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Photographs by Felipe Buitrago

Those Were Different Times: Mike Moreno, a former Norteño, put his lifestyle behind him and now works at the MACSA Intervention Center. He remembers when there were no Sureños in San Jose. But the balance of power has shifted between rival gangs since then.

Color Bind

San Jose's gang landscape is changing, with an influx of Sureños threatening Norteño dominance—and leading to an upsurge in violence at gang borders around the city

By Vrinda Normand

MIKE MORENO was 14 the first time he saw a Sureño in San Jose. Walking down Willow Street one afternoon, north of Willow Glen where posh boutiques and cafes become taquerias and supermercados, he passed a few guys wearing blue in front of a liquor store. They spotted his red clothing, sized him up as a rival Norteño, and threw their sign: three fingers and a defiant "Su trece" (your 13).

Moreno just kept going. He had no idea what "Su trece" stood for. He asked an older gang member who knew how Chicano gangbanging divides California into North and South, Norteños vs. Sureños.

"That's your enemy," he told Moreno. "You need to kill them."

So Moreno returned to the liquor store with a few friends and beat the Sureños until they ran away. That was 1986, almost 20 years after the imaginary line was drawn across the state at Fresno. San Jose had become a stronghold for the North.

Back then, Sureños in San Jose were a rare sight, but the rival gang has grown so much in the past 10 years, it is now rumored to match Norteños in size. The nation's 10th largest city is split by blue and red, a phenomenon that doesn't exist in Southern California—where Sureños rule and a Norteño wouldn't be caught dead. The result is an often violent local twist on the statewide battle, fueled by an influx of immigration from Mexico.

Willow Street didn't become a dividing line between two established territories until the mid-'90s, when Moreno found out the hard way just how much his neighborhood had changed. It was 1993 and he was driving with his girlfriend and two homeboys in a car that had been used the night before during an attack on several Sureños. Tensions were high.

They headed to a party on Duane Street, just a few blocks east of the Norteño safe zone. Within a matter of minutes, a crew of young men surrounded their car. The 21-year-old Moreno put up a fight but he was outnumbered. When he got stabbed twice in the back, he pretended the shallow flesh wounds were lethal and fell to the ground as if he were unconscious. The Sureños scattered.

The others had stayed in the car and were unhurt. Moreno was rushed to the hospital and then shuffled to his first stint in prison. He had violated his probation that night. During the next eight years he would find himself in and out of custody for drug and theft crimes. "Every time I came back," he says of returning home, "I saw more Sureño;s. We were trying to run them out but they just kept growing."

At 32, Moreno has put his former lifestyle behind him and works for the MACSA Intervention Center as an outreach educator for young people trying to transition out of gangs. He covers his forearms, which are darkened by a collage of tattoos, with button-down shirts and V-neck sweaters. His piercing brown eyes, once accustomed to staring down the enemy, soften when surrounded by faint smile lines.

Working with high-risk youth reminds him how rough it is on the streets. He also sees how the gangbanging of his childhood has given way to ethnic tensions that run deeper than red and blue clothing.

"It's racism within a race," Moreno says about the rift between Norteños and Sureños in San Jose. "It's like a comedy."

South Gone North

The irony of it all starts with the fact that San Jose is home to so many Sureños. The gang originated as the Mexican Mafia in East Los Angeles among native-born Chicanos. They represent Southern California, and, in theory, only meet their northern rivals in prison.

So how is a local group of Sureños claiming pride for a region that's hundreds of miles away? That's what Junior wants to know. He's a 23-year-old Norteño who was born and raised in San Jose. Like many of his homies, he adopted the Northern creed through generations of family gang members.

His arms and buzzed head are covered with tattoos sporting his affiliation. Careful not to attract too much attention from the cops, he only wears red on the trim of his baggy shorts. "They don't have any knowledge of what they're banging," he says, shaking his head. "Otherwise, why the hell would they be here? If you really think about it, it doesn't make sense."

It doesn't make sense to Southern California Sureños either. Numerous sources say that the Sureños don't fully accept San Jose Sureños when they encounter each other in prison. They call them "plasticos" or fakes and use them to do the dirty work.

Rather than being accepted by other Sureños, San Jose members are more likely to be labeled "Border Brothers," a kinder way of distinguishing them as immigrants. Because most of the self-proclaimed Southerners here do hail from that direction: Mexico.

Local probation officers, police officers, public defenders and community outreach workers all say the majority of Sureños they encounter are foreign-born and Spanish-speaking. The city's population mirrors this divide: according to the 2003 American Community Survey, 32 percent of San Jose residents are Hispanic, and about half of them are immigrants.

While Latinos may be lumped into the same ethnic group by outsiders, cultural differences split much of the community. This conflict is playing out on the streets, where gang rivalries are based more on immigration status than on neighborhood.

Everyday fights among competing gang members can break out for small infractions: looking at someone the wrong way, venturing into an enemy's territory, tagging someone else's wall or fence. In San Jose, however, combative attitudes like these tend to be reinforced with racist views of the other side.

"I see Mexicans come over here as Sureños," says Desiree, a 26-year-old former Norteña. "They cause a lot of trouble. They think they can get away with anything 'cause they're not American. They can just give a fake Social Security Number. Their attitude is if they get deported, they'll just come back."

Further irony: That attitude toward immigrants has led many of them to seek out membership in Sureño gangs, where they think they'll find protection.

Nine Inch Nailed: At this arrest on Willow Street, officers confiscated a pound of marijuana, crystal meth and a knife with a 9-inch blade.

Random Violence On the Rise

On a recent weekend in August, five guys ended up at Regional Medical Center for injuries resulting from four gang-related assaults, a SJPD spokesman reports. All occurred in the King and San Antonio area, a neighborhood that flip-flops between Norteño and Sureño control. The first victim had his head smashed by a brick while sitting in a car at a red light. The second and third were stabbed multiple times while walking down the street at midnight. Around the same time and in the same area, a fourth was stabbed and brought to the emergency room. The next day, another was chased by two cars full of gangsters and jumped.

SJPD Sgt. Paul Kelly says random assaults like these, by hotheaded gangsters targeting anyone they suspect of being an enemy, are more common than the organized hits that were prevalent 10 to 15 years ago.

He turns the wheel of his blue, unmarked sedan with a confident grip—exuding the kind of composure that comes with 12 years of law enforcement experience. Four of them have been spent on the SJPD gang unit, roving through high-risk neighborhoods, questioning gang members, and coordinating special operations to arrest fugitives and violent offenders.

On this sunny August afternoon he cruises through a crowded street near McLaughlin in central San Jose. Multistory apartment buildings are stacked along each side. A teenage boy slouches on the front steps leading to one of the complexes. Large black sunglasses and a white bucket hat boasting the letters "LA" shade his face. Put together with his wife-beater and baggy jean shorts, he resembles a cholo from the early '90s.

The reference to Southern California and the old-school look tell Sgt. Kelly this kid is a Sureño. And most likely he's not the hard-core gangbanger he identifies with. "The Sureños here are a completely different breed than the Sureños down south," Sgt. Kelly says. As a newer gang, he explains, they're less organized and less rooted in particular areas of the city.

They tend to cluster in low-income apartment complexes, during the past 10 years appearing in pockets next to or within larger Norteño territories. Sureños can be found all over San Jose: in the Washington area between Almaden Avenue and Second Street; north of downtown near McLaughlin and San Antonio; in East Side complexes like Kollmar Drive and Poco Way; and on the south side near Tully Road.

Because most Sureños are immigrants or from immigrant families, Sgt. Kelly says they tend to be more economically disadvantaged than many Chicano Norteños who have established lives in San Jose. More Norteños own homes and have controlled certain neighborhoods for decades. Their territories are larger and more spread out: in the Burbank District; in the Willow and Alma areas; on the East Side along Story Road and on the blocks surrounding Ocala and King Roads; north of downtown in the Roosevelt area; and in between Alum Rock Avenue and McKee Road near Highway 680.

Gangs protect their 'hoods with watchful eyes. Some patrol their streets on foot; others get word from kids on bikes who whistle at the sight of an intruder. Gangsters looking for trouble will venture deep into the enemy's territory.

'I Thought My Gang Was Everything'

A silver cross glistens against the contrast of Miguel's dark gray shirt and deep brown skin. The 17-year-old Sureño was released from the Boys Ranch, a juvenile detention facility, just two weeks ago. He wears a slightly bewildered expression, as if he is still adjusting to the new life he has been plunged into.

"I thought my gang was everything," he says in a soft voice with only a hint of a Spanish accent. "They were like my family. I realized that wasn't true the first time I got locked up."

Three years ago, Miguel met a young Sureño in summer school and started hanging out with him. They would smoke weed with the homeboys in their small gang. Soon Miguel got "jumped in" or initiated by letting the others fight him, but he still thought it was all a joke. He didn't really understand what he was getting into.

Five months later, he ran away from home and joined a larger gang. They were all immigrants like him, born in Mexico and brought to the United States by their parents. When Miguel settled in east San Jose at 10 and started the sixth grade, he didn't speak a word of English. Many of his fellow Sureños had gone through the same thing. The kept allegiance to their home country and maintained many of their cultural customs, but they also adopted the viciousness of street life.

By 15, Miguel knew gangbanging wasn't a joke. He got a taste for violence and would end up in custody five times in the next two years for assaulting Norteños with a bat. His rivals called him "scrapa" and "surata," derogatory terms for a Sureño, and yelled at him: "Why don't you go back to L.A.? What are you doing banging up here?"

Miguel shrugs his shoulders. He says Sureños must be "more down" than Norteños because they have the guts to go outside Southern California, a place where the Northerners would never go. But one time he went with a friend to visit some Sureños in L.A. and they didn't even like him. They called him "media trece," which means "half 13" or "half Sureño."

The young gangster found himself stuck in the scene, using crystal meth and spending his nights at momos, hotel-room parties filled with drugs and sex.

He didn't know it at the time, but a girlfriend named Maria would be his way out. She was two years older and never got into gangbanging. She sits by his side today, her friendly brown eyes encouraging him to talk about his turnaround. Now she's 19, just graduated from high school. Several months ago, she gave birth to a baby girl.

Miguel says the hardest part about serving time at the ranch was not being able to see his daughter. When he finally did, after being released, he decided he wasn't going to return to his former ways. He told his homeboys about his new family, and they let him go. It's hard not to see his friends anymore, he says, "But I gotta make it."

While it was the excitement and danger of the gang lifestyle that lured Miguel, many young immigrants join for protection or retaliation. Tony Rodriguez, a gang intervention specialist at the Washington Youth Center, works with many Sureños who claim they were picked on by Norteños for being Mexican.

"They have no means of defense so their anger gets built up inside," he explains. "They need acceptance somewhere and Sureños give them that."

Sometimes kids will get labeled by association if they hang out with other immigrants at school who are wearing blue or happen to claim Sureño. Young Chicanos who don't know any better will call them Sureño just for speaking their native language. Rodriguez grew up afraid to say anything in Spanish around his Norteño friends.

Norteños often mock Sureños for being wannabes or imitating the Chicano gangbanging they see in movies like American Me and Blood In, Blood Out. But Rodriguez says Sureños may even be more dangerous because of this. "They think they're real but they're not validated by the [Southern California] Sureños in prison," he says. "They're trying harder to prove themselves."

Easy Targets

As Sgt. Kelly rolls down Almaden Avenue at Willow Street, he points to a spot on the sidewalk where 10 Sureños were hanging out the night before. Although they control this intersection, he worried they were making themselves an easy target for a drive-by shooting.

An elderly Mexican man sitting against the wall of a supermercado across the street says people have been shot at this intersection before. Hector's speech is slurred by age and missing teeth, but his eyes are still good. He sees Norteños and Sureños glare at each other as they cross paths on the sidewalk. During the daytime, he says, most of these interactions don't go further than a snide remark.

In the midst of street scuffles and assaults, hard-core gangbanging persists. Norteños have more prison connections and established criminal networks, but Sgt. Kelly says Sureños are starting to turn up rap sheets just as long. Intelligence is difficult to gather when the activity is so unpredictable, he explains, but once in a while, he'll strike the right nerve.

It's about 5pm this Monday and Sgt. Kelly pulls over a man in the Roosevelt neighborhood whom he suspects of being a wanted Norteño gang member. It turns out he isn't the same guy but starts giving all the wrong answers. The officer asks him to get out of the car, pats him down and snaps handcuffs around his wrists. The broad-shouldered gangster offers no resistance, and after being questioned, hunches over with a defeated expression.

When backup arrives, the officers discover a black laptop bag in the trunk—stuffed with a pound of marijuana, two cigarette boxes full of crystal meth and a knife with a 9-inch blade. Hidden in the pockets of the bag are letters and detailed drawings from Norteños in prison, as well as photos of the driver and his homeboys posing with guns.

Sgt. Kelly says the gangster opened up without prodding, admitting that he couldn't get a job because of the way he looks: tattoos covering his arms and a long ponytail on his buzzed head. So he resorted to drug dealing to pay back bail from the last time he landed in jail. The 20-year-old is caught in a vicious cycle. By the look on his face, he seems to know it will be years before he sees this tree-lined street again.

Beyond Stigma: Writer and youth educator David Madrid says the 'Just say no' approach of traditional anti-gang campaigns doesn't take into account how big a factor gangs are in the lives of many young people.

Lost Cause

The Norteños began in the late 1960s as Nuestra Familia, a California prison gang that broke away from the Mexican Mafia, allegedly to escape internal corruption. They adopted the red flag and huelga bird symbol from Cesar Chavez's movement in response to the stereotype that all Northern California gangsters were farmers. Their goal was to protect the integrity of the cause: to fight for racial equality.

Ironically, they ended up fighting their own people. While some gang education includes Chicano history and Brown Pride overtones, many young Norteños have no clue about their background. And in a strange local twist, they are now attacking the very people they originally formed to defend: migrant workers.

"Gangs are a symptom of internalized war in the Latino community," says Mario Ozuna-Sanchez, a manager of the intervention center run by Mexican American Community Services Agency (MACSA). Discrimination sank in so deep, he explains, that some Chicanos began to hate their own Mexican culture.

"When I believe that I am negative and I don't know why, I'm going to lash out," he says. "That's why we kill each other. Because we don't even like ourselves."

Gangs are a way to channel that hatred and give kids a false sense of pride. That's where Ozuna-Sanchez and his team come in. They offer young gang members a more genuine pride in their background, incorporating indigenous Mexican culture that unites Latinos wherever they are born.

For example, the red that Norteños have adopted has another meaning. Ozuna-Sanchez says the native people of Mexico honored the color as the sacred symbol of change.

"We need to start learning positive things about our culture," he says. "We need to give kids a greater sense of purpose."

Silicon Valley De-Bug (a grassroots collective made up of young artists, writers, educators and activists) writer and youth educator David Madrid also believes that kids are looking for something bigger to belong to, something they can stand for. Gangs, in a sense, have become the social movements that misguided youth join to fulfill this need.

On some level, he believes gangs can be honorable. "The mayor's gang task force calls them anti-social forces," he says. "But in reality, gangs are the community. They're not outside forces coming into neighborhoods."

Not to imply that everything about these street organizations is good, Madrid admits. His point is that they represent a longstanding tradition in San Jose that can't be shooed away with a "Just say no" type campaign. When the 27-year-old hosts writing workshops with middle school and high school kids, he doesn't bombard them with "you could end up like this" stories.

Instead, he asks them what they think. He gets them talking about their own lives so he can learn from them what's going on. He's found that kids as young as 12 are voicing the cultural differences that separate Latinos.

Sureños say Norteños don't understand what it's like to be Mexican, that they're sellouts. Norteños say the city is being "infested" with immigrants and wannabe Sureños who don't know what they're doing.

Traditional gang intervention approaches, Madrid says, often overlook this phenomenon. "The city's approach is based on a superficial analysis," he argues, "and cannot possibly address the deeper issues of gang culture."

Keeping kids busy with after-school programs or jobs isn't enough, Madrid explains. "We gotta give them something they can own, an identity. There has to be something to replace those ideologies."

Second Chance

Moreno, the former Norteño who grew up in the '80s in San Jose, used to be one of those kids who couldn't see any farther into the future than tomorrow. He was born in San Jose and raised by a Mexican immigrant mother. He got involved with gangs when he was 10, in the early 1980s before Sureños were around. Becoming a Norteño, he says, was a part of becoming American and pushing away his heritage.

As a child, he spoke mainly Spanish and was put in special education classes for his language barrier. But that only made him feel dumb. He resented being treated differently from the other kids and began to hate speaking Spanish. When he saw Mexican immigrants at the store, he would call them "fucking wetbacks."

One time he said this while his mother was standing next to him. She looked at him with wide eyes and said, "What the hell do you think I am? What the hell do you think you are?"

At the time, he really didn't know who he was. His biggest aspiration was to go to prison so he could gain the respect that seasoned Norteños got from serving time. He admired the wealthy drug-dealing gangsters who had multiple girlfriends and never worked. He thought that's what he wanted.

It would take nearly 20 years of life on the streets and behind bars to realize he was wrong. In 2001, he returned home from prison after facing a potential life sentence and figured he had been given a second chance. He married the woman that had stood by his side for 12 years and had a child with her.

Moreno left his gang peacefully, gradually spending most of his time at work and with his family. His homeboys respected him for what he did in the past, he says, and let him pursue another life. He still lives in the same neighborhood but no longer associates with the same people because he knows the streets are an addiction that he could succumb to again.

To avoid this, Moreno keeps himself constantly busy. As an outreach educator at MACSA, he helps other kids make the transition. He shows them how to fill their lives with school, work, programs, and family so they no longer have time for their homeboys.

Through his involvement with MACSA, Moreno has also regained the cultural pride that he shunned in his youth. He now sees the original Norteño cause from a different point of view. "How are you going to fight for equality or justice," he says, "if you don't know what you are or where you come from?"

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From the August 31-September 6, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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