SAN ANTONIO (AP) — A researcher is gathering stories from people in the 1950s who were part of one of the earliest generations of San Antonio's Chicano barrio gangs for an oral history project.
"If we don't collect this history now, we would lose it," Mike Tapia, a criminologist at the University of Texas at San Antonio who is leading the academic study, told the San Antonio Express-News (http://bit.ly/109kapx ).
So far, Tapia has interviewed 15 former gang members for the project that will be preserved at the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio.
Tapia and survivors of that subculture spoke about the project Saturday at the annual conference of the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies. They told stories of addiction, imprisonment and deadly grudges in addition to tales of redemption.
"Chicano gangs are a fixture in most Southwestern communities, and they have been since the 1930s or '40s," Tapia said. "There are still groups of boys who grow up on the same block and form a gang."
In some cases, the gangs have spanned decades. Tapia said he has met teenage boys who claim the same gang affiliation as their grandfathers.
In addition to preserving what many view as an overlooked history, Tapia and the participants hope the study yields lessons that benefit the current generation.
"Our goal is not to glorify the activities or roles that gangs play in society," said Jose "Joe" Gallegos Jr., a former gang member who now directs a group devoted to drug and alcohol education. "By telling these stories, we can show positive alternatives to gang activity."
Tapia's interest in the topic began in the 1990s, when he was a gang social worker in San Antonio. Over his years of academic research, he heard stories about the old groups: El Ghostown, El Circle, La Dot and Los Courts. He realized that little about the subject could be found in print and that the generation of gang members was dying off.
It's been a challenge to locate former gang members and persuade them to speak. Some of the old inner-city gangs were dispersed or wiped out by downtown development. Others are reluctant to come forward. Of the 100 well-known members so far identified in the study, most are dead. The target age of this group is 73.
Also included in the project are stories of former law enforcement officers who clashed with the groups. Among the speakers Saturday was retired Sheriff Ralph Lopez, who talked about growing up in Las Colonias, a neighborhood where opportunity was scarce.
Lopez said he accepted that other young men around him pursued paths to crime while he became a Marine and a lawman. He tried not to pass judgment because he knew their hardships.
"We saw it and we overcame it," Lopez said.
Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com