Photograph: Nuestra Familia Original Members

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This episode of Perplex News will profile the early years of one of the Big Four California prison gangs, La Nuestra Familia.  The NF, formed at Soledad Prison in 1965, is the 2nd United States prison gang to come into existence. 

During the late 1950’s and into the 60’s the Mexican Mafia had established its dominance on the Big Yards of Folsom and San Quentin and inside the California prison system.  Their strong arm tactics and exploitation of their own also succeeded in alienating many Hispanic convicts who admired them on the one hand yet resented their abuse.  This produced a new group of men who decided to pool their collective talents and resources.

In the beginning, they called themselves La Familia.  Eager to form their own prison gang and get a piece of the black market action, their first wave of members were housed at Soledad State Prison in 1965.  Choosing to initially fly under the radar, the Familia founders were Gonzalo “Chalo” Hernandez from Bakersfield, Fred “Freddie” Gonzales from San Diego, John “Little John” Valdez from Little Valley (in East L.A.), and Bruce “Huero” Morgan from West Side Clanton (in L.A.).  Other members of this first generation included Jesse “Black Jess” Valenzuela from Chiques (in Oxnard) and Robert “Babo” Sosa from Santa Barbara.  There were no members from Northern California during the NF’s first few years of existence.  Like the EME, La Familia’s members understood the only exit from their organization was death.  “Little John” Valdez inherited the title of “Padre” (Spanish for “father”), and became head of La Familia and “Chalo” had the rank of “Mijo” (Spanish slang for “son”).  When Little John paroled in 1967, Chalo became the Padre and Freddie moved up to Mijo, second in command.

Because another Hispanic gang in Arizona was also called La Familia, they decided to change their name to La Nuestra Familia Mexicana and later shortened it to Nuestra Familia, which means Our Family in Spanish.  In the next couple years these men would reunite at San Quentin where the Mexican Mafia was in power and controlling the Yard.  Other NF members to join at San Quentin included John “Lips” Valdez from Big Bassett, Robert “Daira” Medina from San Fernando, Ray Gonzales from Toonerville, Frank “Joker” Mendoza from Redondo, and Alfred “Pansas” Lopez from Little Valley, all from long time Los Angeles street gangs.  “Death Row” Joe Gonzales from Chiques and “Pretty Rudy” Perez from Clanton also joined.  The first Northern California member to join was Robert “Black Bob” Vasquez from Gilroy, recruited in San Quentin.  Others would follow.

The Nuestra Familia’s formal introduction to San Quentin took place after EME members had murdered a Maravilla inmate and stabbed two Hispanic inmates, one from Bakersfield, another from San Jose.  With the anti-EME climate simmering, a handful of NF members joined Mexican-American convicts from Maravilla, Texas, Southern California and Northern California in several guerrilla-style attacks against the remaining EME members in the San Quentin general population and some of their associates.  It was called The Shoe War because the spark which ignited the powder keg originated from a dispute over a pair of shoes.  When the skirmishes ended, the three remaining EME members were removed from the yard – they were stabbed and suffered minor wounds.  Two NF members were also injured and one L.A. gang member, an EME associate named Archie “Cricket” Gallego from the Diamond gang in West L.A. was stabbed to death by Robert “Babo” Sosa, a first wave NF member.

For the next two years at San Quentin, the NF controlled the general population while the EME simmered in the lockup units of B-Section and the Adjustment Center.  Prison administrators understood the delicate dynamics of the EME-NF feud and would not allow EME members on the mainline.  They either remained in lockup units or were transferred to Folsom Prison.  The Nuestra Familia began to recruit new members from the vast pool of convicts at San Quentin.  Marcus “Tarzan” Castañeda from Pomona, James “Jimmy” Martinez from Chino and several more joined their ranks.  As you follow the narration and catch the names and gangs the NF members belonged to, notice the overwhelming majority of Los Angeles plus Southern and Central California neighborhood affiliations I mention inside their ranks.  Rarely do I mention a Northern California city or gang.  That’s because the conflict had nothing to do with any North versus South rivalry at this point and time.  The EME’s mistake was not the alienation of the North as they were very inconsequential in those years.  Their misstep was the abuse and disrespect of the Mexican-American population in general and the specific alienation of many prison inmates from the southern part of the state.

Many historians of the Nuestra Familia and Mexican Mafia also fail to convey adequately some of the early EME movers and shakers who were cold killers from Northern California.  Mike Ison had several prison aliases including “Hatchet Mike,” “Killer Mike,” and “Acha” (Spanish for hatchet).  If you were from a Chicano gang and possessed the criminal resume to be sponsored into La EME, the geographical location of your city of origination didn’t matter.

After the 1968 Shoe War the Nuestra Familia in their recruitment of new members at San Quentin between 1968 and 1970, used the narrative of the big bad EME coming to take your drugs and commissary. The overwhelming number of L.A. gangs kept to their home boys and their fellow Southern California groups of gang members but Northern California convicts did begin to join the NF in large quantities.  This created numbers and the NF membership swelled but their recruiting practices created problems.  “Death Row” Joe Gonzales, one of the Nuestra Familia’s early members who rose in their ranks to a First Captain and author of the NF Constitution, sums it up after his defection.  Referencing the quality control problem the NF was experiencing in 1970, two years after the Shoe War: “Each day that passed, the Familia was losing the respect of the yard as all they were doing was living on a past reputation.  The power of the Familia was being tested all the time.”

Of the prison gang members from the early years, the Big Four excelled well above the general population of inmates they represented.  The Aryan Brotherhood were the elite from the white inmate population and they worked at it hard, separating themselves from any Nazi, biker, or white boy who thought he was a hog; ditto the Black Guerrilla Family, these men dedicated themselves to their cause and carried out their agenda; the Mexican Mafia not only possessed the vast experience and were the pound-for-pound fiercest from the Hispanic population, they had the history of street gang savvy as they spread like a cancer.  The Nuestra Familia of the 60’s and 70’s, although they were the 2nd prison gang in U.S. history to come into existence, was like the new kid on the block.  In many ways they were still learning the ropes, like a younger sibling competing fiercely and trying to emulate his older brother.  Whether you’re playing handball or chess, or jumping into the boxing ring, you always want to go up against someone who is better than you.  The NF was definitely “in the arena” against the best, or in this case I should say, the worst.  But as the years evolved, like that little brother who made his bones, they did learn and learn well they did.

But there would be growing pains along the way.  When the War of 1972 jumped off, there were many Southern and Northern California inmates who were caught up in the fray with many injured and a few killed on both sides.  The big boys were fighting on a different stage.  Speaking only of made members from La EME and the NF, not Southerners, not Northerners, if it appears the Nuestra Familia was on the very short end of the 1972 War it’s because they were and the names and numbers do not lie.  In an 8-month period, ten NF members were stabbed to death in prison, two by the AB and eight by the EME.

In those days, staff members didn’t know the difference in many cases between the true EME and NF members so they combined Southern victims as EME and did likewise with Northern victims.  The non-member casualty rate, mostly non-fatal stabbings, was about equal.  The statistics you are viewing are those of validated “made” members.

In the movie American Me, even Hollywood couldn’t give the Nuestra Familia their proper due.  Edward James Olmos played the character of Mexican Mafia member Cheyenne Cadena.  Near the end, it shows “Cheyenne” surrounded by his EME Carnales.  In this closing scene, he is stabbed to death by his own and his body is thrown off the tier for a Mexican Mafia infraction he committed.  Remember guys, before we get too hard on Mr. Olmos, this was a movie of FICTION.

Here’s the real story:  On December 17, 1972, in the rivalry between the two arch enemies, the NF had their crowning moment inside the Palm Hall Unit at Chino prison.  Rudy “Cheyenne” Cadena was a highly placed Mexican Mafia member, a legend, and a member of the EME’s first wave of Carnales.  On this particular day, he had three choices.  One, remain in his cell and “lock up,” seeking protection from prison authorities in which he would be transferred to a p.c. (protective custody) section.  In effect, such a move would have extracted Cheyenne out of that life for good and he would have salvaged his life; Two, he could refuse to come out and be executed by his EME Carnales for being a coward; Three, face his adversaries and die at the hands of the enemy.  Cheyenne would never choose protective custody; he was not a coward, so he chose the third option.  Like the movie, he was indeed surrounded.  He was beaten, stabbed, and his body was hurled off the 3rd tier and landed on the bottom floor.  In true life, it was the Nuestra Familia who murdered Cheyenne Cadena.  After his body landed on the 1st Tier, he was stabbed several times more by “Tiny” Contreras from San Jose, an NF associate.  Cheyenne would become the only made Mexican Mafia member, even to this day, to be killed by the Nuestra Familia.

With this killing, the NF reached the prison gang version of Mount Everest.  There were two more NF members who were murdered after Cheyenne’s death before the CDC moved to separate the NF and their associates and the EME and their guys from each other, the actual beginning of what would come to be known as the North vs. South – Norteños versus Sureños – the Mexican-American version of the Hatfield’s and the McCoys!  From that point forward the dynamics changed.  The NF was no longer the little brother.  They had earned their way into the circle I like to call the Axis of Evil or The Big Four.  The NF and La EME solidified the prisons they were assigned to and both sides did their internal house cleaning, killing their bad apples and moving on to the streets.  Northern California would become the Nuestra Familia’s stronghold as they began operating at full throttle beginning in 1975.

Fresno, Salinas, Stockton, San Jose, and virtually every city north of Bakersfield became their areas of street control.  Believe it or not, there were many active NF members living in San Diego under Babo Sosa; Pomona, Chino, Azusa, Little Valley, West Side Clanton, Big Bassett, Bakersfield, San Fernando, and many other southern California barrios also had representatives from the NF in the 1970’s.  El Hoyo Maravilla, the East L.A. gang who produced 17 Mexican Mafia members, also had two NF representatives, including Manuel “Menito” Romero.

The NF also recruited a young gang member from Chino named Danny “Pollo” Loza, after he fatally stabbed a new EME recruit named Robert “Fat Cat” Zapata in the San Bernardino County Jail in July 1972.  The stabbing occurred following a personal dispute between the two.  This murder is not included in the final 1972 NF vs. EME death count because it was not connected to the war and Loza was not connected to the NF at that time frame.

After the 1973 wholesale separation of the North and South, Nuestra Familia members who originated from Southern California began to defect.  Some were killed on the streets by Nuestra Familia, some by the EME.  NF member Menito Romero from Hoyo Mara was shot to death by EME’s Robot Salas in his Los Angeles home; NF member Pansas from Little Valley was shot to death by his own NF brothers; The NF began to quickly transform into a Northern California-based organization.  With very few exceptions, their main shot callers were transitioning into members who originated from a Northern California gang or community.

This concludes this episode on the Nuestra Familia.  In the future, we will enjoy a special guest who was a longtime functioning Norteño who became a made member of the Nuestra Familia.  He will contrast the newer generation of Norteños and NF members who arrived on the scene in the end of the 20th Century and will touch on their evolvement into the 21st Century.  Thank you for tuning in.  God bless you.

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