Read the series en español at La Jornada Sin Fronteras



Nuestra Familia / Our Family
Part 1 of 3

George Sánchez and Julia Reynolds
Center for Investigative Reporting / Centro de Periodismo de Investigación

PHOTO SLIDESHOW: Nuestra Familia


Our Family

The Sons of Chávez

A Long Road to Delano




“There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our successes.”

— John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

Norteño gang members hanging out in Salinas.
photo, Janjaap Dekker


Doctor David E. Ramos is speaking in a hushed whisper. Exhausted, sitting in the Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital cafeteria, he has just come off a long emergency room shift and has barely the strength to speak up. As an emergency room physician, there are certain things he expects to do often in his career, he says. Cracking open a young man’s chest is not one of them.

But last week Ramos had to do just that to an innocent bystander in a gangland shooting.

The young man was driving in Salinas, California, and his passenger was wearing a red baseball hat. Neither were trouble makers, but the color of the hat was enough to set off a gun wielding gang member, who shot the driver.
“We couldn’t bring him back,” continues Ramos. “The saddest thing was that he stayed out of the life but he still got killed.”

As a last resort, Ramos performed an emergency thorocotomy, or cracking the young victim’s chest, in an attempt to revive the heart. It’s a procedure used only in severe trauma cases, often for gunshot wounds. It was to no avail.

“I crack chests too often. I’m not supposed to do that more than once or twice in my lifetime, serving this type of population. I have already done it four times and I anticipate doing it every six months,” says Ramos. ”You go to any other big city, they do it all the time, and that’s to be expected in places like Oakland. But Christ, this is Monterey County.”

Specifically, this is Salinas. A city of 144,000 people, two hours south of San Francisco on the 101 freeway in California’s Central Coast, Salinas is overrun with Latino gangs. While Salinas’s literary, agricultural, and labor history remains strong, a new legacy of gang violence and senseless brutality is unfolding in the streets.

More than 2,500 residents are certified gang members in this city, according to the Salinas Police Department. Seventeen of 2002’s twenty reported homicides were gang related. There have been nineteen homicides in 2003. Salinas’ per capita murder rate is comparable to that of Los Angeles and nearly doubles that of San Francisco and New York. The gang violence experienced here is pandemic – familiar in Fresno, Modesto, Watsonville and other small Northern Californian farm towns.
Less than a century ago, Salinas was the setting for much of John Steinbeck’s literary work. Situated in a valley surrounded by Central Coast foothills, the city’s now-paved roads remain symbolic of Californian’s promise of opportunity for the thousands of Mexican immigrants who steadily pour into town as low-paid field workers. But the legacy of California as chronicled by Steinbeck still holds true, and the fate of Tom Joad’s gamble for a better life so many years ago in “The Grapes of Wrath” is a fate that still hangs over this city, but this time, the victims, criminals and heroes are Salinas’s young Latinos.

The Salinas valley.
photo, Janjaap Dekker

Grey fog hangs low on any given morning in the Salinas Valley, ideal weather for lettuce, strawberries, cauliflower, and the dozens of other vegetables grown in the fields. Field workers comb through the moist earth, grabbing, cutting, and collecting fresh produce destined for sale and distribution somewhere far from here. The fields – vast, lush shades of green – stretch for miles, from the edge of Salinas to the base of the outlying foothills.

By noon, the sun is bold and the dark skin of the migrant Mexican field workers tans darker, as, bent over, they continue their jobs. Most are immigrants, among the 53,000 foreign-born workers in Salinas, according to the U.S. Census, amounting to one third of the city’s population. Since 1990, the immigrant population here has grown nearly 85 percent. From Oaxaca, Jalisco, Mexicali, Michoacán and Guanajuato they come, often settling in the east side of Salinas, once known as the town of Alisal. Spanish is the primary language in 84 percent of these homes. Parents work all day while their children are left alone with little supervision, vulnerable to the lure of the street.

Many Salinas Latino mothers and fathers work long hours, often at two or more jobs, barely making ends meet. On the city’s east side, which is nearly 90 percent Latino, the average income is $9,134 per person—less than half the $21,857 average income in the United States. Nearly one quarter of East Salinas residents live below the poverty line, double the national average. Hopes of breaking this cycle of poverty through better education are dismal – only 30 percent of east side residents have high school diplomas, compared to the national average of 80 percent.

Crowded living environments, poor education and overworked families have made Salinas a fertile breeding ground for gangs. Recently, more money and manpower has been afforded the local police department, but there is no sign of Salinas’ gangs easing their control and terror over the community. According to one local gang prevention expert, this may be because Salinas’s residents have learned to live with the fear. But learning to cope doesn’t make a problem disappear.

A Mexican field worker picks strawberries in the Salinas valley. Per capita income here is among the lowest in the nation.
photo, Janjaap Dekker

Patricia Alfaro, 41, was born and raised in Salinas. Her slender figure and California blond highlights belie her inner strength. Growing up, she says, Salinas was a town, not yet a city, and with that came all the comforts of a small community. Alfaro says everyone knew each other, no one locked their front door, and the nearest park was the Sunday destination for teenagers and families alike, sharing laughs, lighting barbecues, and proudly displaying freshly washed cars.

Things are different now. The door to Alfaro’s home is always locked. The wail of a police siren makes her tense with concern for the safety of her sons. Alfaro, the mother of five young men and the grandmother of a baby girl, doesn’t know when or why things changed, only that they have. At the root of it, she is certain, are Salinas’s gangs. As a single, working mother, there’s little she feels she can do to keep her sons away from the violence. Without the support of a father, Alfaro must work full time, instead of staying home with her sons.

“I was the breadwinner, not their mommy, and I should have been there,” says Alfaro. Though she’s a confident Chicana, Alfaro considers her example as a provider a failed one, because while she was working full time, there was no one at home for her boys. If she could do it again, she says she would have gone on welfare, preferring poverty over a fractured family.

At least two of Alfaro’s five sons are Norteño gang members. Three have been in and out of juvenile hall and one has served time in county jail. Like many mothers in her position, she is aware of her son’s lifestyles, but reluctant to admit it.

“If I don’t say it, it makes it less real,” she tells herself.

A double gang shooting on a summer evening.
photo, Janjaap Dekker

Denial is a powerful factor in the rise of Salinas’ gangs. In fact, it’s common, says Antonio Avalos, a former Sureño gang member who currently runs Barrios Unidos, a gang prevention group in East Salinas. And Avalos is honest about himself.

“My older brother, he used to be with a group of friends and they started the first Sureño group in Salinas—MBL [Maderos Batos Locos],” says Avalos in his soft speech of mixed Spanish and English. “They used to hang out here on the corner of Madeira and Market. Just because I was the younger brother and all my friends used to hang out, we became part of the gang too.”

Born and raised in Mexicali’s Colonia Orizaba, Avalos came to the United States at age eleven, when a coyote brought his mother and her seven children to Salinas. Here, his mother picked vegetables during the day while Antonio struggled to fit in, unable to understand his middle school classes in English. The family moved from small apartment to small apartment, he recalls, at times squeezing eight bodies into a studio built for one.

One of those apartments is blocks from his Barrios Unidos office on Hebbron Street. The office is a short walk away from the intersection where Salinas’ gangs first took root.

Salinas is unique because what were once fist fights between small street gangs has erupted into a never-ending war between Latino gangs who identify as either Norteños or Sureños. The Norteños and Sureños in the streets are linked to, and sometimes controlled by, the notorious prisons gangs Nuestra Familia and the Mexican Mafia.

Former Sureño and anti-gang activist Antonio Ávalos.
photo, Janjaap Dekker

At the intersection of Madiera and East Market Street, sits a pair of open air store-front markets. In the past similar small fruit stands dotted the neighborhood. It was here, many say, that Salinas’s first gangs began.
As late as the 1950s, the fruit stands were in an unincorporated area of Salinas known as the Alisal District. It was a mix of shacks, unpaved roads and seasonal housing for Salinas’s migrant farmers, who were poor whites, Filipinos, Mexican immigrants, and Mexican Americans. On those street corners, a group of young men emerged. They mostly hung around, drank, got rowdy, and fought. They were known as the Fruit Standers.

The Fruit Standers were much more than a lively mix of braggarts, drunkards, and brawlers. They were the first of what is now classified as a cultural gang.

Cultural gangs, says Antonio Avalos, are specific to a region and usually organized by a collective history, language, ethnicity, and experience. Street gangs, who often claim a block or neighborhood as their own, are cultural gangs, says Avalos. Fights between cultural gangs tend to break out over respect and reputation. These gangs are often little more than an organized cluster of friends and neighborhood kids, albeit a group with violent tendencies. Cultural gangs differ from industrial gangs, such as the Mexican Mafia, says Avalos, because industrial gangs are organized money-making enterprises, dependent primarily on drug and gun trafficking.

In 1975, the first Norteño street gang was formed, Salinas East Marqueta, or SEM, a cultural gang much like the Fruit Standers. One of the gang’s founding members is Armando Rico Frias.

“When we first got together, in SEM, it was for protection, it was for unity, to back ourselves up against injustices being done to us,” says Frias.
The son of migrant farm workers from Michoacán, Frias says SEM was formed by seven young Mexican-Americans as a way to protect themselves from out-of-towners who, he says, picked on Salinas locals.
SEM grew to include more than one hundred members and today is recognized by the community and local law enforcement as the oldest and largest Norteño gang in Salinas.

As a gang member, Frias says he believed he wouldn’t live to be 25. A father of two by the time he was 18, he convinced himself that his sons were going to grow up without a father. He didn’t want them to be defenseless in his absence, so he taught them to be like him, to be a SEMster, a Norteño, a gang member.

“To me, it was all right to teach them,” says Frias. “I honestly believed they were going to grow up without a father and I wanted to make sure that they were taught to survive and that means if they were gonna be violent, they were gonna be violent. If they were gonna deal drugs, they were gonna deal drugs.”

Frias remembers trying to go straight after one of his first prison sentences. He tried working the fields, but it was easier to sell marijuana and methamphetamine, making in a few hours on the streets more than he could after a day of hard field work. So that’s what he did.

Twenty years later, Frias occasionally works at Barrios Unidos alongside Antonio Avalos, teaching kids why they should stay out of gangs and providing an adult figure in the absence of working parents. Though those gang connections are not far behind him, Frias can smile today over how far he and Avalos have come.

Back when both were gangbanging, Frias’s Norteño friends decided to kill Avalos. At a party, they once came close to ambushing him. Avalos was warned of the plans, and left before any violence could unfold. Not everyone was so lucky.

In the winter of 1990, there was another party. Antonio Avalos didn’t attend, but he remembers it. His friend Jesús Montalvo, a Sureño like Avalos and a member of Maderos Batos Locos, was there. Montalvo, known as Gordo, liked to party and that night was no different, says Avalos.

Gordo was dressed well that night, Avalos recalls – a nice shirt, nice shoes, and sharp slacks. Friday night was party night. Gordo got drunk and what followed is unclear. Avalos says there have been many different stories about how it happened, none of which he cares to know. Regardless, Gordo was lured away from the party, invited by a couple of Norteños to go for a ride. Normally this would raise suspicion, but Montalvo was different, explains Avalos. As bitter as the Norteño-Sureño struggle was, there were always exceptions, men and women who sided with one but were friends with both. Gordo was one such exception, according to Avalos. So when Montalvo accepted the invitation, he probably thought nothing of it. It wasn’t the first time he’d gone riding with Norteños.

That night, Montalvo was driven to the foothills outside of Salinas and killed.

Avalos says he was awakened early the next morning by some of his homies. They said, “Gordo left us.” Avalos thought nothing of it at first, asif he’d simply gone somewhere. They repeated themselves: “Gordo left us.” Then Avalos says he understood.

When Gordo’s body was found, his nose and thumb had been cut off. His chest and back had been stabbed multiple times, reportedly with a set of kitchen knives. Montalvo bled to death in the Salinas foothills.

“Did I want those guys that killed Gordo to be caught? Maybe,” says a solemn Avalos. “But it’s not helping us anyways. I mean, Gordo’s dead. He’s dead. I loved Gordo and I still love him and there’s nothing that anybody will ever be able to do to bring him back.”

Since Gordo was a beloved member of Maderos Batos Locos, retaliation was expected. But Avalos, who was a leader of sorts, held back the gang from striking.

“We were sitting down, making plans, and I told my homeboys, honestly, if we do this, some of us are going to die,” says Avalos. “See, my friends didn’t care if they died. They said, straight up, ‘We don’t care.’ I said ‘I care. I love you... We been friends since I was a little kid and I already lost too many to keep on going.’”

A little more than a year after Jesús Montalvo’s death, Antonio Avalos became the father of a baby boy. Avalos named him Jesús.

Norteño kids posting up. "Salas" means Salinas.
photo, Janjaap Dekker

Afternoons on the East Side typically find Antonio Avalos at Barrios Unidos, though the large Mexican is stretched thin. He cares for and supports eight children, is struggling to produce a local youth-oriented magazine, holds Spanish-language gang presentations for migrant Mexican parents, and attends community meetings as a voice of reason amidst hysteria, fear, and misunderstanding. Yet he still manages to make time for the kids of Barrios Unidos.

To the kids, he’s one of them. He knows what it’s like to be the son of an immigrant, not fitting in with the Chicanos because he wasn’t born here. He knows the lure of gangs for young men and women. That’s why Barrios Unidos focuses on kids, and, as he points out, works to prevent them from joining gangs in the first place.

“Right now kids are classified as Sureños or Norteños by places they hang out, who their brothers are, their relatives, the type of clothes they wear,” explains Avalos. “Back in the day, pretty much everybody that spoke Spanish was a Sureño, I mean, it didn’t matter where you came from, if you spoke Spanish, you were a Sureño.”

But the distancing of Mexican Americans – Chicanos – from native Mexicans is not a thing of the past, says Evelyn Gracia, who works as a youth advocate as a part of the Monterey County Migrant Education Program.

“The gente chicana from here were born and raised here, and don’t understand the people coming in from Mexico,” explains Gracia. “The youngsters will tell you ‘Well, they’re not like us.’ But the youngsters from México will come in and they have issues with that too, saying, ‘We want to belong. You don’t want us, but we’re still here.’ And that’s where the warring begins.”

As short-sighted as that seems, it’s the truth of Salinas, says Gracia.
That difference means the world for the Latino gangsters of Salinas, who hold their city hostage in a constant gang siege. Nearly every visit to Barrios Unidos brings with it news of another shooting or fight between Norteño and Sureño street gangs. Blood is still shed and as the director of Barrios Unidos, Avalos still hopes to broker peace. But in Salinas, peace is fragile.

On a recent weekend, three people were murdered, bringing the year’s homicide tally to 19. The first to die was 17-year old Eduardo Vallecillo, a regular at Barrios Unidos. Less than 48 hours later, a 20-year old was murdered at a party early Sunday morning. Police say the murder was gang-related and while there were more than one hundred witnesses, no one has come forward with information.

With witnesses or without, the killing goes in Salinas.

Additional reporting for this series by Nada Behziz, Justin Kane, David Montero, Michael Chandler, Marlena Telvick, Mara Reynolds, Oriana Zill de Granados and students from Lowell Bergman’s investigative reporting seminar at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

© 2003 El Andar Magazine