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Why are North Carolina’s young Latinas joining gangs?

Professor’s Chatham County project studies the problem and aims for solutions

By Mimi Chapman, Ph.D., Associate Professor

For the past three years, [my project] Creating Confianza has been working to meet the mental health needs of new immigrant Latino youth in a Chatham County middle and high school. Funded by Robert Wood Johnson’s Caring Across Communities Initiative, this effort is one of 15 sites across the United States that aims to improve mental health service delivery to new immigrant and refugee youth.

Creating Confianza is a partnership between the Chatham County Schools; El Futuro, a bilingual/bicultural mental health center; and the University of North Carolina School of Social Work. Together we have been developing a demonstration project to help students and their families, and assist teachers and other school staff to work with this new population of students.

As the program has progressed, we have added new elements targeting specific issues such as trauma and emotional regulation. Because of the strong presence of the project in the middle school and our success in engaging the families of this new immigrant population, we have been sought out as a resource for addressing emerging issues. Currently, the school system is concerned about increased gang presence in Siler City and specifically the involvement of young girls with these gangs.

We are hypothesizing that a version of strain theory may be at work in the young girls in Siler City as it relates to gender roles. We have long heard from the mothers and daughters with whom we work that, as girls become more “Americanized,” they become less patient with the gender roles their mothers have assumed. As girls emigrate from Latin American countries, they internalize American notions of strong, independent women who have their own dreams and aspirations outside of domestic roles. Accordingly, these young women are interested in appearing powerful.

Yet the outlets for acquiring true independence and power are not present. After-school activities are severely lacking. From sports to drama to dance, there are limited ways in which girls can demonstrate excellence. School success is possible but is dependent upon language acquisition and parental ability to assist in educational activities. Post-secondary education opportunities are limited for these young girls. Even attendance at community college is not something a high school guidance counselor can promise these young people because of finances and documentation status.

Without avenues to acquire pro-social power, these young women may be looking for other ways to take control of their own lives. Accordingly, girls may be channeling their desire for strength into aggression versus achievement. Hence, they identify with powerful and aggressive gang values. Paradoxically, gang involvement and the risky behavior that goes with it will likely disempower them over time.

Using qualitative interviews with 24 seventh and eighth grade girls, we will investigate perceptions of gender and power among Latina girls progressing well through middle school as compared to girls who manifest behavior that may put them at risk for gang involvement.

Chapman is the Fall 2010 Carolina Women’s Center Faculty Scholar. This article is from the CWC’s Fall 2010 Newsletter.