Jim Ott's Blog

This blog is a collection of columns I've written for Bay Area News Group newspapers serving the East San Francisco Bay region.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Former gang member now helps save lives

A slightly different version of this column was published in the Tri-Valley Herald in September 2006. In light of his gang-related past, the young man I interviewed requested that I not use his name or the names of other people in his life. In the original column, I used no names. In the version below, I use fictional names for ease of reading.

Ten years ago when Roberto and his best friend Anthony were 13, they stood together wanting to join a street gang. But to join, they had to fight four young members of the gang.

“We had to endure a two-minute fight without giving up,” Roberto said, asking that his real name remain anonymous. “In my eyes it was worth it. We finally belonged.”

But growing up in Santa Ana, Roberto—now 23—is certain that today he would either be in jail or dead from gang violence.

That is, if not for someone who saved his life.

“For as long as I can remember, I’d always been in some kind of trouble,” he said, his kind brown eyes reflecting nothing of the life he once led.

Roberto listed a few of his offenses: getting expelled from school for smoking marijuana, being involved in shootings, disappointing his parents, dropping out of high school, selling hard drugs.

“We wore baggy pants with baggy shirts and shaved our heads every other day to keep them smooth and shiny,” he said. “People looked at us with a sense of fear.”

At 14, both boys earned enough respect from their gang leaders to get a tattoo with the name of their neighborhood gang. At least fifty separate gangs exist in Santa Ana, he explained, and leaving one’s immediate neighborhood means risking a fight or getting shot.

In fact, Roberto himself was hit with a 22-caliber bullet just below his waist, yet even then, he said, he “never thought about leaving the hood.”

Involved in many shootings, at 17 he saw a man deliver 16 gunshots into two men through the open window of a car. He didn’t know the shooter or see his face, and tried to save one of the victims who was still alive after the shooter fled. The tourniquet improvised from his own shirt couldn’t save the man who died even before the ambulance arrived.

When Roberto turned 18, his friends threw him a birthday party at his parent’s home. Around 11 p.m., after the party was in full swing, shots rang out in the backyard.

“A minute passed before I realized two people were dead,” he said.

One he didn’t recognize, the other was his cousin. “I lifted his limp body, and all I could think was whoever did this was going to pay.”

Roberto later learned that the other dead man was his cousin’s killer. “My friends shot him in defense.”

He explained that gang members are sometimes given an opportunity--called a ticket--to leave a gang to protect their lives. After the death of his cousin, Roberto was given a ticket because the rival gang knew where he and his family lived. Anthony, who lived next door, was also allowed to leave the gang.

“My friend took advantage and moved to Phoenix,” he said, adding that Anthony enrolled in diesel mechanic school because he loved cars and wanted a better life.

“He asked me to visit for a weekend,” Roberto said. “For those two days I had peace of mind and didn’t worry about who I was going to run into. That convinced me to move to Phoenix.”

Roberto moved into the apartment complex where his friend lived, and decided to enroll in a surgical tech school.

He also met a girl. “My life was changing,” he said.

In September 2001, the two friends took off for a weekend and drove to Santa Ana to visit their parents. Because Anthony had accrued some vacation, he decided to stay for a week to visit family. Roberto returned to Phoenix.

“When I got home, I’d missed 30 calls from my mom,” he said. Thinking his mother was just worried about him, he called back and his sister answered. “She was crying and told me my friend had been shot,” he said. “Then she told me he was dead.”

Anthony had been murdered by a rival gang member who recognized him at fast-food restaurant.

“I had nothing to look forward to anymore,” Roberto said. “I dropped out of school and decided to go back to Santa Ana to die, just like all my friends.”

Then something miraculous happened.

“The week I was going to leave, my girlfriend came to my apartment,” he said. “I could see in her eyes she had something to tell me.”

She was pregnant, and at first he didn’t know whether to be happy or upset. “I was confused, but I always told myself I would never be a dead-beat dad.”

Roberto re-enrolled in school and moved in with his girlfriend. He eventually graduated and now works in the East Bay as a surgical technician. In fact, assisting surgeons in saving lives has inspired him to continue his education to become a certified registered nurse anesthetist.

While Roberto and his girlfriend are no longer together, he is just a short drive from the four-year-old fellow he credits with rescuing him from a life of violence and jail and quite possibly death: “I owe my life to my hero,” he said, “to my son.”


she said...

what painful, yet hopeful and inspiring testimony you've shared through this young man's life story.

having grown up in hayward, i was surrounded by gangs, hasseled and threatened by gang members. it makes for a very yucky and exhausting life.

i always suspected they were as miserable and "choiceless" in their positions as i was in mine.

i see here i was correct.

three patterns i see here, i've come to recognize over the years:

BELONGING: people do need to "belong." a sense of belonging is so important, and without a positive alternative, people will join gangs for both basic survival needs and the very natural human need of belonging.

PEACE OF MIND: in his life experience, and as i've seen with many people living in abusive, restricted environments - IF they are somehow, someway, provided some opportunity to get away - to get far enough away that they can experience first hand what "peace of mind" feels like... this experience is so liberating and wonderful and promising, it significantly reduces ones tolerance level for oppressive/fear-based/restricted environments. IF people can get a real taste of PEACE.. the pursuit of that life can become excellent motivation for positive change.

POWER OF CHILDREN: so many times i have seen babies help turn people's lives around for the good. often we will overlook our own needs - but we rise to the occasion when it comes to providing for our children. the precious gift of a child can sometimes motivate in ways no one or nothing else can.

think it might be LOVE

i'm grateful to learn about how this one individual turned his life around, because in his story are clues to how that can be achieved by the masses.

thank you jim ott! ~s.

Jim Ott said...

Excellent observations. The fellow I interviewed said that when he was 12, he and his friend weren't interested in gangs, but one day as they walked through a neighborhood they were approached by gang members. "We don't bang," they said, hoping for a reprieve. Yet they were beaten up and told never to come into that neighborhood again. By 13, they were compelled to join a gang. Your observation that they were "choiceless" is right on.

He also said that as long as poverty exists, gangs will exist.

Anonymous said...

I never read this one

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