UTM’s assistant sociology professor Randol Contreras didn’t always view academia with high regard. Originally from the South Bronx area, Contreras grew up where the growing drug trade tempted many, as it seemed to be the easier route to becoming rich.

“I got bombarded with all these images while I was growing up—television advertisements with the luxury cars, I was watching the shows with the featured big yachts, and then became socialized into thinking this is what I should want,” Contreras said.

Contreras wanted to achieve the overall American dream, comprising of a “big house, fancy car, and lots of expensive things.” He witnessed some of his family members and friends attain the American dream with the help of the flourishing crack era. This is what he thought would bring him happiness when he first started selling crack cocaine.

Unfortunately, Contreras was not particularly successful in the drug dealing business.

“Drug dealing is hard; I mean [it’s] a misconception that it’s the easy way out,” Contreras said.

He was struggling—but luckily, his friend came to him with life-changing advice, bringing him an application for community college.

“I have a friend who saw the path I was headed in and she didn’t want me to end up in prison,” he said.

This was the beginning of his academic journey. Contreras was fascinated by the study of sociology, as this was the one subject that helped him gain a deeper understanding of his life within the South Bronx.

“A lot of times you sort of just fall into the subject—you sort of see a fit between the way you see the world and the way the material explains the world,” he said. “I just loved sociology in the sense that it explained how people become who they are.”

He considered the larger political, economic, and communal forces to comprehend why the people in his life were making certain decisions. This passion led Contreras to pursue a Bachelor’s degree after his completion of community college.

While attending school, he still lived in the South Bronx and kept in touch with his neighbourhood. As Contreras continued to pursue an academic path, his friends sank deeper into the drug market, and would say that he was “losing it” every time he stumbled over seeing crack. However, his educational background resulted in him being the negotiator whenever his friends argued over politics or sports.

“When I first got to grad school, a lot of the students and professors came from upper middle class backgrounds, so we didn’t share much in terms of experiences,” he said. He still belonged with his South Bronx community—however, he had to familiarize himself with the whole graduate school environment. During the 1990s, the Mexican Mafia (La Eme) exerted their authority over all the other Mexican gangs in Southern California. This prison gang was able to enforce their rules on the streets.

“If you didn’t listen to them, they would kill you once you reached prison,” said Contreras.

The Mexican Mafia operates within the prison system, and some members get released at times, but eventually end up back in jail.

“If one gang is selling drugs, you have to pay their gang a drug tax. If you don’t pay them a drug tax, they put a green light on your gang, which means all the other gangs in Southern California have to attack that gang on sight.”

His current research involves the Mexican gangs of East Los Angeles, known as the Maravilla. The study here is tougher than it was in the South Bronx. Contreras doesn’t have the same access to information, given that he’s not from the local neighborhood. The gang members don’t trust him.

“One of the guys that trusts me says that sometimes the others don’t trust me, and think I’m [a part of] law enforcement,” he said.

Contreras shaves his hair to make sure he doesn’t blend in with the African Americans who are the Maravilla’s rivals. The rivalry between the African Americans and Mexican Mafia is based on racism and the need to overpower the other in the drug business. There have been strict rules enforced by the Mexican prison gang that no member can associate with the African Americans.

These rules are placed “to create this hatred towards them, so it makes it easier for the Mexicans to attack them on sight and mark their territory with the drug business,” said Contreras.

Contreras has used his past connections to explain life towards criminality.

“If some of these individuals were born under different conditions, they could have [succeeded] far in life,” Contreras said. He added that it becomes hard for the individual to re-integrate back into society once stripped of basic rights. “They call it having the mark of the criminal.”

Contreras often does not recommend students work on ethnographic crime.

“It’s dangerous work, especially if you don’t come from the community you’re studying,” he said.

“Before, I saw the world through the individual, like we just make choices. [But] sociology taught me that those choices are shaped. Is everyone who grows up in that environment going to be a drug dealer? No. But it increases the chances that someone will.”