The Back Gate
The area around the Oceanside pier and boardwalk glistens, picture perfect: palm trees, silver sand, blue water, and crowds of people. It’s easy to see how this town got its name. But there’s a lot more to Oceanside than its ocean side.
To the north is Camp Pendleton, a border that marks Oceanside as the unquestionable end of San Diego County. North of that is frontier.
You can drive east, away from the ocean, covering five long miles on Highway 76, deep into the San Luis Rey Valley, past an indoor shooting range, an airstrip, an old drive-in theater, greenish fields, various neighborhoods, and countless shopping centers, and you’ll think you’ve entered another city. But you haven’t. You’re still in Oceanside.
Turn left on College, right on North River Road, and you’ve reached the last civilian outpost before the back gate of Camp Pendleton. The maps call this neighborhood Mesa Margarita, but everyone knows it as the Back Gate.
The people who live in the $400,000 houses of the Back Gate will tell you that it’s basically a good neighborhood. The place looks average enough and quiet enough to a casual passerby, with careful landscaping and green lawns.
Although…there are an awful lot of high front-yard fences…
Joanne Rush has called the Back Gate home since it was built in the late 1960s. She works as the community assistant at San Luis Rey Valley Resource Center, a little storefront operation on Vandegrift Boulevard, right at the front gate of the Back Gate. Rush, who is white, has been at the center for over 14 years.
Her husband is a Vietnam veteran. The history of the neighborhood dates to that war, when the mostly L-shaped, single-story houses of the Back Gate were built for the wives of soldiers. “We have 32 houses on my street,” Rush says, referring to Ann Street. “And when I moved in, there was only one man who lived here.”
Today, the Back Gate has earned a different reputation altogether, as a hotbed of gang activity.
But Rush, and many other Back Gate residents, suck their teeth at that. “The press always portrays it as such a bad neighborhood,” Rush says. “But we’re good people and we work hard. We’re just waiting for someone to take notice of that.”
Samoans, Part 1:
A Cultural Connection
Everyday Samoan language sounds like spoken song, pouring out like liquid: an ongoing flowing flooding of open vowels.
Samoan traditional clothing is showy and colorful, everything reminiscent of bright flowers.
We’ve all seen Samoans playing football in the NFL. Their body type lends itself to athleticism. As a people, they are generally huge and implausibly agile.
With nearly 5000 Samoans, Oceanside is home to the second largest concentration of Samoans in the United States. The majority of these Pacific Islanders live in and around the Back Gate area.
Many of the Samoans here are descendants of U.S. Marines who were stationed at Camp Pendleton. The first wave came in the 1940s, during World War II, and now four generations call Oceanside home.
At the annual Oceanside Samoan Cultural Celebration last summer, over 200 attendees listened to traditional music, participated in traditional and not-so-traditional dancing, and watched and competed in cultural activities such as banana-peeling contests.
It was a festive scene, and many seemed to connect deeply with the activities. For example, all of the traditional contests pitted grandparents against grammar-schoolers; sometimes, a younger kid won.
Samoans, Part 2:
“Samoan kids are just the most respectful kids,” says Joanne Rush. She’s seated at a plastic indoor picnic table at the Resource Center. “They help clean up, even without being asked. And if they’re vacuuming, after playtime is done, they don’t just drag the vacuum around. They move the furniture and they make sure to do a really good job. I’ve never had a Samoan kid talk back to me or use foul language. And they seem to be pretty much like that with the other kids as well.”
Wayne Godinet, a senior advisor for the Oceanside Samoan Cultural Committee, agrees. “These fourth-generation kids are getting so good at riding the fence,” he shakes his head. “When the sun goes down, they can hang with the bad crowd, and in the morning, they’re real good at meeting their family duties. I mean, some of these kids change into their colors on the bus on the way to school.”
Perhaps the biggest and most high-profile gang in the Back Gate — the Deep Valley Bloods — is over 90 percent Samoan.
One may be led to wonder how such a God-fearing, respectful, and tradition-minded people could also make up a criminal organization like a gang.
A school bus driver took an unofficial survey of Back Gate kids, asking his young commuters what they could ever want with gangs and gang life. The overwhelming response? Protection, protection, protection.
Out of the Mouths of Babes
Dereck, 13, attends Jefferson Middle School. Next year he’ll go to Oceanside High.
“I don’t need protection from a gang,” Dereck says. “God’s my protection.”
But what about the pressure from your peers?
“If someone says, ‘Hey, take a smoke,’ or something like that, and if I don’t want to do it, then they call me names and make fun of me,” Dereck says. “But it doesn’t bother me. They want to call me names, they can call me names. But I’m not going to go that way.”
Why do other kids go that way?
“I think because of the way they grew up,” Dereck says. “Maybe the people they look up to are involved in gangs.”
Jonathan, 20, is in the Navy and lives in the Back Gate.
“I usually stay inside, so I don’t see much,” says Jonathan. “I’m not really an outgoing person. I like playing video games, so…but I’ve heard gunshots before. And sometimes I’ll come home, and I’ll see cops around, with their lights flashing, and then I read stuff in the newspaper. But that’s not very often. It’s not, like, all the time or anything.”