Thursday, September 27, 2007

Rural Gangs and Splitville

I start this piece with a Disclaimer: It is extremely difficult to conduct a discussion on rural gangs given the lack of information and the complexity of the issues at stake (race, class, gender, hazing rituals, poverty, education, prisons, urban planning, my own lack of knowledge on urban gangs, prevention/punishment, etc.) Regardless, this is my attempt at a formation of the discussion using one small town in California as a starting point.

Goshen, CA, a US census population of approximately 2,394 (C-SET, a non-profit in Goshen, estimates around 3,000 due to the undocumented immigrant population) makes for a telling case study of rural gang issues.

According to some of the common definitions of "rural," this unincorporated area would not classify as "rural." This is due to its proximity, 6 miles from approximately 100,00 people (Visalia, CA), in a county of 419,000. Additionally, the presence of the CA 99 bisects the small town, which would give less credence to its rural definition. Despite common definitions, people living in Tulare County have frequently referred to the County as having "more cows than people and pews than people." Also noteworthy, residents of Goshen still face many of the challenges that rural areas face such as access to health care, transportation, stores, and schools. However, these "challenges" are also attributable to socio-economic status, given that 28% of individuals fall below the poverty level.

Goshen is one of the many towns that the California Highway system profoundly and systematically changed. Much like the towns described in Sonya Salomon's Newcomers to Old Places. Goshen closely resembles the town of Splitville, also bisected by the highway. Although the presence of a major highway system would seem to alleviate transportation problems that are common to such areas, in a town of such high levels of poverty, it does not.

For the purposes of this discussion, I focus on rural gangs. Given the proximity of the highway, Goshen has become a major "claiming territory" for the Norteño and Sureño gangs. Goshen is not alone, as the U.S. saw a systematic increase of gangs in 41 percent of more cities with populations between 1,000 to 2,500 by 1998.

What I see in Goshen is a large population of Latin@ youth (approximately 3/4 of the population of Goshen identifies as Latin@) who become "easy targets" for gang related activity. However, what I also observed was the intergenerational aspect of gangs in the area. The majority of youth who associated with a gang had parents who were also affiliated with that gang. Often these families lived on small subsistence farms with a small garden and generally goats. Youth would get up around 5am in the morning to do "farming" related activities, and then some would go to school. Perhaps these "farming" activities make them “rural” gangs?

The U.S. Department of Justice has found that poverty is less of an indicator of gangs in rural areas compared to urban areas. Instead, data has shown that economic growth is what "moves gangs into an area" that has not previously seen gang activity. Perhaps the ever expanding city of Visalia, so close to Goshen would explain the gang presence. [In fact annexation has been a hot topic between these two cities, which the local militia is ready to bear arms in case that occurs... stay tuned for that discussion.]

Attitudes from the militia as well as “old timers” (often referred to as “Okies” and Portuguese Americans) reflect outrage towards vandalism and other gang related activity that occurs in Goshen. This supports the Judicial observation that “rural communities respond with greater outrage than urban ones to crimes that occur in their midst, apparently because crime is rare and thus more shocking in rural areas than in metropolitan ones. (Rural Rhetoric 232). However, it is hard for law enforcement and social workers to pinpoint whether gang related activity is occurring from members from within the community as much as it occurs from passersby on the CA 99.

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