James Vigil, a professor in UCI’s Department of Criminology, Law and Society and a well-known author was born and raised in downtown Los Angeles. As a kid growing up there in the 1940s and a teenager in the 1950s, the temptation of becoming a gang member was great.
These temptations strengthened following his run-ins with two gangs, the 32nd Street and 39th Street gangs, which still exist today.
‘A lot of guys I knew in elementary school and junior high and high school were getting involved in street gangs at that time period.’
Two programs that helped keep Vigil out of the gang scene was the Santo Nino Community Center and the Catholic Youth Organization. These programs consisted of recreational activities that helped keep kids off the street. Vigil claims that it was these two programs that kept him from getting into trouble.
‘They sort of stole time away from me, and I have always appreciated that.’
Still, the programs were not as successful in keeping his friends out of gangs. It was their involvement in gangs that sparked Vigil’s interest in law enforcement. While he did not consider his friends to be bad, he did think that they were acting stupidly. He decided that if he could understand them, he could help guide them down the right path.
‘They were just young kids, doing stupid stuff, trying to act bad. If I could become a juvenile delinquent cop, I could help steer these guys in the right direction.’
Vigil set out to accomplish this dream. In high school he joined the Law Enforcement Club of America. Upon entering college, he changed his focus and majored in physical education to become a teacher. He eventually taught social studies and coached football and track at the high school level. By the mid-1960s, Vigil decided to take an active part in the Civil Rights Movement and the war on poverty. His actions rekindled an early dream.
‘Getting involved in the Civil Rights Movement and working with kids, gang kids, reignited my early interest of doing something in that area.’
Vigil decided to go back to school to earn a higher degree. He initially majored in history, but soon changed his focus to anthropology, specifically, urban anthropology. By the 1970s, he received his M.A. in history and anthropology and his Ph.D. in anthropology.
‘With hard work and going to school, I eventually chipped away at a higher degree.’
After leaving his high school teaching job, he taught at a community college for 10 years, wrote his first book, worked at USC for 14 years, then transferred to the University of Wisconsin, Madison to begin a Chicano Studies Program. As soon as the program had a firm foundation, he went back to USC to teach, which led to his six-year stint at UCLA. His final job location prior to coming to UCI was Harvard, where he acted as a visiting professor for the Graduate School of Education for about a year.
Vigil attributed a part of his decision to come to UCI to Orange County life.
‘[I like] the quality of life, and I am a beach guy.’
He also felt UCI was the prime location to continue studying the subject of his passion.
‘[UCI] has the largest concentration of gang researchers in the world.’
Although he is an anthropologist and not a criminologist, he received the job at UCI because the Department of Criminology needed an individual who works with the urban youth sub-cultures. His current topics of expertise include urban psychology, socialization and educational anthropology, urban poverty, sociocultural change, Mexico and U.S. Southwest ethnohistory and comparative ethnicity.
In addition to teaching, Vigil has had four books published and is working on a fifth. His books include ‘From Indians to Chicanos: The Dynamics of Mexican American Culture,’ ‘Personas Mexicanas: Chicano High Schoolers in a Changing Los Angeles,’ ‘Barrio Gangs: Street Life and Identity in Southern California’ and ‘A Rainbow of Gangs: A Cross-Cultural Study Street Youth in Los Angeles.’
The book he is working on now focuses on a housing project that took place over the course of four years. It is his hope that it will be published in the year 2005.
‘I have all the confidence in the world that it will be accepted and published.’
Along with the publication of his books, he has received awards from the Western Society of Criminology, the American Political Science Association and the Latino Literary Hall of Fame. His work has been recognized by top experts, nationally and internationally, and he is up for three awards at an anthropology meeting this upcoming fall in Chicago.
‘I am really proud of my work and my effort. I reached a plateau that I never thought I would reach. Mostly I’m happy because I have seven healthy children that are very productive.’
Vigil sees a future of teaching and even more books in the years ahead.
‘I see myself continuing to teach, and perhaps within the next few years retire and teach just one or two courses a year, and concentrate more fully on writing. I have three or four more books to write.’
His credentials also include a position of director for the Center for the Study of Urban Poverty, chairman for The National Center for Gang Policy and director of Ethnic Studies for USC.
Filed Under: Features