Latino Boys in the Red White and Blue

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Here’s a fun fact many people don’t realize: In California, if you are a Latino male anywhere from age 12 – 35, you can’t wear a shirt that is red. Actually, you can’t really wear a blue shirt either. To tell you the exact truth, wearing a white shirt might be dangerous in most cases too. Didn’t know that? Well, it’s the truth.

The high school drop-out rates among Latinos is atrocious. The percentage of Latinos who graduate high school is easily one of the lowest of any ethnic group, but when you consider the scale of it, it is jaw-dropping. Latinos make up an enormous population of California,and other states in our country, so when you say one third of them don’t graduate from high school, you’re talking about a hell of a lot of people.


Well, I was just talking to a lawyer about this the other day, and I told him something like this: “You know, being a Latino kid in California is hard. After age 10, you ride your bike to the mall, you walk down the street, you make a wrong turn, and you have kids asking you what you claim.”

My lawyer friend is Mexican, and he remembers growing up in Redwood City, not having to worry about being shot at -ever- as a Latino kid living in the barrio. You solved problems with fists, and the mothers got their kids back safely every night, if not a little worse for wear. But in today’s world, you might just as easily run across a kid with a knife or a gun. If you’re lucky it will be brass knuckles or a roll of quarters. Maybe a lighter if it’s your birthday.

So there you are, a young Latino boy walking down the street, you can’t wear a red, white, or blue shirt because it puts a target on your back, and if you happen to piss someone off, the odds of it being solved with fists is probably less than 50/50.

Okay, lets back up. You’re probably thinking, “Why can’t Latino males wear red white and blue?” You probably know the answer, but don’t know the specifics, you just know it has something to do with gangs.

In Northern California, Red is the color of the Nortenos. Blue is the color of the Surenos. If you wear clothing dominated by these colors, and you are a young Latino (mostly Mexican, but there are other Latino gangs too), you are proclaiming your affiliation to one of these gangs. It’s that simple. Again, you might be thinking, “Surely it’s not that black and white. There have got to be places where it is safe to wear whatever you want.” Well, the short answer is, “No.”

I guess if you’re familiar enough with a certain part of a certain city, you’ll be okay. Maybe if you live in the burbs where there aren’t gang problems, and you’re a Latino male, you could probably get away with it. But make sure it’s deep in the burbs, and make sure you aren’t wearing that stuff across city lines, because then you don’t know what you’ll get. I know of hick, farming towns in the Central Valley where the Mexican kids can’t be seen wearing red. Others where you can’t wear blue. In the cities of course it is worse. You take a wrong turn in Oakland, Richmond, Hayward, San Jose, and you’re a Latino wearing the wrong color, you are officially putting your life in danger.

So can I just say this: Isn’t that a trip????

As white people, we don’t think about these kinds of things…well, not all of us. We can wear whatever we want without fear of being associated with a gang. I bet you’ve never thought twice about putting on a blue shirt, have you? I’m wearing a blue shirt right now, and I’ve been driving around the Bay Area all day. But I’m white, so it doesn’t matter.

Still don’t believe me? Here’s a nice little anecdote. A few years ago, some teachers from my district took some Latino kids to San Francisco to see the murals in the Mission District. It is a site of Latino heritage and Chicano Pride and stuff like that. Well, one of their students decided to wear a San Francisco 49ers jersey. You see, there was a no-red-rule at this high school, but the kid figured that because they were on a field trip, he could wear red that day (yes, not allowing an entire high school of 2,500 students to wear a shred of red is common in California, that’s how bad it is [yes, NO ONE can wear ANY red, an asian kid can’t even wear red shoelaces]). So this Latino male student went with his class of 15 year-olds to San Francisco.

What happened is predictable. The class passed over some invisible boundary and entered a Sureno neighborhood. Some Surenos started following them. The teachers noticed and they ducked into a store. The owner of the store took one look at the student and told him he needed to take off his jersey. The student did so. And yes, sports jerseys count, if you were wondering.

And we’re talking about a kid obviously on a field trip with thirty other students who had ADULTS with him. Imagine if that kid was walking around San Francisco with his friends and they passed over one of these boundaries?

Okay, so now you believe me about the red and blue, so what about the white? Well, here’s where it gets subtle. In Oakland, if you wear a white shirt with blue jeans, you’re not a Norteno or Sureno, you’re repping another gang called “Border Brothers.” But the BB are only located in Oakland – I guess the recession is hurting their expansion efforts. So if you go outside Oakland, and you wear a white shirt and blue jeans, you’re probably going to be considered a Sureno, especially if you’re skin is on the darker side. Of course that isn’t even 100% correct, because it also depends on what TYPE of jeans you wear. If they’re the Ben Davis brand, you’re definitely a Sureno. The Ben Davis brand has found a niche market with the Surenos, and is probably turning a nice little profit in California and Texas. Then there are other subtleties, but I don’t want to go too much into it. Yeah, there are the Salvadoreans that started as “18” in LA and have expanded into Northern California as MS13 – and they also wear blue, so you have to be mindful of ethnicity as well as color. As you can see, it’s complicated.

The ghetto is like a fine wine, and so far we have only covered the Merlots and Cabernets. In Los Angeles there’s a lot more to talk about, and more colors to consider. You can read about a lot of them by reading up on your gang history, if you’re interested look it up. None of this stuff is a secret.

But back to my original point. Growing up as a Latino isn’t the same as growing up white, as you can see. And I know it might be easy to throw your hands up and yell, “Well, why don’t they just stay away from the gangs?” Of course, it’s never that easy. In many cases, not only can you not stay away from wearing these colors, you HAVE to wear them. Here are some fun demographics to consider: In Oakland, the Surenos control blocks 1-40, the Nortenos have 40-60, and the Border Brothers control the 60s-100s. So lets just say, if you grow up there, you are probably going to be wearing their colors, because it would be harder not to. And this kind of thing isn’t just Oakland. Every city has their maps carefully drawn – it’s like these gangs also have very experienced cartographers.

The lines are even carefully drawn in my school district. All the Surenos go to my school, because it’s too dangerous for them in the other high schools which are controlled by Nortenos. There are more Nortenos in my city, so the Surenos have to band together. In fact, that is a common inter-district transfer request guaranteed to get approved – being Sureno. So my school gets the biggest fights, because the other schools don’t have the rival gangs. And it gets better. The designated Sureno kick-it spot is RIGHT OUTSIDE MY DOOR! Like I’ve said before, they actually have to part to let me in my door most mornings, pretty cool huh?

So when we look at our dropout rates, and you can’t fathom why these kids are struggling, maybe that will shine some light on it for you. Our Latino kids grow up in a completely separate world, they know it exists, but many of us don’t. A good friend of mine is a Mexican who lives in Oakland who is 30 years old, and he tells me that if he wore a white shirt and some Ben Davis jeans, and came to my house, he would be approached and questioned without a doubt.

I’m thirty, I’m white, and I think I have some Ben Davis in the drawer in my bedroom. I know I have plenty of white shirts. But if I decided to wear them together, nobody is going to pull up next to my car and ask me what’s up.

So I ask you, when you were 13, did your life depend on informed clothing purchases? Because every day your Latino students redefine what it means to be a smart-shopper.

Write by spiderman hoodie

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