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How I Found Myself in the Gang Life

How I Found Myself in the Gang Life

I had only been in Los Angeles for a short time, and I was already witnessing another beating, this one in a back parking lot of my apartment building. Five gang members were mercilessly beating a young man, reinforcing the gang code of conduct. They wanted to send a clear message to other gang members that this is what happens when you default or break the code.

The alley-looking driveway had a block wall on one side covered with graffiti; the gang’s name was tagged on it along with the letters RIP beside the nicknames of former members. As a sign of love and respect, their names were written on the wall to remember them as heroes and martyrs. I didn’t fully understand what had happened to the people named on the wall. But when I saw the beating, there was something different in me this time. A switch had been flipped. While I felt the fear, I also felt a rush of adrenaline and a sense of power—a power that the gang culture called respeto, or respect.

I wanted to somehow possess this in order to control my own environment instead of being subject to other people’s choices. This stemmed from decisions that my parents made. Their choices had affected me in profoundly destructive ways. We didn’t know how we were going to adapt to a new environment, even if it was the promised land. But even at this young age, I knew I didn’t want to be at the mercy of others; I wanted to be in control.

The gang had a family atmosphere; they hung out and had fun, but there was also toughness, order, brotherhood, hierarchy, and believe it or not, love. There was lots of music at the apartment complex, with boomboxes all over the place. Gang members would come and go in these amazing lowrider cars. They would just chill in front of the buildings; everyone was just hanging out.

Every time we went outside, I would interact with them. They started letting me watch everything they did. They would hang out with me. Before long, I began to feel like a part of the group, like I belonged and they cared and loved me. I saw a family unit. They would eat together and laugh together. They were strong for one another. So, while my mother was at work, I was being drawn into what I thought was a family, trying to replicate what I once had. I thought they were being nice to me, but really, they were starting the process of making me one of them.

One of the things that kept me alive in the streets is that I had learned to have no compassion; I showed no feelings. In order to function in the streets, to stay alive, to survive, you can’t have emotions. They were ripping them out of me. Theirs was a false love, but it would take time for me to realize that.

To read more from Mondo De La Vega’s 'My Crazy Life', visit

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