Tuesday, May 04, 2004

I recently read "THE RISE AND FALL OF THE NUESTRA FAMILIA" written by Nina Fuentes. While there are numerous problems with the book, there's a lot of information an interested reader will find useful. Most of the gang books on the market generally fall into one of two categories -- the confessional and the academic. Examples of the confessional are BLOOD IN, BLOOD OUT by ART BLAJOS, MONSTER by Cody Scott, MY BLOODY LIFE by REYMUNDO SANCHEZ and others. These personal histories give you insight into one person's experience and peripherally into the gang culture. They're good for context but don't provide the reader with the broad scale of the gang phenomenon or the organization and policies of criminals organizations like the NF or the EME.

The academic books, most notably those written by JAMES DIEGO VIGIL, are just that. Academic to the point of boredom. Riddled with sociology department jargon, they create the MEGO effect -- MY EYES GLAZE OVER. The average reader will get precious little understanding of gang culture or the motivations of the players. In the world of the sociologist, individuals are viewed with the same detachment that a doctor looks at blood cells -- biological units with no internal dialogue, motivation, passion, lust, love or revenge. They act merely in response to their environment. While it looks neat and tidy to the sociologist, this approach bears little resemblance to reality. If individuals are nothing more than responses to stimuli, how do you explain the fact that a lot of cops grew up in the same neighborhoods and even in the same families as gangsters. According to the socio-economic models of the academics, there would be no cops coming out of the same environment that produces gangsters. It also doesn't explain the even stranger phenomenon of the upper-middle-class Asian gangsters who carry A averages, receive BMWs the minute they turn sixteen and are as overprivileged as any Beverly Hills teenager.

The confessionals written by reformed gangsters are sometimes useful, sometimes self-serving and almost always end up glorifying, intentionally or otherwise, the life they left behind.

In contrast to these two genres, Feuntes' book is written by a non-academic and an outsider. She does a great job of identifying invididuals and articulating their crimes and prison experiences. As the title implies, the people she writes about are all NORTENOS, NF members, NUESTRA RAZA members or familianos in street gangs. The core of the book is the personal history of BOB GRATTON, an Anglo who worked himself up into the NF ranks and had the keys to MODESTO, CA. Through him, we see the structure and organization of the NF, the members of LA MESA (the NF board of directors) and how the NF projects power to the streets. GRATTON eventually dropped out and became an FBI informant in exchange for a reduced sentence. GRATTON also went on to create TAG, TEACHING ABOUT GANGS, a gang intervention and suppression organization that works closely with law enforcement.

There are side roads in the book that explore the decades-long fight with the EME and the failed policy initiative that created and then disbanded the Nuestra Raza, a cover organization that was supposed to keep the heat away from the NF. This is all good historical stuff that should be mandatory reading for anybody who wants to be more than casually familiar with the gang culture.

The major flaws of the book have to do with Fuentes' limitations as a writer. The prose is clunky, cliche-ridden and there's precious little analysis. She just lays out a mountain of facts. Sometimes all those names and shootings become a giant blur and you have to go back and figure out what exactly happened. The most tedious parts of the book are the court documents reproduced in their entirety. This stuff is interesting only if you're a fan of legal speak. The book could do without it. It would have been more useful if Fuentes had spent some time analyzing the documents and give the reader a capsule summary. Court documents are part of a writer's research, not part of the narrative. On the other hand, she reproduces the NF CHARTER and a number of WILAS. These give you a real sense of the organization and the amount of time and effort the NF spends on creating a self-sustaining structure that, at least theoretically, should function effectively even if the shot callers and top homies are taken out of power.

Her failure to go beyond the facts has the ultimate effect of turning all the people she talks about into cardboard cutouts. We don't see the individuals, just the shooting and scheming. While that's enlightening to some degree, it really leaves you wanting to know more. The other topic that leaves you wanting more is OPERATION BLACK WIDOW. This was the operation launched by an FBI, DOJ and local law enforcement in NORCAL. Knowing how extensive that operation was, how little it cost in actual dollars and manpower and how many gangsters it took off the street, OBW is a subject that deserves an entire book to itself.

Despite the flaws, this is must-have book for anyone who wants to know more about the NF and California's gang culture. With a 2003 copyright, the information is still fresh and relevant. You can get the book for $25 from www.knowgangs.com.

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