Anthropologist: Gang Violence Caused By Mental Illness

May 27, 2014
Originally published on May 28, 2014 11:59 am

What causes gang violence?

James Diego Vigil, a professor emeritus of social ecology at the University of California, Irvine, uses the term “locura,” from the Spanish word loca (crazy) to describe what he calls the “quasi-controlled insanity” of gang members.

He joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to explain.

Interview Highlights: James Diego Vigil

On what pushes kids into gangs

“One of the things that precedes street socialization is trauma and soul murder. The young kids have something happen to them. They may be physically punished or abused. They may be neglected. They may be left alone. That kind of trauma at a young age infuses their body with an overwhelming dose of adrenaline, and that, again, makes their mindset unsteady and geared towards surviving.”

On what causes the “locura” phenomenon

“We’ve had enough punishment, and we certainly haven’t seen results. So I would say that it’s a mental illness of social stigma and isolation to the point where they are, like, always feeling that the world is against them. So it creates a mental state of locura. There’s a difference, though, and the distinction I make is between someone who has had so many traumatic experiences and early soul murder, where they really become loco. That’s a mental illness. And then a lot of other kids that join the streets, they have to learn how to act that way. That’s why I called it quasi-controlled insanity: they know how to play, turn it on and turn it off, and that becomes a kind of a function for the gang, where you learn how to be loco. That’s why they call it locura, you know, going back and forth. There’s even more successful models within the Asian-American street gangs, Vietnamese in particular, where they become, you know, Jekyll and Hyde type of characters. We’ve written about this in a book, ‘Streetsmart Schoolsmart:’ some people are able to do the school work, then at night, they turn into the Mr. Hyde character.”

On what needs to be done to rehabilitate this behavior

“I think one of the problems we’ve had in the last almost a half century now, since the war on poverty, every year in Congress, we argue about whether we should fully fund Head Start, when we know that Head Start and follow through after Head Start makes a difference. And I think we need a lot more prevention-intervention programs, and I think recently, law enforcement is realizing they cannot nip something in the bud they didn’t start. This is started by social, economic, and historical kinds of forces that have created these isolated barrios and low-income communities, and street socialization. So I believe we, as a society, really had what I call a marshal plan for for the inner city — something to deal with youth — that, to me, is the key. Not to wait till they’re older and throw ‘em in jail, now show we’ll show ‘em who’s boss. There’s a lot of naysayers that don’t want any kind of coddling with lawbreakers, when, in fact, they’re kids. They’re just doing mischievous things at a very young age. It isn’t until they’re older when they get into breaking laws and stepping over boundaries, and affecting the rest of society.”

Guest

  • James Diego Vigil, a professor emeritus of social ecology at the University of California, Irvine.
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ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW. And there's a lot of understandable attention today on Isla Vista, California and the pain in that Santa Barbara neighborhood after a mentally ill, young man killed six people and himself. There are questions being raised about the mental health system, the signs that might have been missed, tremendously sad and concerning.

But our next guest says there are blighted communities with whole swaths of young men who are mentally ill - loco they call it. And they are infecting, if you will, other young men. What gang members call locura, and there is no care for them at all.

James Diego Vigil calls this locura a quasi-controlled insanity. He's professor emeritus of social ecology at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of "Rainbow Of Gangs," a cross-cultural study of street youth in Los Angeles. He joins us from KUCI in Irvine.

And, Professor, we know the setup here. The kids you're talking about don't have good parenting. They get their socialization on the street through gangs. But take it further.

JAMES DIEGO VIGIL: One of the things that precedes the street socialization is trauma and soul murder. The young kids have something happen to them. They may be physically punished or abused. They may be neglected. They may be left alone.

That kind of trauma at a young age infuses their body with the overwhelming dose of adrenaline. And that again makes their mindset unsteady and geared towards surviving.

YOUNG: Well, look, we're reading some terrific books right now, "On The Run," Alice Goffman, also Matt Taibbi, who's most recent book is about young, black men in particular, with this constant fear of being re-arrested for small crimes that then become big ones if they don't pay fines. And when you read about these life styles, you think, wow, that would drive someone crazy.

But you know the pushback. By calling gang life a mental illness, you excuse it. That it makes it something that needs to be treated rather than punished.

VIGIL: Well, we've had enough punishment, and we certainly haven't seen results. So I would say it's a mental illness of social stigma and isolation to the point where they are, like, always feeling that the world is against them. So it creates a mental state of locura.

There's a difference, though, in the distinction I make is between someone who really has had so many traumatic experiences and early soul murder where they really become loco. That's a mental illness. And then a lot of other kids that join the streets, they have to learn how to act that way. That's why I called it quasi-controlled insanity.

They know how to play - turn it on and turn it off. And that becomes a kind of a function for the gang where you learn how to be loco. That's why they call it locura - you know, going back and forth. There's even more successful models within the Asian-American street gangs, Vietnamese in particular, where they become, you know, Jekyll and Hyde type of characters.

We've written about this in a book, "Streetsmart Schoolsmart." Some people are able to do the schoolwork, then at night they turn into the, you know, Mr. Hyde character.

YOUNG: Yeah. Well, even when you use the word locura, as you've heard gang members use it, it would sound to some ears like bragging. You know, I'm crazy. I'm loco. Watch how crazy I am.

And that fits into other narratives about gang members that, you know, this violence stems from a failed transition from childhood to manhood, for whatever reason. But it feels more like an overriding sense of manhood that's compensating for a real powerlessness. That's not mental illness.

VIGIL: Well, it is if you don't have a good male role model or the only role model you might have out in the streets is somebody that's already gone maybe permanently crazy and are loco actors instead of just doing just loco acts. So that is an element in terms of the psychosocial moratorium from childhood to adulthood and the status crisis about your identity as a person in general.

And of course, it's not an accident that a lot of these kids that grow up in households that are female dominated that when they go out to the streets, they have to adjust to a male world. So they go through some crazy types of acts to survive.

YOUNG: But it sounds like you're saying that while this might be culturally imposed, you know, people feeling paranoid, everybody thinks I'm a certain way, and then it might be a defense. As you practice it, it becomes real.

VIGIL: Exactly. And it becomes part of the social and psychological world of the streets. A lot of street people that are gang or even non-gang members that are street people, talk about, you know, he's street - meaning the street has taken over, developed a different culture. And it's not anything to do with Mexican or African-American culture, it's something that's shaped and born in the streets.

YOUNG: Well, have you spoken to gang members about your theory? I'm wondering how they feel about a word that they might use in bravado - I'm crazy. What do they think about the suggestion that they really might have mental health issues?

VIGIL: The only gang members that I've spoken to are former gang members that have matured out.

YOUNG: Did they agree that this was dancing on a real mental illness as opposed to...

VIGIL: They agreed...

YOUNG: Yeah.

VIGIL: ...That they had to play that role, so they played loco and crazy. But as they reflected back on it, they realize that they got very close - in fact, they got deeply involved in some aggressive altercations and may have killed somebody or may have gotten shot at or stabbed themselves. So they wound up reflecting later on how crazy...

YOUNG: That's crazy.

VIGIL: ...Use the word crazy it is. Yeah.

YOUNG: Yeah. Well, what do you suggest, Professor?

VIGIL: Well, I think one of the problems we've had in the last almost a half a century now since the war on poverty - every year in Congress we still argue about whether or not we should fully fund Head Start when we know that Head Start and Follow Through after Head Start makes a difference. And I think we need a lot more prevention intervention programs.

And I think recently law-enforcement is realizing they cannot nip in the bud something they didn't start. This is started by social, economic and historical kinds of forces that have created these isolated barrios in low-income communities and street socialization.

So I believe if we as a society really had, what I would call, a Marshall plan for the inter city, something to deal with youth, that to me is the key. Not to wait 'til they're older, throw them in jail, and now we'll show them who's boss. There's still a lot of naysayers that don't want any kind of coddling with lawbreakers, when in fact they're kids. They're just doing mischievous things at a very young age. It isn't until they're older when they get into breaking laws and stepping over boundaries and affecting the rest of society.

YOUNG: James Diego Vigil, professor emeritus of social ecology at the University of California, Irvine and author of "Rainbow Of Gangs," a cross-cultural study, street youth in Los Angeles. Professor, thanks so much.

VIGIL: It's my pleasure. Thank you.

YOUNG: So your thoughts - a bunch of hooey, you know, excuse for behavior or a seriously overlooked social issue? Let us know at hereandnow.org. You can leave a comment with this story. You can follow us, let us know on Twitter. I'm @hereandnowrobin.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

I am @jeremyhobson. And the show is @hereandnow.

YOUNG: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.