Captain Paul Figueroa opened a September gang awareness workshop at his alma mater, Oakland’s St. Elizabeth Elementary School, noting that as a student at the parish’s neighboring high school, he couldn’t wear the school’s red color because he didn’t want to be confused with the Norteño gang that controlled his neighborhood.
Now wearing the dark blue of the Oakland Police Department, Figueroa helped bring about the first of several planned workshops in the diocese to teach parents, educators, clergy and staff how to recognize gang involvement and intervene.
About 70 teachers and staff from St. Anthony, St. Elizabeth, St. Bernard and St. Louis Bertrand parishes attended, learning about the symbols, colors and mentality associated with the city’s largest Hispanic gangs.
“We’re really going to be aggressive about trying to give you the information so when you see it firsthand, you can try to reach out and stop it, right from jump street,” Figueroa said.
Bishop Salvatore Cordileone requested the training, which will eventually extend to parents and children in the parishes, said Father Jesus Nieto-Ruiz, pastor of St. Anthony Parish. Father Nieto-Ruiz is leading the training efforts for his largely-Latino deanery.
“The idea is to get parents training on the gang culture and see if there is a way to intervene and prevent more teens from joining gangs,” said Father Nieto-Ruiz, noting that Latino gang members’ families are generally Catholic.
Gang culture hit close to home as Officer Doug Keely showed a clip from “Gang Wars: Oakland,” a television documentary that followed Keely and other members of OPD’s eight-man gang unit through familiar Oakland streets, as well as violent members of Oakland’s primary Hispanic gangs: the Norteños, Sureños and Border Brothers.
Keely indicated that the gangs mostly operate in East Oakland and parts of West Oakland.
The Norteños’ color is red, and members are the “foot soldiers” of the prison gang La Nuestra Familia, Keely explained.
The Sureños wear blue and are affiliated with the Mexican Mafia prison gang. The Border Brothers wear black, he said.
Each of the gangs has various cliques, which are smaller neighborhood gangs affiliated with the larger gang, Keely said.
Keely said most gang members no longer flaunt their colors, but generally wear white t-shirts and blue jeans so rival gangs won’t recognize them. He said they will conceal gang colors and symbols — especially on belts and belt buckles — or wear bits of color on shoe laces, bandanas, undergarments or cross necklaces.
Also popular is sports clothing in gang colors, he said, noting that gang members sometimes wear gang-colored clothing that has a sports team logo on it. “Everyone’s a big fan of the Oakland A’s, but they don’t normally wear red,” he said.
“We have to be aware of how dangerous the colors are,” Keely noted, pointing to the 2008 Oakland murder of 19-year-old Marco Casillas, who was wearing a red hat while walking his dog and was mistaken for a Norteño member.
“His father bought him that hat for Christmas or his birthday. It had nothing to do with gang life . . . but because that color was wrong,” Keely said.
Gang members also identify themselves with symbols in tattoos, clothing and graffiti, Keely explained.
Norteños, he said, often incorporate the number 14, representing N — the fourteenth letter of the alphabet — for Norteño or Nuestra Familia. They might use variations like XIV, X4, 14, or tattoos on hands or elbows that include a single dot along with four dots, Keely said.
Similarly, Sureños use 13 to signify the letter M for Mexican Mafia, he said. Rival gangs will cross out or replace an S with a dollar sign in their graffiti to show disrespect to Sureños, he said.
Gang members also display gang signs, making letters or symbols with their fingers, such as BB for Border Brothers, Keely said.
Though the training’s primary focus was on Hispanic males, Keely noted that two new female gangs are on the rise in Oakland, and that there are many violent non-Hispanic gangs in the Bay Area.
Following the OPD presentation, California Youth Organization discussed school strategies and gang interventions. Service providers on hand were Spanish Speaking Citizen’s Foundation, Catholic Charities of the East Bay, La Clinica de la Raza and Project Reconnect.
Feedback was positive, Father Nieto-Ruiz said. “Many participants felt it was very worthwhile and they learned so much. For some it was overwhelming, but eye-opening,” he said.
Printed with permission from the Catholic Voice, newspaper for the Diocese of Oakland, Calif.