ON A MUGGY LATE-SUMMER AFTERNOON, I am sitting in my rental car in front of an apartment complex in southwest Houston. A young man named Alex, wearing a blue T-shirt and jeans, opens the passenger door and slides into the front seat. “Oh, yeah,” he says, studying the windows. “This will do for a drive-by.”
For a second, I’m not sure what to say. “A drive-by?” I ask. Alex throws back his head and laughs. “Señor El Bolillo, I’m just messing with you.”
Señor El Bolillo: Mr. White Bread. Alex’s nickname for me. He laughs again. “Do you really think I’m that loco to do a drive-by with an amateur?”
We are in a neighborhood that is just a ten-minute drive south of the Galleria shopping mall, one of Houston’s most famous landmarks. In the seventies the area was known as Swinglesville. Dozens of sprawling apartment complexes, some of them a block long, had been built here, one right beside the other, to accommodate the horde of young, single white adults who were then coming to the city to begin their careers. The complexes were given such sophisticated names as Chateaux Carmel, Napoleon Square, Villa Royal, Sterling Point, and the Turf Club. The owners had planted crape myrtles by the front gates and offered free VCRs to renters who signed year-long leases. At one complex, a two-story disco was built next to a swimming pool.
Today the crape myrtles continue to bloom, but there are no more free VCRs—and no disco. On the walls of almost all the complexes are large banners, many written in Spanish, offering $99 move-in specials, with no credit check required. In the courtyards, where the young singles once played sand volleyball in skimpy bathing suits, young mothers in faded dresses hold babies against their hips, watching their other children kick soccer balls. Old men sit in plastic chairs on tiny balconies, drinking beer. Paleteros pedal their bicycles through the parking lots, past rusting cars, selling such treats as popsicles and spicy cucumbers out of the metal boxes tied to their handlebars.
And late in the afternoons, on the sidewalks in front of many of the apartment complexes, small clusters of young males, most of them teenagers, can be seen standing around, seemingly doing nothing, their hands in their pockets. Almost all of them are wearing similar clothes: T-shirts, tennis shoes, and either neatly creased blue jeans or Dickies khaki pants that they have spray-starched themselves. Sticking out of their back pockets are patterned bandannas. Around their waists are cloth belts, the ends so long they reach down to their knees, and hanging around their necks are crosses or rosaries.
There is only one real difference in the outfits among the groups. The bandannas, belts, crosses, and rosaries on the young men in front of some of the apartment complexes are black. In front of other complexes, the color is white. In front of others, the color is blue or red. Sometimes the T-shirts and pants match the colors of their accessories. Sometimes the color of the tennis shoes is the same.
The young males are gangbangers, members of such neighborhood street gangs as the Southwest Cholos, La Primera, La Tercera Crips, Somos Pocos Pero Locos, and Mara Salvatrucha, or, as it’s more popularly known, MS-13. According to Houston police, they are vicious, tattooed career criminals, their lives devoted to razors, knives, and guns. They regularly rob innocent people who live in the apartment complexes. They steal cars and break into businesses. They deal drugs on street corners. And they constantly wage war with one another—fighting, maiming, killing, and dying over their turfs, their colors, and their hand signs, which have special meanings only to them.
“Come on, let’s cruise,” says Alex. “Let’s see the sights.” He gives me a look, his eyebrows rising, and he starts laughing again. “Maybe, El Bolillo, we’ll get lucky and see some bullets.”
Alex, who is twenty years old, is one of the neighborhood’s veteranos, a veteran gangbanger. Although he is just five feet three inches tall and 138 pounds, with thick, curly black hair, a little goatee covering his chin, and soft eyes the color of chocolate, people keep their distance from him. Since the age of eleven, he has been a member of the neighborhood chapter—or “clique”—of Mara Salvatrucha, which is made up of young males whose families immigrated to Houston from El Salvador and other Central American countries. By his account, he has been involved in at least a hundred—“maybe two hundred,” he estimates—fistfights, knife fights, gun battles, and yes, drive-bys. Tattooed on his stomach is part of the flag of El Salvador, and on his back is a three-inch-high “MS-13”: the M just below his left shoulder, the S just below his right shoulder, and the “13” in the middle. Among the tattoos on his arms is one that reads “Smile Now, Cry Later,” which he says he received to commemorate the gunning down of a rival gangbanger.
And on his left wrist is a small tattoo consisting only of three dots in a triangular formation: the symbol of la vida loca. The crazy life. “The gangbanger’s life,” says Alex.
He points to one of the dots. “We have a saying down here that if you live la vida loca, you’ll end up in the hospital.” He points to the second dot. “Or you’ll end up in prison.” He then points to the third dot. “Or you’ll end up dead.”
I put the car into gear, and Alex tells me to turn one way, then another, until we end up on a street called Dashwood. “You see them? The chavala ?” Alex asks, pointing to three young Hispanic males standing in front of one of the apartment complexes.
The chavala : slang for “the enemy.” The three males are members of the Southwest Cholos, a Hispanic neighborhood gang made up mostly of young men whose parents are native-born Mexican Americans or immigrants from Mexico. With black