Some women don't choose gang life, but it affects them nonetheless
This week we're taking a look at what police say is a resurgence of gang activity - especially in rural areas. In part three of "Living In Gangland," we profile a mother and daughter and their struggle with gangs.
Across the nation there are an estimated 750,000 gang members. That's according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Some of them are women, but more often, women are impacted as the mothers, sisters and girlfriends of gang memgers. They may not actively choose the gang life, but its perils affect them nonetheless.
Despite her young, open face and bouncy curls, Belen seems older than her 26 years. She lays out the facts of her family as flatly as she would read a grocery list.
"My oldest brother... is serving a 30-year sentence in a prison in California."
Another brother is serving a shorter sentence and a third is still an active gang member. Once gangs grabbed hold of this family about 20 years ago, it was a tugging decline to the bottom.
Belen’s mother says (translated by Belen):
"She said, you don't get to choose your children. She said that regardless of who they are or what they grow up to be, you love them and they are your children. And you love them and care about them. I'm not going to sit back and say those aren't my kids, 'cause they are my kids."
Fearful - but fighting back
I've agreed not to use real names in this story. Both Belen and her mother fear for their lives. People have shot-up her mother's home, bashed in their family's car windows and have spray painted their property with gang graffiti.
Belen's mother fought the gangs for all her children. She flushed their drugs down the toilet. She threw away gang-clothes. Belen says her brothers...
"...started bringing around their friends when my mom and dad were working or weren't at home. My mom would kick them out, call the police and spank my brothers in front of their friends hoping to embarrass them but it didn't work."
Belen says her mother would repeatedly drive around town in the evenings to find her brothers when they wouldn't come home. Belen still remembers those nights when her mother would approach gang members in the dark.
"I just remember her being under a lot of stress. I remember us sleeping through a lot of those car rides. I remember feeling frustrated that we were even looking for them when they were choosing not to come home."
Researchers say gang involvement tends to crop up under certain conditions. Where traditional institutions like schools are ineffective or alienating. When the kids have a lot of unsupervised free time and not much hope of a good job.
Belen's family wasn't without problems -- no one was allowed to speak at the dinner table. But some of the kids made better choices. Belen's youngest brother stayed away from gangs, he told his sister he wasn't going to be a loser.
Belen remembers her brother loved spicy Cheetos and got a bag every day after school.
"I think that's the toughest part for me is that every day, he would walk to that grocery store. He was tall and very skinny and he would eat all day."
On his way there one day, a car pulled up and someone shot him dead. He was just two houses away from home.
Belen says her brother would have graduated from high school this year. Instead, he was the kind of collateral damage that happens around gangs.
And she and her mother are left to grieve.
Women as third-class citizens
Gini Sikes is author of the book "8 Ball Chicks", about women and gangs. She says women are rarely respected by male gang members even if they're part of a gang.
"They both have similar dangers in that they could always get shot. And they could always get shot by a stray bullet. If gang members are second class citizens, female gang members are often third class."
Here at Belen's house she and her mother are nestled together on a leather couch. These two women have chosen different paths. Belen's mother still allows gang kids to hang out at her house and eat from her refrigerator. She says they have nowhere else to go.
Belen doesn't visit her mother’s shot-up house anymore. Her home across town is impeccable: Polished furniture, toys stowed away. Her brothers' gang-member friends aren't allowed here.
"I have to take care of my kids, protect my kids. It's sad that they can't always hang out with their uncles or do things with their uncles that they should be able to do. I don't teach them that their uncles are bad people. They are good people that made some bad choices."
Belen's two daughters and son play with water glasses. Like Belen and her brothers, these small children are growing up surrounded by gangs.
But Belen says her kids will go to private school, she'll keep close watch on their friends and they'll talk together at the dinner table.