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
Marqueta tattoos, with the Raza eagle
photo, Salinas Police
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.
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
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”
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.
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
“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
|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
“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,”
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
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
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
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