"Being down means backing up your homies, and you’re down for backing them up. You got a reputation."
Duke, an attractive 15-year-old who until recently claimed membership in a Hispanic youth gang, pleaded guilty to armed robbery after a motion to suppress his confession was denied. He was sent by the juvenile court judge to Vision Quest, a rigorous outdoor program for youthful offenders. The prosecutor was pleased with the sentence. “At least I know he’ll suffer,” he said. After Duke was sentenced, I talked with him about why he had joined the gang and if he had any regrets.
You told me that when you were a kid, you thought gangs were dumb. Why was that?
I didn’t know how the gangs really worked. I just knew the gangs were there and a lot of bad things went on with them. Growing up and having my aunt say gangs are no good, gangs are no good. I got the idea in my head that gangs were no good.
Why did you think gangs were no good?
Because everyone told me people get killed. People die. People go to jail and stuff like that.
How old were you when you started to think gangs were okay?
I was around 12 or 13. I started looking at gangs a different way. I’d see gang members at school, and I’d say, well, hey, you know, that don’t look so bad. I never thought about going into a gang because I still had in my head that little thought about people getting hurt and stuff like that.
How did you know these guys at school were gang members?
You can tell by the way they’re dressed. They dress khakis, creased shirts buttoned to the top, hairnets, dark glasses, greasy hair, shirts down their knees, baggy pants.
I would see them. It would catch my eye, and I would just watch them. I would picture myself in their place. What would I be doing in their place. The gang members would have all the girls. I liked the idea when I saw they had all the girls, and they were controlling. They could say whatever they wanted.
How did you go about joining the gang?
One day I would see one of my friends, and he would be dressing different. He would be dressing down like a gang member and talking this and that. Next thing I knew I was doing the same thing. I would just, like, want to be part of the crowd. So I did it. I started saying this and that. We were controlling in our own little way.
What do you mean when you said you started talking this and that?
Just saying whatever we wanted. Telling people to get out of here or shut up. Stuff like that. Having a little power over people.
Were the majority of people in the gang?
We weren’t even from the gang. We would just say we were in the gang for a while. Even though we never went, to Southside, we would just go to school and say we were from Southside. Even if we weren’t going over there, we’d still have control. We’d still have all the girls. All the attention that I would always think about.
Who would give you attention besides the girls?
The other guys. The teachers.
In what way did the teachers give you attention?
By asking the same questions you are. What got you in the gangs. I’d say, I don’t know.
Did the teachers try and discourage you?
No, they would ask because they had already known me from before I was a gang member, and all of a sudden I turned into a gang member, and they asked me what made me make that choice.
What did you tell them?
Being part of the crowd. Everybody else does it. Why not me?
How many people were there in this little gang?
Did the rest of the kids in your gang live in Southside?
No, a lot of them lived in another part of town, but they would just go to school, and they’d be Southside Boys at school. When they got home they’d be nothing. It was different for me because I live in Southside. I can’t do that. Either I claim Southside Boys or I don’t. I knew I wasn’t really claiming because I wouldn’t go over there to where they hang at.
Where did the other kids live?
North Park and other non-gang areas.
What school were you going to?
Roosevelt Junior High.
Where did your gang hang out?
We would hang on 30th Street by a little fence. Nine or ten of us. Guys I met from school. This guy I knew, Jose, would go there and talk to us. He had a car so we kind of looked up to him. We were like, “Wow, wish we had a car,” and he was driving a car. So we’d talk about Jose, and we’d be talking amongst ourselves. We never really met there on a certain day. When we’re not doing nothing we’d go over there after school and kick back. Sometimes there would be girls. We’d sit around and talk. I used to get with the girls a lot. Talk to them or kiss them or be with them. A lot of times the girls would fight because they wanted to be with me.
Were you a good student before you started doing this?
Yeah, I passed seventh grade. About the end of eighth grade is when I started messing up and stuff.
When did you start hanging out with the Southside Boys?
After about a year, we started going down to the ’hood because Jose kicked back with all the older guys. One day we went down there and met him. We just kicked it there.
How did they treat you?
When we first went down there, they wanted to see who we were and see what we were about. They were about four or five years older than us. They’d tell us to go back to our house and get $5 each. Only about five of us came back, the rest of them sissied out and went home.
What did you do with the money?
We all pitched in and bought beer.
Did they give you some of the beer?
Yeah, but I really wasn’t interested in drinking. I was just interested in hanging right there. It was my first time really being there. Wow, I can be here instead of at school.
Were you cutting school?
No, this was after school.
What did you do after you got the beer?
They asked us some more questions. The average stuff. They’d forget our name and they’d ask us again. They’d say, where you from, and I’d say, Southside. They’d say, yeah.
After that day, we’d only go down in groups. I’d be scared to go down there because I didn’t know who they were. They might beat me up and say, hey, get out of here. But I said forget it, I started going down by myself and getting to know them. I wanted them to know me as Duke, not just one of the little crowd that comes around. You know, youngsters.
Did you admire them?
Yeah. I looked up to them. They were older. They’d been through what we’re going through. They’re older gang guys, and we look up to that kind of stuff. I don’t know why.
Did you think they were cool?
Yeah, cool. Like they didn’t need to worry about nothing ’cause they were there. They were cool and they were what I wanted to be.
Down for the hood?
You don't know why you wanted to be that way?
No. I just looked at them and looked at the people at school, and that’s what I wanted to be.
You didn’t think the other people at school looked cool?
Before I was a gang member, yeah. Now I was part of that, I wasn’t scared of those people no more, because I was one of them.
You were in ninth grade now?
What did you talk about with the homeboys?
Drinking, parties, girls, who is getting out soon. I’d find out a new homeboy is getting out, and he’s suppose to be all down. I’m like, “Damn, back to where I started from all scared again. I don’t know this guy. He could sock me up and tell me to get out of here.”
Did you ever get beat up in Memorial Park?
Yeah. We always used to fight. They used to tell us go fight, and we’d fight each other to see who would win. I used to win a lot because I was bigger than most of them. Strange sort of things. I really didn’t understand it myself. All I knew was that I was doing it, and that’s what they wanted. I would do whatever they wanted because I wanted them to like me. I’d bring money and say, “Hey, I got money, let’s do something. Let’s go eat.”
At that time my aunt was worried about my uncle. My dad was using with his girlfriend. I really didn’t have too many people to talk to.
My cousin had her own kids to worry about. That’s when I basically started going around over there because I could talk to them.
Why couldn’t you talk to the kids at school?
Because they were my age. They had only been through the same thing I had been through.
Do you think you wanted attention or someone to talk to?
Did you like it when your teachers paid more attention to you?
Yeah. Like being the class clown. Everyone would look at you and laugh at your dumb jokes.
Were you always like that?
Just when you got to be that age?
Yeah. When I was younger I had attention anyway.
From your aunt and uncle?
When did the gang jump you in?
A couple of months after I started hanging around. A couple of us got jumped in at the same time.
Did you want to get jumped in?
No, really. I came late to a meeting at a homeboy’s house. A couple of dudes had already got jumped in. They were all, “Yeah, yeah, we got jumped in. You want to get jumped in?” And people were talking. “Yeah, they got jumped in.” I said, “Yeah, I want to get jumped in.” I walked through the line and I got socked up. I got up and I wanted to go again so people could look at me more saying, “Well, he went twice.” But they didn’t want me to go again. They just said, “Nah, that’s enough.”
So you walked down this line of guys and everyone took shots at you with their fists?
Yeah, they didn’t hit me in my face though. Just from the neck down.
Just one punch each?
As much as they could get in while I was getting through. My job was to get to the end of the line; their job was to make me stay at the front.
Was it painful?
No, that’s why I wanted to go again.
You wanted it to be painful?
I thought it was going to be real, real painful. But I didn’t feel hardly nothing. I had two sweatshirts and a big jacket on. All I heard was the thumps, and I didn’t feel much.
What do they do at the Southside meetings?
Talk about what’s going in the neighborhood, what’s wrong or what we should be doing.
What did they say was going on that was wrong?
Sometimes people from Westside would come by and talk. Our homeboys would get mad and say we shouldn’t be like that.
Who would come?
Guys from other gangs. I was with them all the way. I didn’t think they should come in either because they were from different neighborhoods. I didn’t like the idea.
You think it is good to keep distance between the different gangs?
Yeah. I really didn’t like the other gang. They were weak. They let people push them around. We could go kick back in their park, and they wouldn’t say nothing about it. Anyone could go to their park.
What did they say about this at the meeting?
Some people said, so what if they come. The meeting would usually end up with everyone fighting. I didn’t really think that was too cool. We’re all from the same neighborhood. We should be worried about them, not fighting each other.
Before I got arrested, I didn’t want to be a part of it no more. I wanted to get out, but I didn’t want to tell people I wanted to get jumped out. I didn’t know what to say, so I was just kicking it at the park.
What did you think they would do if you told them you wanted to get out?
Beat me up. Bad.
Did they often fight at the meeting?
A lot of times. I would even get in fights. I didn’t like it. Sometimes they would get drunk and want to fight. Sometimes they’d be mad, and sometimes they’d just want to see who could talk shit to who. Who could rule over who.
If someone says something nasty to you, and you don’t say anything back, that means he rules over you?
What would they say?
Fuck you. Shut up, stupid. If you feel you can rule, you say shut up. If you back down, they rule over you. If you say no and you fight them, then at least you had the heart to fight them. That’s how it goes. Whether you won or not doesn’t matter.
Did you ever want to fight?
Yeah. ’Cause I would drink.
What else did they talk about at the meetings?
Talk about people who don’t come around no more and what’s up with those fools. We don’t want them around here.
Did you ever go to Southside parties?
Yeah. All the time. Every weekend. They have them at the park or at my homegirl’s pad. Sometimes it wouldn’t be no party, just a couple of people together and drinking beer. I got tired of it.
Did you drink before you joined the Southside Boys?
No. Even when I first started hanging around, I didn’t like to drink. I didn’t like beer.
You told the judge you had 10 to 15 beers the night you were arrested. Did the other homeboys drink as much as you did?
Yeah. After the police took us in, the rest of I them kept drinking.
Do they do drugs at the parties?
No, all we’d really be doing is drinking. If they were doing drugs, I didn’t care about it. They do drugs at the park or at someone’s house. They don’t do it in front of everyone because they’ll want some.
How many homeboys do you think there are in the ’hood now?
A lot of them stopped coming around. There ain’t that many.
Why do you think a lot of them stopped coming around?
Same reason I wanna stop going over there. They want to start a new life. I mean, think about it. Where are you going in life if you are just standing in a park and drinking all night and not going to school? Think about it. Where would you end up? You’d be a bum all your life. Just standing on a comer or in a park drinking. Worried about where the beer is going to come from. That’s what I don’t want to do no more.
Did you cruise Highland Boulevard in National City?
Always. That’s where all the girls are. In cars, and plus they’ll get out and they’ll walk down Highland and wait for someone to come pick them up, and we’d be the ones.
What did you do when you picked them up?
Go swoop on them. Go kiss them or whatever.
What if the girls are from another ’hood?
Don’t matter. We used to be with girls from other ’hoods if they are all fine.
Tell me what a fine girl is.
Real pretty. Nice body. She fixes herself up. Her hair, her makeup. She looks good. If she don’t look good, then we don’t talk to her.
After you started hanging with the gang, how did the girls react to you?
They like flocked to me. They wanted to be with me.
You were suddenly popular because you were a homeboy?
I thought you went around telling everyone to shut up.
Yeah, but not the girls though. That’s what you get respect for — bossing people and being on top of them. Having a reputation for being tough. The girls want to be with someone tough. They didn’t want to be with no wimp.
Where did you meet the girls?
There was a park across the street from Roosevelt on Park Boulevard. After school there’d be a whole bunch of girls gathering around in little groups talking to each other. Me and my little homeboys, we’d just kick back and see which one we wanted to go rap to, ’cause we could have anyone we wanted. They all wanted to be with me.
Did they come to you?
No, they would all be shy. We would have to walk to them and say, “Hey, what’s up? What’s so important you guys are talking over here for?” or something like that. “Why can’t you come over here and talk.” I’d take one and I’d say, “Hey, come here. I want to talk to you.” They’d come. They’d laugh and giggle a little bit, and then we’d go talk. I’d say, “Where you live at?” I’d walk them home and then take the bus home from wherever I was.
Did you have any lines you used with the girls?
I would rap like, “Hey, what’s up,” or “Oh, you’re looking pretty.” Sometimes something wouldn’t work right and she wouldn’t fall for it. Scratch that, I wouldn’t use that again. I’d think of something else. I would go through different kinds of raps, and whichever ones worked I would add it and perfect it. That’s the way I was.
Were all your friends as popular with the girls?
No. My friend would go up to girls and say, “Hey, bitch, want dick?” or something like that. And we’d say, “Shut up, man. You’re messing it up for all of us.” They’d be like, “Fuck you guys.” We’d get mad at him. I’d go up and I’d say, “Hey, don’t listen to him. I don’t know what’s up with him, but he’s tripping right now.” Then I start pouring my rap on one of them, and they’d like that.
Why did you buy the gun the police found on you when you were arrested?
I didn’t buy it. I took it from one of those crack dudes by the park. They look for ways to get a couple of bucks to buy a little crack rock.
Did he give you the gun?
No, he tried to sell it to me and I took it. I said, “I ain’t going to give you no money for this,” and I took it. What’s he going to do? Nothing. He can’t beat me up. ’Cause he’s all strung out.
Do many of the homeboys use crack or PCP?
No. I tried PCP, but I didn’t want to be stupid all my life. I’d look at the guys smoking saying, “Huh, huh, where’s the weed, where’s the wack?” I didn’t want to be like that. I didn’t mess with it much after that.
How did you feel when you drank?
I felt good. Alcohol is liquid courage. You’re kicking back and you got this little knot feeling in your stomach. You’re like, “Wow, I wonder what’s going to happen tonight.” You start drinking and that knot slowly unturns, and you don’t feel it no more. Who cares what happens. All you care about is what you’re going to drink. All you care about is beer. That’s after you get drunk, after you start buzzing. You want more, more, more, until you pass out.
When you came home drunk, what did your aunt do?
She would be like, “You’ve been out there drinking again. I told you about that.” She’d get mad at me.
Did you care?
Yeah. But I didn’t listen to her. I wish I would have though.
Did she ever punish you?
Did your dad punish you for being drunk?
When was the last time someone punished you?
When I was living with my mom and stepdad. I was nine or ten. They would punish me. My stepdad would spank me. I didn’t like it. It didn’t do no good. I didn’t like him anyway.
What did your dad punish you for?
When I had my bike, he’d tell me to come in by dark, and I’d be late. I’d be far away, and all of sudden it would get dark. I’d start pedaling myself home, and I’d get home after dark. I’d get in trouble for stuff like that. A couple of times he’d hit me when I got back from living with my mom for coming home too late or for talking back to him.
What kind of man was your uncle?
He spanked me a lot. But only because he cared. I still love my uncle a lot. I miss him now. I used to go to the park with him a lot. He used to collect cans. I used to ride my bike or skateboard around the park and help him collect cans. We’d turn in the cans, he’d take me to buy ice cream.
Do you think joining the gang had anything to do with missing your uncle after he died?
Because you wanted someone to be with and there was no one because your dad was with his girlfriend?
Yeah, my aunt was all still hurting because my uncle died. I was hurt too, and I would go drink. I would forget about that pain for a while. At least for a little while. When I wouldn’t be drunk no more, the pain would still be there, but it just got hidden for a little while. I used to like that little feeling.
After a while I started drinking because I wanted to forget. I wanted to forget about my mom, how she dogged me out and didn’t see me for a long time. My stepdad got involved with some kind of fraud and went to jail. We came here for a vacation for the summer. We were supposed to go back when school started, but she decided to stay here.
Where is your mother now?
She found another boyfriend, and I didn’t like him. He used to hit her and stuff, so I moved away from my mom. I told my mom I wanted to come visit my aunt.
Why did you get mad at your mother?
Because she used to promise me she would come see and call me and she never did.
What else did you want to forget?
The way my dad was on drugs. All the shit he was involved with. Trying to find a job. He was over at his girlfriend’s house, not paying attention to me really.
Did you have a real close friend?
My friend Juan. When he was younger, before he got into Southside Boys, he lived with us for a long time. His mom was all strung out on drugs too, so he got into Southside Boys. He just got out of jail. He’s like my brother. He used to beat up a lot of people. I wanted to fight him a couple of times when I was drinking. But he would just push me down or sock me in my chest.
How come you robbed the store?
That dude. He wanted me to do that job. He goes, “Back me up man, help me, help me.” So I said all right. I didn’t want to do it, but it was like peer pressure. I know if I didn’t go back him up and help him, he’d tell the homeboys and the homeboys would get on my case for not helping him. So I said all right, all right. I went and helped him.
Where did he find you?
In the park. I was drinking that night. He’s from Southside, but he’s not in the gang. What I hear, he’s not even down or nothing. Being down means backing up your homies, and you’re down for backing them up. You got a reputation.
Were you down?
Yeah, I was pretty down. If there was, like, a fight or something, and they needed my help, they knew they could turn to me, and I could help them out.
Why did you take the gun from the crackhead?
Because he had the nerve to come up and ask for some money for it.
Why did you decide to keep it?
I know it was a piece of junk. I didn’t know if it could shoot or not, but I wasn’t planning on using it.
Why did you carry it around?
I don’t know. I thought maybe someone else would want it or I could sell it. I didn’t want to give it away for free. One of my friends might want it.
Where did you keep it?
In my back yard. Nobody goes back there.
What kind of books do you like?
Mystery books. Hardy Boys, Stephen King. Comics. The Bible. I read the Bible often. Before I didn’t know what the Bible was, I thought it was just prayers and stuff. I read what the Bible says now. It is telling me what God’s works was. I like it.
Back to the robbery. Did the other guy tell you what to do?
Yeah. He told me to stand there in case someone tried to beat him up. I wasn’t going to use the gun, ’cause how am I going to use an empty gun? I’d throw the gun down and fight with my hands before I’d use that thing.
The guy at the convenience store saw the gun.
I didn’t think he’d see it.
What did you think about your hearing? Did you think the judges decision not to suppress your confession was fair?
Yeah. It’s always fair. I just get in there, and they do their job. I did the crime, and they just did their job.
Do you think sometimes innocent people get convicted?
Is that fair?
No. But it’s always something they had to do to get in front of that judge.
Do you think sometimes totally innocent people get convicted?
I don’t know. I never talked or associated with anyone like that.
Who are your heroes?
What do you mean heroes?
People you look up to.
Real people I talk to?
Any other heroes?
Conan and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Because they’re big and tough.
What do you think of yourself?
I think I made a big mistake.
You think you re a pretty good kid?
Yeah. I’m all right. I really don’t like to judge myself. I’m cool. I can be anywhere and keep my cool. I’m not known to blow my temper.
You don’t like to fight anymore?
Not really. No. You know how you can play a game for so long, and you get tired of it. Well, that’s the way I am with this game. This game called the gang.
How long before you started feeling that way? Was it after you got locked up?
Yeah. It made me realize that if I want to be in the gang, it don’t get no better than this place. If I want to be in that gang, and I’m going to be back out there in that ’hood, my gang ain’t going to do my time for me. I already know what my decision is going to be when I get out of here. Start over while I’m still ahead.
You were going to Summit, a school for kids who’ve been kicked out of other schools, when this happened, weren’t you?
Yeah. The teacher liked me a lot. She sent me a message because we were doing this project, and I got arrested before I could finish it. I finished it in here, and I’m going to give it to the teacher here, and they’re going to send it out there.
How are the teachers in juvenile hall?
I haven’t really been going to school ’cause I been kind of tired.
Tired from reading all day?
There are some guys who want to get me, and I don’t even want to bother with it. I want to stay out of trouble.
Can they get you while you ’re in school?
Yeah, if they wanted to.
How long did it take you to realize that joining the gang was a mistake?
A couple of weeks. I said, wait a minute. My gang ain’t doing nothing for me in here.
Was it the minister you talked to while you were here in juvenile hall that convinced you?
It was myself. I thought about it myself. You do a lot of thinking in this place. I guess it’s why it’s so bad in here, they want people to change. Well, they won me.
If you don’t go to school, what do you do besides eat?
Just sleep and read books. I do sit-ups and pushups to keep in shape.
How long you been in here?
A month and a half.
When did it start to get really depressing for you?
When I first got here. At nighttime, I was kicking it because I was saying they’ll probably let me walk, and I’ll just do this and that. A couple of days after, I was like, oh man, I want to get out of here.
Why do you hate it so much? Because there is nothing to do?