‘I did earn my name’

Research finds young women often play central roles in gangs. One teenager reveals how the possibility of power drew her in.

Authorities don’t know how many girls are in Chicago’s violent street gangs, but there’s a clue in a study that tracked students at six of the city’s public schools.

It found that 8 percent of female students reported they were in a gang at some point between sixth and tenth grades, compared with 13 percent of boys.

Cristina, 17, is one of those girls.

“For me, I would see the respect that the guys would get in the ’hood, so I was thinking to myself that I want to have that same respect,” she said. “I want to be one of them. I want to be known out here.”

Recently, law enforcement and community groups in the city have begun to turn their attention to the ways females participate in gang life. The Chicago Crime Commission, an organization of civic leaders that advocates for public safety initiatives, will now devote an entire section of its forthcoming The Gang Book to roles of female gang members, said commission lawyer Andrew Henning. The section will specifically focus on how female gang members acquire illegal guns and what roles they play in a city that has seen more than 2,500 people shot so far this year.

The few people who do work directly with females in gangs said the roles are often misunderstood as little more than supportive to male gang members. But research suggests girls often take on central and violent roles — including assaults, drive-by shootings, and disciplining newer gang members. WBEZ sat down with Cristina to hear first hand what life is like for a girl in a Chicago gang.

Cristina agreed to be interviewed on the condition WBEZ not reveal her gang affiliation, and we are not using her full name because she is a minor.

Life in the gang

Cristina said joining a gang felt almost pre-ordained. She said she was allowed to join the gang at age 13 without having to go through traditional initiation rituals because her brothers and uncles were in the gang. After that, she said, it was up to her to prove her merit to them.

Cristina said she knew the older gang members were starting to respect her when they gave her a handgun — a .380 or 9 mm — and told her to walk around the neighborhood as a lookout just a few months after she joined.

“Part of me felt like … they finally see that I’m one of them, giving me some type of respect out here, making me hold one of their guns,” she said. “It just felt like an honor.”

But she said she also felt nervous, and worried that police would come by and find her with a gun. Or that rival gang members would pass by. She said she wondered: Would I pull the trigger? Would I just freeze or not?

When tensions escalated between her gang and another, the men would often drive into the rival gang’s territory with the female members.

“If the girls were in the car ... then we had to take the gun and we would have to end up shooting the other gang,” Cristina said. “We will sometimes shoot until we saw some other body drop. I also got to points that I had to shoot, I had to pull the trigger sometimes.”

Cristina said that participating in drive-by shootings was one of several ways that she, and other girls, could elevate their status in the gang. But she said she earned respect from her male peers in other ways, too.

“When one of the guys would get caught in a jam, and by that I mean like if the other rival gang has a gun and they point it out, I’ll just get in front of one of the guys,” she said. “And I’ll say, ‘You have to kill me before you kill him.’”

Cristina said that in her gang, girls were also expected to fight girls in rival gangs just as violently as the men would fight each other.

Cristina said she endured beatings — sometimes even at the hands of members of her own gang when she didn’t follow their rules. One time, she said, gang members beat her for not training a younger girl in the gang to be a lookout.

“I would just have bruises, and then I’ll just wake up sore, like my body just hurts,” she said. “But it was just like, lesson learned. … I gotta do what the guys tell me to do. If not, I get beaten.”

Cristina said another one of her responsibilities was to be in charge of other young-teen girls, and to recruit more girls to join the gang. She said most girls were initiated through beat-ins that lasted 30 seconds or a minute. But others were told to go undercover to gather information in rival gang territory or had to have sex with male members to join the gang.

“Girls will say they know of one girl [who was sexed in to a gang], but men say it happens all the time,” said Dana Peterson, an associate professor in the school of criminal justice at the University at Albany-SUNY.

Why do girls join gangs?

Cristina said she joined a gang because she felt more secure around male gang members than she did at home, where she said she endured years of sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather starting when she was 8 years old.

“[The gang] could look after me. They will not let another guy put their hands on me. They will look after me like if I was their baby sister,” she said. “Some of them did, some of them took me under their wings. And some of them just looked after me and didn’t let nothing happen to me.”

Peterson, the University at Albany professor who studied males and females in schools around the country, said there hasn’t been detailed research on sexual trauma as a unique factor that may lead to girls joining gangs. But, she said, data show that girls who join gangs often come from more troubled households than boys who join gangs. Peterson said their household backgrounds often include alcoholism, physical abuse, family members in prison and poverty.

“It seems to be much more dire situations for gang females than it is for gang males,” Peterson said.

Though girls may engage in core gang activities, such as drive-by shootings, robberies and assaults, Peterson said they almost never achieve the same level of respect as the males.

“Just by virtue of being young women they would be considered lower-status,” Peterson said. “Even if they engage in the same activities, it would be more status-enhancing for the young man than it would be for the young woman.”

Helping girls recover

Henning, of the Chicago Crime Commission, said his organization hopes to spur more attention and investment in resources that could help girls avoid — or get out of — gangs.

“When you look at rehabilitation rates for young women, they are higher than [for] men,” Henning said. “But when you look around the city, there’s just not a whole lot of resources, and I feel like they’re often forgotten.”

Henning said the commission would like to see more mentorship opportunities where gang-involved girls are paired with women employed in jobs the girls may aspire to.

Sometimes, however, the road back can be complicated. For Cristina, who did not attend school beyond ninth grade, the immediate goal is to get back into school. She was expelled after a fight where she said she cracked another girl’s head open. Now, she said, schools are unwilling to accept her credits or have deemed her too old to pick up her studies again.

She said she has also been deeply affected by the recent death of her younger brother, who was in her gang and whom she believes was shot by a rival gang member.

“I stopped eating. I don’t like to do the things that I used to. I’m always in the house 24/7,” she said. “Sometimes my mom makes me come out. … It’s just really hard for me, he was everything to me.”

Despite the challenges, Cristina said she intends to leave the gang life and go back to school, for her brother’s sake.

“He said he wanted to become somebody in life, and that’s what I’m going to become,” she said. “Even though it’s getting really hard for me to get back into school, but I told him I’m going to get back into school no matter what.”

Odette Yousef is a reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @oyousef.

This story is part of WBEZ's Every Other Hour project.
Criminal justice reporting and investigative journalism at WBEZ is supported in part by Doris and Howard Conant, The Joyce Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.