Toward a Psychosocial and Sociocultural Understanding of Achievement Motivation among Latino Gang Members in U. S. Schools

Article excerpt

Gang members tend to drop out of school, commit crimes, and engage in other delinquent behaviors at rates far exceeding those of the general population, and the Latino component of the U.S. gang member population constitutes up to 40 percent (and even more in some cases) of the urban Latino population in some areas. Many in mainstream society characterize Latino gang members as psychopathic and sociopathic, yet understand relatively little about them. This paper examines some of the psychosocial and sociocultural developmental theories and research regarding the delinquent achievement orientation of Latino gang members and their involvement in gangs. This examination demonstrates the thesis that the Latino gang member orientation and motivation towards the achievement of delinquent behavior, largely perceived as deviant by mainstream society, is actually an alternative response to repellent conditions. This response, often seen as abnormal by society as a whole, is a perception of achievement from within a diverted context that is misunderstood by many within mainstream society, a perception of abnormal or delinquent achievement behavior, such as dropping out of school or committing crime, as the norm or standard to attain. Ameliorative efforts (including prevention, intervention, and suppression) on the part of society and social institutions (particularly the schools) should be utilized in producing salient salutary changes.

Gang members have long been perceived as one of the most intractable banes of society. They tend to drop out of school, commit crimes, and engage in other delinquent behaviors at rates far exceeding those of the general population (Asbury, 1928; Belitz & Valdez, 1994; Jankowski, 1991; New York City Criminal Justice Agency, 1989; Suarez-Orozco, 1989; Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 1995b; Vigil, 1988a). Many in mainstream society characterize gang members as psychopathic and sociopathic, yet understand relatively little about them. Upon being asked, many in society will respond to the question of why gang members behave the way they do with a simplistic "they just want to cause trouble" or "they are stuck within a low SES (socioeconomic status)."

Historically, gangs have existed among various ethnic communities in the United States, including gangs in numerous Latino, African American, Asian, and White (non-Latino, Anglo and non-Anglo) communities (Asbury, 1928; Jankowski, 1991; Moore, 1985; New York City Criminal Justice Agency, 1989; Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 1995b; Thrasher, 1927; Vigil, 1988a). Such historical examples would include ethnic gangs of Mexican, Chinese, Irish, and Polish ancestry. Contemporary examples would include the preceding four groups, as well as such diverse cases as Dominican, Vietnamese, and Russian gangs (Friedman, 2000; Jankowski, 1991; Vigil & Yun, 1990), including scenarios in which potential gang recruits of less commonly gang-affiliated ethnic backgrounds are incorporated into more established ethnic gangs in an alternative form of U.S. "equal opportunity" (Suarez-Orozco, 1989; Suarez-Orozco, 1999; Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 1995b; Vigil, 1988a). U.S. Latino gangs, however, have existed since the increase in Latin American immigration to the U.S. earlier in the twentieth century and the concomitant society-imposed marginalization that quickly accompanied that increase (Buriel, 1984; Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 1995b; Vigil, 1988a, 1999; for a percipient analysis of pariah group status, see De Vos & Suarez-Orozco, 1990; for an acute examination of similar statuses as they relate to children of immigrants, see Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 2001).

Presently, the U.S. gang member population's Latino component (much of which contains members that tend to average between 13 and 25 years of age [Vigil, 1988a]) constitutes a substantial portion of the Latino population in the United States, particularly in the inner city (Buriel, 1984; Calabrese & Noboa, 1995; Derbyshire, 1968; Jankowski, 1991; Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 1995b; Vigil, 1988a, 1988b, 1999), as the numbers attest. …