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Field of Teens

B.B. was fourteen and Tito nineteen when they were shot on the road west of the Bargain Town flea market just outside Homestead. The youths were part of a group that confronted two young men, their wives, and their children leaving the bazaar on a sunny December afternoon in 1993. Shot in the chest with a pistol, Tito died on the spot, next to the blue Chevy Cavalier in which his foes had intended to drive away. B.B., the left inner part of his mouth torn apart by another bullet, was transported by helicopter to Jackson Memorial Hospital. Besides the missing teeth, he now bears a tracheotomy scar on his throat. Another scar was intentionally inflicted: his dead friend's name, tattooed in medieval script on the inside of his right forearm. The bullet is still lodged in B.B.'s head, and his enemies sometimes brag that they could take him out by striking his jaw in the right place.

Tito was buried in a zoot suit. Members of his low-rider car club drove to the funeral with their truck beds jacked up high. "A lot of people were throwing gold [onto the coffin]," one attendee remembers. "Big rings, thick-ass chains. One kid jumped in as the coffin was going down. They did not want to see him leave. I know Tito did bad things, but he was a good kid." For more than a week after Tito died, the site on the dusty road near the flea market was decorated daily with flowers and homemade signs. ("B.B." and "Tito" are pseudonyms, as are the names of all the juveniles who appear in this story.)

The man who shot B.B. was charged with attempted murder. He ended up pleading guilty to lesser charges and was released from prison not long ago. Tito's assailant was charged with murder but set free after prosecutors concluded they could not prove the shooting was anything other than self-defense. He is said to have left town.

In spite of a coat of paint, you can still see the bullet holes in the house where Tito's killer used to live with his mother. Not long after the flea market mayhem, a group of B.B.'s and Tito's friends drove by the house and shot it up. The occupants moved out. B.B. thinks a little girl got hurt in the gunfire. But that isn't his problem. "Hey, it's family," he says. "You fuck with me, I'm gonna fuck with you. One day I'm gonna kill one of 'em."

B.B., who lives with his family in the Redland Center labor camp, belongs to a Mexican-American gang called the Redland Rats. These days about ten to twenty kids consider themselves Rats, but as anyone will tell you, if you're a boy or man living in Redland, you're a Rat. Same goes for the other camps in the area, Everglades Center, South Dade Center, and Andrew Center. (A fifth camp, Harvest Center, recently opened.)

The 315 houses in the Redland labor camp were built about 50 years ago for military personnel who worked at Homestead Air Force Base about five miles away. After World War II, the nonprofit Homestead Housing Authority was founded to manage the camp, and migrant workers who came to pick winter and spring crops moved in. Few of the families who now reside in the Redland compound still live the nomadic life of the migrant farmworker, following the growing seasons from state to state. Workers say they have been traveling less in recent years because rising costs and stagnant wages make it harder to get back home with any profit, or, for that matter, any money at all. Besides, they'd prefer to avoid taking their children out of school; migrant students often have to leave town before school ends in the spring, only to return a month or so after school begins in the fall. You don't have to be a migrant worker to rent a house in one of the five South Dade camps; you simply need to have a low-income, agriculture-related job. Rents at Redland range from $152 per month (one-bedroom house) to $221 (four bedrooms). (The Homestead Housing Authority operates three of the camps; the other two are administered by the Everglades Community Association, another nonprofit.)

In 1960 B.B.'s mother and father moved to Homestead from southern Texas, where both had been born shortly after their families, natives of northern Mexico, moved to the U.S. For years after the move to Homestead, the family followed the tomato, corn, okra, squash, asparagus, and bean harvests across the Midwest and the South -- Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, back to Florida by the fall -- traveling in a blue Ford pickup and an old Chevy. In 1992, when Hurricane Andrew struck, the family was in South Carolina. Nowadays they stay in Homestead year-round. At least six days a week, B.B.'s father gets up at 5:30 a.m. to drive a tractor for a local grower. His mother works as a maid. He doesn't work in the fields, nor do his sister and his three brothers. The sister, B.B.'s eldest sibling, attends community college.  

B.B.'s family lives in a boxy, pastel-painted concrete house that looks like all the other structures evenly spaced along the compound's narrow, winding asphalt roads. Still ringed with Christmas lights, the three-bedroom, one-bathroom house is beige. The grass in the front yard is patchy over the rutted dirt where B.B.'s father parks his pickup.

On weekends some neighbors down the road set up long tables outside and sell homemade food -- taquitos de barbacoa or pollo, tamales, pan dulce. A stereo inside their house blasts corridos, the accordion-anchored songs that commemorate notable events and celebrate famous people. One popular corrido is the saga of Rafael "Caro" Quintero, the Mexican drug trafficker, convicted for his role in the 1985 torture and murder of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique Camarena.

Down the road a little way is the spot where B.B. and his friends come to sell marijuana, cocaine, and pills. Two or three or four stand in the dusty, tire-worn front yard of a vacant house. While youngsters crisscross the street on bicycles and pairs of women pass holding the hands of their daughters or little sisters, the older boys wait for a car or truck to drive up slowly. A few stride to the driver's window. "It's all about hustling," B.B. says. "You gotta run up and show them your bags."

B.B. is one of the younger members of the sales force; the principal dealers are two men in their twenties. B.B. and his friends say the drugs are supplied by a middleman in town. Some of the group probably sell firearms, according to police, and everyone owns at least one gun. B.B. says they generally purchase their weapons cheaply from a man who buys in bulk from a local gun dealer. (Police question this account, asserting that the weapons are more likely taken during burglaries.) B.B. allows that his weapon of choice nowadays is a Colt .45 he bought for $57 from "someone on the street." He says he's owned at least a dozen guns over the past several months, including an Uzi he stored in the trunk of his big sister's car. That gun, he explains, was confiscated when his sister, unaware of her cargo, got pulled over by police. (Improbable as this story might seem, at least two sources say they've confirmed the episode from people other than B.B.)

Like the gangs in the other labor camps, and like Mexican gangs all over the U.S., the Rats arose naturally from their setting, as a sort of social club whose members are bound together as much by the wire fences around the camp as by blood. "As soon as you know you're Mexican and you come from one place, you know society puts a tag on you that says 'migrant,'" explains a former farmworker who grew up at Redland and now lives outside the camp. "These are kids who really hold each other, like, real close. They would die for each other." That blurred dividing line between gang and family explains something about Tito's death: The flea market gunfight wasn't part of a gang rivalry; it erupted from an ongoing feud between Tito (and, by extension, his fellow Rats) and the man who shot him (and, by extension, the man's family).

About three generations old, the gang has diminished somewhat in recent years: B.B.'s older brother J.C. has two more years to serve on an attempted murder conviction -- three years ago, when he was seventeen, he shot two members of an opposing gang with a .22 rifle. Since late 1991 two Rats have shot and killed themselves. One was Tito's younger brother, who died only a few months before Tito. A third brother was killed in an accident about five years ago. Just six months ago, another Rat died after being shot five times by a drug dealer he'd ripped off.

Police and social service workers say youth gangs in Dade County are generally not as visible, well-organized, or violent as the Los Angeles street gangs that have become popular culture cliches. Which isn't to say that local gangs aren't a concern. In less than a decade, the number of gangs and gang members here has skyrocketed, according to Assistant State Attorney Andrew Hague, who is in charge of assigning gang prosecutions for the Dade State Attorney's Office. A statewide computer database of gang activity contains information about some 106 Dade gangs. A year ago the database indicated there were 3000 gang members here; now that number is up to 4000.  

Aside from the occasional birthday-party gunplay or drive-by shooting, however, gang activity here doesn't attract much media attention. Doubly invisible are the gangs that have taken root in Homestead and the labor camps on the rural margins of Dade.

There are differences between rural and urban groups. Malcolm Klein, a University of Southern California sociology professor who recently completed a nationwide study of gang-member migration, says most Mexican gangs in the U.S. developed from decades of in-migrations of agricultural workers; depending on where they settled, and for how long, some became completely urbanized. According to Klein, rural groups tend to lack the mobility, organizational hierarchies, and financial resources of their city cousins. "There's very little killing, but quite a bit of antagonism with weapons," he says of the rural gangs. "They're not terribly violent, but they're clearly street gangs and recognized as such."

Klein says he wasn't aware of the presence of gangs in the South Dade labor communities. For a long time, a lot of local social workers weren't, either. "I worked here for thirteen years and I didn't know this existed," says Jonathan Cloud, a consultant who serves as director of the South Dade Youth Coalition. "Then, after the hurricane, I was contacted by one of the relief teams, and they said, 'You need to see what's going on in the migrant camps.'"

Off. Bobbie Messer and Det. Gadyaces Serralta -- his first name is an acronym for Gloria a Dios y a Cristo El Salvador -- work the gang detail out of the Metro-Dade Police Department's Cutler Ridge station. A few years ago, Serralta remembers, he and his partner were riding in an unmarked car when they were flagged down in broad daylight by a couple of kids on the roadside. The youths had been attempting to stop passing cars in a somewhat comical attempt at hijacking; when the two cops pulled over, they quickly noticed the Halloween masks the boys were holding and the old .38 revolver one had tucked into his pants. They were Rats. "And it wasn't Halloween," Serralta remarks with a laugh. "That gang in particular has been caught redhanded an amazing number of times, because when they do things, they're just so public. Any other gang would wait until dark and really look around them. [The Rats] just go ahead." (Police and other professionals who work with gangs generally frown on naming gangs publicly, arguing that such usage gives the groups the attention, and in some way, the validation, that their members seek.)

Serralta and Messer work within the Multi-Agency Gang Task Force, which comprises officers from some 50 law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Florida Department of Corrections, and municipal and county police departments in Dade, Broward, Monroe, and Palm Beach counties. Like most cops who specialize in gangs, Serralta and Messer keep extensive files augmented by photos. When they bring gang members into their office for the hours of paperwork required to book a juvenile, the handcuffed, tattooed kids stare in fascination at the snapshots of their peers that paper two walls. Several photos depict a gang member in his coffin, rosary beads encircling stiff fingers, skin stretched over his bloated face.

B.B. has spent some time in Serralta's and Messer's small, windowless office, most recently on a marijuana possession bust. "It used to be just stealing -- cars, [stealing from] houses. Then we just decided to serve," he says, referring to drug dealing. "Business got so good, we do that a lot now." Tall and thick-bodied, he has a burr haircut, a slightly pug nose, and a heart-shaped mouth. A disconcerting grimness turns down the corners of his engaging smile, though the bullet-inflicted gap at the back of his mouth isn't visible.

Just before Christmas, B.B. was expelled from South Dade Senior High for threatening to hit another student with a crutch. But he hasn't been much of a schoolgoer for the past several years, anyway. His father says B.B. has been diagnosed as learning-disabled, and his concentration level isn't very high. Yet other adults who know him find B.B. bright and likeable, even charming. He's now enrolled at Miami-MacArthur South, a so-called opportunity school for problem students. At one time or another, most Rats have been sent to MacArthur, or to JRE Lee Opportunity School, or to the South Dade adult vocational education center in Homestead, all of which accept students who've been kicked out of other schools.

B.B., sixteen years old and in the ninth grade, says he really doesn't have any plans for the future: "When I get out of school, I'll look for a job. I'll serve drugs. I'll survive. Everybody survives. You gotta be a fool not to survive."  

This he says carelessly, as if considering options is a singularly fruitless task.

At age 26, Maria Teresa Jimenez does not look like someone with an extraordinary degree of fortitude or focus, nor does she immediately come across as a young woman who would have any particular empathy for street kids. The daughter of a Mexican mother and a Puerto Rican father, she looks like the pretty, middle-class college student she is, unfailingly stylishly dressed, her long dark hair sometimes pulled starkly back in a chignon. Yet having grown up in South Dade and graduated from Killian High, she has a long connection to the Redland Center: Her mother, program director for the Redlands Christian Migrant Association, started the first daycare center at the camp more than a dozen years ago. Maria Teresa spent many after-school hours at the daycare center; she and her sister even helped plant trees and hibiscus around the new building. Now she has become an acknowledged element in the lives of many of the Redland camp's troubled and troublesome boys, and in the lives of their families. "I've always had the feeling that's where I'm supposed to be," she says simply. "It's innate -- these are my people, and it's like a longing to be with them."

Jimenez, who holds a B.A. in psychology from La Universidad de las Americas in Mexico City and a certification in addiction therapy from the University of Miami, will soon earn certification from Florida International University as a therapeutic recreation specialist. She is employed by Aspira, a New York-based nonprofit agency that fosters education and leadership development programs targeted at minority youth. She began working as a counselor at the Redland camp in 1993 as part of Aspira's Project HELP (Hurricane Emergency Leadership Program), a post-Andrew effort to counter gang activity in Homestead.

"We were noting a lot of gang-type behavior," says William Ramos, deputy director of Aspira of Florida. "Maybe it was there before, but the hurricane put a lot of pressure on everyone. The amount of child abuse and alcoholism skyrocketed. We set up a location at each site where kids meet. We asked ourselves, 'What can we do to validate these kids, bth personally and ethnically?'"

In her new position as coordinator of Aspira's Project GAIN (Gang Awareness Intervention Network), Jimenez is using a $100,000 planning grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to research the gangs in South Dade, in order to help create a five-year anti-gang program for the area. As the lead agency in a consortium of law-enforcement and social-service organizations and South Dade public schools, Aspira will compete with 21 other such coalitions in the U.S. for one of five additional grants to implement the program. Regardless of whether the South Dade consortium wins a grant, Ramos says, Aspira will open a Homestead branch of Accolade, its accredited alternative middle school, this fall. The school will be equipped to take in 100 students who are considered to be discipline problems or at risk of dropping out. Aspira now operates one other Accolade school in Dade, at its office on North Miami Avenue in the Wynwood neighborhood.

Jimenez usually meets with the Redland kids in one of a cluster of three trailers the Dade County Public Schools' migrant-education program allows Aspira to use after hours. As alternatives to the youths' more common pastimes -- watching TV at home, smoking marijuana, playing video games at a game room in a strip center south of the camp -- Aspira counselors organize camping and field trips. Redland Center kids usually have trouble coming up with money for the uniforms, shoes, dues, and/or insurance often required for participation in school sports programs or clubs -- or their low grades disqualify them. But a recent five-week handball tournament organized by the Homestead Aspira counselors was popular.

Aspira counselors also tutor the kids in school subjects and encourage role-playing and group discussions to help them settle disputes and avoid conflicts. Because so many have problems with the law, Jimenez frequently drives them to court and appears with them; traveling to and from the juvenile justice center on NW 27th Avenue means the loss of a day's work for a parent, or a long solo journey by bus and Metrorail for a boy or girl who's not motivated to go in the first place. Most important, Jimenez talks to them. And she worries about them.

When she first showed up in the camp, Jimenez was threatened and harassed, and one of the trailers was vandalized. "We had to contend with a particular group of kids who considered themselves a gang," William Ramos says in the scornful tone adults sometimes direct toward young punks. "We were basically going into their turf, and they tried to disrupt what we were doing. One of the worst things is to retaliate by bringing in the police. Mari Tere was able to show them we're not here to rat on anybody but we won't back down, and if some kids want to be disruptive, we're not going to let them scare us away. The fact that we had the guts to stay there, I think, impressed them."  

By now most of the kids have entrusted Jimenez with many secrets, which, although she is in regular contact with police and parents, she never mentions. Still, her origins are not within the camp, and she is aware that some residents of this closed community will always think of her as an outsider. Recently she was threatened with harm if she continued to cooperate with the reporting of this story.

B.B. and Settie sit among the rows of desks in one of the county trailers near the entrance of the Redland camp. Drawing intently with pencils, they're covering a large sheet of paper with stylized script and symbols that would be graffiti if they were written on a wall. The symbols identify their artists by gang and by the broader category of nation. For the opposing nation, Settie and B.B. draw upside-down symbols. "When you throw it down, you don't like it," explains Settie, a skinny sixteen-year-old with close-cropped black hair parted in the middle.

In the fall of 1991, Settie watched as his friend Gonzo put a gun to his own temple and pulled the trigger. At the time, Settie and his family were new arrivals from South Texas. Though Settie remained a quiet child after Gonzo's death, his former sweetness vanished. He began smoking marijuana and skipping school. When he found himself badly outnumbered by unfriendly gang members, he would throw Rats signs and get beaten up. "He just didn't care any more," says a fellow Redland resident. At present, according to Jimenez, Settie's police file contains a dozen open cases on charges ranging from robbery and car theft to carrying a concealed weapon and assault and battery.

Chico, a quiet, porcupine-haired tenth-grader who used to be a kicker on the high school football team, has just come in from the fields, where he has been making fertilizer to earn a little money over the weekend. His dark green pants and shirt are covered with reddish-brown dirt. Black, who grew up in Redland camp but now lives a few miles away in a new subdivision, is here, too. And so is Martin, who used to follow la pizca (slang for "picking") all over the country with his father but now, at 26, has stopped doing any work besides selling drugs. Master is a champion wrestler at South Dade High School. Yoyo, whose upper teeth flash when he smiles or talks, which is often, is B.B.'s handball partner (unfortunately, following a winning streak, the team was disqualified when both members failed to show up for one of the final games in Aspira's recent tournament). Most of the boys sport at least one tattoo. The more hard-core gang members have several; some are the elaborate handiwork of a transient who drifted in after the hurricane and has since drifted out. B.B. says he got his first tattoo, a crude champagne-cup design seen on the legs and arms of many Dade kids, when he was nine.

"IT A GOOD DAY TO DIE," B.B. scrawls near the top of a blackboard at the front of the room. When Maria Teresa Jimenez asks him what that means, he shrugs and sprints off after Settie. If B.B. is aware that he's paraphrasing Crazy Horse's cry upon leading his forces into battle against Custer at Little Big Horn in 1876, he doesn't say so.

Black wants to know if B.B. plans to go to school Monday; it will be her first day at MacArthur, and having a friend there will make her feel better about going. He gives her a few playful but hard pushes. Annoyed, she pushes him back. He's not going to be in school Monday, he says. "Why you dissing me?" she asks. "You're just into being a street pharmacist."

Black is tall and tan, with long wavy hair and a tiny scar on one side of her broad nose. At sixteen, she has a lengthy record as a troublemaker in middle and high school. If there were such a thing as girl Rats, Black says, she and her girlfriends would be them. Regardless, having grown up in the camp, those are the kids she's closest to. Her mother, who doesn't speak English, says she begs Black not to spend time with los gangeros, B.B. and his like, "but I can't tell her anything. She's the only one of my four children who are like this."  

Six years ago, when her father got a job as a mechanic and her mother started work at a school cafeteria, they moved out of the Redland community. The family's new gray house is spacious, with white flower-filled pots hanging from the front eaves and a shiny red pickup parked in the driveway. But life didn't automatically improve for Black outside the camp. "I'll be doing fine, then I'll fuck up," she says, tossing her hair. "The last time I fucked up, I beat this girl's ass." The sister of a girl with whom she'd fought in the past had told administrators that Black had come to school with marijuana, she explains. When Black and her friends caught the girl alone in the bathroom at Homestead High, they beat her up. Black was expelled after that, and now she's been sent to MacArthur. She's attended three different middle schools so far, and two high schools. And at each one, she says, she heard the same thing: "'You're never going to get nowhere. You're going to work in the fields like your mother.' That's what this one teacher would tell me. I wanted to throw a chair at him. Everybody thinks Mexicans are uneducated," she goes on, leaning forward and bringing down a fist on the canvas espadrille crossed over one knee. "I want to prove 'em all wrong. I want to be the best, but it takes a lot of work, a lot of time."

Black says she is determined to graduate and find a profession -- a migrant counselor maybe, or an archaeologist. Then she makes an admission beyond her years. "Man, if I could go back in age, you wouldn't have to tell me twice what not to do."

Jimenez, in her quiet style, poses a question that is at once simple and vastly complicated: "Why do you get in trouble?"

Black responds: "You have problems. You start arguing with your family."
Chico disagrees. "No, it starts with your friends," he says decisively, then shyly lowers his head and doesn't elaborate. Lately Chico has been thinking about friends, about leaving the friends he grew up with in the camp. He had to quit the football team because his grades weren't good enough; he's been having problems staying out of trouble because most of his best friends get in trouble. As a drastic and even desperate gamble, he has made a quiet decision to leave for another state. He will enroll in a Job Corps program Jimenez has found, which she thinks may be good for him. After having spent most of his life within the confines of Redland Center, he'll be living in a dormitory far from home, studying to complete his GED and training to be a heavy-equipment operator. Or perhaps, if Jimenez can persuade him to think a little bigger, an airplane mechanic.

"The kids are all afraid to try and fail," Jimenez says. "The risks they take are inappropriate -- they're the kind that get them killed. One of my biggest challenges is to convince them there's something else besides working in the fields."

In two weeks she will drive Chico to the airport. Elaborate plans have already been made for daily phone chats with her or with his mother. After the others have raced off to play outside, laughing and taunting and grabbing hats off each other's head, Chico is still sitting silently, a slight frown on his narrow face. "When you grow up in a place, you come back," he reflects. "You remember the things you did.


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