Gerardo Lopez grew up in gang territory in Los Angeles, California and was just 14 years old when he joined MS-13, the notorious Salvadorian gang. Why did he join and why did he leave?
In this courageous talk, Gerardo reveals how we can help others get out and stay out of gangs.
Listen to the MP3 audio of this TEDx Talk:
Following is the full text of Gerardo’s TEDx Talk titled “I Was an MS-13 Gang Member. Here’s How I Got Out.”
Gerardo Lopez – TRANSCRIPT:
You might have heard of about them in the news, they’d be called murderers, violent, destructive, law breaking and criminals.
And I can tell you that a lot of what you heard is true, because I used to be a member of MS-13.
Today I’m going to tell you why I joined the gang and how I eventually got out. But first, let me take you all the way back to the beginning.
Picture this: El Salvador, the 1980’s, a brutally violent civil war; military soldiers kicking in front doors in the middle of the night; kids hiding shaking underneath their beds as they heard the sounds of boots approaching; mothers laying and puddles are all blood watching their children get taken away and forced to join the war.
Thousands of Salvadorian refugees porting to the United States desperate for a better life. One of those refugees was a little boy named Nelson. He and his family landed in a ghetto of Los Angeles. While his parents worked multiple jobs to earn a living, Nelson was alone a lot in a new country, trying to adapt to new customs and a new language.
When he and the other Salvadorian kids went to school, they were bullied by the Chicano kids because of the different accents and different cultures.
And one day, they had enough! They took all the violence they’d known as kids, all the anger they built up, and they formed a group of their own: MS-13.
And so, the victims of bully became the bullies themselves. We’ve heard that story before, haven’t we?
MS-13 is the tragic outcome of a tragic environment. In 1996, the U.S. government deported thousands of immigrants. One of them was Nelson. By now he was an adult, he spoke English, he wore the gangster clothing like the Nike Cortez shoes, Dickies Pants, Panettone shirts and head bandanas. He was full of tattoos.
He didn’t fit into El Salvador’s culture anymore, and the young Salvadorians noticed but they didn’t bully him. They were in awe of him. He looked like one of those people from the movies: they wanted to be just like him. And that meant, that they wanted to join MS-13.
And so there you have it: a country trying to recover and rebuild from a civil war suddenly had their first ever gang problem on their hands and it only got worse.
Now, I’m not Salvadorian, I’m part Mexican and Argentinian and born in L.A but the neighborhood that I grew up in was MS-13 territory. Even as a kid in an elementary school I knew that I don’t want to be a part of a gang.
My mother worked 14 hours a day at a Sweatshop trying to make ends meet. So I was out in the streets alone a lot.
One day, an MS-13 gang member pointed a gun at my face and robbed me. So I would try to dodge him. I leaved through the back of my apartment building and hopped over fences in order to avoid being seen.
But that meant I would enter another gang’s territory and they will approach me. I would have to travel miles outside of my neighborhood in order to escape the gangs. No matter where I went, I wasn’t safe.
I used to watch it from my apartment window. One night they were out in the streets celebrating this man who just made his way back from El Salvador. Nelson! Remember him? He had respect, power and pride — everything that I didn’t have.
I wondered what it would be like to be him, to be revered in your own neighborhood. That night, I made a decision. I was 14 years old and I was going to join MS-13.
After I was initiated, I felt relief instantly. I walked around with my head up high. Remember that theme song from Cheers where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came. It was like that everyday.
But it was long before I regretted my decision. You see, the rival gang members have found out that I chose MS-13 over them and they were furious. I became a target overnight but it was too late.
What was I supposed to do? It’d be like getting married in a week and you start like: Uh man, I mean, I made a mistake! How do I get out of this? But you can’t; it’s not that easy. What would your friends and family say? What would your new partner do?