Set in a fictional working-class Latino and Black Southern California neighborhood, the Netflix series On My Block explores the life in the neighborhood through the eyes of four bright teenagers as they work through typical coming-of-age issues of love and acceptance while doing their best to avoid and ignore the gang violence around them. This series allows its audience to have complex conversations about the ways in which these communities shape people with marginalized cultural and racial identities. While most of the stories focus on the typical adolescent anxieties, such as making a good first impression in high school, dating, fulfilling parents’ expectations, and things alike, these anxieties are outweighed by a greater threat of violence.
Cesar Diaz, one of the four main characters, is a legacy Santo who gets roped into duty during the summer between eight grade and high school. The fear of Cesar’s membership in the Santos and how it threatens to derail his academic career altogether plays a big part in the story. Cesar is a soft, light-hearted kid at heart. He’s loyal to his friends and is often described by his friends as intelligent; However, he was born into a family with organized crime in its blood. His older brother, Oscar, is the head of the Santos, one of the neighborhood’s most prominent gangs. When Oscar got out of jail, he pressured Cesar to officially join the gang, something that Cesar does reluctantly as he feels that it is inescapable.
Cesar’s situation is a very interesting because tradition plays an important role in multigenerational gangs. Families contribute to gangs by “modeling gang behavior through previous gang membership, providing a sense of tradition to the gang, and even directly contribute to gang violence again their own families when family conflicts with gang membership” (Decker, 2000, p.476). This causes Cesar to feel as if he can’t escape from the gang lifestyle and that any effort to escape from it and realize his potential in other realms will be futile.
It is important, in Cesar’s case, for the teachers, to realize their attitude towards gangs and how that might affect the students’ classroom experience. Personally, the steady consumption of gang-related horror stories I have been fed by the media has shaped my outlook towards gangs, and students involved in them. I realized that I might have subconsciously felt that I was in direct competition with street gangs for the minds of souls of the gang-involved students. This realization does not make the frequent reports of seemingly random violence any less frightening, or the issue of dealing with gangs inside schools any easier to figure out, but it is a milestone in realizing how I might treat the gang-involved students in a biased and stereotyped way, which will impose stereotype threats at them.
Stereotype threat is very powerful and persistent and it “contributes to our most vexing personal and societal problems, however, it is usually unrecognized” (Steele, 2010, p.12). By realizing the danger of imposing stereotype threats at students like Cesar, I can be more aware of my interactions with them and how they will affect not only their academic but also personal growth. Instead of demonizing gangs, which could be taken personally as going after their family, I can show them that I’m willing to talk and listen to them, without showing judgment.
The next step is to try to understand the reason Cesar decided to join the gang. Other than the obvious family tradition reason, it’s important to understand that for some students, gangs may compensate for family by providing members with a sense of belonging. In fact, according to research of adolescents’ involvement in gangs, “the youths in this study expressed clearly a strong sense of belonging to the gang, and compared gang membership to a family” (Decker, 2000, p.475). Gangs often function similarly to family, providing youths with identity, social support, solidarity, and a sense of belonging.
Cesar tends to be closed off to his peers because he might not have the same sense of belonging in school as he does in the gang. In his case, the key is to heighten his sense of social inclusion in the school community. The school can achieve this by doing a community intervention for social inclusion which involves the use of adult and peer mentors who can provide guidance and assistance to students like him. It’s important that these efforts don’t involve ridicule of gangs by student peer groups. Rather, the point is to make group membership itself positive in the sense of acknowledging things such as the support of belonging offered by gangs, but addressing the negative, antisocial behavior.
Although the gang culture is linked to violence, some of its qualities like perseverance and loyalty would be useful in an academic setting. As a teacher, I have to make sure that I don’t overlook these qualities. Instead, I have to direct and push the students in the right direction, so that they could turn into the student’s strengths. To do this, it’s important to understand where the student is coming from because teaching more effectively “requires embedding oneself into the context where the students are from, and developing weak ties with students in their own communities” (Emdin, 2016, p.139). Students respond differently in different contexts, and the ability to understand and utilize context appropriately is a valuable teaching skill to get students to be more engaged with school and use their skills effectively. In Cesar’s case, this means that I have to understand what school means to him, and what he wants to get out of it. It’s more likely to get him to engage to school activity if he feels that school is a crucial part of his future. But, in his case, since he seems to feel that he can’t escape from the gang, doing well in school might not be something he feels is necessary.
The peer mentors that the school provides should be good role models who provide enlightenment to students through the “sociological imagination” which is a system that “provides a framework for understanding our social world that far surpasses any commonsense notion we might derive from our limited social experience” (Conley, 2017, p. 190). Through this, Cesar could see that there is a system at work larger than himself, or even his community. This could lead him to understanding that the situation he’s in isn’t necessarily just produced by the way he acted, but it was also produced by a larger system of racism, classism, and segregation. This understanding would then help him realize that perhaps his family involved in the gangs as a consequence of that very system. Knowing this, he is more equipped to break out of the cycle and see that he has more options and that the future he thought he was destined for was not completely inescapable. This liberation from the feeling of being trapped in the world of violence is arguably one of the most important things a teacher can do to help students like Cesar.
Even when the student is able to see a future beyond gangs and violence, it does not mean that my efforts stop there. Relapse is always a possibility, and it takes a lot of hard work and determination from the student to be able to break from dysfunctional patterns. For this reason, a growth mindset and grit are two things the students will benefit from being equipped with. Having a growth mindset will help the student to see every failure as a chance to learn and improve, and grit is “an important determinant of achievement outcomes, especially in domains where giving up is common” (Duckworth, 2015, p.399).
Therefore, if the student possesses grit, he will be more likely to break out from the gangs. While grittiness and a growth mindset are important, they’re not enough without teachers to guide the students toward a favorable growth trajectory. Personally, I would attempt this by personal counseling with the students to get to know them and help them set up goals, both short term and long term. This way, I’m making sure that the student is working hard toward a goal, utilizing their grittiness and growth mindset to their full potential.
It’s worth noting that if you need help, your colleagues, especially those who have taught your students before or already have a relationship with a particular kid, including counselors, special education teachers, and admin might be able to have the answers your need. Reaching out for help is always a good thing, and by doing this, you’re showing to your students that asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Instead, it’s a sign that you are willing to learn and are determined to improve. I personally think that students will appreciate it when they know you communicate with their other teachers and collectively figure out how to best help them be successful.
- Conley, D. (2019). You May Ask Yourself: An introduction to thinking like a sociologist. S.l.: W. W NORTON.
- Decker, S. H., & Curry, G. D. (2000). Addressing key features of gang membership: Measuring the involvement of young members. Journal of criminal justice, 28(6), 473-482.
- Duckworth, A. L. (2015). International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (2nd ed., Vol. 10). Oxford: Elsevier.
- Emdin, C. (2016). For White folks who teach in the hood… and the rest of y’all too: Reality pedagogy and urban education. Beacon Press.
- Steele, C. (2010). Whistling Vivaldi: And other clues to how stereotypes affect us. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.