Academic journal article Social Justice

Presumed Guilty: How Schools Criminalize Latin Youth

Academic journal article Social Justice

Presumed Guilty: How Schools Criminalize Latin Youth

Article excerpt


At dusk on a mid-October evening in 1996, i was driving by a crowded bus stop in the Mission District of San Francisco, the city where I had lived and taught for many years. Through the mist and the fog, I spotted a familiar male face whose dark eyes were shielded by a baseball cap. His body had grown taller and broader than the mental image in my memory of three years ago when he was only 13. Could it be Julio?(1) I drove around the block again and pulled over to the curb of the taqueria by the corner. He was still standing there, wearing black jeans topped by a long black and white baseball shirt. Although his hair was no longer shaved at the back or peroxided at the top, I could see it was definitely Julio. I got out of the car and called out his name. He turned and greeted me with a huge grin and a warm hug.

Julio had regularly occupied my thoughts since 1993, when he had been my student for two consecutive years in both sixth and seventh grades. Brilliant at oratory, he could compose raps on the spur of the moment. Julio found street life more captivating than school, though; he cut classes he thought to be useless, which was most of them. Upon listening to the school experiences of Julio and his friends, I thought of how important it would be to document them. Thus I decided to conduct an ethnography of their seventh-grade classroom. Soon afterwards, however, I left the Bay Area for the next two years and lost touch with these students. Until that night, I hadn't known what had happened to Julio. Part of me resisted finding out, since I would surely discover that he was dead. I was thrilled to find him that night, very much alive.

Before I even asked, Julio gave me the lowdown on himself and his friends my focal students. His last two years had been spent in an Arizona juvenile offenders program, having been accused of attempted murder. Now he was back, still gang-banging, but hoping to enter a local university with the ambition of being a writer. He was especially interested in creating screenplays that documented the San Francisco gang scene, a world he felt was snubbed by the media in favor of Southern California.

Hector was in a rival gang, but he and Julio were"cool with each other." Ruben also was gang-banging. Veronica and Olivia used to gang-bang, but stopped; now Olivia was pregnant at 16. Only Eduardo, Alicia, and Elena hadn't gotten involved in gangs. Julio's older brother, Elvin, was locked up in San Quentin on charges of murder. All told, three of the four focal boys in my study were now gang members, and three of the four girls had left school.

Julio's update hit me hard. When I had completed the study, none of the eight were gang members, although Julio had actively participated in a "tagging" (graffiti) crew. Since they all had relatives or close friends who were involved in gangs, they were weighing the pros and cons of joining, but were leaning on the negative side. They had personally witnessed too many injuries and attended too many funerals. In fact, a few of their older siblings in gangs had even prohibited them from joining.

What had happened? Luis Rodriguez (1993:251) concluded, "If there was a viable alternative, they would stop. If we all had a choice, I' m convinced nobody would choose la vida loca, the 'insane nation' - to 'gang bang.'" I agree. I believe that as middle schoolers, these students would not have willfully decided to join a gang. Yet social expectations were constantly pushing on them, shaping them into the mold of"gangsta" and ultimately narrowing the field of choices. In this article, I explore how schooling has served to perpetuate these expectations and continues to do so.

Criminalization of Youth

What to do with those whom society cannot accommodate? Criminalize them. Outlaw their actions and creations. Declare them the enemy, then wage war. Emphasize the differences - the shade of skin, the accent in the speech or manner of clothes. …

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