SLIDESHOW: Nuestra Familia

Read the series en español at La Jornada Sin Fronteras



Norteños, the Sons of Chávez
Part 2 of 3

Julia Reynolds and George Sánchez
Center for Investigative Reporting / Centro de Periodismo de Investigación


Our Family

The Sons of Chávez

A Long Road to Delano




“La Causa—our cause—doesn't have to be experienced twice. The consciousness and pride that were raised by our union are alive and thriving inside millions of young Hispanics who will never work on a farm.”

— César Chávez

“I just believe I’ll die for my cause.”

— Juan, Norteño gang member

Salinas East Marqueta tattoos, with the Raza eagle
photo, Salinas Police

On April 1, 2001, 19-year old Armando Tizok Frias was released from the California Youth Authority, the state’s prison for juveniles and young adults. He was looking forward to seeing his girlfriend and the six-month old baby boy he had hardly known. His son was born while Armando was still incarcerated.

He arrived at his hometown of Salinas, a coastal farming community 160 kilometers south of San Francisco where the nation’s lettuce, broccoli and strawberry crops are harvested by a population mainly of Mexican descent. Immediately, Armando went to a friend’s house to report for duty to his superiors, who were associates of Nuestra Familia, California’s powerful and most sophisticated prison gang.

He had misgivings about this visit. Yes, he was a gangbanger, a Norteño to be exact, and in fact he had risen to the level of Nuestra Raza, which was a serious “industrial” gang one rank below Nuestra Familia, the mother gang of all the Norteño street gangs in the state. He liked the gang lifestyle – shooting at rival Sureño gang members, selling drugs and robbing border brothers, the Mexican immigrants who kept cash in their shoes on paydays and almost never reported crimes to the police for fear of being deported. And there were lots of parties and lots of females.

Armando was torn – he loved gangbanging, but many of his old friends had gotten married, settled down and started working jobs while he was in prison. If he wanted to keep up the life, the only real choice was to go professional. But the closer he got to Nuestra Familia, the more serious the work became. It was all business, and in Nuestra Familia, things like partying and females got in the way of business.

But this inner debate was irrelevant. Armando had been initiated into Nuestra Raza, had made a lifetime commitment to the gang, and that was that. “There was no turning back,” he says. He knocked, and his new boss opened the door.

Armando Tizok Frías
photo, Janjaap Dekker


The now-infamous California prison gang Nuestra Familia took root in the 1970s in Soledad State Prison, a cold fortress located 40 kilometers south of Salinas in the heart of this fertile valley. It was a time when the Chicano pride movement was fledgling, and across the nation Blacks, Latinos and the White counter-culture attached a certain rebel glamour to being incarcerated. George Jackson wrote his prison letters from Soledad. The uprisings in Attica and San Quentin were revolutionary battlegrounds. Even among the nonviolent left, being jailed was no dishonor.

In 1970, labor leader César Chávez spent two weeks in the county jail in Salinas, in defiance of lettuce growers who tried to bust a strike by his union for California farm workers. Robert Kennedy’s wife Ethel visited him in that decrepit structure, which today is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and may become a museum in honor of Chávez.

Around that tumultuous time, a prison movement took shape – led by Northern California’s Chicano farm boys – that mythically blended the ideals of César Chávez and his nonviolent farm workers movement with the hardened prison radicalism of the Black Panthers. It was called Nuestra Familia, or NF.

In the 1970s, Armando’s father, Armando Rico Frias, was a founder of the largest Norteño gang in Salinas. He did time in Soledad in the 1980s, and he knows the NF’s history well.

“Us Norteños, behind the prison walls, we were a minority,” Frias says. “And there was a lot of injustice made to us because we were from small farm towns, we weren’t from the big city. It was at the same time that César Chávez was doing his movement for the campesino. … He united the campesino — you know, United Farm Workers. We united as ‘farm boys’ behind the wall.”

That was the beginning of the farm boys’ history, a now-legendary underground mythology that with little variation is learned and memorized by nearly every young Norteño gang member in the state’s dusty and impoverished agricultural towns.

“The whole thing was to educate ourselves, even if it was behind the prison walls,” Frias says. “Get an education, read books, especially anything that pertained to the cause of César Chávez.”

Following the tradition of the campesinos’ union, the farm boys’ struggle became known as La Causa, The Cause.

Early photo of Nuestra Familia, 1970s
photo courtesy of Knowgangs.com


Armando Tizok’s very first memory is of visiting his father in the Monterey County Jail.

When he was little, his father says, Armando didn’t like to fight.

“When my son pitched baseball, he would run over to the batter if he hit him with the ball,” Frias recalls. “He would feel so bad if someone got hurt.”

Armando was good at baseball and basketball. He traveled to Fresno with a local coach to compete in boxing matches. But his father rarely saw him win his trophies. Come Saturdays, Armando and his siblings visited their father in Soledad prison.

Like a number of Salinas’s families, Armando’s was well entrenched in the gang culture that pervades California’s Mexican farm towns. His father wanted him to know how to defend himself. Armando Tizok learned to shoot a gun when he was five or six. His uncle was a prominent member of Nuestra Familia. Aunts, cousins and uncles were all in gangs. There was really no question: the boy was raised to be a Norteño soldier.

He was taught his Raza’s history: that he came from the proud line of Northerners, farm boys who had suffered in the prisons when they were ridiculed as Farmeros or Sodbusters and became known derisively as Busters. Southerners, the Sureños, were reviled in turn, and were called “Scraps.”

Sureños had become the enemy. Originally gang members from Southern California cities like Los Angeles and San Diego, Sureños began to arrive in Salinas and recruit teenage Mexican immigrants into their gangs. And as the Southerners increased in numbers, so did a conflict based on old resentments and hate that has evolved into a statewide civil war between native-born Northern Chicanos and the “outsiders” and immigrants.

Armando grew up in this tense atmosphere. From an early age, he knew that he had an anger problem. He would sometimes get edgy, restless, and the feeling would build for days until he just had to get out and “get over” on the next unfortunate Sureño.

Salinas police gang squad, called the Violence Suppresion Unit or VSU
photo, Janjaap Dekker


When Armando Tizok was sentenced to prison at the Youth Authority at the age of 14, his official Norteño training began. It is in California’s prisons and jails that NF has established a strict schooling regimen for Mexican-American youth. Armando was taught, as is NF custom, by an older member who had been to state prison. He learned that Nuestra Familia was created in response to terrors perpetrated within the prisons by the Mexican Mafia.

“In the mid-1950s,” he would write from memory, “several guys out of East Los Angeles were doing some hard time together. They decided to form a prison gang, which is known as La Eme, or the Mexican Mafia, formed to protect the Mexican race from other inmates as well as the prison staff. Their reasons for forming a prison gang were quickly forgotten. La Eme started abusing, disrespecting, raping and stealing from other inmates, including their own Mexican race. Their main targets and victims became the Mexicans from small towns, or as the Eme called it, farmers from the farm towns.

“These farmers formed what is called La Nuestra Familia.”

The NF organization became the most sophisticated prison gang in the United States. By the mid-1970s, prisoners at Soledad had drafted a written constitution and created a ruling body called La Mesa that later was based in the state’s ultra high-security facility, Pelican Bay State Prison.

In Pelican Bay, from cells that are locked down 23 hours a day, NF’s leaders mange to run vast Northern California criminal enterprises via miniature smuggled messages, phony legal mail and coded letters and conversations using a dialect of Náhuatl.

Little by little, Armando was schooled in the NF history and rules. Eventually, he was shown copies of the Format, a rallying manifesto that describes the cause and each Norteño’s responsibility to it.

“Advancement demands change. It is each Norteño’s responsibility to promote unity within our Raza … a believer to our struggle is to be treated with dignity and respect on all levels. Once established firmly within the pintas, our struggle will gradually expand to the streets.”

Armando was a fast learner. His analytical skills sharpened. He wrote essays on the meaning of the Format and when he was 16, he had memorized the 14 Bonds, a set of guidelines for prison conduct. He kept a dictionary in his cell to look up new words. He learned how to set up a chain of command, or COC, in any new jail or prison he might enter, to establish hierarchy and allow communications with higher-up NF leaders.

His days behind bars were spent in strict routine, often beginning with the Maquina, an hour or so of intense physical exercises. Then, essay writing on the NF’s constitution, and later, quiet time for meditation or letter writing. As he rose in status, Armando would write reports on the day’s news and activities that were smuggled to NF “channels.”

Finally, as the years went by, he was ready for the next step: he passed a two-week intensive period of schooling, training, grilling and was initiated into Nuestra Raza. When he was released, he would try to find a suitable cover, such as attending the local community college, while he helped run the gang’s street drug operations.

The cause of justice for all Chicanos had somehow warped into a prison-run drug cartel. After nearly forty years as an organized crime enterprise with an estimated 600 murders to its name, Nuestra Familia had wandered far from its radical political roots. Armando’s father says that there was “a lot of drug dealing to support the cause, and the money thing came in. There was greed.”

The “money thing” is based on drug dealing, robberies and more recently, credit card and counterfeiting scams. One goal of the gang has been to control the illegal methamphetamine trade in California’s farming towns. There, in seedy districts and alleyways, youngsters sell dope and extort payments from other drug dealers, and if necessary, carry out “hits” against those who don’t pay. Twenty percent of the profit is supposed to be sent up to secret NF “banks,” ultimately financing TV sets, stereos, family support and other luxuries for the gang’s leaders in Pelican Bay.

“That’s the mentality of the NF. Don’t do it, get someone else to do it,” says Willie Stokes, a Salinas NF associate who has dropped out of the gang. “Go get these youngsters — you see their willingness to do things — so go get them, school them … . Show them some love, some false sense of love. And they’re going to do it.”

Armando was one of the youngsters, willing to do anything, always up for action. In 2000, he was back in the streets. On June 17, there was a drive-by shooting. Salinas police were asking questions at a victim’s house when a young man brazenly walked up to the residence with a shotgun and fired into it. Police believe it was Armando – he says it wasn’t him. Officers chased the assailant until he ran inside a nearby house. They called in a SWAT unit to surround the building, and after several hours in a tense late night standoff, his Nuestra Familia boss Robert “Bubba” Hanrahan and two NF associates, Sophia Rocha and Gabe Caracheo surrendered. By morning, Armando had passed out from drinking and says he didn’t realize his friends had surrendered. Hung over, he got up to close the door and heard the police bullhorns outside. He says he put his shoes on, chugged one more beer and was the last to step through the doorway with hands raised.

The shotgun was found in the backyard, but police could never prove who did the shooting. Armando and the others were sent back to prison for parole violations.

Lil Mando in his gangbanging days
photo, Armando Frías


When he was younger, Armando enjoyed kicking back to the mellow sound of reggae music: Steel Pulse, Eek-A-Mouse, or Bob Marley softly wailing, “Good friends we have lost, along the way…” He was getting older, and had already lost two of his best friends. The first was when he was 14. He and his homeboys were shooting at a border brother, and his best friend got hit by a bullet. The police and his friend’s family believed Armando was the one who accidentally fired the killing shot. Then his friend Vincent Sanchez was coldly murdered by his own Nuestra Familia homeboys because Vincent had refused to shoot a drug dealer for the gang. His body was found alongside a mountain highway.

But his grandfather’s death brought an even bigger shock, though. “When he died it messed me up,” he says. “I had barely turned 18. I had talked to him on the phone, told him that I loved him, and he started crying. A lot of us were locked up. My aunts, cousins were locked up. He felt good that I told him that.”

But when Armando paroled, he finally learned a family secret: His grandfather, whom he had known and loved, was not really his father’s father. “I took off. I was thinking about how it ain’t something you wanna hear.”

“It was one thing that had to do with me not caring anymore,”he says. After that, Armando says, he got harder. Colder.

He lost his ability to cry. “I wish I could, but I can’t,” he says.

But in the rare moments he wandered outside the battle zones – the prisons and the seedy streets where he sold drugs near the train tracks late at night – Armando was a different person. At home, which was often a cheap motel room in Salinas, he was gentle and affectionate with his girlfriend and son. He loved his family, especially his father. He was polite and considerate to old people and women. He laughed easily, and was quick to light up conversations with a huge, sunny smile. He was still a teenager who could brighten letters to friends with drawings of goofy cartoon faces.

It had been a long journey for a gentle child who didn’t like to fight to becoming a man who in an instant could slash an enemy’s face with a razor.

Like a well-trained soldier, Armando just didn’t feel anything at all when he hurt an enemy of the cause. He was numb to all that, and he never had nightmares.

He had become a full-time gangster, muscular and well schooled in fighting. He knew how to construct prison weapons such as miniature “tomahawk” razors and knives out of nothing more than magazine pages and water. He knew how to use all kinds of guns, from SKS semiautomatic rifles to 9mms. His 1989 Camero was red – the Norteño color –and now its stereo boomed out the harsh lyrics of an underground rap CD that was selling all over Northern Cali, called “Generations of United Norteños.” Songs like “Scrap Killa” and “Pinta Bound” filled his brain.

The CD had been funded in 1998 from Pelican Bay prison by the top Nuestra Familia general, Gerald “Cuete” Rubalcaba. The idea was that rap music could unite and galvanize young Norteño soldiers across the state, and it did. Thousands bought the album in the major record chains like Sam Goody’s. The CD’s producer, Nuestra Familia member Robert Gratton, says he made more than $100,000 from the album and its sequel, “Cuete,” which bore the black and red Nuestra Raza eagle on its cover.

To a new generation living in cities like Salinas, that “huelga” eagle — a black Aztec-style bird against a red background — no longer represents the United Farm Workers, the union started by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta. Here, the eagle has become a symbol of Norteño gangs. To some, the águila tattoo even means its bearer has killed for the cause.

César Chávez’s granddaughter, Teresa Chávez Delgado, also has a tattoo of the farm workers’ Aztec-style eagle, which she wears in honor of her grandfather and his struggle. She gets infuriated when she hears about young gangbangers co-opting the union’s image, especially considering that Chávez espoused nonviolence as the only lasting way to fight injustice. “They don’t know anything about my grandfather’s history,” she says.

But to Armando, Chávez is still a hero. “If you look at the history—he wanted equality, he wanted respect. It was just a different situation,” Armando says. “I respect him as a person. He didn’t bow down. He didn’t let nothing get in his way.”

Armando in Salinas jail
photo, Janjaap Dekker



During his loneliest times, Armando came up with a mantra for his own survival: “It’s easier to hate than to love.”

Now back in jail, he repeats the line stoically, making himself believe it. But his history, like that of the farmeros, is more complex than that cynical statement. Watching a video of his son’s third birthday, he forgets his shackled wrists and the pale yellow cinderblock walls, and he smiles – almost cries – at his son’s face laughing in the frame.

Strangely – sadly – words that Chávez spoke long ago in Salinas now sound like a warning for Norteños of Armando’s generation, the lost sons of Chávez: “You can’t correct injustices,” he admonished, “because somehow, you have not yet realized that the power of nonviolence is really nothing more than love.”

In 2001, Armando Tizok Frias made the highest sacrifice for the cause. He committed murder for Nuestra Familia, and for that act, came to face life in prison. Hating, it turns out, is not that easy.

Additional reporting for this series by Nada Behziz, Justin Kane, David Montero, Michael Chandler, Marlena Telvick, Mara Reynolds, Oriana Zill de Granados and students from Lowell Bergman’s investigative reporting seminar at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

© 2003 El Andar Magazine