Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Criminal Justice


David C. Brotherton

Committee Members

Henry Pontell

David Green

Jonathan Simon

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences


Mexican/Chicano gangs, social resurrection, colonial-carceral governance, resistance, radicalized dehumanization


Every year in the early month of August, the city of Santa Barbara, California hosts "Old Spanish Days Fiesta," an annual eight-day festival "celebration" of its American Indian, Spanish, Mexican, and early American settlers, that is the core makeup of the cultural heritage of the city. Amidst Santa Barbara's overwhelmingly white and affluent community partaking in this annual festival is an often-overlooked population of Mexicans/Chicanxs. To assuage any (white) racial anxieties surrounding the mere presence of Mexican/Chicano gang members, many Mexican/Chicano boys and men are locked up weeks before the event. Resultantly, those of the Mexican/Chicanx community often refer to Santa Barbara as "Santa Bruta," where "bruta" is loosely translated as holy dumb, raw, crude, and brutal. I argue that the Mexican/Chicanx community's and gang members' reference to the city as "bruta" is indicative of their linking of how historical practices of racialized dehumanization through the European and American colonial conquest continue to play a defining role in the contemporary experiences of Native and Mexican/Chicanx peoples and the racialized infrastructure governing the social and material conditions that Mexican/Chicano gang members must negotiate. Most gang studies conducted primarily in large urban cities neglect to acknowledge and examine the relationship to and with colonialism and how it impacts the lives of gang members. Colonial-carceral governance, I argue, cannot be understood outside of settler-colonial history, and the case of Santa Barbara makes clear that racial violence is a constitutive element of gang suppression. Thus, my study is an ethnographic examination of the historical development of neo-settler-colonial-carceral governance of Mexican/Chicano gang members in Santa Barbara. At the heart of my theoretical framings is a thematic convergence of settler colonialism, decolonial theory, critical gang and carceral studies, and urban ethnography. My work contributes to filling a crucial void in both critical gang and carceral studies.

This dissertation asks 1) How do the legacies of colonial constructions of race reappear in the racialization and criminalization of Mexican/Chicano gang members? 2) How can we understand Mexican/Chicano gang members' cultural infrapolitical practices, such as tattooing (inside and outside of prison), as a politics of refusal against their ontological subordination and elimination? 3) How do Mexican/Chicano gang members use their bodies as archival sites to preserve, question, and validate colonial domination and resistance through tattooing? To answer these questions, I employ multiple qualitative methods: participant observations, conversational analysis of prison letters, historical and cultural analysis of Santa Barbara and Mexican/Chicano culture, visual sociology, and urban ethnography. This study aims to unmask the relationship between histories of Native and Indigenous elimination and generations of Mexican immigrant exclusion to contemporary responses to Santa Barbara's "gang problem” (i.e., “Mexican Problem”) to provide crucial insight into the ways that race continues to serve as an articulating principle to the forces of domination and resistance. I argue that the policing of Mexican/Chicano gang members and the everyday practices of agency and resistance these young men have developed illuminate how ontological processes of racialized dehumanization and subordination of colonial/racial subjects are exercised, contested, and lived. Thus, Santa Barbara serves as a unique suburban site to understand better how its settler-colonial history shapes and influences the racialization, settleization, incarceration, and criminalization of Mexican/Chicano gang members. Ultimately, Santa Bruta-Home of El Indio Muerto is a chronicle of La Bruta's failure to contain, tame and/or eliminate the "Mexican Problem" and Mexican/Chicano gang members' politics of refusal to submit to colonial-carceral governance aimed at their submission and social/premature death.

This work is embargoed and will be available for download on Monday, September 30, 2024

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