By Reyna J. Peña on March 26, 2012
Feature photo by Jeff Zoline
I spent most of my childhood in Little Village. My mother moved us into the area by Saucedo school when I was eight. She was a bilingual educator and wanted to be closer to her work. Teaching grammar school children during the day, she also taught English as a Second Language classes to adults at night. My mother was militant in her belief that Latino immigrants should learn English. “Without English, we cannot compete on their level. They want us to not speak English so we can stay in our place,” she would always say. “Without English, all you’ll be able to do is clean someone’s toilet. Or take some shit factory job.”
Mom worked in the community for over twenty-five years. When we would go out together shopping or on a stroll, we would receive updates on her former students from family members whom we would run into. “My daughter was in your fifth grade class; she’s in college now!,” a mother at the bakery would say. “My son–you taught him in fourth grade–just joined the Navy!” another mother would tell us at the grocery store. Or, a bank employee would recognize her as his former teacher and proceed to tell her about the promotion he recently received. Someone always recognized la maestra and had positive news to share.
As a preteen, I liked to walk around a lot, sketch pad and walkman in tow. As an older teen, I would come and go as I pleased, riding the 24-hour Western and 26th Street buses in the middle of the night. I would go to raves at The Black Hole and walk home at 3am. I never felt unsafe in my ‘hood. This was in part because I knew which blocks were hot and which ones weren’t and planned routes accordingly. I knew the local gangbangers and I didn’t associate with them. I knew them, and they knew me. Some of us were in the same classes. We grew up on the same block. If I saw them on the street, I would just walk past. As long as I stayed away from them, chances were fairly slim that I’d be subject to a “random” act of violence. Hang out in the company of a known gang member, on some thug’s porch and, well, those chances move in the other direction.
I didn’t understand the gangbanger mentality. People dressing up in the same lame colors like some sort of stupid dance troupe? That’s supposed to be cute or something? All the dumb hand motions and throaty yowling that make you look and sound like you have some sort of mental impairment. The best was when they would talk about their blocks and their sets, and rivals coming into their territory–as if they actually owned any goddamn thing at all. They didn’t even own the houses they did business out of or let alone the ones they called home.
Of course, none of their culture made sense to me because I had the privilege of growing up in a household headed by la maestra. She knew what was going on in her home every minute of every day. My father, too, believed a man was not a man unless he worked for his money–with his back and his hands and sweat. The lesson I learned from my parents and siblings is that we don’t take handouts; we work. And we certainly don’t steal. We were taught to starve before you steal–and to work hard so to never starve. And we never did starve. If you didn’t have all the money you wanted to spend on things, well, too bad. You take pride in the things you did have, keep them in good condition and you save your money for your family. You take responsibility for yourself and yours. That includes staying out of trouble because who is going to take care of your family if you get mixed up with the wrong MFs and locked up? Or worse, killed? You have to keep yourself in the competition, even though you are handicapped by your skin, and face, and name–all the more reason to work harder.
Unfortunately, some of my neighbors did not have the same privilege. Some grew up in gangs–were born into them. There were parents who knew their kids were gangbangers and did nothing. Either because they were scared or, more often, because they too reaped the profits from their children’s crimes. Gangbanging generated income for the household. Without an education and without opportunities to earn, clowning in the street, making money from drugs and whatnot was a viable option for many. Others chose easy dirty money over actual earnings. Stealings they would be best described as.
Recently I’ve heard a number of sensational stories of gang violence in Little Village. I was surprised a few years back to know the Marshall Square Library I spent most of my time in as a child was closed–and had been the site of a gang-related shooting. Yes, dude got shot in the library, in broad daylight. And since then, things have only gotten worse. Stories from the old ‘hood continue to disturb me but not shock me. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for the victims of shootings and their families. But I also feel sympathy for the perpetrators, who themselves are victims. They are their own worst enemies, unable to live simply and unable to set their own course in life.
Not learning English is not the only thing that will keep you in your place: greed and a lack of self-control will do it, too.