our laws of conducting yourself well.”
It sounded too easy: I knew at the end of the day it was still a gang and sooner or later I would encounter violence and dangerous situations. But it sounded like the other gang members would risk themselves for me, too, so I ignored the thoughts of danger and said, “Oh really? Sounds easy.” I was 13, but I told them I was 14.
I quickly saw the true colors of the gang. I wasn’t encouraged to do well in school at all. My first week I was already getting phone calls from gang leaders to leave school to go fight and drink in the morning. The only point of these orders seemed to be to prove their control over me. Their everyday lives revolved around fighting enemies and claiming more territory on the streets so everybody would know that we ran everything.
Three weeks into my initiation, we were all in the “trap,” the house where we used to kick it, when they decided to bring out the liquor. At that time I had only just started drinking and they were all aware of that. But they still egged me on to drink more and more. But I believed that they were my family, and I had no doubt that they would take care of me if I got intoxicated.
The next morning I woke up on a bed in one of the rooms. I turned to my right and saw two of my “brothers” passed out as well. “Damn, we was twisted,” I thought to myself. As I searched around the room for my phone to check the time, I smelled vomit and liquor. Everything was a mess, with things thrown all over the floor.
I had no memory of what had happened the night before. I couldn’t find my phone in the mess, so I picked up one of my “brother’s” phones to check the time. On his phone was a picture of him and my other “brother” with a bottle of liquor in his hand, laughing. Next to them was a girl who looked a mess. Her breasts were out and the guys were each grabbing one and laughing. I thought to myself “What a whore,” and put down the phone.
But then I picked it back up and looked at the girl’s clothes, and I came crashing down on myself. That girl was me. Tears rolled down my face. How could my “family” do this to me? I was ashamed and embarrassed.
I looked on the floor and saw an open condom wrapper. Thinking that I had gotten raped, I started screaming and going crazy. They told me it was a prank they had pulled to teach me not to drink when “I couldn’t handle my liquor.”
It was just cruel. No real family would do that to somebody and they sure as hell wouldn’t take pictures like that as a joke. As I searched my pockets I realized they had stolen the last of my money, too. Was I dreaming or had they really done this to me? They all laughed at the situation. Little did I know that things would get worse.
Two weeks after the drunken party, they had me stab my first victim. He was a male from a rival gang, and I got the order from the head of the gang. It was like they were testing me. They wanted to see what I was about since I was new.
The guy was scared when I approached him on an empty block around 3 a.m. I pulled out my blade and shoved it into his stomach and his back. It didn’t go deep enough to kill him, and he ran away with blood trickling down on the street.
I was so startled at what I had done that I started running away too, hoping nobody had seen. I had had fights in my life, but never one that involved a knife. I felt bad about what I’d done at first. But then my sisters told me they watched what I did from up the block and they were impressed, and I felt some pride.
After that, I had no problem getting down and dirty for my family. I even started feeling a thrill from hurting people. Sometimes I wondered how badly I hurt the people I stabbed or fought, but the more violence I did, the less I cared about anyone outside my gang.
My brothers and sisters boosted my ego the more I put in “work.” The gang members would praise me for taking down enemies in the street, and with that came the reward of higher ranking. Although I wasn’t the highest rank, I was definitely working my way there.
I also thought I was gaining loyalty, that my gang brothers and sisters would do the same for me when I had problems with anybody. But in reality, I was less safe. Becoming one of them meant I now had a lot of beef with other girls. I always had to be strapped in the hood: A weapon was a must.
I got arrested multiple times for committing acts of violence. The last time, I took the blame for an assault that I didn’t do. That got me sent behind bars for three years upstate in juvie.
Being kept away from the world really made me realize what I had gotten myself into. While I was locked up for doing what they wanted me to, my gang “brothers” and “sisters” never sent one letter or visited. When I would call them they would hang up on me. My real family and my childhood friends were the only people to visit me.
I was happy that at least some people cared about me, but I felt alone and abandoned by my other family. I cried for nights and asked God why they didn’t care about me enough to write me a letter or send me money. But the answer was simple—I didn’t need God to figure it out. They weren’t my family.
Gang life wasn’t anything like what they said it would be. I gave it my all; I shared everything I had with them, helped pay their bail, and cut off everything and everyone that didn’t have anything to do with my gang affiliation.
In exchange, I lost my freedom, my education, got myself a criminal record, and my parents suffered. They had to come see their daughter trapped. I only recently came home.
Once I was released, I had to get myself out of the gang because next time it would be the penitentiary or the morgue, not juvie. I told my gang “sisters” that I missed out on a lot of school while I was locked up and I had to get my priorities together. I also said I was having family problems and needed to tend to them.
I couldn’t tell them that I just wanted out; they wouldn’t accept that without putting hands on me. Most gang members think people who leave should be beaten or killed because they know too much. In the hood, that information could be used by cops or even members of other gangs.
So far, however, I’ve managed to keep myself out of harm’s way by always hitting the gang members up online to see how they’re doing. I knew they would come after me if I lost contact with them; that would signify that something was up. I couldn’t afford that. So I’m still stalling, holding them off, pretending I’ll go back to stabbing people for them.
While e-mailing them and taking their calls, I started doing my thing in school and spending more time with my family. I had treated my parents cruelly when I was involved with that gang life: I left and came back to the house whenever I pleased and I talked to my parents as if they were the enemy. I got so carried away that I almost put hands on my mother a few times.
But now that I have a fresh new start, I am trying to change all of that around. I spend more time with my family and our communication has gotten a little better.
If you are looking for respect, attention, loyalty, and a sense of belonging, there are far better choices than gangs. I got involved with activities in school like drama club. I even managed to graduate high school early. I realized I could give myself respect by getting an education. I aspire to go to college and become a journalist, and I’m not going to get there by staying in a gang.
I must admit, I miss the street cred and the thrill of rebellion, but I know those things won’t get me anywhere. Working hard and chasing my dreams don’t give me the same thrill, but they do give me satisfaction. I like having a mind of my own now, and not being controlled by a fake family in the streets.
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Reprinted with permission. Copyright by Youth Communication/New York Center, Inc. See www.youthcomm.org for information regarding reprints of Youth Communication's copyrighted stories.