On crowded city buses in her native El Salvador, Flor Alas was well-versed in a key rule of survival: Don't look a gang member in the eyes.
Two years ago, she and her sister moved to Gaithersburg to live with an uncle. She joined the Army ROTC and tried out for Magruder High School's pom squad. Her English became standard suburban teenspeak.
But Alas soon discovered that her old world wasn't completely behind her. Now, in the eyes of her American peers, she carries the taint of the gang violence she thought she'd escaped.
She remembers a dance where a white girl asked if she was "full Salvadoran, like born there?" Alas, 18, said yes. The girl's face wrinkled as if she had tasted something bad. She hated Salvadorans, she said, the way they dressed, talked and just are.
"They assume we're all criminals," said Alas, now a senior at Magruder. "It's like, every single person that I meet, they're like, 'Don't tell me you're from El Salvador.' "
As Latino gangs expand their influence in Maryland and Virginia, the consequences have rippled through the region's Latino communities. Many young people feel anger, humiliation and even self-loathing at the hands of those who assume that they are criminals. Parents struggle with puro miedo -- pure fear -- that their children will join or be harmed because they resist recruitment.
The pressures cross economic, class and generational lines. Latino laborers, whose wages support families here and in Central America, fear falling prey to gang crime. Second-generation Latinos of the middle class, seeking assimilation, speak of the "looks" when they stroll the malls. Some try to mask their heritage while others avoiding wearing baggy jeans and certain gang-favored colors, such as white.
"Kids have been stereotyped in schools. Police officers have stopped them because of how they were dressed or how they look -- 'Stopped while being brown,' as some Latino kids say," said Luis Cardona, a former gang member who teaches in the Criminal Justice Department of the University of the District of Columbia.
"We have to make sure we don't start preying on the kids who are doing what they are supposed to do."
Some of the Salvadoran immigrants who fled civil war and death squads for Los Angeles in the early 1980s founded Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, originally as a defense against Mexican gangs. Since then, it has spread to more than 30 states and several Central American countries, luring Latinos of other nationalities as well.
MS-13 surfaced in Northern Virginia in the early 1990s, drawn in part by the Washington region's burgeoning Salvadoran population, now the nation's second-largest. The gang is newer to Maryland, taking root in such Latino-rich suburbs as Langley Park and Gaithersburg.
Although gangs have been present for years, the violence that erupted this summer is a shock for many residents. On Aug. 5, six Montgomery County youths were stabbed in gang-related attacks: two at Springbrook High School and four others at a Target in Wheaton.
Five days later in Langley Park in Prince George's County, two men were killed and a third injured when their throats were slit. A teenage girl was cut in the neck after an argument on Aug. 12, and two days later, a man's hand was nearly severed in a machete assault. Another man died Wednesday, three days after he was beaten and cut by fragments of broken beer bottles. Many of the victims were Latino.
Police arrested 11 men and youths in the Aug. 5 stabbings and believe that members of MS-13 carried out the attacks. Another person was arrested Friday and charged in the death of the man who was beaten and cut Aug. 14.
Authorities do not believe the Langley Park assaults were connected and have not said if they think any were gang-related. But the bloodshed has only intensified fears in Langley Park and other Latino communities, where gang activity has increased. For many residents, the violence, whether or not it is gang-related, is impacting their lives and perpetuating stereotypes.
"It's affecting everybody," said Teresa Martinez, 34, who came from El Salvador in 1986 and is a social worker at the Adelphi/Langley Park Family Support Center.
Proving Who You Aren't
Esteban Carrillo, 16, calls it "a kind of sorrow that covers all of our culture."
The son of an accountant, he and his parents left Ecuador a year ago and settled in Silver Spring. His embrace of the United States was so fervent that he began introducing himself as "Steve." He hopes to go to Harvard University and perhaps someday become secretary of state.
Esteban "battled," as he puts it, to get into honors classes, confronting teachers who viewed Latinos as low achievers.
But his ambitions meant nothing in a Langley Park 7-Eleven on a recent day. Esteban, a gangly kid with a big smile, walked in and asked for a phone card. The non-Latino clerks looked terrified, he said, and immediately told him they had none. Esteban felt angry, then remembered the violence that has occurred in the neighborhood.
Ludwin, a reed-thin Salvadoran who wouldn't give his last name, fearing retribution from gang members he knows, sees the sorrow everyday. Gang members routinely try to lure him, he said, with promises of money, women and power. He understands the alienation that propels them to join gangs.
"Sometimes, people here make you feel like a foreigner. Some blacks and whites say, 'Get out of my country,' " said Ludwin, 19, who has been here five years and lives in Prince George's.
He pays a price for not joining: Whenever he is approached, he said, he hands the gang members as much as $5 to leave him alone.
Ludwin has found his own community at St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, with youth groups where he plays games and puts on plays. He feels like he belongs there, he said.
He wants to start a construction company one day but fears that he will face more scrutiny from teachers and employers because of the gangs.
"You feel the pressure," Ludwin said. "You have to prove yourself at what you do . . . to show people you are not a member of a gang."
Alan Barrionuevo, 22, who came from Bolivia to Falls Church as a child, avoids wearing baggy pants or anything else he thinks will be perceived as gangster gear.
"That's the one thing I don't want to be looked at as -- like a Hispanic gang member," Barrionuevo said.
He said his Salvadoran friends are doing the same. Sometimes, if they think they can get away with it, they say they are Puerto Rican, or not Latino at all.
That bothers Flor Alas, who is extremely proud of her country. She listened recently as several of her Salvadoran co-workers ranted against MS-13 brutality and said it was tarnishing the whole Salvadoran community.
They surmised that perhaps Salvadorans were simply more violent people.
"Now they actually talk bad about ourselves," Alas said. "Not all of us are the same, but we can't be criticizing our own people."
It's not just recent arrivals who feel the effects of gang warfare.
When April Olivas, 15, a second-generation Ecuadoran, and her friends went to the Montgomery Mall, a few days after the Aug. 5 stabbings, a group of white teens glared at them the entire time they shopped, she said.
"The first thing that came to mind was it had to be because of my race," April said.
Matthew Fernandez grew up near Baileys Crossroads in an area that he said was safe when he was young. Today, he said, his neighborhood still is, but it is surrounded by apartment complexes where gang activity has flourished.
The hallways of J.E.B. Stuart High School in Fairfax County, from which Fernandez, 18, graduated this year, were "infested" with gangs, he said. Members seemed to see it as "their job" to beat anyone who looked at them wrong.
Fernandez, born to a Peruvian mother and a Cuban father, couldn't relate. His mother and stepfather, with whom he lives, work at the World Bank. He wears AC/DC T-shirts and plays drums in a rock band.
But fear is a part of his life. When he missed the school bus, he insisted that his mother drive him so that he would not have to walk through the Culmore neighborhood, a hub for gang activity. She protested, until she saw the news reports.
'Please, I'm Like You'
Puro miedo -- pure fear. That's what Teresa Martinez feels every time her 16-year-old son goes to work at Westfield Shoppingtown Wheaton, the site of the stabbings at the Target.
She has warned him not to wear earrings or tattoos. She's worried that his longish hair, fashionable among gangsters, will stereotype him.
More important, she has begun to ask him questions and learn more about him and his world.
"Now I'm checking everything," Martinez said. "I'm much more alert to what he has in his bedroom, the music he listens to and their lyrics."
The vast majority of gangs' crime targets are impoverished Latinos who are here illegally. They can no longer open bank accounts because of homeland security laws. Many carry their savings on their bodies, according to community social workers.
Two Latino gang members recently lured Jose Navas, 26, a slim, soft-voiced Guatemalan laborer, with the promise of $12 an hour to move furniture. They drove him to their apartment building in Langley Park, chatting the whole way in Spanish, building up his hopes.
In the building's basement, one of them pressed a knife against his throat.
"Please, I'm like you," Navas said he pleaded with the robbers. "I've come to this country to do my best. I have a lot of people to support back home."
The two men grinned.
"The money you are taking is for my mother," continued Navas. "She's sick."
"We are not interested," one of them said. "It's your money or your life."
Navas handed them $100. It wasn't enough. They wanted his sneakers, too. Navas took them off, and they left. He waited half an hour, sweating, praying that they wouldn't come back.