Salvadoran Americans have become stereotypically associated with gangs. Continuing media coverage of the issue, most recently of a massive law-enforcement crackdown on Nov. 15 targeting a Salvadoran-American gang in Los Angeles, has helped perpetuate this notion.
Salvadorans, though, have led successful lives in the United States, in spite of several hurdles placed in their way. To the extent that there is a gang problem, it is due to the special circumstances of the community.
Many Salvadoran children were forcefully recruited to fight in the civil war that devastated their country from 1980 to 1992. They became adept at using M-16s, AK-47s and rocket launchers, raiding military barracks, and blowing up bridges.
Salvadoran children thus became hardened soldiers and guerrillas. They lost their innocence when they saw their parents being tortured or murdered.
Many of these children came to the United States in the 1980s and moved to the inner cities of Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and other major U.S. metropolises. They left a cruel, heartless civil war and came to confront another brutal and violent environment here in our U.S urban centers.
These children were discriminated against in their new neighborhoods and schools. They did not fit in because they were undocumented immigrants who were not granted real refugee status (Cubans are granted automatic refugee status), they did not speak English, and they looked the part of recent immigrants by their clothing and demeanor.
Be it Mexican or Salvadoran, the trend of the formation of gangs seems to share one component, which is a search for respect in a foreign society. A big challenge for Salvadoran youth was dealing with Chicano and African-American gangs. The response to this challenge was, unfortunately, one that was also composed of violence.
Violence was also perpetuated at the family level, since the cruelties of the civil war instilled fear, oppression and anger in the hearts of our population.
For the last couple of decades, the U.S. government has been deporting these gang members, and this has created an amazing growth of gangs in Mexico and Central America. The problem has not been resolved, just exported.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger don’t seem to have a real plan to help the thousands of young Salvadorans who live in Los Angeles and throughout California. Establishing positions of gang czars is not enough.
A first step in the right direction would be the creation of job skills training and job creation for these youth. We need them to obtain a prosperous future through education and jobs, not join a gang or become a prison statistic.
Let us roll up our sleeves and begin to help our youth. We cannot afford to lose another generation of Salvadorans to violence.
Randy Jurado Ertll, a Salvadoran American who grew up in South Central
Los Angeles, has worked as a communications director/legislative
assistant for a member of Congress in Washington, D.C. He can be
reached at email@example.com.