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Family, Gangs, And The Gang As Family

The term gang often provokes images of violence, drug use and dealing, and crime. However, youth gangs also have other consequences. Gangs can provide youths with a sense of belonging and identity, social support, and solidarity. Gang youths often compare their gangs to family, and in some respects gangs resemble families.

In some neighborhoods, many members of a family have belonged to the same gang. These multigenerational gangs develop in different settings, but have been most often observed among Hispanics. Sanchez-Jankowski (1991) reported that many gang members told him that their families had a long history of gang involvement that included older brothers, and in a considerable number of cases, fathers and grandfathers. Thirty-two percent of the Los Angeles fathers he interviewed said that they had been members of the same gang to which their children now belonged, while 11 percent reported that four generations of their family had membership in the same gang. Miller (2001) indicated that 79 percent of the forty-eight gang females she interviewed had at least one other family member involved in gangs, and 60 percent had more than one. About half of the gang members in Moore's study (1991) of two Chicano/a gangs in East Los Angeles had a relative in a gang. Moore (1991) suggested that while family members may share the same gang, membership is not inherited, or simply passed on from parent to child.

According to Sanchez-Jankowski (1991), tradition plays an important role in multigenerational gangs. He argues that the long history of multigenerational gangs, coupled with parents' former involvement with the same neighborhood gangs, brings a sense of tradition to the gangs. As indicated in a comment by a gang youth Sanchez-Jankowski interviewed, many youths in these neighborhoods feel that their families and community expect them to join a gang:

I joined because the gang has been here for a long time and even though the name is different a lot of the fellas from the community have been involved in it over the years, including my dad. The gang has helped the community by protecting it against outsiders so people here have kind of depended on it . . . I feel it's my obligation to the community to put some time helping them out. This will help me to get help in the community if I need it some time.

Occasionally families are split across gangs. Comments from two gang members in Marjorie Zatz and Eduardo Portillo's study (2000, pp. 392, 391) illustrate that these divisions can be particularly devastating when families belong to two feuding gangs:

They [my relatives] are from different gangs, though . . . but I don't care about them because they be trying to shoot at us all the time. My own uncle shot at me, one of them tried to kill me already, but that's all right.

We can't have family reunions or anything because they are always fighting, like my tios [uncles] fight. At the funerals they fight, or at the park, or at a picnic when we get together, they just fight. So sometimes the family don't get together, only for funerals, that's the only time.

Thus, families contribute to gangs by modeling gang behavior through previous gang membership, providing a sense of tradition to the gang, and even directly contribute to gang violence against their own families when family conflicts with gang membership.

Families also encourage gang involvement when they fail to provide youths with resources and support typically associated with family life. In many cases, families are simply too poor to provide the economic resources that many gangs are capable of supplying. William Brown's (1998) study of seventy-nine African-American gang members in Detroit reveals that 63 percent of youths lived in a family in which their parents were employed only part-time. A comment by a gang member from Sanchez-Jankowski's (1991) study illustrates the possible consequences of parental poverty:

Before I joined the gang, I could see that you could count on your boys to help in times of need and that meant a lot to me. And when I needed money, sure enough they gave it to me. Nobody else would have given it to me; my parents didn't have it, and there was no other place to go. The gang was just like they said they would be, and they'll continue to be there when I need them.

Other family characteristics also contribute to gang life. Many gang members report that they live with parents or stepparents who are alcoholics, chronic drug-users, abusive (physical, sexual, and emotional), or involved in illegal activities. These conditions create considerable stress that youths may try to alleviate by joining a gang. Over a quarter of the women in Moore's (1991) study of East Los Angeles gangs reported that a family member had made sexual advances while they growing up. Almost a quarter of the men and about half of the women resided with a heroin addict during their childhood, and about half of the men and over half of the women had a member of the household die during their formative years. Also, more than half of the men and three-quarters of the women witnessed the arrest of a household member when they were children.

These family stresses may encourage youths to create family-like relationships in the groups to which they belong, and as such, these relationships may represent fictive kin. According to Stack (1974), fictive kin refers to people who are unrelated biologically or by marriage, but use familial labels (e.g., mother or sister) to signify relationships characterized by trust, reciprocity, and commitment. Fictive kin typically originate in settings where people have limited access to economic resources and familial networks. The insecurity and unexpected crises that characterize these settings may quickly transform a friendship into a deeper, more reciprocal, fictive kin relationship.

Ethnographic research highlights the social and emotional support that gangs can provide. In James Vigil's (1988) study, nearly half of the Chicano gang members he interviewed expressed "familial supportive behavior" when explaining the significance of their gang. Mary G. Harris (1988) found a similar pattern among girls in Chicano gangs: "The girls in this study expressed clearly a strong sense of belonging to the gang, and compared gang membership to a family." Gangs often function similarly to family, providing youths with a sense of belonging and identity, social support, solidarity, excitement, fun and new experiences, a sense of protection, and possible opportunities for economic gain. A young woman from Harris's (1988) study states it succinctly: "It was a family. We protected each other. We took care of each other. We stole for each other."

Gangs may compensate for family by providing members with a sense of belonging. Gang youths often refer to their fellow gang members as brothers or sisters, or use other familial labels to describe relationships. These familiarities stress the group nature of their interactions and provide a sense of personal and group identity. Gangs provide youths an alternate source of identity, and are a place (often the only place) for the youths to experiment with their identity (Vigil 1988). A collective ideology of family can instill a sense of brother/sisterhood, and provide the basis for a common ideology, which aids in maintaining group consciousness (Venkatesh 2000). A comment by a male from Moore's (1991) study reflects this pattern:

The year that I was there it was like, umm, they were like family, because we could all take care of each other. . . . I think they were like my own family. I think I was more with them than my own family, because I left them for a while.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Social IssuesGangs - Defining Gangs, Gang Formation, Symbols Of Gangs And Gang Membership, Gangs And Crime, Gangs And Neighborhoods