Transnational and Local Communities: How Mexican Gangs get Made in New York

By Robert Smith

Migration has both local and transnational dimensions. Many of the problems that immigrants face ð for example, disruption of family and social life and exploitation at work are experienced both in their country of origin and their country of residence. And problems that first arise in immigrant communities in the US can migrate back to the country of origin. This is the case with Mexican gangs.

In Mexico, there is a growing problem with pandillas (gangs) in towns and villages in the rural Mixteca region of the Mexican state of Puebla, which supplies the majority of Mexican immigrants to New York City. There you can see gang “tags” or graffiti, and increased levels in a variety of social ills, including drug abuse and violence due to inter-gang tensions between locals and returning gang members from the US. These problems and tensions are compounded during the months when migrants return for the feast of their patron saint. In many cases, young migrants and US-born youth return for a month or two, and find themselves in a largely unstructured environment. Moreover, a small but increasing number of US-born youth returns on a medium- or long-term basis. Between 5-10% of the local school population in a village I studied were US-born migrants who returned home.

Roots in New York

The pandillas and problems associated with them have their roots in Mexico and the US. In New York, the problem of pandillerismo has one root in the strains put on family life and on parent/child relations when both caregivers wind up working long hours. The children suffer because they do not receive adequate attention or guidance after school. This problem is especially pronounced among young men. Unlike their sisters, who usually clean and cook and look after their siblings after school, young men have few obligations placed on them. Pandillerismo prospers in this void.

Discrimination is another factor. Mexicans as an immigrant group in New York emerged quite suddenly during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Their numbers more than doubled in the 1990s, to more than 250,000 in 1998, from about 40,000 in 1970 and 100,000 in 1990. The growth in the last ten years has been catalyzed by the 1986 IRCA amnesty program, which has reunited many Mexican families in New York. This sudden public presence of Mexicans engendered a hostile and discriminatory response from other groups, including other immigrant groups. Mexican youth have formed gangs in response to these negative social reactions. An interesting point is that the more recent pandilleros in New York seem to be first generation immigrant youth, not the second generation US-born Mexican Americans, who many researchers suggest are the likely candidates for gangs. There are a variety of reasons for this. More migrants are arriving from Mexico City, where they were gang members. They also face discriminatory treatment from other minority groups. The end result is a much larger population of Mexican and Mexican American youth at risk for gang involvement and related problems.

Roots in Mexico

In Mexico, the problem of returned US-born migrant children and gangs has several dimensions. Parents send their children back as teenagers, usually after experiencing problems in the US with their general behavior, in school, or with gangs. In large part, parents send their teens back thinking that they will learn the culture, how to behave and show respect ð that is, become more Mexican, develop more ethnic pride, and do better in school as a result. In some instances, these hopes may be realized. But in many cases this scenario is a recipe for disaster. Young males return to the pueblo of their memory, where older men have the authority, a tight social structure controls behavior, and everyone is poor and works in agriculture. But this pueblo no longer exists.

The young people return to a pueblo that is a shadow of its former self. It has a lop-sided population distribution with many old and many very young people, few working age people, and many more women than men. Most income is not from agriculture but remittances from el norte. The returning teenagers don’t really know the pueblo or feel comfortable there. Sometimes they don’t speak the language well. They don’t really know their grandparents, and don’t respect or fear them as the parents in New York expect they will. The grandparents no longer have the physical strength or moral authority to control their teen grandchildren, and may not even be able to communicate with them. The end result is that parents send their troubled teens into an environment in which the mechanisms of social control are weaker even than they are in New York City. The results are often negative.

Dealing with Gangs

What should be done about this situation? One response by a particular town was to build a larger local jail and put the young returned immigrants in it every time they got drunk or made trouble. Now the inside of the jail is covered with gang graffiti. This response deals only with the immediate symptoms of the problem, and not very well. More constructive action could be taken.

The first step is to recognize that there is a problem and learn its dimensions. Gangs don’t manifest themselves in all places, but there is a general pattern of difficulties among returning immigrants. It should be recognized that a majority of the returned immigrants are in town for only two months or less of each year, during the patron saint feast or summer and winter vacations. It should also be recognized that there is a growing minority of medium- and long-term returned immigrants.

Resources and energies should be dedicated to activities oriented towards returned immigrants and youth in the pueblos. Many of the traditional customs are religious in character; they are oriented towards and often more strongly embraced by older adults than returned immigrants. In addition to inculcating a love of these traditions, one suggestion would be to organize more structured events oriented to returning youth during the two months of the year when there are significant numbers of returnees visiting the pueblo. These structured activities could include basketball, soccer, etc. Activities would be organized along the lines of a summer or winter camp. This would bring things more in line with what the migrant parents in New York imagine and hope for. They see a place where it is safe for their children to return and stay on their own. The home villages could also become to a greater degree a place where return immigrants participate in organized activities and where their attachment to the pueblo grows. They could arrange for young adults, perhaps on college vacation, to return and supervise high school and younger returnees. This might help foster a new Mexican diaspora in New York.

Robert Smith, rcsmith(at)Barnard(dot)columbia(dot)edu, teaches in the Sociology Department at Barnard College and the Institute of Latin American and Iberian Studies at Columbia University. 212.854.3663