Hood life: A trip from gang-stricken streets to college classrooms

City College student Bertha Argumedo poses in front of Batmale Hall. PHOTO BY FRANK LADRA / THE GUARDSMAN


Brian Rinker

The Guardsman

Criminal activity associated with gangs can be measured with some accuracy through expert  analysis, but the impact gang culture has on day-to-day life in a community isn’t always so cut and dry.

San Francisco’s first homicide of the year happened in February when City College student and alleged Sureño gang member Aldo Troncoso, 24, was shot to death at the corner of 17th and Mission streets. Police said rival gang, Norteños, were responsible for the shooting and it may have been an act of retaliation over some graffiti. Violence began to escalate in the Mission and it seemed like the beginnings of a bloody gang war, but then in April gang violence suddenly stopped in the Mission.

The Mission has two high–profile gangs: the Norteños and the Sureños. They have been bitter rivals ever since their inceptions in the 1960s. The Norteños are most prominent in San Francisco. They claim a territory of about 60 blocks and have an estimated 300 members, according to the City Attorney’s office, which in 2007 filed a gang-injunction against the Norteños making it illegal to be a member.

Sureños are more prominent in southern California, but have an increasing presence in San Francisco primarily on Mission Street between 18th and 16th streets.

Because of the prevalent gang culture in the Mission, it can be a difficult and troubling place to raise children.

City College student Bertha Argumedo, who grew up in the Mission, was surrounded by gang life from a young age.

Although Argumedo was not directly affiliated with a gang, she grew up around people who were.

Going to school isn’t encouraged in the gang community, Argumedo said, because their culture isn’t conducive to a college lifestyle.

Argumedo didn’t really go to school, and by the age of 14 she began drinking alcohol and hung out with a crowd that smoked. She would frequently ditch school and drink with her friends at the park. Argumedo, 24, is a petite and attractive young woman. Her shoes often match her handbag. She recently bought a Kawasaki Ninja 250 motorcycle and cruises around town. She is also loud, opinionated and she curses like a sailor.

“City College is made up of all the projects in the city, all the neighborhoods and all the gang sides,” Argumedo said. “How are you suppose to dodge that? You may have class with one of them fuckers.”

The Mission campus is especially dangerous for gang members because of its location.

“A gang banger would be fucking stupid to go there. It’s the hottest fucking area,” Argumedo said. “You’re 2-3 blocks from the red side and 2-4 blocks from the blue side. Either direction will put you in immediate danger.”

Sureños associate with blue, and Norteños wear red.

Not only gang members are at risk near the Mission campus, which is located at 22nd and Valencia streets. Anyone could get caught up in gang activity. Innocent people could get mugged, beaten up or even killed, she said, pointing out that there is always the chance of mistaken identity.

In 2006 her good friend Andrew Ele was killed at 24th and Folsom streets while waiting for the bus with his brother. Argumedo said they were confronted by gang members and asked what color they “claimed.” The brothers said they didn’t “claim,” but they were shot anyway. Ele’s brother survived.

Santos Neito, 27, also grew up in the Mission surrounded by the gang lifestyle.

“I wasn’t really a gang banger,” said Neito, “but I was affiliated. I’ve never been arrested and was always the voice of reason. I got wild too.”

Neito went to City College for a year and a half but dropped out. He always told himself he would go back, but never got around to it. He thought earning money was more important than an education, something he questions now.

He doesn’t know any gang members that want to go to college.

“They’re not educated,” Neito said. “They’re so used to the streets they don’t know anything else.”

And some people have been gang banging for such a long time they think they’re happy and content with the gang lifestyle, he added.

“At first the gangster life sounds great. They school you at it and tell you how much money you’re going to make,” Neito said. “And then you’re out there selling and you get arrested.”

New Beginning

Argumedo has been going to City College for 6 years. She now works for the city of San Francisco. She is studying to earn her AS in criminal justice and plans to transfer to SF State in the fall. Eventually she would like to work for a federal law enforcement agencies.

It’s been years since she use to hang out with gang bangers, drink alcohol on stoops while she watched them sell weed and crack in the Mission. Argumedo said she used to be chubby from eating McDonalds every day, one of the many things she just didn’t know was bad for her. She has one sign that points to a dark past: She always carries a stun gun — just in case.

Growing up in the Mission everyone carries a weapon starting at 10 or 12 years old, she said.

“You got to be on guard, you don’t know when you’re going to be fucked with,” Argumedo said.

She lived at 22nd and Mission streets and hung out down the block drinking while her friends would smoke weed on Folsom Street, although she said they weren’t gang bangers.

She lived with her mother, father and brother. Her father was an alcoholic. He was also an abusive husband and father.

Domestic violence was a big part of her family life and she gets misty-eyed when talking about it. She didn’t come home some nights, slept over her aunt’s house and thought about living at a group home.  She was encouraged to sell weed, ecstasy and crack on Mission Street, but  she did not want to because it attracted too many weirdos. Then she got into trouble while joyriding in her counselor’s car. At this point in her life she realized that she was lost and needed help.

“I didn’t know where I was going. I was mad,” Argumedo said. “I was crying out for help: ‘I don’t care about anything can someone please help me care for myself.’”

Nothing really changed until one day when she was 16. Argumedo came home to an empty house. Everything was quiet, the front door was wide open, the windows were broken and blood was all over the floor.

Her brother, Jose, finally had enough and beat up their abusive father. Argumedo, Jose and their mother moved to South of Market after that and the father left the U.S. Argumedo, for the first time saw a different way of life. The gang mentality that kept her confined finally began to break and a new world began to open up.

“I knew I had to get out of the fucking hood,” Argumedo said. “I knew there was another world out there and if I didn’t do anything I would be stuck.”




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