Turf Wars

Same day, October 19. Fireworks pop over Sun Devil Stadium and 74,947 fans cheer as Arizona State University kicks off to the University of Southern California. Four miles east, another football game is about to begin, this one with considerably less fanfare.

Today, the Chandler Varrio Locos are scheduled to play La Victoria Loca at Escalante Park, deep in the heart of Victory Acres, or "La Victoria," the oldest barrio in the East Valley.

Escalante and all of La Victoria is La Victoria Loca territory, and has been for more than 40 years. According to police, LVL is one of the largest, most powerful Chicano gangs in the state. The Chandler Varrio Locos are much smaller, with not as much history behind them. The CVL are the underdogs in this afternoon's match-up, the second game of the season in the Inter-Barrio Football League, an attempt by the leaders of LVL and one freelance activist to transform a sporadic tradition into an organized means to promote peace and unity among Chicano gangs in the Valley.

Normally, the CVL would never venture this far into La Victoria in such numbers. About 20 of them are circling next to the wall of a nearby elementary school, warily eyeing the 50 or 60 LVL stretching and taping their ankles along a chain-link fence on the other side of the field.

Most of the Chandler players are wearing blue bandannas, sports jerseys or tee shirts with airbrush art and decals of lowrider cars, the gang's letters, and the phrase "Mi Vida Loca." The LVL members are also sporting their colors--maroon shirts with gold and white Old English lettering that spells out "Victory Acres," "Uno Mas de La Victoria," and nicknames like Pee Wee, Rascal, Cisco, and Silent.

Manuel, 18, a monster LVL lineman at six-foot-three and 345 pounds, points to a group of Chandler late arrivals walking across the cracked blacktop of the school's basketball court. "You see that fat guy? I'm gonna put my head in his fuckin' stomach and see what he had for breakfast."

A few feet away, the bald-headed, goateed LVL spokesman and team quarterback Payaso towers over a little boy munching Chee-tos, and Payaso passes out yellow wristbands to several LVL wide receivers. Printed on the bands are pass patterns, with corresponding numbers. "That's for our hurry-up offense," explains Payaso ("clown"). "No huddle, you know? I call a number, the receivers look at their wrist and do what it says."

Once he's finished, Payaso calls over community gang counselor Gabe Munoz and backhand waves at the CVL. "Go tell them we're ready," he says. "Kickoff's in ten minutes."

Ten days before the Chandler game, Payaso sits on the couch at his friend Joey's house in La Victoria, eating fish sticks and watching the cheeseball comedy Billy Madison with Joey's family. Payaso is supposed to meet with Munoz and a representative from the Chandler Varrio Locos in about 30 minutes at a Chandler youth center where Munoz volunteers at night to discuss terms for the upcoming game. He asks Joey to drive. "I don't know, man," his friend responds. "I heard Derrick [a Chandler gangbanger not affiliated with the CVL] still has a bullet for me." Joey's 16-year-old sister turns away from the TV. "He and his brother got shot two weeks ago," she says. "They're dead." Joey shrugs and smiles. "All right, then, let's hit it."

Outside, Payaso slides into the back seat of Joey's black, 1972 Lincoln Continental, all cherried out with chrome and leather. The image of a charrito, a buxom Mexican bandit queen wearing bandoliers and brandishing twin six-shooters, is sealed between two panes of thick glass in the rear window. "Riding in style tonight, eh, bro?" says Joey.

Payaso arrives at the youth center ten minutes late to find that Juan, the CVL's ambassador, has just left to get food. Payaso and Munoz agree that's no problem, really, because tension between the Tempe and Chandler gangs is relatively low.

"It should be even lower after they play," says Munoz. "Usually, if guys from different barrios run into one another on the street or in a mall, the standard greeting is, 'Hey, where you from?' See, that's negative right there. That's confrontational. But after they've played football against one another, hopefully they'll be more like 'Hey, I remember you from the game, what's up?' Hopefully, they'll become Eduardo and Mark to one another, instead of Tempe and East Mesa. The whole idea is to get them to distinguish beyond the gang affiliation."

Barrio-on-barrio football in the Valley is nothing new--barrio elders say La Victoria started playing football against other neighborhoods almost 50 years ago, when today's gangbangers with bandannas and Mac 10s would have been pachucos with zoot suits and switchblades. Occasionally, according to sociology studies of Valley barrios and longtime residents of La Victoria, pachucos from one barrio would rumble with another, usually over some interbarrio dating scandal. But the violent provincialism among Valley barrios wasn't as severe then as it is now. Not even close. Guys from one barrio still partied regularly in other neighborhoods, and a casual Friday-night challenge would turn into a football game on Saturday or Sunday, when entire barrios would turn out to watch their young men play.

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse