A rivalry between the northern and southern Chicano gangs has been going on for decades. By the 1960s, the conflict had begun to show itself inside the walls of California penal institutions (CA Dept. of Corrections/CDC) where the inmates affiliated with La Eme, most of whom hailed from East L. A. and Southern California, had begun to alienate and disrespect Eme dropouts, rejects, and other Chicano inmates from Northern California. Members of La Eme, who had formed in the Deuel Vocational Institution in order to unify and protect the Chicano inmate population, now looked down on their northern brothers. Despite a number of large, industrious cities in Northern California, Eme members and associates began referring to them as “Farmeros”, “Sodbusters”, and other derogatory references to the Northern California agricultural industry. The Northern Mexicans found themselves being treated as inferior beings; second-class citizens who were not worthy of the respect or protection of their southern counterparts. After several early acts of disrespect against non-EME members the fires of resentment had been lit. An incident in September of 1968 (at San Quentin Prison) would ignite a level of hatred, rivalry, and violence between the North and South that rose to great intensity and it shows no signs of fading more than four decades later.
By the mid-1970s, Norteño inmates commonly used the letter "N" to symbolize their allegiance to the North, since "N" is the 14th letter (XIV) of the alphabet. The gangs also chose colors as a form of representation. Years before the Crips and Bloods wore bandannas around their heads and hung them from their pockets, the state prison system gave inmates either blue or red bandannas to wipe away sweat and dirt during periods of manual labor. In 1984 as a result of the EME War in Folsom State Prison, members of Nuestra Familia also began to wear the color red as a sign of affiliation or membership (they also created the Northern Structure also known as Nuestra Raza). Most La Eme members had adopted the color blue, as worn by the Los Angeles Dodgers, at around the same time. Later on, the Sureños in general also adopted the practice of wearing blue. Aside from their chosen color, the Norteños also adopted the symbols of the United Farm Workers and Cesar Chavez whose UFW flag background also happened to be red.
Today, Norteño members represent their affiliation with a wide variety of clothing and symbols. In many areas of the west and northwest, gang members wear San Francisco 49ers gear. In the Midwest and on the East Coast, Norteño gang members commonly wear Nebraska jerseys, shirts and hats. In parts of the southwest and other areas, the gang members may wear University of Nevada – Las Vegas (UNLV) gear, which they claim represents the phrase “Us Norteños Love Violence”. In Northern California’s Bay Area, Norteño gang members often use light blue and North Carolina clothing – representing Norteño Control (NC) – as a means to confuse the police and undermine California’s 186.22 PC Street Terrorism Gang Act; a law that could cause them to face enhanced sentences for certain crimes if they were documented as gang members. Another non-verbal identifier for the Nortenos in the past has been the Mongolian hairstyle (a top knot or ponytail growing from the top/back portion of the head). This came out of CDC and was adopted on the street. In some Northern Cal jurisdictions, law enforcement was able to educate the judges that this was another non-verbal self-admission by gang members of their Norteno affiliation/membership.
There is a homegrown prison gang called the Norteño Bigg Doggs (NBD), that is independent from California ideologies, and is made up of Norteño inmates most of whom were born or grew up in Washington State. Norteños are found in most of the Western part of the United States, including Eastern Washington State and especially in Yakima County, but are not as wide spread across the entire U.S. as the Sureños are. They consider themselves to be more selective and claim to go for quality over quantity.