The First L.A. Gangs

By Manuel Cruz

The first L.A. gangs in the barrios were not called gangs. Most of the barrio kids got together to have fun and play together, games that had been brought from Mexico, games that the kids today do not play anymore. There were some games that would take five to ten kids to play. All of the games that were played then had names, like El Encantado, which is now called "Freeze”. The difference was everybody would stand inside a circle, and one kid would stand outside the circle, and they would run outside the circle and you would run after them and you would freeze them. This was only one game .There were other ones like the Culebra , Las Virgenes for girls, Tagwar for boys, and some other games that were played in the U.S. like kick the can, hide and seek, and so on.

Toys that were used then were spin the top, marbles, and flying kites; and for puppy lovers, there was the game called Spin the Bottle. Most of these games needed five to ten kids to play. All the toys were homemade .Another favorite pastime was singing with guitars, old folk songs, especially in the summer .As kids grew up a strong friendship was created .These were the Depression years of the 30's.

If you were lucky, and your father was working in the fields, construction co. or W.P.A., which is like C.E.T.A. jobs today, which were government programs, and if there was a little money left, you might get a nice old second hand toy from the Goodwill or from a second hand store. This included clothes and furniture, too.

One of the favorites home entertainments was a Philco. This was an old radio made then .The family would get together and listen to the Philco and hear the programs coming in from Hollywood ,programs like the comedy shows of Jack Benny ,Red Skelton, and Amos & Andy. You would also hear suspense shows like the Whistler and the Shadow Knows and also the Inner Sanctum. There were other shows like Sky King and Lone Ranger. You are wondering why I am mentioning all these shows. . .well, the first time that most barrio people heard the word "gang" was on the radio. The program was called Gangbusters. This program was on every week. It started with police sirens and screeching sounds and machineguns firing. But as far as the homeboys in the familias, they would never call their homeboys and girls "gang members". Like I said before, you would see the word "gangs" in the newspaper, that is if your father or mother would buy it, or else you might see it on the newspaper stands .Then, like now, how many homeboys or girls do you see buying the newspaper to read the news? Maybe some funny books, or movie stars magazines, but not newspapers. Besides most of the fathers and mothers couldn't read English very well. This was in the 30's.

I remember the first time I saw some homeboys imitating and acting like the Eastside kids of the movies, but it was all in fun, at first. Later on, I saw my first gang fight between La Mission homeboys and the Hicks's & Hayes homeboys. It was what they called then "clean fighting”. This meant no kicking, no knives, and no guns, only fist fighting. Later on, in the 40's there was a big gang fight where all hell broke loose, in a big free-for-all gang fight. This happened in a place called El Rancho de Don Daniel, which was across from El Barrio "La Mission." Tu sabes this barrio was wiped out in the 40's. About two hundred familias lived there at one time. Now it is a very well-known park called Legg Lake. For the Chicanos that don’t know where Rancho De Don Daniel was, well this is what they now call Marrano Beach. The only barrio left now is Pico Viejo. There were at one time, three other barrios called Las Flores, Canta Ranas y La Mission.

When we came back to Los Angeles in 1941, after the Pearl Harbor bombing, we moved to First Street and Vignes. At that time Little Tokyo on First Street was a ghost town, all the Japanese people had been put in camps. By this time you could see the Zoot Suiters all over town in the barrios por la First Street y por la Brooklyn Avenue and Whittier Boulevard, riding their old 1936 V8 Fords.

As for barrio cars in 1940, well, the barrio people were not working as much as the whites. Not until the beginning of World War II around 1942, alot of Chicanos were working in shipyards or in sheet metal shops or for manufacturing companies .Some cars being driven around the 40's actually were made in the 20's ,like your 1924 Ford or your 1927 Chevy,1936 V8 club coupe . . .also the '37 Ford , '37 Dodge and Plymouth. There were still alot of Model A's and Model T's .Most barrio people had not been working since 1929, when the Depression started ,except for W.P.A. jobs and farm work ,picking grapes ,walnuts and cotton in the summer , which is why most cars were ten years older or better. The first vato loco cars were called hot rods in the years of the 30’s. Back then the in thing was speed.

In the late 30's and the 40’s, up until the middle of the 50's, there was no place to race your cars , nor were there freeways.

It was done on your highways .The cars were fixed this way- a'36 Chevy club coupe would get its fenders taken off ,no spotlights or skirts on it ,usually a '34 Ford would get its front fenders and back fenders taken off .The best ones were two-door convertibles. Chicanos started fixing their cars .They would put dual pipes, rubber flaps with reflectors on them that went on the back of the rear flaps or license plates, skirts for the cars, one or two spotlights, and whitewalls. If you wanted a low rider, the only thing you could do then was put sandbags or cement sacks in the trunk to make them heavy . . . that was before the metal shocks .Those were the first low riders in L.A. in the 40's.Because of the war you could not buy gas. They would give you stamps to buy gas, food, clothes, and shoes. Most of the cars ended up being parked, because of the gas ration. Alot of people ended up walking on the street or taking the streetcar. If you lived out of town, you would have to take a streetcar called P.E. which stood for Pacific Electric.

In the 40's they stopped making cars. By 1943 the automobile companies were converting their manufacturing to make armor cars and trucks. The last model was 1942.They stopped making whitewalls and many of the parts that were needed for the cars .In fact most civilian manufacturing companies went into war products.

By 1943 most of the people in the big cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, etc. were working, and in any industrial city, even farming was up. Everybody was busy working, making money.

Thousands of Chicanos had volunteered for the armed services and thousands more were drafted. Everybody had the G.I. fever .Meanwhile, here in Los Angeles Pachucos were getting harassed by the "man”. You see, they saw him like some kind of an oddball while everybody was using G.I. haircuts; he had long hair, plus the fact that everybody that was from a big city was dressed in the same styles. While the Pachuco had the peg pants, chain on the side, they measured 17 inches on the knee, and 12 inches on the bottom. In fact, some pants were so right on the bottom they had zippers right at the bottom by the ankle. Most of the clothes were tailor made. At that time there were alot of tailors in the barrio to get your suit made right. It was the thing; you would see them walk into the shops, check out materials. There weren't that many different kinds of materials to choose from. The most popular was shark skin, the gabardine, the flannel cotton shirts, silk shirts, silk socks, and wide ties, thin belts, and double sole shoes. The double sole was put on the shoes because it was easier to put a double sole on your old shoes, than to buy a new pair because the shoes were rationed. Shoe companies were making combat boots. The girls wore short skirts, blouses with puffed sleeves or no sleeves, and off the shoulder blouses, knitted stockings, flowers in their hair and very white oxfords, and bunny shoes. You see, this is how the Chicano dressed, very neat and clean. They did not conform to the square look. This bugged the law and the school and the restaurant people.

In 1943 there was this incident that happened between the Pachucos and the sailors. By June 3, 1943 sailors were searching the streets for zoot suiters .Although most Chicanos were not wearing zoot suits, they were all considered zooters. There were approximately 200 sailors that were picked up by taxis at the naval base and taken to the barrio .The police arrested nine sailors to make it look good .However, that still left almost 200 sailors to riot and attack on the Chicano community .And on June 5, sailors, soldiers, and marines, along with some civilians, adding up to several thousand turned into a mob and attacked the Chicano communities. The rioting got out of hand and other minorities were also attacked .This was connected with the Sleepy Lagoon Case.

I know for a fact, because my uncle at that time wore the threads that were worn back then. He and several friends of his that had recently come from Mexico and El Paso, Texas were coming out of the Aztec Recording Co. which was on Third & Main when they were attacked by a gang of sailors. These men were all composers and writers and singers that had just arrived from Texas and Mexico. They were not Pachucos . There was another time when I was coming from Olvera Street walking on Main, and I got to Second and Main .A cop, the man with the star hat of that time which was made out of cloth, was choking the Pachuco with his club and had him against the window of a liquor store. While he was choking him, the poor homeboy was slipping and sliding because the thick soles and taps on his shoes were wet from the rainy night. It was pouring, I felt helpless .All I knew was that he was a carnal, and I couldn't help him later on as I walked down on Main Street. I passed the boxing gym , passed the penny arcades and then I made a left on Seventh Street when I got to Seventh and San Pedro , I saw my mother crying and angry .She told me that a marine and sailor had jumped and kicked my brother down .She said that my sister and she fought off these jive punks .She might of not have used those words ,but you know what I mean .You see ,my mother owned a restaurant and bar on Seventh St. and San Pedro Streets .My mother bought this restaurant-bar from a Japanese family that had been thrown in the American made concentration camp. They had to sell this place to my mother cheap. Prior to that, she had a taco restaurant on Second and Spring Street which she bought from a Filipino man. You see, he went to war not by joining the army, but by flying to the Philippine Islands to help his people. I never saw this man again .This is how my mother got the money to buy the restaurant-bar on Seventh and San Pedro from the Japanese family.

In 1941 I didn't think all my Japanese farm working friends were going to be put into concentration camps. What I am really trying to say is that First St. from Vignes and First to Main St., that all the Japanese people were gone .You see; we rented a hotel on First and Vignes. From there on from 1941 to 1945 I made the rounds to the different barrios. For five years I saw the changes in the barrios, I saw the blacks come into First Street, which is now called Little Tokyo. At that time they used to call it Little Harlem. I used to walk down the street hearing blues in the juke boxes and the boogie woogie and see them dance the jitterbug. Walking up and down the different barrios like Dogtown, the Flats, La First Street, La State, La Diamond, La Temple, and La Alpine which was right next to the Angels Flight (streetcar).

We used to cruise on our low riders to Tin Can Beach, on Alameda Street. We used to pass Clanton, 38th St. and El Jardin and used to stop and trip and also cruise through Willowbrook and Watts, and stop at the radio station and listen to Hunter Hancock's rhythm and blues and we would dedicate songs and listen to them while we were cruising to Long Beach and the Pike. We would also hit the games, get on the ferris wheel and walk down to the penny arcades and get on the roller coaster.

This was the big thing to do. They used to call it The Cyclone. It's like the roller coaster at Magic Mountain today. After blowing our money, whatever we had, the vatos and the whisas would get on their hotrods or low riders and go to Tin Can Beach (Bolsa Chica State Park) and have a weenie bake. They would take their old portable radios. They were king size, weighing about ten pounds. I would get my guitar and play some barrio Chuco songs, after jiving and tripping, we’d start making it back home, all the way down Alameda St. to the barrio in L.A. Usually we would end up making a bonfire by burning a tire or some wood. After hours we would end up in a barrio party that had very dim blue lights. You would call it the house of blue lights parties. The records that were played were the old 78's; they were sounds of ballads by Billy Eckstine, soft and easy with the home boys and girls dancing to the mood. This was at the old Macy Barrio. To change the mood we would play some swing records like Pachuco Hop and also Joe Higgins and Honey Drippers. They would also dance to the big bands. The most favorite sounds were Glen Miller's "Chattanooga Choo-Choo", "Tuxedo Junction" and also "String of Pearls", and "In The Mood". Only the Chucos that knew how to dance jitterbug would get up and dance. Another famous big band was Tommy Dorsey and his record was "Boogie Woogie". Some would get up and do the dirty boogie, or the camel walk. Then we would play a slow piece and everybody would make it home .This was around 1948.

At that time Dogtown and Alpine, Hazard y La Clover would go down to Olvera Street to a place called "The Pachuco Inn”. It was a small club next to the post office. Here is where you would see alot of jitterbug contests. Most Chucos would trip around this area.