* We are withholding the writer’s name to protect her identity. Names have been changed.
Growing up, every house in my neighborhood seemed like it had one or two gang members. My cousin Ricky was in a gang, too. And his gang ruled the neighborhood. In 1994, Ricky was paralyzed after getting shot in a drive-by. After that he tried to get out of the gang, but a couple months later he was hanging out with his gang friends almost every day and they were planning to get revenge. This made me think that gangs would be there to protect you.
I loved the way people treated my cousin and his friends in the gang. They got free food at restaurants and people in the neighborhood would give them money for protection from rival gangs. So as I got older my dream was to join a gang.
In sixth grade some of my friends and I started a tagging crew, which is what some kids join if they’re too young to join a gang. A crew is a group of people who tag walls to mark their territory. To join, each person had to let the others in the crew hit them for 60 seconds without hitting back. This is one of the requirements for joining gangs, and since most of us had family members who were in gangs, we wanted to model ourselves after them. This was called getting “jumped in.”
I got punched and kicked all over my body, face, arms and legs. The pain hurt like fire, but I wasn’t allowed to cry. If I cried or fought back the minute would start over. Not crying was how I proved I would be strong enough to fight anyone for my crew. After the minute was over, I felt strong and that I could handle any pain without crying.
When I got home, I hid my bruises under the sweater I was wearing. I stayed in my room all night, listening to music and lying completely still in bed. I was in so much pain that I didn’t want to move.
We started the crew because many of us wanted to feel like part of a family. My parents got divorced when I was 5, and I hardly ever saw my dad after that. And my mom was always with my stepdad—at his soccer games or spending time with his family. My older brother was always working, leaving me and my sister home alone. Then my sister moved in with her boyfriend when she was 15 and I was 12. After that I was almost always alone. The crew was the family I felt like I didn’t have.
Tagging made me feel tough
We tagged school walls and buildings in the neighborhood. We would tag our crew’s name with our nicknames in black, gray or blue spray paint and Sharpies. Me and two other friends did ones that were 6 feet long. Doing the biggest tags made me the biggest badass after our leader.
By seventh grade whenever we walked around school, other students always got out of our way. Whenever I would ask random kids for money to buy something, they gave it to me. I felt like a respected gang member, which was my dream come true.
That year I started to make a lot of enemies in the other crews because we tagged over their tags. I got jumped three times on the way home from school. Teachers didn’t like me either. I never did homework. I slept in class and I walked out whenever I wanted.
One time I noticed that a rival crew had covered one of my tags with theirs. “No b**** is going to cross me out,” I thought. When I found out who did it I left class, found her in the lunch area and socked her in the face a few times. Teachers broke it up and I got suspended for a week.
I also got heavy into drugs. I helped some older friends in gangs sell weed at my school. They offered to pay me with cocaine or money, but I chose cocaine because I liked the numbness of the high. It got to the point where I felt like I had to be high 24 hours a day. I stayed up late doing cocaine, so I slept through classes.
Around April of seventh grade the school found out I was doing drugs and put me in a drug rehab program. The school and my mom thought it was a marijuana problem. I told my counselor that I learned drugs were wrong, but I kept using. They never drug-tested me, so I was given a certificate saying I completed the program.
When I got in another fight in April, a school police officer took me home to tell my mom I was suspended. My mom and my sister started to worry that I was going to end up in serious trouble with the law. They didn’t know I was in a crew.
One time a few weeks later I got so high that I tried to hit my mom during an argument. She kicked me out of the house so I moved in with my godparents. I ended seventh grade with straight Fs, but I didn’t care. I faked her signature on my report card so she didn’t know.
Even though I was lying to my mom, I wished she would care more. Why hadn’t my mom, who knew what our neighborhood was like, moved us away? Why didn’t she pay more attention to who I was hanging out with? It was her fault I was in a crew. Since I felt like she gave up on me, I started giving up on myself. I figured I would drop out of school. Most of my homegirls I knew in gangs already had kids and lived with their man. That would be my future, too. It sucked that I wouldn’t ever go to prom and graduate from high school, but I was a drug addict who failed seventh grade, what other future could I have?
We heard gunshots
One night in August, my brother and I were watching TV when we heard five or six gunshots down the street, which wasn’t a big deal to us because we heard shots almost every night. About 30 seconds later we heard a car speed away so fast that the tires squealed.
“CALL THE COPS! CALL THE COPS!” my cousin Tony screamed from the front yard. “CALL THE GOD**** COPS!!” As I got up I could still hear yelling: “CALL THE COPS! THEY KILLED HIM! THEY KILLED HIM THIS TIME!!”
When I got outside I saw my cousin Ricky sitting in a car. He wasn’t moving. There were gunshot wounds in his chest, his left shoulder and on the left side of his head. His blood was everywhere. His 11-year-old daughter, Diana, was on the ground crying. I tried to cover the wounds with my hand so she wouldn’t see them. But there were so many wounds and so much blood that it was hopeless. I held his head in my hand and looked him in the eyes. I felt him suck in his last breath but he never exhaled.
In between her sobs, Diana asked me, “Why my dad? Why him?” I couldn’t answer. All I could do was hug her. A minute later, my other cousins arrived and we hugged each other. When the cops came they told my family to go inside the house and not to come out. The rest of the night is a blur. I can’t remember or maybe I just don’t want to.
Ricky’s funeral was a few weeks later. Everyone was crying—my mom, his mom, even his brother, who was the type of guy who said crying was for women. During the service, the pastor read a letter that my cousin had written years before. He wrote about trying to become religious after getting shot and paralyzed. He also wrote that he couldn’t find what he was looking for in religion and that he let his friends take him back to gangbanging.
I had been to several funerals before, all of them for gang members or people killed by gangs, but this was the first time it was someone I was close to. That night I went back to my mom’s house. I felt like I needed to be with my family. As I lay on my bed crying, I realized that I never had to join a crew and hang around with gang members. I chose that. I knew that fights, drugs and going to friends’ funerals would be part of gang life. I just never thought it would be so hard.
When I saw my homies that Monday they told me that the best way to forget what happened was to smoke weed. I thought, “Are you serious? I just lost my cousin and your solution is getting high?” I started to see that my friends didn’t care about how I was feeling. They wanted to deal with pain by numbing it with drugs. But I wanted to let all my sadness and anger out.
That night I started to think about what would happen if I became a gangbanger. People in crews tag, steal and use drugs. But people in gangs do more dangerous things like sell guns and kill. If I kept on this path, I was going to end up like my cousin. Dead.
As I was thinking this I realized that most of my friends were with me only when they needed me to fight for them, or to get money for them when they wanted to get high or drunk. I was disappointed that I hadn’t seen these were the kind of friends I had chosen.
After that things were different. I ignored calls and texts from my crew and stayed at home. At school I pretended to listen to my teachers rather than talk to my crew. By the end of the first semester I had new friends. One of them did drugs and drank but he also cared about school and his grades. He told me I should get out of the crew.
He would also tell me that I was a beautiful girl. No one had ever said something like that to me before. I felt like he hadn’t given up on me, the way so many other people had.
Getting out was harder than getting in
The next day during lunch I told our leader that I wanted out. Everyone was surprised. I had been the one who would say that I was in forever. They told me not to leave. For a couple minutes I thought about how people would no longer fear me. Then I remembered my cousin. He used to say similar things about why he didn’t leave his gang even after getting paralyzed and look where he ended up.
To get out I would have to get hit for 60 seconds, just like when I got in. If I hadn’t let them do that, the people in the crew would beat me up whenever they wanted. This hurt a lot more than getting jumped in. Maybe the punches were harder because they were mad at me.
During the rest of the year I sometimes missed my friends in the crew, but I felt more relaxed because I wasn’t in danger of getting jumped all the time.
In high school I made new friends who didn’t know my past and who cared about school. I’ve been going to school regularly and my grades have improved. I haven’t gotten into any fights either.
When I walk through the halls there are times I miss the way the students used to fear me. But now I have real friends who call me to ask what’s up. And I also have the respect of my teachers. These things are better because I know who I can trust and I can count on my teachers whenever I need help.
I still talk to my friends from the crew every once in a while. They update me on what’s been happening in their lives, like someone dropped out, another person is in prison, one girl is pregnant with her second child and a guy we knew got killed a year ago in a drive-by. These were things that would have been in my future if I hadn’t gotten out. I am so grateful I did.