Tattoos are often associated with gang membership. Photo by Meredith Kohut/Chiron
Tales from San Salvador and Washington, D.C.
A completely distraught junior high school teacher in the Washington DC area approached her assistant principal—a highly-educated white middle-class man—one morning for urgent guidance. A sixth grade student in her class had pulled a knife from his backpack to show his classmates. Even more upsetting than the knife itself was the child’s answer when asked where he had obtained the weapon. “My daddy gave it to me,” the child replied. Alarm spread through the school; the child’s parents were called in immediately, and the boy was threatened with suspension.
The most difficult part of the situation was yet to come. When the father arrived at the school to be questioned by teachers, he readily admitted that he had put the small knife in his 10-year-old son’s backpack. Later, he explained that they had arrived from El Salvador only six months before; in his hometown, he said, it was common for children to use small knives to sharpen their pencils in school. In El Salvador, pencil sharpeners were luxury items only found in urban schools. The father—a peasant farmer on the brink of poverty, with a fifth-grade education—came from a society in which citizens must look for creative answers to the lack of resources. He was very upset by all the commotion that had been caused by an instrument that had been used as a pencil sharpener by himself and by his parents before him.
This incident highlights the great effort that the educational system is making to keep “war” type material out of the classroom because of violence in schools such as Virginia Tech or the case of the Maryland sniper. Citizens feel increasingly insecure in the United States in the classroom and beyond. No toy that even vaguely resembles a weapon can be used by students and even less by teachers. To resolve the case of the junior high school boy, the assistant principal had to have the capacity to understand a reality very different from his own and at the same time manage to fulfil the security standards mandated by the school.
In a multicultural society like metropolitan Washington DC, the media are increasingly associating Central American youth groups with violent activities, rather than creative or cultural activities. Maras—or youth gangs—are also a growing cause of concern in Central America, as well as in the United States. Political, social and law enforcement institutions on both sides of the border have worried about maras for more than a decade now.
Many diverse opinions exist about the national immigration debate and about the phenomenon of maras. Independently of these stances, the fact is that several thousand youth of Salvadoran origin live in the DC area and do not feel included in the society to which they now belong. The immigration to the area—as well as other parts of the United States such as Los Angeles— began with networks that arose from the long and bloody civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s and then continued because of natural disasters and economic strife. The problem of youth gangs and difficult adaptation has become a part of daily life in Washington DC, and will not be resolved automatically. There has to be a conscious effort made to find positive solutions for an alienated and unassimilated youth, many of whom do not remember or even know their parents’ homeland.
The maras phenomenon has been one way of responding to situations that are complex in both psychological and social terms. To understand these new contexts, we need to analyze them carefully from the perspective of distinct disciplines: psychology, sociology, political science, public health, education, among others. This kind of analysis will help us understand and get closer to the different realities experienced by those such as the well-intentioned father who took his own childhood as the logical model for bringing up his children and that of the assistant principal who must constantly face new groups of students with experiences and values very different from his own.
In El Salvador in the late 1980s, the maras emerged, at first as a curious phenomenon of juvenile associations that had decided to live among themselves, adopting new modes of behavior, Rapidly, however, these groups began to be associated with violence and criminality. Only several years later, we discovered that there was a close connection between the rise of these groups and the massive migration of Salvadorans to the United States. This migration not only split up families, but it also transferred cultural and behavioral patterns between two very distinct societies.
For example, in 1992, María Gordillo decided to follow her life-long companion to Virginia, leaving her 10-month old daughter Teresa in El Salvador. Her partner, like the great majority of the men in the small town of Concepción de Oriente, had migrated to the United States during the war. Gordillo never made it to Virginia; she died, abandoned, in the Arizona desert.
Teresa, raised by her grandmother, is 15 now; she never finished grade school and is wanted by the police on chages of possession and sales of drugs, conspiring to kidnap, and being a member of the maras. She still has not met her father, who has sent $350 monthly to El Salvador for the past 15 years.
For Teresa, the levels of exclusion with which she grew up in El Salvador are just as violent as gang membership. A 2003 study published in San Salvador about violence and exclusion concluded that in the lower levels of organization and gang participation, youth did not find drastic changes in the expressions of violence encountered in these groups, compared to the levels of violence they had been previously exposed to in their communities or social environment. The study demonstrated that these youth already experienced diverse types and levels of violence in their neighborhood streets, in public institutions and within their own homes. Thus, joining a gang did not represent a significant shift in their lives; on the contrary, it represented a new element of protection and control within their own environment.
In talking about adolescence, the ecology of human development helps us understand the processes of incorporation of these new youth, both Salvadorans and U.S., in this new society. All types of transition are concurrently results and causes of processes of development, and migratory processes are thus examples par excellence of this process of mutual accommodation between human beings and their environment.
These changes become even more complicated when one is leaving behind the security of family roles and, in the face of the lack of new role models, the adolescent finds support in a group identity. It is at this point that a group of equals grows in influence, providing powerful reinforcement in terms of acceptation, popularity, friendship and status within the new society. Generally, the adolescent seeks to create a group of friends that he or she can use as a mirror and with which he or she can identify and construct their own identity in a new environment in which they are not only seeking to become adults, but to find a role within a new society.
In this moment of self-reflection, identification with the country of origin has become a source of identity. Thus, a new sense of “we” is shared with other youth with Latin roots, through common experiences and memories.
As a facilitator of after-school activities with Latin youth in the Washington DC area, I (Claudia) have found is that one of the principal values is the pride in Latino identity. Each and every person in the group is proud of his or her country of origin. Curious about this sense of patriotism, I’d sometimes ask youth about politicians, writers, artists, important historical or popular figures, and even about soccer teams or outstanding players from their home countries. Their answers were often vague and evasive. Their patriotism was limited to the flag and the national shield. It became clear to me that national identity was a basic symbol of identity, but with little knowledge or content.
Thus, the blue and white flag has become as important for young people who have little or no connection with youth who still live in the rural communities in El Salvador that they or their parents left behind. The element that these two adolescent worlds share is a sense of marginality within a social environment perceived as hostile; the reference of security and belonging is in the pairing of the two groups. The flag that is always hung in their houses is the best pretext for defining the limits between the “we” and “others.” as Robert Mead discusses in his book, Mind, Self and Society. This type of definition is quite necessary to survive in a world in which these youngsters feel that neither their parents nor they belong.
But it should not be forgotten that integration is a challenge for both those who arrive and those who already live in the host society. These processes of adaptation and acceptance are very much related to the perception of U.S. youth and adults, who feel that this is their country and has been always. The question is whether the host society can adapt their own roles and to accept the re-adaptation of these new youth. It is difficult, however, to ask long-time residents to feel empathy for the recent arrivals when, for instance, 66% of those arrested on charges of juvenile violence in Maryland are of Salvadoran descent. Moreover, some mara youth have been arrested or even sentenced on drugtrafficking charges, as San Salvador’s La Prensa Gráfica revealed in November.
Nowadays, U.S. residents of the Washington D.C. metropolitan area generally mistrust of Central American-origin neighbors. These perceptions are reinforced by the overall political environment and the recent debates about immigration, combined with the incidents often experienced in urban neighborhoods and nearby cities that reflect suspicion and friction among neighbors, who always seem willing to point the finger at the “others” who are different from themselves. It is difficult to think that a healthy and positive accomodation has to necessarily go through a process of civil, legal and laboral insertion for all of us who form part of the United States.
We are not equal. As human beings, we all are reflections of a culture in which we share moral, religious and work values, among others. We are different and that is not a bad thing. We are different in ways that are tremendously enriching and that provide us with the possibility to teach the “others” about the worlds that make us who we are.
The challenge of living together peacefully (in Spanish, there’s a much better word for it, convivencia) means getting past mere co-existence through the creation of common projects. Itg is not a matter of creating sub-groups in favor of respecting differences, nor of forcing one group to mimic the habits of another. It is a matter of respecting differences, and using that as a basis, to work on constructing commonalities with which we can forge in ourselves and in the generations to come distinct forms of relating to people who are different from ourselves.
To further this goal, processes of participation, rights and opportunities are necessary both for the “us” and the “others.” Several institutions already exist in the Washington DC metropolitan area, especially non-profit groups, that are working on the theme of incorporation of immigrant groups, especially Central American youth as the predominant Latino group in the region.
However, these efforts are not enough to obtain effective answers to the gaps that generate disadaptation. This theme should become a priority for governmental institutions and civil society organizations, and not just as palliative remedies or solutions benefiting small groups of people. Rather, plans of action should be incorporated into the public system, specifically the educational system and within the communities, in very specific ways.
The problem facing these measures in the Washington DC metropolitan area is the social and political polemic surrounding immigration. Meanwhile, without a defined and energetic policy, youth who lack sufficient tools or means of getting ahead and adapting resort to violence as a means of expressing themselves. This is true both of recently arrived immigrants and U.S.-born youth.
Let us sum up by saying that in this struggle to find new and creative solutions to this new reality of immigrant populations, the United States is not alone. Host countries around the world are already facing the questioning of traditional modes of assimilation of their new neighbors. But, all around the world, in spite of serious efforts, there are few answers for this social phenomenon that is defining the face of this new century.
Claudia Silva Ruschel is Phd (ABD) in Social Psychology. She works as a bilingual Parent Community Coordinator in the Washington DC area, and she is also starting to build her home in the United States as a new neighbor.
Héctor Silva is a medical doctor and former Mayor of San Salvador. He was a 2006-07 Visiting Fellow at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. Claudia Silva Ruschel is his daughter.