Oscar is 17. When he first came to the United States from El Salvador five years ago, he had high hopes that maybe he would be a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher. Then life got real. He joined a gang.
And, he insists, if officials want to try to figure out how to stop gang violence, such as the stabbings that recently took place in Montgomery County and that have become increasingly common in Northern Virginia, they must first seek to understand people like him, the ones who join.
Oscar gave this advice yesterday to local, state and federal officials seated above him at the semicircular dais of the Montgomery County Council hearing room in Rockville. They came "just to listen," the officials said. And Oscar's was just one quiet voice in the crowded room as Latino youths, parents and advocates came for a chance to be seen and heard. The event, called the Back to School Latino Speak Out, drew a crowd of at least 100.
The officials listened with a sense of urgency. At least 20 homicides have been linked to Latino gangs in the region since 2000.
"We have an opportunity to nip this in the bud," said County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), who discussed gang violence during his recent trip to El Salvador.
Oscar, dressed in jeans and a gray shirt, his mop of black hair hanging over his brown eyes, is now trying to escape gang life. He, like others, would not give his last name or the name of his gang, nor would he allow his photo to be taken for fear of retaliation. Oscar's story was corroborated by Identity, a nonprofit social services group in Gaithersburg that helps Latino youths.
Oscar's journey to becoming a gang member began when he was 9 years old in El Salvador. Although the country is overrun with las maras, they held no attraction for him. Then his parents left for the United States without him, and his family disintegrated. Oscar's older brother went to live on his own. His sister was taken to an aunt. Oscar lived with his grandmother.
When he was 13, his parents sent for him. He crossed the border, like they did, without legal papers. And suddenly, he found himself in a strange place, where he spoke no English, had no friends and felt he didn't belong. He had no one to talk to -- his parents were always working.
He quickly realized that life in America as an illegal immigrant meant no college and a lifetime of low-wage jobs, he said. His future began to shrink.
Soon, his parents pressured him to go to work. Their brief, sweet family reunion quickly erupted into shouting matches and open hostility. Oscar began hanging out on the streets after school.
"I felt so alone," he told yesterday's panel, which included U.S. Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), police and school officials, and the event's organizers, Montgomery County Council President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) and state Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Montgomery).
It was so easy to join a gang, he recalled. Officials in Fairfax County believe gangs operate in every high school there. In Montgomery, Oscar's school was no different. "In a gang, I felt big. Bigger than others," he explained in Spanish. "I felt I could have power, like I was respected. And I wasn't alone anymore."
Oscar's change of heart came when he was asked by gang leaders to "represent" -- to fight. He lost. He was expelled from school and spent time in jail. "Lots of doors started closing," he said. "What was worse, I was alone again."
He felt trapped.
And he discovered that once you're in a gang, there's no easy way out. "I was not proud of what I was, and I'm trying hard to move ahead," he said. "A lot of boys in gangs are like me -- isolated, with problems at home. They don't know who they can trust, who they can bare their souls to."
In contrast to the soft-spoken Oscar, Alvaro, 18, sitting next to him, was loud and firm. He called on lawmakers to pass the Dream Act, which would allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition for college. He echoed Oscar's call for more after-school programs and another's call for more affordable mental health counseling and bilingual staff in schools. And he belittled past efforts to handle gangs and gang violence.
"It's easy to judge people who are in gangs as all bad. But we are not that way," Alvaro said. "This afternoon, I demand that you have a greater awareness of us, of our families." Applause burst from the audience before his remarks were translated into English.
Oscar has just graduated from high school. He dreams that someone will help him get into college someday. In the meantime, he's working in a kitchen and moving from place to place. "I'm not safe," he said. "It's not like walking the streets and being free. I'm always looking to see who's behind me."
He begged the officials to do something more than just wring their hands and talk about gangs. He asked for their help.
"As hard as it is to believe," Oscar said, his head bowed, "we are the future."