From Gang to Harvard

Honestly, Iris is scared…Once you are in, they teach you how to fight, how to dress. They teach you how to braid your hair back tightly, making it more difficult for your opponent to grab and pull. They teach you to apply Vaseline to your face so punches slide off and scratches won’t scar. They tell you to take off your jewelry and especially don’t wear earrings – they can get ripped from your ears or pushed into your neck…

Iris grows up in a suburban neighborhood, located just 4 miles from the border with Mexico. While Dad is deployed, Mom works at a bank and raises Iris and her sister, who is 6 years younger. Iris is the oldest of the cousins but they all live close and gather after school at their Aunt’s house across the street from the elementary school. If grandpa is in town, he picks up the grandkids in a loud, rattling, 1962 Comet. Life for Iris centers on her large extended family. Of Iris’ many cousins, Mark is the closest in age, just 2 years younger.  Playing with Mark inevitably ends up in a fight –  grappling, wrestling, punching, kicking, scratching, hair pulling. Parents have to pull them apart all the time. How they remained close is a mystery but the fighting serves a purpose – it hardens Iris and gives her confidence she can handle herself.

Second grade. The elementary school is in a tough Latino neighborhood. Flora is in 6th grade. She is big and she is a bully. She has scratches all over her dirty face, and tangled, unkempt hair. She has been held back in moving to the next grade several times. A defining moment: Iris has the choice of going to the upper or lower bathrooms. It is closer to go to the lower and Iris knows that Flora frequents the lower but recess is almost over and Iris is willing to chance it. Sure enough, Flora comes into the bathroom and starts bullying kids. She wets paper towels and throws them so they stick to the ceiling above the stalls. The towels dry out quickly and drop on your head if you aren’t watching. The stalls don’t lock so Flora kicks in the door with a bang that makes your heart stop. Kids scream or jump or both and squeeze their way out and around Flora. At the end of herself, when Flora kicks in the door to the stall Iris is in, Iris bolts upright, shouts a long “you stop iiiiiiit!” shoves Flora enough to push past her, and runs straight to her classroom and her teacher. She is shaking but determined to put a stop to it, regardless of the consequences. It makes a difference—Flora’s bathroom bullying stops.

Iris can’t put it into words at the time, but she learns lessons she tucks away: be proactive and don’t be a victim.

Her Junior High is 7th through 9th grade. In Junior High, gangs are divided by ethnicity: Asian, Mexican, and Black. The girl gangs are separate from the boys, but are still connected as sister and brother gangs. Some gangs, more violent than others.

Although the gangs are always razzing you verbally, they mostly leave you alone until 9th grade. They say all the right things in front of the teachers, but then they sit behind you and kick your chair with a constant bump-bump. They look for reasons to hold something against you, using it to taunt you into a fight. They whisper to you “I’m going to kick your…. later” and use profanity-laced ethnic slurs.

You know the areas in school not to walk through. The gangs huddle in territories or corners or hallways as long as possible between classes, and before and after school. In the lunch area, they sit together at tables. In between classes, they “hold up the walls” with their back and one foot up and leaning against the wall.  Some Latino boys holding up the walls say to Iris: “Hey Cheeena!” Iris growls back: “I’m not Chinese!”

Iris walks home after school. Getting off the school grounds un-hassled is the hard part. The gates are “guarded” by different gangs. The fastest way home is to climb the slope behind the school (the equivalent of three flights of stairs), exit the gate and walk through a park. The gate and park behind belongs to the scariest gang. There is another gate through the basketball courts to the side of the school but that too is guarded by a different gang. The front of the school is the safest with the administrators and teachers and parents picking up– by far the longest way home.

When Iris reaches 9th grade, she starts getting in trouble going out the back gates. Different bullies in that girl gang would have to say “let her go” or “let her pass”. The ones they don’t let pass are in trouble. There are few options here. A bad option is getting dragged to the park and beaten up. A worse option is letting you go through but shouting at you, “I am going to kick your a** tomorrow!” For the rest of the day and sleepless night, that’s all you can think about. Tomorrow they are going to jump me and beat me up. Another less severe, but no less humiliating option, was getting your backpack yanked off your shoulder, emptied out and books thrown everywhere. They give you a tongue lashing of racial slurs and smack talk. Scary bully stuff. Sometimes the principal would post an unwilling teacher back there. But they never stayed long enough or seemed to be looking the other way. Plus, park territory or a block down wasn’t school territory. Anything could happen to you once you left school grounds.

Iris would sometimes cross the street on the opposite side through the neighboring elementary school. If they see you cut through and run to the other side of the street, they yell: “Hey chicken! Are you too chicken to walk on this side of the street?” And then they follow you for a couple of blocks, taunting and cursing you.

To avoid the extra-long walk, Iris waits at her friend Mirtha’s house around the corner from the front of the school until the gangs disperse from the hill. Most days Iris waits for her mom to pick her up at Mirtha’s. Mom is upset because she knows Mirtha is not a good influence.

This is a time of searching for identity. Iris is the smart girl. She’s a good student with honors classes. She plays first chair violin. She is mostly hanging out with friends from elementary school: Eva and Mirtha.  Eva’s pretty and smart and starts dating the head of the Mexican gang. Through Eva, Iris has an allegiance with the Mexican guys. The Mexican girls don’t like Iris because she hangs out with their Mexican boys. They dislike Eva even more for dating one of theirs. Iris recognizes she is vulnerable.

Mirtha is the first of Iris’ friends to become of member of the Asian girl gang. She is looking for an identity and it’s not going to be academics. After Mirtha joins the gang, the gang starts hanging around her house. Mirtha’s parents are both gone – they both work. So the once safe house is now invaded by the gang. There are five of them: Lacey is the leader and is half Chinese and half Filipino; Maxine and Gena are the heavies, both are a mix of Guamanian and Mexican; and then there’s Vanessa and Mirtha, both Filipinos.

They start to work on Iris. “You should join us. You need our protection from the Mexican girls. They don’t like you, girl.” Then there’s Cecilia the big black girl. “We can help you at lunch if Cecilia is there. Stay with us and she won’t pick on you”. At the time, it sounds pretty good to Iris. She is thinking that if she could fight, then she wouldn’t need them, but having numbers is safer. She can stay with them. Here’s a group that’s going to help.

Gang draft day. You can’t just get in. Iris has to fight Lacey and Maxine in Mirtha’s living room. First, Iris fights Lacey . There is hair grabbing, kicking, scratching, grappling. They bang into and knock over furniture. It’s more of a wrestling match, a style Iris is used to with her cousin Mark. Iris is faster and eventually gets Lacey down on the ground and pins her with an arm across her neck. Iris is screaming “Is this good? Is this good?” The rest yell back, “I don’t know, ask Lace!”. Lacey shouts “YES!” and it’s over. Now for Maxine. “Max” outsizes Iris by 50 pounds. She lunges at Iris and knocks her back, banging her head on the counter. She lifts Iris into a bear hug and throws her across the room and Iris bangs into the wooden side of the couch. Max pulls her up again and squeezes her and starts swinging Iris around, knocking over bar stools. Iris’s adrenaline kicks in and she is able to break free, turning quickly into a position where she can catch Max a little off balance and pull her to the ground. They are rolling together on the ground kicking and punching, when Lacey jumps in and calls “It’s okay! Enough! She’s in!” Iris is hurting but nothing major, just bruises and scrapes.

Gang boot camp. Once you are in, they teach you how to fight, how to dress. They teach you how to braid your hair back tightly, making it more difficult for your opponent to grab and pull. They teach you to apply Vaseline to your face so punches slide off and scratches won’t scar. They tell you to take off your jewelry and especially don’t wear earrings – they can get ripped from your ears or pushed into your neck. Don’t walk anywhere alone. Anything the other gangs say to you, you tell us. And you HAVE to wear a jacket all the time. You walk through school with one arm in the jacket sleeve the rest hanging in the back to show you are ready to fight if necessary. When you need to fight, you pull on both sleeves and zip it all the way up. The jacket has a practical purpose of giving you added protection.

Honestly, Iris is scared. They are all scared. Of course, no one shows it outwardly, but looking back, Iris knows that everyone is scared.

So now word gets out that Iris is in the Asian gang. “Iris joined ‘the sisters’. No way!” they would say. Blacks and the Mexicans start to talk. Before this happens, Iris is a number. The gangs pick on everyone, not just Iris. Now that Iris is in a gang, she goes from being a number to being a target.

Iris takes on the persona and the change happens quickly. She stops hanging out with Eva and now hangs exclusively with Mirtha and the sisters. Changes happen in her language, her attitude, and her clothes. She starts dressing the part. Instead of sweaters and dresses, she now wears tube tops and “baggies” – baggie pants because theoretically you can hide stuff in your pants.

And a jacket. Girl gangs always wear jackets, regardless of the weather. Most wear their guy gang counterpart’s jacket. All of the guys in Iris’ school are too weak to gang up, so there is no Asian brother gang. The brother gang for ‘the sisters’ is from the local high school. This is helpful and practical because they are older and able to drive. Most girls wear their “brother’s” jacket – usually a bomber style jacket, but at this point, Iris has no guy gang counterpart. Iris wears her dad’s chief petty officer jacket. It is khaki with a plain zipper and red liner. A tube top and khaki jacket, everyday, sunshine and rain.

It is all part of the “hidden language” of the gang. How the gangs acts and dresses. Carlos and Poppy holding up the walls. Their Mexican plaid shirts buttoned all the way up. Their jacket zipped up. Hardly any affect or acknowledgement. It all tells the story that they are ready to go if you say something. They are ready to fight on demand.

Part of Iris’ job as a gang member is to recruit others. Strength in numbers. Iris brings in Jane. Complete nerd but it doesn’t take long for Jane to fully transform.

More changes. Iris plays first violin and participated in the all district orchestra. She brings her violin to school. But Iris stops playing orchestra because of the gang. Mirtha says about the violin case: “She’s gotta gun in there!” Anything to make it seem less nerdy. It seems stupid to Iris that she’s in a gang and after school is in the band. She stops violin. Lack of choice. Scared and angry. Scared because of the gang and angry because she feels she has no choice.

The next step in the initiation is a real fight with another gang. It’s Lacey’s job as the leader to find the fight. Lacey has a deformity with one leg longer than the other. But her face and figure are beautiful. The boys focus on her tube tops and not her dragging leg so she is popular. But Lacey is also tough. Her mouth is worse than a sailor’s. She can slay anybody verbally with her words. Her words are biting and quick and filled with cursing. It’s a form of defense. You learn to talk the other person down. And this is the only era in Iris’ life where she curses.

The fight is going to be picked with another Asian gang. There is some strategy to picking the right gang to fight. Pick on the smaller prey. You are trying to make sure you have success and build a reputation. You don’t fight the black girls at this point. Somebody always knows somebody in another gang. The fights are found from calling around. Iris remembers the avocado green phone hanging on the kitchen wall at Lacey’s house. Lacey connects with a gang leader and is trying to make trouble by talking smack. “I heard you were looking at my guy!” Lacey follows with “You talk to Iris, my girl can throw! I don’t need to talk to you! Here’s Iris!” She puts Iris on the phone. Inside, Iris is thinking what the heck am I going to say?

Iris is now just peacocking. She knows the words coming out of her mouth are not really who she is. She is faking it in front of her gang sisters. Lacey is faking. Everyone is faking. Iris says: “I heard you were talking smack about us and you are trying to swoop on Lacey’s guy. We are gonna come down there tomorrow and take care of this!” And knowing Lacey is sensitive about her leg, Iris added:  “I even heard you called Lacey a ‘Peg Leg’!” That incenses Lacey, of course. The gang leader on the end of the phone says: “I got you! You guys show up tomorrow and I’m gonna give you Ruby!”

The next day, Iris and the sisters get a ride from one of the high school gang boys. Iris has to lie to her parents. They ditch school so they can arrive on time right after the rival school ends. The boy driving is smoking pot. All the way over, they keep telling Iris in the car, “this one is yours, you can take her. We will back you up!”   Iris is scared. She can’t help thinking: “I am going to die!”

The car pulls up to the school. Iris is dressed in black. Her hair is back in a tight braid. Her face vaselined. Her jacket zipped to the top. She is ready. They can’t go on the campus until school is out, so they stand by the car. Once the bell rings they go in and start asking everyone they see about Ruby. “We are looking for Ruby. Do you know Ruby? Where’s Ruby? Who’s Ruby Martinez?” There are masses of students now. The buses are loading. There is lots of activity. Masses of students.

Someone yells: “Hey Ruby, these people are looking for you!” They look and see Ruby for the first time. She is wearing a white sun dress, high wedge shoes. She runs from the crowd and into her bus. She is obviously scared, having been told this gang girl was driving 15 miles to hunt her down and fight her. Iris gets to know her later and finds that she is non-confrontational and somewhat flaky. She probably said to her gang at the time: “Yeah, yeah. I’ll be there. I’ll take care of it.” And she doesn’t show up.

For Iris, it is win-win. She didn’t have to actually fight. The sisters are saying “Yeah, you talked her down. She’s scared.”

Life with the gang is all about being together and making trouble wherever you go. It’s about proving yourself and your worth to the gang over and over. They get rides from their boy gangs and they drive around the neighborhoods of other gang areas. They drive slowly, cruising, just looking for trouble. They mostly want people to talk the next day about their exploits, to continue to build reputation. “Hey, the sisters were driving in your ‘hood.” They shove each other when they are walking. Stupid stuff. They steal. They learn how to wear the stolen clothes under their own and in such a way that the security tag is above the monitors when they leave. Always upping the ante. They dare each other to try to steal more difficult items. Iris even steals a large picture frame on a dare.

They would say to each other, “I got something at 3, you gonna back me up?” And things like: “I need one more. Who’s gonna back me up?” The sister would respond: “Where you gonna be? Right outside the gate? I’ll be there!”

It is a daily happening to have a fight going on after school. Asian gangs fight Mexican gangs. Mexican gangs fight black gangs. The boys have the girls carry their weapons in school. Iris learns to use nunchuks and goes to school hiding the chuks in her jacket. She wears it so one chuk handle is up her sleeve and the other hangs down her side inside her jacket. There is a fear factor carrying the weapon. Can you carry it so you don’t get caught?

Eventually, the black gang is after Iris. It is the biggest and meanest of all the black girls. Here name is Cecilia. Iris likens her to the “Predator” from the Arnold movie. Cecilia tells Iris on a Friday: “Get ready, because on Monday, I am going to beat the **** out of you after school!”

On fight Monday, Iris’ mom is driving her to school and it’s raining. Over the weekend, Iris’ mom somehow found out about the fight. They are about a mile from school when they see Cecilia walking on the sidewalk. Mom: “Hey isn’t that Cecilia?” Iris: “Yeah.” Mom: “Let’s give her a ride to school. Roll down the window.” Iris: “What? No!” Mom pulls over and says: “Hey Cecilia, get in the car. Come on. It’s raining. We’ll give you a ride to school.” Cecilia: “I don’t need no ride!” And she keeps walking. The school has the Mayans as their mascot, and they can see that Cecilia, who is a “letterette”, is burdened by the “M” shield and her books. Mom appeals again: “Come on, Cecilia, get in. It’s raining and you’ve got a long way to go up that hill with all your stuff.” So Cecilia reluctantly agrees and gets in. She actually seems grateful, but Iris feels awkward and fearful of what will happen after school. Iris has been anticipating the pain for three days. She wants to have it done with and can’t stop worrying about it.

Nervously, but prepared, Iris walks up the hill after school. Cecilia and her gang sister are at the gate. The black sister says to Iris: “Well, well, well, here she is. Are you ready for some?” But Cecilia says “No, she’s cool” and she looks away. The other girl says: “Say what?” Cecilia repeats: “No she’s cool. Let her go.” Blessed relief.

Iris is, by now, looking for a way out.

Ditching school one day close to the end of the school year, Iris gets caught. When it is time to ditch, they get a hall pass and meet at a certain time. Or they wait for the lunch bell to finish. And as people start to go back to class, they linger in a hidden spot along the wall that is the closest point to the fence. It’s time! Iris and Mirtha run across the black top. The gates are locked during the day. Mirtha makes it over the fence and Iris is halfway up when one of the teachers catches her. The teacher yells: “Get back here! I know who you are.” There are high school guys with cars waiting down the hill. The gang is yelling “Come on!” but Iris gets down. The teacher says: “Do you realize what you are doing? Do you really want to be doing that? What class do you have right now?” Iris: “Honors English.” Iris thinks: “What am I doing?” Getting caught makes her think this is her chance to get out.

At the time, there is a program called LIFE – Living In a Free Environment. It is at BHS 15 miles away. A magnet program, it is designed to racially balance the district. It pulls kids who are in trouble out of their minority schools.

Iris goes to her counselor. The counselor sits Iris down and says, “Here’s the deal. Straight A’s, honors classes. You were caught trying to ditch. You are hanging out with the wrong crowd. You need a change.” She hands Iris paperwork for the LIFE program and says:  “Here’s your way out. Read it. Think about it. Talk to your parents. Have them sign the papers and you can transfer high schools. You NEED to do this.” Iris gives it to her parents and they are against it. They don’t completely understand what’s happening at Iris’ current school and say: “This doesn’t make sense. Who’s gonna drive you? You just will be farther from us.” But Iris gets them to sign it.

There is currently no way for Iris to get to the new high school. Her parents can’t drive her consistently so Iris petitions to get a bus to come to her neighborhood. She writes a letter and calls the school district. She calls the director of the LIFE program – Mr. Knight – and he backs her up. Iris even talks Jane into going with her.

But when she tells the sister gang in the summer, they are angry. You can’t just leave the gang. Maxine is especially upset and begins to stalk and threaten Iris. Max and the sisters end up getting more deeply involved with the worst high school guys who carry guns, making the threat even more dangerous. Now they have guns. They drive back and forth in front of the house all summer, threatening Iris.

Nothing concrete happens but the threat continues as Iris starts going to BHS. A self-preservation move, Iris begins dating Nate, a gang member from another South San Diego city. Kicked out of school as a 9th grader for carrying a gun, Nate, spent time in juvenile hall. He ends up getting transferred to BHS along with three other gang guys, all moved for the same reason. Nate still carries a gun to school and Iris decides Nate can protect her from the old gang. Irony – Nate’s best friend Aaron, ends up as a policeman in the anti-gang division.

Iris’ life at BHS eventually turns to normalcy. The fear of old gang retribution subsides by her junior year. After high school, Iris attends UCSD for her undergraduate work. Then on to Cambridge MA where she obtains two masters degrees and a doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.