Hispanic Gangs in LA: A Group Yet Unreached for Christ – Part 3


Part 3 in a Series of articles by Melody Rossi, Executive Director of Cloud and Fire Ministries, an outreach to gang members, incarcerated youth, and at-risk youth. Melody Rossi is also known as “the Mother of the Hood.”

Understanding Gang Culture

Los Angles is the official gang capitol of the world. Although gangs are now present in every culture and every level of society, the majority of gang members are either Hispanic or African American. Although Cloud and Fire Ministries works incarcerated gang members from all ethnic groups, our primary population is Latino youth. Latino gangs can be found throughout the greater Los Angeles area, though historic concentrations have been primarily in East Los Angeles, the Pico Union Area, and the Northeast San Fernando Valley. However, with the rise of the Latino population, Hispanic gangs are now present almost anywhere—including areas that formerly were populated primarily by other ethnicities. Hispanic gangs may now be found in Inglewood, South Central Los Angeles, and the West San Fernando Valley (formerly comprised of African American and Caucasian residents, respectively).

The number of Hispanic gang members in Los Angeles is increasing, not diminishing. The rising problem of gangs is so worrisome that in 2008, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa formed a Gang Reduction and Youth Development Office and appointed a Gang Czar to deal with this issue. The gang population is also increasing throughout California and the United States, as well as in state and federal penal facilities.

Connection Points

A common theme among gang members is that they are frequently arrested and face legal proceedings and/or incarceration. Therefore, Christians truly desirous of sharing the gospel with gang members may do well to find access points through involvement in the legal or penal system. It is also possible that Christian attorneys specializing in gang issues and criminal defense could be a viable source of evangelism. Likewise, prison workers, social workers, psychologists, police, probation and parole officers who are Christians will all likely have ways to interact with gang members. Christian agencies, whether they provide secular or faith activities, will be able to connect with incarcerated gang members and greatly influence their lives. Bible studies, chaplaincy services, literacy, GED completion, or lifeskills training are all viable sources of interaction.

In addition to connection via the juvenile and adult penal systems, Christians may also find connection points to gang members within communities where gang members live. However, because gangs are typically secretive and closed groups with tremendous suspicions towards outsiders, Christians seeking to gain access will be able to do so only by providing services that address felt needs. These may include re-entry programs that help parolees returning to the community. Legal clinics that provide assistance with criminal and/or immigration issues could also provide a window of opportunity.

Another way to connect with gang members would be to provide services for their children. The Hispanic culture celebrates children, and Hispanic gang members are no exception. Providing day care, pre-schools, extracurricular activities, sports leagues, performing arts, and tutoring to youth in gang communities may prove to be a viable method for connecting with gang members while at the same time preventing a younger generation from becoming involved in gang activities.

Hispanic Gangs in LA: A Group Yet Unreached for Christ – Part 2

Hispanic Street Gangs in Los Angeles

In this series, Melody Rossi, Executive Director of Cloud and Fire Ministries, examines the missiological implications of working with gang members.

Gangs foster ruthless behavior towards other human beings.  And yet, ironically, studies such as the Advancement Project (Rice, 2007) have shown that many youth join gangs because they have experienced horrific trauma and violence early in life.  Joining the gang seems to give those who have been victimized or abandoned a temporary sense of power and respect.  But the solutions provided by the gangs are, of course, only temporary, and lead to greater and greater chaos and destruction in their lives.  It is only when God’s love transforms them and breaks the power of Satan in their lives that gang members can be truly free to live another way.

An Overlooked Group

Hispanic gangs in Los Angeles are a people group largely overlooked by believers and unreached by the gospel.  Their values are repulsive to many Christians, and they live in communities that are often extremely dangerous.  And yet, what greater place for God to show His power than in a gang community!  And, because there are so many Christians in Los Angeles, it makes perfect sense that God might soon begin a work that would allow great numbers of gang members to come to faith.  So, we must ask ourselves how God might choose to lead these lost ones to Himself, and then be ready to act!

Some may argue that members of Hispanic are not an unreached people group, due to the historic connection between Latinos and the Roman Catholic Church.  Though many Hispanics certainly have a nominal affinity with Catholicism, those in the gang lifestyle typically consider themselves to be secular.  There is, however, syncretism in the gangs that combines elements of Catholic ritual with more tribal beliefs and superstitions.  To substantiate this, one gang member told me that at gang meetings a statue of the Virgin Mary is often present, and is prayed to immediately prior to “missions,” (crime and/or killing sprees).  Gang members are also frequently involved in Santeria, a syncretic religion that combines elements of African, Caribbean, and even Native American religious rituals with aspects of Roman Catholicism.  Most gang members, even “religious” ones, have a true respect for religion and/or God.  However, to most, God still remains distant and impersonal.

Gang Member in Spiritual DarknessHow Do We Reach  Them?

So, how do we reach gang members with the gospel?  What would be their motivation for seeking a Savior?  Like most people, gang members seek God most when their lives are in turmoil, or seem to be falling apart.  Often, a window of opportunity comes when a friend or loved one is killed, or when someone close is arrested.  All too often, however, these circumstances lead to anger, hatred, and retaliation.

When working with gang members, it is important to realize that there is a great deal of spiritual darkness present.  Believers who enter into this realm MUST have prayer support, and must be constantly aware of the schemes of the devil.  However, it is also important to remember that being in gangs is nothing more than a cry for community.  Those who are drawn to gangs are those who are hurting and longing for a way to fill up the emptiness and brokenness inside.  If we can connect with the pain inside, we have a better chance of helping gang members break free of the things that hold them in bondage.

Hispanic Gangs in LA: A Group Yet Unreached for Christ – Part 1

This is the first in a four part series. In this series, Melody Rossi, Executive Director of Cloud and Fire Ministries, examines the missiological implications of working with gang members.

Los Angeles Street Gangs:  An Unreached People Group

Street Gangs are Tribes

Mention the word “gangs,” and most people think of a kind of club or fraternity where young men on the fringe of society devise and carry out acts of vandalism and crime against innocent people.  In reality, gangs are more like a tribe of people who live together in community. The gang provides the economic system for the community, shapes values, and protects the community.  The bond in the gang is extremely deep. Members swear allegiance to the gang and are willing to die for one another. Generations are born into the gang and maintain the gang lifestyle, culture, art, and music.  The gang is in every way what is referred to in missions as a “people group.”

Gang Capitol

In Los Angeles, which is known as “the official gang capitol of the world,” gangs can be divided into two main categories:  African American gangs and Hispanic gangs.  While there are great similarities between these groups, there are also many attributes unique to each.  This paper will focus only on Hispanic street gangs, partly because the group dynamic among Hispanic gangs displays closer similarity to a tribal society than do African American gangs.

Hispanic gangs have existed in Los Angeles since the early 20th Century when large groups of Mexican immigrants came to the city.  They settled together in neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city, and there maintained their customs and cultural values.  However, these barrios (neighborhoods) tended to be economically depressed, and were often lacking in the same quality of basic services that were found in other, wealthier areas of the city.  Male adults became the protectors and guardians of the community, and provided their wisdom and influence to keep peace, settle disputes, and obtain justice.  Barrios became synonymous with Mexican identity, and provided the backdrop for the Hispanic gangs of today.

Recent Growth

In more recent times, Hispanic gangs have evolved dramatically into a force that is much more powerful, and much more structured than the former barrio patriarchs that sprang up during the early 20th Century.  According to Tony Rafael, gang researcher, The Mexican Mafia was deliberately created in 1957 as a super-gang that operates out of the California State penal system (The Mexican Mafia, Tony Rafael, 2007). Today, Mexican gangs are extremely well organized.  Most street gangs belong to the Mexican Mafia, and pay mandatory taxes, or fear reprisal.  “Shotcallers,” the highest ranking gang leaders, make decrees from prison about how “business” should be conducted, and also determine how discipline should be carried out towards members who do not follow protocol.  Shotcallers also issue “green lights,” or death orders for those towards enemies or those who otherwise become a liability.  Hispanic gangs in Los Angeles are primarily members of the Mafia, unless they are part of the infamous Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13 gang, which originated in El Salvador.  The Mafia and MS-13 are arch rivals.

Mexican gangs are extremely well organized.

There are currently more than 150,000 known gang members in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, and the actual number is probably far greater than any of us could imagine.  Many Latino youth, especially those without fathers, see the gang as a source of power. They see entrance into the gang as equivalent to achieving manhood.  Acts of vandalism, robbery, violence, revenge, and murder are systematically endorsed, and boys as young as eleven or twelve years of age are indoctrinated into accepting these acts as a normal part of life.  The gang lifestyle may have emerged from historical factors that made having neighborhood militias desirable, or necessary.  But gangs of today are more violent than in the past.  Instead of street fighting with knives, gang members today use guns.  And gangs are no longer just about protection. Rather, they are often a venue in which evil is glorified.