Al Valdez was looking for sprinkler parts at a discount store when he sensed somebody was watching him.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a security guard peeking at him from the next aisle. Valdez had run to the store after working in his yard and was wearing grubby gardening clothes. “I looked like a homeless person,” he says. “When I walked in, two women who greet customers in the front looked at me and turned their backs.”
Suspecting that they’d profiled him as a shoplifter, Valdez decided to have a little fun. He strolled over to the jewelry counter, lingering over the necklaces. A nervous clerk edged away.
“Then I went home, took a shower, shaved and put on a suit,” Valdez recalls. “I returned to the store, and nobody recognized me. The ladies at the entrance welcomed me. The clerks were attentive.” No security guards tailed him.
He tells this story in his “Introduction to Gangs” class at UC Irvine because it underscores the power of stereotypes based on clothing. Valdez understands that power better than most: By changing clothes, he was able to infiltrate street gangs while working as an undercover police officer, gaining an inside look at how they operate.
Today, clad in his usual impeccable suit and tie, Valdez, a UCI alumnus, teaches college students, law enforcement officials, attorneys, probation officers and others about gangs — their history, hidden culture and practices.
Before retiring from the Orange County district attorney’s office as gang unit supervisor in 2006, Valdez spent almost 30 years in law enforcement conducting narcotic and criminal investigations. His wardrobe, demeanor and quick wit gave him entree into a dangerous world, though at times he feared the bad guys would see through his disguise.
“I’ve been scared out of my wits,” he says. “When someone puts a shotgun in your gut and says, ‘You’re going to die,’ that’s scary. When someone holds a knife to your throat, that’s scary.”
Valdez has studied all kinds of gangs — Asian, Hispanic, juvenile and skinhead — as well as tagger crews and transnational outfits.
“American gang culture is being exported through globalization. Technology is helping it spread,” he says. “You see ads for gangsta rap. You see the clothes, the tattoos, the hand signs.”
He’s visited Canada, Mexico and other Central American countries to help officials identify gangs and understand their appeal — how kids from poor, dysfunctional families are drawn in by the money and the allure of belonging, and how getting out is tough because gangs use violence to form tight bonds among members.
“Violence has a cohesive effect. That’s how gangs work,” Valdez says. “The first step to joining a gang is getting beaten up by the other members to see how much pain you can take. And 14- and 15-year-olds make that choice. Unfortunately, the gang becomes their surrogate family.”
Raised by impoverished immigrants in Buena Park, he’s familiar with the pressures that make kids vulnerable to gang seduction.
“We were really poor. I’ve been on my own financially since I was 13,” Valdez says. “I lied on a job application and got a job as a box boy at the supermarket. I put myself through a private high school [Servite in Anaheim] and college.”
At UCI, he earned bachelor’s degrees in biology and chemistry in 1976 and ’77, with the goal of becoming a doctor. But he changed his mind after taking an “Introduction to Law Enforcement” course at Cypress College and becoming a reserve police officer.
“The first time I sat in a squad car with my uniform on and my hand on a shotgun, I felt like I was home,” Valdez says.
He spent almost 10 years with the Anaheim Police Department and then nearly two decades with the Orange County district attorney’s office. In 2001, he was named Investigator of the Year by the California District Attorney Investigators’ Association, and he received the 2005 Academic Achievement Award from the Asian Gang Investigators Association of California.
Valdez credits UCI’s Humanities Core Course — specifically the writing classes he disliked — with helping him succeed. “I got promoted because I wrote good reports,” he says. “I learned to write at UCI.”
In fact, Valdez, who has a doctorate in psychology, has published 12 books on gangs. He’s also been a writer and consultant for newspapers and television, including The History Channel, National Geographic Channel and Fox News. After retiring from police work, Valdez returned to UCI as a social sciences lecturer. In addition, he chairs Westwood College’s School of Justice in Anaheim.
“Al is an incredible lecturer. He educates and entertains his students,” says Caesar Sereseres, associate dean of undergraduate studies in UCI’s School of Social Sciences. “He’s both an academic and a teacher revered by his students, and he has the experience of working with gangs. He has everything you want in a professor.”
A gifted storyteller, Valdez loves regaling students with tales about his cop days and family. He met his wife of 25 years, whom he calls “my bride,” when she was working as an emergency-room nurse at an Anaheim hospital. “I had my fingers severed in a narcotics raid, and she helped sew them up,” Valdez says with a laugh.
His experience on the streets also helps him stay calm in the classroom.
“As a cop, you develop a certain amount of resilience,” he says. “You don’t know what stress is unless you’ve had someone die in your arms, or you’ve had to hold a gun to someone’s head not knowing if you’ll have to pull the trigger. Otherwise, it’s a cakewalk.”
Originally published in ZotZine Vol. 4, Iss. 5