Why the Nike Cortez Became One of MS-13’s Most Identifiable Hallmarks
Founded in the 1980s, MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) was originally set up to protect Salvadoran immigrants from rival gangs in the Los Angeles area. Spreading throughout Central America, Canada and Mexico, MS-13 established a notorious reputation for its ruthless recruitment techniques and violence. Gerardo Lopez was just 14 when he joined MS-13 in Koreatown, L.A. In this essay, Lopez describes the initial appeal of joining the gang, its devastating pitfalls, and why the Nike Cortez became one of MS-13’s most identifiable hallmarks.
I grew up in Los Angeles in a neighbourhood called Koreatown. There were a lot of different ethnic groups – Asian, Mexican, people from North America and Central America. I grew up in a single-family household with my mum. I started playing baseball in Koreatown, but the government funding literally dried up for the parks, so it was pretty much baseball fields without grass. It was just dirt fields. We’d find broken 40-ounce beer bottles, gang members hanging out, people doing drugs.
I would get bullied by the MS-13 gang members. I remember when they robbed me for a jacket when I was a kid. I couldn’t hang around in the neighbourhood. My little brother, and friends that I grew up with playing baseball, couldn’t hang around in the neighbourhood either. We always had to take backroads. We’d jump through different buildings to get away from MS-13, but then we’d run into different gangs, and they would bully us in a similar way. It was just the life of the neighbourhood. We’d hear gunshots and police helicopters flying around when we were kids just trying to do our homework.
There was a time when I got tired of being bullied. I figured, ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be part of it. But, like many relationships, you start to fall in love. You’re ready to die for that relationship. I received a level of respect by being with MS-13. Still, when rival gangs found out, I became a big target on their hit list. I remember seeing people get shot at when I was a kid. Now it was me being shot at directly. Now I was the one hiding behind a dumpster just trying to stay alive.
I threw myself into the violence. I threw myself into my relationship with MS-13. We fought with a lot of other gang members to protect our territory. We hung around the street corners. We felt that it was our territory, and that we were going to protect it, and were willing to die for it. We’d get drunk, get high, listen to music and tell stories about being locked up. It was about building a camaraderie with each other. That is the culture within any gang. Kids became involved in MS-13 because they were in search of an identity. It was all about respect, power and pride.
Every gang in L.A. wore the Nike Cortez. Whether you were African American or Central American or Mexican. The Nike Cortez was popular because they looked intimidating when you saw them. They cost around $25 or $30 as well, so they were cheap and we could afford them. We’d wear them with baggy pants and the Ben Davis shirts. We’d get the pants for like $15. The Ben Davis shirt or flannel was another $15 or $20. Then you’d have the blue bandana or shaved head. It all went with the style. Back then, if you wore a Nike Cortez, you were in a gang. The police in L.A. could easily identify you because of your sneakers.
If you were wearing the Cortez, and a gang member hit you up asking where you were from and you told them ‘nowhere’, you’d probably get beat up because no one would believe you. They even banned them in schools in the early 1990s because they were deemed ‘gang-related’. I know a lot of people that were shot and killed over the Cortez. It was also during this time that a lot of people started getting deported and going to El Salvador. That’s when the Cortez became popular over there.
I remember being locked up in Central Juvenile Hall when I was 15. Almost every gang member was wearing the Nike Cortez. You either had the black one with the white stripe, or the white leather ones with the black stripe. When you were visited by friends and family, the only sneaker that you were asking them for was the Cortez.
When you took away the old, beat-up pairs of the Cortez, you still had tattoos to identify which gang you were from. It was like, ‘Okay, you know I’m from this gang and I know you’re from that gang. Let’s fight.’ I started learning how to fight. Learning how to win. We fought in broom rooms, laundry rooms, bathrooms. Every time I fought, I got that respect. I was doing 500 push-ups and 500 sit-ups in my cell every day.
Every time I fought, they’d add a month or two to my sentence. When staff asked us why we had a black eye, we’d tell them that we fell from the bunk. I ended up at California Youth Authority, which was nicknamed Gladiator School. I started getting more time added to my sentence, and I was like, ‘Is this going to be my life right here, just fighting and fighting?’ Every time they transferred me to a new facility, I had to prove myself all over again. It just became another day at the office. Like putting on your Nike Cortez every morning. It was like the movie Groundhog Day.
When I got out, I started seeing guys get locked up for murder and getting life in prison. People that I grew up with. People were constantly getting shot and killed. I’m not sure if my mum and grandma had any more tears left to cry for me. Even now, 20 years after leaving the gang, mum doesn’t want me visiting L.A. She has PTSD from all the pain and trauma I inflicted. We started seeing the families of other rival gangs like 18th Street. Their families were crying just like our families were crying. They went to the same funerals. They had homeboys and homegirls killed, too.
Then I met Alex Sanchez. He started this group called Homies Unidos, a gang intervention program. The late senator Tom Hayden would attend the group. He was married to Jane Fonda. They took us out of that four-mile radius of our neighbourhood. They took us to restaurants and events. We started to express ourselves without using drugs and violence. We found new ways to express respect, power and pride.
These days, L.A. gang violence has plummeted. You’re starting to see the Cortez come back into style. It’s safe to wear again. Nobody is going to jump on you for wearing the sneaker. You’ve got people from all walks of life wearing the Cortez.
Now, the Cortez just signifies L.A. culture, and that’s why we’re wearing it.