8-year-old fascinated with gangs | VailDaily.com

8-year-old fascinated with gangs

Maria St. Louis-Sanchez
Special to the Daily/Hillary WheatDominic Archuleta could become entangled in a gang when he gets older.

GREELEY – Dominic Archuleta closely examines the gang signs around a low-income housing complex in east Greeley. As he points out the different graffiti marks, he can tell you which gang each of the markings comes from, and he can explain the profanity written alongside it. He also points out the gothic-style “S” – a sign for Sureño 13, or southside gangs. He knows how to draw it and can tell how adept the artist is by how well-constructed the “S” is drawn.Parts of Dominic’s knowledge might rival some of that known by the Greeley gang unit, but he is no police expert. Dominic is 8 years old. The signs Dominic sees cover the slide at the playground he plays at, a telephone booth near his home and fences in his neighborhood. The signs of the gang world are literally all around himHe is one of many children in Greeley who are being tempted by gangs at a young age. The gangs are getting to the kids before they even have a chance to get positive reinforcement from schools and teachers. Even parents, such as Dominic’s, have a hard time combating the outside forces in their children’s lives.Experts say if you don’t change their mind when they’re very young, you may never change it. “We used to say that middle school was the time to help prevent kids from joining gangs,” said John Liberty, a case manager at Maplewood Middle School. “Now I would say we need to start in elementary schools.”Liberty also runs the expulsion intervention class for Greeley-Evans School District 6. The class helps kids who have been expelled from school return sooner. He sees a lot of older students, but by the time they come to him, most already have made up their minds, he said. Elementary interventionDominic’s mother, Mary Jo Benavidez, was shocked earlier this year when she discovered the extent of the gang influences in her son’s life.

Mary Jo was cleaning out his backpack when she found papers with drawings of gang signs on them. Phrases such as “Sur 13″ for the Sureño 13 gang filled the papers.”I knew exactly what it was when I saw it,” she said. She knew she might have to deal with this some day, but she didn’t think it would be so soon. Her first-born child is only in the second grade. When she went to his school, East Memorial Elementary, to discuss it, administrators told her Dominic was getting interested in gangs. They told her he was leading the interest for some of his friends, she said. “I never thought it would happen at this age,” she said. “I figured maybe in high school, but not elementary.” Such interest isn’t unique, said Juan Verdugo, the principal of East Memorial. The influences of gangs on kids are tough for schools to combat, he said. Many of the children have family members who already are in gangs, teaching the younger children about the gang world long before the children enter kindergarten. In their neighborhoods, the gang members are upheld as the cool kids, and many of the little ones want to emulate them. Verdugo has even seen gang members standing outside the nearby Boys & Girls Club, trying to recruit kids on their way out of the club. “It makes it that much harder to deal with because they’ve already been exposed to it,” he said. Dominic’s age, 8 years old, is about the earliest Verdugo has seen this kind of behavior. Typically at that age, you have to start trying to steer them the other way, he said. By the fifth grade, students already are getting recruited to join, he said. Dominic seems to be at a fork in the road. On one side, he is a normal, fun-loving boy, and on the other side, he’s becoming fascinated with gang culture.Man of the houseDominic’s interest in gangs frightens his family. His two favorite things to draw are lady bugs and the gothic-style “S” used in gang graffiti. It’s a tossup for him whether it would be more fun to drive a tank or a lowrider.

His favorite shirts are his Denver Broncos shirt or what he calls his “gang jersey,” a light blue jersey with the number 6 on it. At first glance, he seems like a typical, carefree kid. He can talk you into playing “just one more round” of hide-and-seek for 10 rounds before you can get him to stop. He races his Chihuahua named Puppet all around his housing complex. He is involved with his church and just received his First Communion. Yet Dominic worries a lot more than the typical 8-year-old. The thoughts of gangs and trying to protect his family haunt him. Dominic’s dad was recently released from jail, but during the year-and-a-half his father was incarcerated for domestic violence, Dominic felt responsible for his family. At 8, he tries to act like the man of the house, and his younger brothers, Jordan, 5, and Joseph, 3, look up to him. In an effort to protect them, he obsessed about keeping the front door locked at all times. Even when his mother, Mary Jo Benavidez , goes to out for a few seconds to bring in the groceries, he wants to lock the door when she goes out and lock it again when she comes in. At night, he sometimes sneaks downstairs to make sure all of the lights are off and the door is locked. He worries that the gang members in his neighborhood might cause problems for his family.”I’m scared if they do a drive-by, and my brothers are playing out front,” he said. While gang members can be scary, they are also tough he said. There are parts about them that are cool because they can defend themselves, he said. His mother doesn’t know what to do. Activities for kids are expensive, and her busy schedule makes it hard to chauffeur her kids around. She’s taking classes at Aims Community College full-time to get her degree in nursing quicker, but that means she only can work part time. With money so tight and three kids, she can’t afford to live anywhere other than low-income housing. “I’ve considered giving up and going to work full time to get out of this hell hole,” she said.Yet if she does, it means she will be working low-paying jobs for the rest of her life and her kids won’t have all of the opportunities she wants them to have.Not wearing red

Benavidez keeps a close eye on her kids and doesn’t let them out of her sight. She’s quick to tell Dominic that his behavior is not OK and that he needs to stop thinking about gangs all of the time. She keeps a watchful eye on the kids Dominic brings home, and she rarely lets him spend the night at a friend’s house. “I figure that if I put a stop to it now, it won’t go any further,” she said. The problem is that she can’t be with her son all of the time. She can’t keep Dominic from influences at school, with friends he plays with there, or even in the neighborhood where gangsters openly flaunt who they are and what they do. Once, when Dominic was walking to get the mail, he was harassed for wearing the color red. The multiple influences of gangs on him are hard to fight. “It’s hard to combat when everything else is fighting against you,” she said. Benavidez had hoped she had put a stop to Dominic’s gang fascination. But she was wrong. Two weeks ago, he was caught again with gang-style drawings at his day care. The drawing were of men’s faces, wearing baseball hats to the side and sunglasses. Next to the eyes of the men was a small tattoo of the number 13, for Sureño 13. Underneath the drawings was his name and the words “G Unit,” a gangster rap group. His mother had hoped she had convinced him to stop drawing those kind of things and his interests were somewhere else. “I thought I was doing everything right,” she said. “I don’t know what else I can do.”Vail, Colorado

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