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.
At my first meeting I met rival gang members and their families and we found out that we all felt the same. Their parents cried the same tears as my parents did. The only thing that separated us was the name of the gang.
We learned how to express ourselves without using drugs and violence, and the gang intervention group took us traveling to different places to share our story and more people listened.
The more we talked, the more we felt the sense of respect, power and pride, I was able to fade away from the gang and ultimately being able to leave it. After that was the hard part but we were in the midst of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart crash scandal, now you’ll think that a police department will be welcoming of a gang intervention group but they didn’t.