A sense of hopelessness sucked me into gang violence in the Boyle Heights housing projects. I didn’t think a better future was possible for me, as a first-generation Mexican American who had watched both his parents being denied opportunities as immigrants.
We came from Juarez Mexico, a border town, and arrived in the housing projects in L.A. in 1980. I was five years old. My father, being an immigrant, kept finding himself at a dead-end, struggling to find work. He had to provide for his family, which led to him transporting drugs from Juarez to El Paso, Texas and to L.A. This put my father on the trajectory of incarceration, which left me to grow up in the projects without a father figure. That was difficult.
It was hard growing up in these projects and trying to be yourself. I was a graffiti artist and all I wanted to do was art. But during that time, in the ’80s, 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 by the gangs, but by poverty in general.
You look to your father but he’s not there; you look to your mother and she’s in despair because of the poverty and not having your father there to support her. All that in itself is heavy. It’s painful. So you run out of the house and you fall into what’s there; gangs become your refuge.
I needed a father figure, and I leaned on my older cousin. He was like a big brother and made me feel some sense of connection and safety. 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 jail.
On a daily basis, I saw men and women transmitting their pain to others with a false sense of pride. They tried to make others feel hopeless in order to gain a sense of power. There were gun fights between gangs. Gunshots rain in the projects. There were also daily police visits, as well as drug sales and overdoses.
We tried creating some sense of financial stability by selling drugs to our communities. It was a suicidal mission, whether I realized it at the time or not, but putting our own lives in danger didn’t matter to us because we felt like we had nothing to lose and nothing to live for.
Yet we still wanted to provide for our families. I was trying to help my single mother to meet her needs, and my friends also had people to care for. This is where I recognized the humanity in all the gang members that I ran with. Deep down, we were all better than the lifestyle we chose at that time.
I was stuck in the revolving door of violence, drugs and incarceration from the age of 12. For approximately 15 years, I was in and out of juvenile hall, adult county jail and prison, for drug possession, drug sales and carrying a concealed weapon.
My lifestyle dragged my family down into the depths of gang life. My mother couldn’t sleep at night, as she worried I was going to get killed or end up in prison for the rest of my life. It tormented her and my younger brother and sister. They lived in fear, not knowing what was going to happen to me.
I was wracked with guilt. I used drugs to escape my problems, but they amplified my guilt. I attempted suicide several times.
On 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 from them and my partner, Elizabeth. But, in that moment, I saw them as my reason to live.
That’s when, at the age of 30, I decided to turn my life around.
I went and spoke to the gang as a whole, and told them that I wanted to leave. It wasn’t taken lightly. Some people believed in me and said, “Go ahead, bro, take care of your family. I respect that.” They were supportive. But others were like, “F*** 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 were emotional and physical costs to leaving. Once you leave, you’re supposed to leave completely. So I was dismissed by my former friends. I no longer had a sense of community. I was now on my own.
I leaned on family and those who I knew advocated for me. I got my community back through the love of my mother and my wife Elizabeth. They never gave up on me, and have always been there. So that was my new community—the ones that I hurt the most are the ones that accepted me the most.
While cleaning up my life, I spent time at the Salvation Army Rehabilitation Center, which helped me get back to my true self and gain clarity. I also got involved in Homeboy Industries—a program for at-risk youth and former gang members in Boyle Heights. It was there that I found hope.
Today, I am 17 years clean and sober. It hasn’t been easy, but both religion and art have played a major role in sustaining my recovery. I picked up a paintbrush in 2008, and pursued my dream of being an artist. Art helps keep me focused, and I have since become a leader within my community and developed my own art academy.
I am now a father of seven children and I fight daily to be a better man in their eyes. They reap the rewards of my healing and transformation.
Fabian Debora is the Executive Director of Homeboy Art Academy in L.A.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
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