Friday, October 29, 2010
Kids may dream of becoming an astronaut, teacher or artist when they grow up. But those dreams are shattered for those caught up in gangs. Research shows kids typically join gangs when they're just 13 years old.
KPBS SPECIAL COVERAGE
SAN DIEGO Kids may dream of becoming an astronaut, teacher or artist when they grow up. But those dreams are shattered for those caught up in gangs. Research shows kids typically join gangs when they're just 13 years old.
Photos of bright-eyed babies hang on the walls of Jasmine's house. She is one of six kids in her family. Jasmine holds up a photo of a happier time.
"Here's a picture of all of us. My older sister is getting married. None of us were in gangs. Everything was perfect," she said.
Jasmine, not her real name, is 20 years old. Among her many tattoos are a cross and a rosary.
She lives with her mom in Logan Heights, just east of downtown San Diego.
Jasmine's mom is from Guatamala. She works long hours cleaning houses to take care of the family. Jasmine's dad is not in the picture. She says her mom tried her best but would often beat her kids to keep them in line.
"I don't hate her for that. I used to when I was under the influence. I used to hate her. I wished for her to die."
Jasmine and one of her older sisters turned to drugs to escape. She did meth. Her sister did heroin.
She says things really began to unravel when her sister started hanging out with the neighborhood street gangs. She would beat Jasmine and threaten her mom.
"I would just sit there and take it," Jasmine said. "I didn't think I could hit her back. She would bring hell in this house. It was hell. She would tell my mom to die. I couldn't stand her talking to my mom like that no more."
Ironically, Jasmine followed in her sister's footsteps. Researchers say following family members into gangs is typical.
Since all she knew was violence, she found herself beating up on her little brothers and other kids at school. She says the only people who accepted her were other gang members. Now she says using her fists is the only way she knows how to communicate. She got into a fight with a rival gang member just three weeks ago.
"I grabbed him and slammed his head against the wall again and again. When I fight, I'm going to fight until you really get hurt. That's why I don't like fighting because I fight really savage."
Gang specialists say kids join gangs because they come from dysfunctional homes where there is physical, mental or sexual abuse. There might be drug dealing and prostitution. Others live in poverty, which Jasmine says leads to a life of committing crime.
"People don't understand that if our parents kick us out, we need to go steal something (to survive). I've stolen cars before and I stolen things from cars to sell them because I was hungry. I needed to do that. I needed to survive."
And in a gang family, going to prison becomes an accepted way of life, similar to going to college. But even Jasmine admits gangs offer a false sense of protection. Fellow gang members can turn on you.
"You never know when you're going to bump into that person," said Jasmine. "They're going to have a gun or a knife and that's the end of you."
One of her sister's is serving eight years in prison for assault. Her little brother is in juvenile hall for crime she didn't want to reveal. He's just 15 years old. Jasmine says her biggest regret is passing the gang lifestyle onto her little brothers.
"I beat my brother down. I never said sorry to him. I cut him. I threw a plate at him and slit his leg open. My cousin would just sit there and watch. Why didn't no one stop me? Why didn't no one stop me, you know?
A 2008 SANDAG report on gang involvement indicates one in three gang members said they wanted to end their affiliation with gangs. However, one-quarter of those gang members felt they couldn't leave due to fear of retaliation or because their family members were in the gang as well.