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Frank remembers how it used to be. "The Mission--this madness--there weren't gangs like this when I was growing up. It was just about neighborhoods. You had Shotwell and 24th; Capp to Mission on 24th; Precita Park; Little Time Mission, which were the junior high kids; and Mission, which were the older guys; Happy Homes on 20th and Mission; 22nd Hogs; York and Hampshire at 24th. . . . Sure, we'd have fights, but we used to play each other in football. It was more a sports thing. It was friendly but physical. After the game, we'd drink together. . . . These days, people don't fight, they shoot. It's silly."

Today, the Norteños claim territory roughly between Mission Street and Potrero, from 20th to 26th, with an extension to just past Dolores on 24th, 25th and 26th streets. To the north, the Sureños carved out a niche for themselves approximately between Dolores and South Van Ness, from 16th Street to 22nd Street, with an extension to Potrero Street (Jackson Park) on 16th and 17th. In the Mission, the Sureños joined forces with the MS-13, a Central American gang, to increase their land holding. On a map, Sureño territory is north of Norteño territory. The magnetic poles are inverted in ganglands.

I meet Smiley and Luis over at Bernal Dwellings, low-income housing on 26th and Folsom, near Garfield Park. This is a multicultural enclave of black, Asian, and Latino families. I ask if there are gangs on those public housing blocks. Smiley and Luis shake their heads: "We won't allow it." Nonetheless, Luis points out some scratchings on the sidewalk that say "XVIII" for 18th Street. The 18th Street Gang arose from the streets of Pico Union in L.A. This scratching is a critical clue to the history of Sureños and Norteños, now the dominant Mission gangs. Smiley remembers that there used to be only "the Mexicans," without distinctions, but the Mission gangs changed because the prison gangs changed.

In the beginning, there was a powerful prison gang known as the Mexican Mafia, whose members originally came from L.A. The gang consolidated in the 1950s within the California prison system. With the articulation of Chicano pride, the Mexican Mafia became "La eMe" (eme is Spanish for the letter m) and picked up, as their symbol, the eagle poised on a nopal from the Mexican flag. The gang also claimed the number 13 (m being the thirteenth letter in the alphabet) and the color blue. La eMe protected Mexican prisoners, in exchange for taxing the distribution of drugs, alcohol, weapons, prostitution, and safety. The prison tax systems are not new, but La eMe recomposed the prison power blocs.

In the 1960s, inmates from rural farming areas of Northern California splintered from La eMe and formed Nuestra Familia. Nuestra Familia provided special protection to imprisoned rural northerners, who were allegedly abused by La eMe. However, it is not difficult to imagine that distance contributed to La eMe losing control of street gangs in rural Northern California. The identity of Nuestra Familia was informed by Cesar Chavez's farmworker movement of the period. Nuestra Familia, or the Norteños, proudly bear the symbol of a sombrero struck by a machete with dripping blood. Their color is red for the blood spilled by workers and their own, and their number is 14 (n is the fourteenth letter in the alphabet). In juxtaposition to the Norteños, La eMe became known as the Sureños.

One day, I meet a young man I call Ponytail Boy. He tells me to go away, because he is drinking with his friends near the corner at 24th and Shotwell. We end up comparing the Aztec tattoo on his leg with the Mayan butterfly tattoo on my back. He asks me to tell him more about Aztecs and Mayans. I ask him to explain Norteños.

"Norteños are about Latin American pride, about the workers, about Northern Mexicans. The Norteños originated as the bodyguards of Cesar Chavez." He explains that they started out as protectors of immigrant workers. "The Originals worked on farms; we respect his cause, believe in his cause. That's how we connect. When you go to prison, you'll be asked, 'Are you with the Cause?' It's 'family over everything.' . . .

"In jail, it's like a military regime; we are all soldiers. The upper ranks insist that we represent our culture well: educate ourselves, do exercise, read and learn about the Aztecs and the workers, represent for those who don't know about our culture. When the gang goes negative, the higher ranks expect you to be positive."

In the 1970s, with the rise of the cocaine and heroin trade in Mexico, La eMe took its profitable jail business to the streets by working through parolees. La eMe negotiated with existing street gangs--such as the 11th Street Gang (browns) and the 18th Street Gang--to join in an extended tax system, whereby street gangs were given monopoly rights over their territory in exchange for fairly priced and steady drug supplies. La eMe received a kickback from sales. The novelty is the reach of gang generals from the prison cell to the street corner to across the border, an amazing triple feat of intrepid capitalism, military discipline, and identity construction. Today, the prison system has spilled over, and now San Quentin and Pelican Bay inmates control franchises on a street corner near you.

The tremendous flow of young people into the juvenile justice system in California also means that juvie jails are training grounds for gang life. Public schools are the site for first initiations. In neighborhoods such as the Mission, a kid will be 'checked' on the street as early as elementary school and asked to claim a gang. Children have died on Mission streets as a result of mistaken identity. Carlos, now nineteen years old, witnessed his best friend gunned down next to him at the age of eleven for wearing the wrong color clothes, in a little alley near 19th and Valencia.

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