Longform

Mystery Science 2000

Steven took his first punch on the playground at Mitchell Elementary School in west Phoenix. He was five. He didn't defend himself, because his assailant was a sixth-grade girl, and Steven was taught never to hit girls. So he lay bleeding while his older sister walloped the girl.

Growing up, fighting was a part of life, recalls Steven, who is now 21. He's a round-faced, handsome Latino with a wisp of a beard and mustache and the typical gang attire of a white tee shirt, jeans and black shoes.

But he's not in a gang -- at least, not right now. He's leaning back in a chair in an office at the Mesa Gang Intervention Project, an experimental federal anti-gang program that, unlike other similar programs, actually tries to convince kids to leave gangs rather than simply preventing them from joining. Steven is telling how he wound up needing intervention.

"I have a rowdy family, and fighting isn't a bad thing in my family. It was playing, you know? And it was just something that everybody wanted to do. Sometimes you get mad at this cousin or this brother, and you fight with them. It built a respect. If he called you an asshole and you fought him for it, he'd never call you that again. Whether or not you got your ass beat or whether or not you beat him up, it was just a respect thing . . . like we didn't know how to communicate with each other, and that's why we always ended up fighting."

And, he recalls, ". . . we attracted a different crowd, not the kind of friends you bring home to your mom, you know what I'm saying? We attracted more of a violent crowd, you know?"

A gang crowd.

Steven's dad had been in a gang before he had kids; some of Steven's uncles were in gangs. His older sister ran around with a gang, Westside Hollywood.

"I always thought it was cool. I always thought hanging out with the guys was something I wanted to do. . . . I didn't know that gangs were bullshit. I found out the hard way, believe me."

Steven was jumped into Westside Hollywood when he was 11.

"Everybody, all these guys that I'd seen my sister, my cousins, my brother go to school with . . . they had everybody in check, in control, you know? It was like this: 'You don't come around, you get beat up. You dis us for a girl, you get beat up. We're your family,' you see what I'm saying? 'You're gonna earn our respect. You're gonna do what you're told, you're gonna pay your dues, until you're like me. Then you don't have to do a damn thing -- you can tell everybody else what to do.' That is very important to them. If you come around and you don't do no dirt, you're gonna get beat up.

". . . You gotta break the law, period. If you see some guy walking on your street, you're gonna knock his ass out. . . . They're gonna help you, you know what I'm saying? You're a little guy. And 11 years old, hanging out with 17-, 18-, 20-year-old guys, they're gonna use you."

It was use or be used.

"You're trying to use every bit of a person -- we called it resource -- you know, it's like, that's a resource. We'd use a person for their car, we'd hustle people that were stupid. A lot of white guys would come down and want to be down. 'Yeah, all right, we'll be nice to you, let us use your car.' It was like that. We'd go do a beer run. Stuff like that.

". . . A lot of the wetbacks, the guys from Mexico who sell a lot of drugs, they had to pay. They all had to pay. You wanna sell here, you're gonna give us this, you're gonna give us that. It was all about money. It was. Respect and money. There was a lot of females in my neighborhood, too, and they would get pimped.

". . . It's taught to you. You have to be tough. Their way or no way, that's the way it is. And our way was, it was like this: Ain't No Gooder Than a Hollywooder, you know, and it's like, 'Wassup?' My barrio, that's it. We don't talk to no other gangs, we segregate ourselves."

They didn't talk, but they did fight.

"It was rough, man, because you're fighting all the time and these are guys that you played ball with. . . . And you're really not understanding why you're fighting these guys, but you fight 'em 'cause they're from that place, and that's it.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.