Former ‘Latin Queen’ gang leader Mariah Oliver: ‘The prison system is set up to privilege men’

In a new book, the first Spanish ‘queen’ of a Latino gang narrates her experience as leader and her long journey through the judicial system until her release

Mariah Oliver in a photo provided by her publisher
Mariah Oliver in a photo provided by her publisher.Cortesía

“On April 3, I finally had my record expunged,” says Mariah Oliver. For almost two decades, this native of Madrid experienced firsthand the stigma of being arrested, being put through the judicial system, entering prison and trying to rebuild her life after her release. “I got the whole package: pretrial detention, solitary confinement, trial, sentenced to two years in prison … .” Raised in a middle-class family, Mariah was an idealistic young woman, concerned about racism and other social injustices. After her parents’ divorce, she sought emotional support from her neighborhood friends, some of whom were part of the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation. Popularly known as the Latin Kings, the group was born in the U.S. Latino community and, like other groups such as the Black Panthers, sought to create support networks among its members. “They call them Latin gangs, but in reality they are originally from the United States and a direct result of how that society treats minorities like Latinos,” Mariah points out.

Attracted by the group’s social work, Oliver became increasingly integrated into the gang until she became the first non-Latin, or rather, non-Latin American-born queen in 2000. Although many members doubted that the group’s rules would allow a Spanish woman to hold the position, Mariah presented an argument on the etymology and use of the Latin term based on specialized literature, which earned her the position.

As head of the queens, Mariah fought for the rights of her female colleagues suffered inequality with regard to the men in the gang. Unlike their male counterparts, the women had to return home early. They were banned from certain entertainment, they could not dress suggestively and, after a breakup, they were obliged to wait a certain amount of time before starting a new relationship, out of respect for the male party. Meanwhile, the men were not under the same obligation. In addition, Mariah ensured that the girls attended school, got good grades, and made sure they were careful if they used drugs or drank alcohol. She even introduced herself to their parents so they knew their daughters were with her and did not worry about their safety.

“Not all groups are the same and not all have that same philosophy or that same discipline to carry it out. In my case, the Latin Kings and Queens did, and that was what I wanted to implement when I was in charge,” admits Mariah, who does not deny that things changed over time. “When groups are formed to fight racism or capitalism, the goal is so difficult. It’s very hard to win. While trying, some members of the group begin to mark territory within the neighborhood, to play the hard man and, little by little, all that begins to attract them more than the idealistic part. Instant gratification plays against gangs and against the education of boys and teenagers in general who think: ‘I don’t know when we are going to get the system to stop being racist, but I do know that if four of us get together and become owners of this nightclub, all the girls will want to be with us.’ Changing the here-and-now is easier to achieve than the alternative.”

Public alarm

In the early 2000s, Latin gangs were all the rage thanks to the morning TV shows (among other things). They dedicated a great deal of their programs to spouting all kinds of details about gangs on a daily basis, and they spiced up the information with large doses of sensationalism.

“While it is true that gangs have a violent side, it is also true that they have a social side. However, this other part was hardly talked about or, when it was, it did not get through. What was really pervasive was the stereotyped, two-dimensional version projected by those programs that were always talking about how the gangs dressed, what colors they wore, what the symbols gang members used ... . It was a situation that was very similar to 30 or 40 years ago, when people were talking about Nazis and anti-fascists in Madrid and everything was reduced to: ‘How to recognize a Nazi and an antifascist.’ And then they would start talking, not about ideological differences, but about the clothes and the brand of sneakers they wore,” recalls Mariah, who would soon suffer all that public alarm in person.

In 2006, the leader of the Latin Kings was arrested and indicted for rape and robbery. Although these were common crimes, the fact that she belonged to a Latino gang led the authorities to start investigating Mariah, and she ended up being arrested in a supermarket while she was shopping. Following this, her home was searched and she was kept in custody until trial on a criminal conspiracy charge, which the indictment argued was based on public alarm over Latin gangs.

After serving her time and rebuilding her life, Mariah Oliver has decided to tell her story in Latin Queen: Ascenso, caída y renacer desde el corazón de una banda (Sine Qua Non, 2023). Beyond narrating her experience as leader of the Latin Queens and her experience with the Spanish judicial system, the book reflects on the inequalities suffered by women in their daily lives, especially when they are in the custody of the prison authorities.

“What goes on inside the prison is of no interest to anyone. That is why it is very difficult to get the message across, even more so in the case of women, who suffer the added punishment that the entire prison system is set up to privilege men. Although they make up the majority of the prison population, no one has bothered to adapt the prison system to the reality of women. Women and men both receive the same amount of toilet paper, regardless of whether we use more. The same is true for reintegration processes within the prison. When I was there, I saw many women asking for a course in carpentry, plumbing or computers because those have more job opportunities. However, year after year, what we got was a course on sewing and another on cooking. As if this were not enough, when you have a prominent male prisoner to protect, he is sent to a women’s prison and not a men’s prison. In those cases, all the necessary arrangements are made, even if it’s only for a few months, because these people don’t usually spend a lot of time in prison,” reflects Mariah Oliver, who observed how this patriarchy permeated prison life to unimaginable extremes.

“Inside the prison I encountered the machitos, which is the term we used to refer to women who take on a male role to impose themselves on the other inmates. That says a lot about who you are, what your environment has been and what patriarchal figures you have grown up with. It is really surprising that they consider that the only valid form of authority in a female environment is that which comes from a man or a male figure.”

Latin Queen book by Mariah Oliver
The cover of Oliver’s book ‘Latin Queen.’ Cortesía

Social rehabilitation

“What do we want the people we temporarily remove from society to be like when they go back out on the street? What kind of person do we want to return from prison knowing that they will continue to be our neighbor, our co-worker ... ,” asks Mariah before setting out one of the main problems of the Spanish criminal justice system: rehabilitation.

“There is usually a lot of talk about the [Spanish] Constitution and the legality on which punishments are based, but the same Constitution that talks about punishments also talks about reintegration into society. However, despite being a state obligation, it is not being fulfilled because there are no means to work (inside and outside prison) with people deprived of their freedom,” says Oliver. In her case, she did manage to rebuild her life and reintegrate into society. In addition to her university studies and being a mother, the former leader of the Latin Queens works on projects to prevent teenagers from joining gangs and to integrate these groups into society through legal channels, such as converting them into cultural associations.

“When you give social recognition to a group of this type, the collective itself ends up functioning as a filter so that violent elements don’t get into it and damage the good reputation that the groups are building for themselves. The problem is that, while regions such as Catalonia or Valencia have trusted in these methods and allowed groups to become cultural associations, others, such as Madrid, haven’t given us any choice but to go from home to the street and from the street to the courts. The result is that, while in those places the situation has been brought under control, in Madrid we still have a major gang problem,” explains Mariah, whose main concern continues to be the girls who are attracted to gangs.

“I think it is very important to work on prevention from the final years of middle school and the first years of high school with programs adapted to the different ages and with a focus especially on girls. In a difficult time like their teenage years, they must be able to maintain their self-esteem and have sufficient critical thinking ability so that they do not have a romanticized view of gangs. We must get to them before the girls become subordinate to the boys in the gangs. And they must understand that the problems that women in these groups have originate not so much in the organization itself but in the patriarchy and the upbringing they have received. If we were to develop coeducation and prevention tasks, we would prevent girls from being attracted to these groups and, especially, to this romantic idea of ‘I’m going to fall in love with the bad boy and I’m going to get him to stop being bad.’ Although the patriarchy and society tells us that this is the role that we as women should have, we have to stop accepting this burden that we put on our own backs.”

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