A sense of hopelessness drove me into gang violence in the Boyle Heights housing projects. I never thought that a better future would be possible for me as a first generation Mexican who saw both of his parents denied opportunities as immigrants.
Coming from Juarez, Mexico, a border town, we came to the LA housing projects in 1980. I was five years old. My father, an immigrant, repeatedly found himself stuck in a dead end and struggled to find work. He had to provide for his family, which resulted in him transporting drugs from Juarez to El Paso, Texas and to LA. This put my father on the imprisonment trail, which led me to growing up without a father figure in the projects. That was difficult.
It was tough growing up in these projects and trying to be yourself. I was a graffiti artist and all I wanted to do was make art. But during that time, in the 80’s, with the crack cocaine epidemic, the Rodney King trials and the riots, it was very difficult for a young man to be himself without being bullied or oppressed – not only from the gangs, but also from poverty in general.
You look at your father, but he’s not there; You look to your mother and she is distraught because of the poverty and because your father is not there to support her. All of that in itself is difficult. It is painful. So you run out of the house and fall into what’s there; Gangs become your sanctuary.
I needed a father figure and leaned on my older cousin. He was like a big brother and made me feel connected and safe. He was already involved in gangs and eventually, at the age of 14, I joined him.
There were eight gangs in my neighborhood. I would say we had between 80 and 120 people in ours, although some were in prison.
Every day I saw men and women who, with false pride, shared their pain with others. They tried to make others feel hopeless in order to gain a sense of power. There was an exchange of gunfire between gangs. Shots are raining down in the projects. Added to this were daily police visits, drug sales and overdoses.
We have tried to create a sense of financial stability by selling medicines to our communities. It was a suicidal mission, whether I realized it at the time or not, but we didn’t care about putting our own lives on the line because we felt like we had nothing to lose and nothing to live for.
Still, we wanted to provide for our families. I tried to help my single mother meet her needs and my friends also had people to take care of. It was here that I saw the humanity in all the gang members I ran with. Deep down, we were all better than the lifestyle we chose back then.
I was stuck in the revolving door of violence, drugs and incarceration from the age of 12. For about 15 years, I was in and out of the juvenile detention center, county jail, and adult prison for drug possession, drug selling, and carrying a concealed weapon.
My lifestyle drew my family into the depths of gang life. My mother couldn’t sleep at night because she feared I would be killed or end up in prison for the rest of my life. It tormented her and my younger siblings. They lived in fear and didn’t know what would happen to me.
I was wracked with guilt. I took drugs to escape my problems, but they made me feel more guilty. I have tried to kill myself several times.
During my last attempt, I suddenly thought of my children, who were 3, 4 and 5 years old at the time. My own guilt, fear, and turmoil had kept me away from them and my partner, Elizabeth. But in that moment, I saw her as my reason for living.
At the age of 30 I decided to change my life.
I went and spoke to the gang as a whole and told them I wanted to leave. It was not taken lightly. Some people have believed in me and said, ‘Go on brother, take care of your family. I respect that.” They were supportive. But others said, “Fuck that guy.” So I kept my guard up.
It is said that leaving a gang comes with a price to pay. It’s not like people said, “All right, get him! Kill him!” It’s not a movie, it’s not Hollywood. But there was an emotional and physical cost to leaving. Once you go, you should go completely. So I got dumped by my former friends. I no longer had a sense of community. I was on my own now.
I leaned on my family and those I knew stood up for me. I got my fellowship back through the love of my mother and my wife Elizabeth. They never gave up on me and were always there. So that was my new community – the ones I hurt the most are the ones who accepted me the most.
While cleaning up my life, I spent time at The Salvation Army Rehabilitation Center, which helped me return to my true self and gain clarity. I was also involved with Homeboy Industries – a program for at-risk youth and ex-gang members in Boyle Heights. There I found hope.
Today I am 17 years clean and sober. It wasn’t easy, but both religion and art have played a big part in my recovery. In 2008 I picked up my paintbrush and pursued my dream of becoming an artist. Art helps me stay focused and since then I have become a leader in my community and have built my own art school.
I am now a father of seven children and I fight every day to be a better man in their eyes. You are reaping the rewards of my healing and transformation.
Fabian Debora is the executive director of the Homeboy Art Academy in LA
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
https://www.newsweek.com/i-was-gang-la-1980s-homeboy-industries-quit-1741441 “I was a member of the LA Gang, a dark day made me quit”