This is the story of Gato and Alex, two Salvadorans who as children became refugees from America’s war in their homeland only to become rivals in America’s gang war on the streets of Los Angeles. When these two homeboys finally turned their lives toward peace, there was no safe place for them. They were among the New Untouchables, the supposedly incorrigible “superpredators,” whose specter justified the war on gangs that has become the worst police scandal in Los Angeles history.
As a little boy, Gato (“the cat”), who got his eventual street name because of his feline eyes and agility, saw his father shot in the head by a death squad in his front yard in the San Salvador barrio of Modelo. The shooters came in a car with tinted windows and left no explanation. Gato kept a chain of Our Lady given him by his father, which became his only link to his boyhood, because the war made refugees of his mother, his brother and himself. Along with tens of thousands of Salvadorans in the eighties, Gato landed in the Pico-Union immigrant barrio under the corporate towers of LA, now one of the densest urban neighborhoods in America.
As a schoolboy in LA, Gato had an initial distaste for the cholos, the gangbangers and dropouts hanging on the corner. He wanted to get a job and fulfill the traditional immigrant aspiration. It was not to be. Someone from a nearby gang called him a chuntero–an untranslatable putdown of immigrants–and ripped off the chain of Our Lady. Gato wanted to retrieve his father’s chain on his own, but his new friends convinced him he required protection–that he needed to belong to a “neighborhood” with “homies” of his own, who would back him up in his quest for the chain. So he was “jumped into” (hazed and initiated into) the 18th Street Gang, then mainly composed of Mexican immigrants. To assert his own identity, Gato tattooed “El Salvador” in big block letters on his chest, larger than the 18th Street symbols. His Mexican homies objected at first, but 18th Street had started to incorporate large numbers of Salvadorans. The new immigrants claimed turf and identity in a hostile new world, escaping from one war zone in El Salvador to another one in America.
It may be impossible to explain the ensuing phase of Gato’s life to anyone safely distant from the cycles of urban violence. The superpredator theory is popular; it attributes violence to the genes, for which there is no cure but the superior violence of the state. To locate gang violence in underlying social factors has been discredited by both Republicans and New Democrats. But neither stern punishment nor exhortations to personal responsibility have prevented the violence.
A better way to look at gang violence is through the mirror, as an underclass mimicry of institutional violence, including state, corporate and entertainment violence. Nation-states, including our own, frequently inflict savage punishment to project power and preserve reputation. Not to do so is thought to invite aggression. We engage in arms races and compete to control resources like oil, while gangs assemble weapons to control the drug underground. We fight over flags. They fight over colors. They are entranced by films about Italian, Jewish and Irish gangsters, and the new gangs emulate those movies in the belief that it is the American way. So there is a certain logic to the madness that Gato began to display.