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: I was an MS-13 gang member. Here’s how I got out. _ Gerardo Lopez _ TEDxMileHigh
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?
So you stick it out. And a few weeks later you start telling yourself: “Oh kid! this is just so bad!” I could stick this out!
Months passe by and you form a bond, a connection and you feel you’d do anything for that person.
I remember when I got my first MS-13 tattoo, as that tattoo is going to pierce my skin, I like to think about was the love that I have for my gang. And then my mom was going to be pretty furious if she found out about it.
I couldn’t wait to show off my new to my homies, a bond that’ll be there for life and when I get locked up again I take my shirt off with pride.
I made bad choices. I committed assaults and robberies that will land me in jail for years as a juvenile. And in there I got a reputation for starting fights on rival gang members. Every time I got out, I gained even more respect. My homies wanted to be just like me. I felt that I owned their territory and no rival gang was going to go in and disrespect it.
I was willing to defend it at all cost, even if that meant me dying over it. But sometimes I ask myself: am I willing to spend the rest of my life in jail? I put my mom and grandma through a lot. When I was out they stayed up for hours lighting candles, praying that it wasn’t my dead body laying on a leaf that white sheet.
When I was in jail they visited me and asked me when I was going to change. I was tired — tired of seeing my family suffer, tired of going to my friends’ funerals. My life had become the tragic outcome of a tragic environment.
My blind love for MS-13 started to fade. I wanted to get out but I just didn’t know how.
Then one night, my whole life changed forever. I was 20 years old, out in the street celebrating my recent jail release when Alex Sanchez of former MS-13 gang member that I looked up to approached me, he told me he had started this gang intervention group and wanted me to join. I was thrilled. Finally I could get out.
The parting was reluctant. I had gained respect, power and pride within the gang and I just didn’t know who I’d be without it again.
Then I looked up at my apartment building and standing there at the window was my younger brother staring at me the same way that I would stare at Nelson. I knew I had to try to get out.