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Studies: Hispanic Youth Look for Acceptance, Often Turn to Gangs


Hispanic youths in North Carolina, struggling to find acceptance in U.S. culture, are increasingly turning to gangs and to other self-destructive behaviors, according to studies and those who follow the trends.

Mike Figueras, who runs a gang-prevention program for the Hispanic advocacy group El Pueblo, said children whose needs are not met at home or at school are prime candidates for joining gangs because they seek a feeling of belonging.

“It’s so important to the kids that they’re willing to do anything,” he said. “We’re looking at 11-year-olds joining gangs.”

Hispanic gangs are the fastest growing segment of the underground culture in North Carolina, according to a 2005 study that found that Hispanic accounted for a quarter of the state’s nearly 400 gangs.

Nearly 9 percent of Hispanic high school students dropped out of high school in the 2005-06 school year — a rate higher than any other group in the state and double the rate of white. non Hispanic students, according to state figures.

The problems are getting worse, according to a national survey by New York University professor Marcelo Suárez-Orozco. The study found that immigrant teens were doing worse in school after a five-year period from when the study began.

Meanwhile, more than 40 percent of Hispanic immigrant teenagers in North Carolina say they have faced ethnic discrimination, often from their classmates, according to a study of 300 people conducted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Social Work.

That study found a population with emotional scars, uneducated parents and the pervasive feeling that they are not accepted by Americans.

Juana Martinez, 17, a senior at Wake Forest-Rolesville High School, said she saw that discrimination at a recent meeting of Latinos Constructing a Better Future, where she serves as president. She recalled that several boys talked about taunts from their classmates.

“They said that some people have told them, ‘Hey, go back to Mexico,'” Martinez said. “And some of them aren’t even from Mexico. They were born here.”

Martinez said many of her Hispanic classmates are heading to trouble, with girls getting pregnant, boys wearing gang colors and others dropping out.

More than half of Hispanic girls in North Carolina are expected to be pregnant before their 20th birthdays, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

William Lassiter, manager of the state’s Center for the Prevention of School Violence, said some Hispanic students are four or five years behind and illiterate in their native language. Their parents are often disconnected and swamped with work, according to observers.

If the students join gangs, Lassiter said, educators often write them off.

“The big misconception is that these kids are not savable, that once they’re in, they’re in for life,” he said. “That’s just not true. We need to ask ourselves: How do we serve these kids better?”

Associated Press

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