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3 min read | Sep 2020

Standing Up: I Was in a Gang, Imprisoned and Now I Finally Have My Life Back

A freed man explains that a lesson learned long ago keeps him going in the toughest of times.

Dragon Juice / Millennial / Progressive / Alumni Coordinator

I was raised in Long Beach, California. I lived ten blocks from the beach and I don't know how to swim.

I remember the day my uncle Jorge held me tight in his arms, when he looked me in the eyes and told me, “Today you’re going to learn how to swim.” I trusted my uncle and the thought of learning how to swim filled me with joy. He walked into the surf while holding me and then, with no warning, threw me in. “Swim,” was all he said.

I began to swallow water as the waves tossed me around. There was no doubt in my mind that I was drowning. As I struggled, I could see that my uncle was standing close to me. He was saying something, but I couldn't make out what. Finally, I got my head above water and so I could hear him. “Stand up,” he told me.

I used my last burst of strength to plant my feet on the ground and stood up. That's when I realized that the water was below waist level. I was drowning in the shallow end of the ocean.

“”

I Was a Troubled Kid; the Courts Treated Me as an Adult

My city has always been beautiful, from the weather to the beach to the diverse people who bring the many flavors of the world together in one place. But there's another truth to my city: Although we may be diverse, we’ve also been very segregated.

I grew up in the ‘90s, when street violence was at an all-time high. The war between Blacks, Asians and Mexicans felt normal to me. Even schools weren’t safe from this tension. As a teenager, I thought I had to do whatever it took to survive.

That hyper-vigilant perspective eventually led to my arrest. I was walked into an adult courtroom, tried, found guilty and sentenced to multiple life sentences in an adult prison.

I was 16 years old.

The best way I can describe sentencing day is to say that it felt like drowning. The judge’s voice sounded as far away as if I was underwater. I struggled to breathe as the waves of life sentence after life sentence crashed over me, along with the sudden overwhelming certainty that I was going to die in prison.

I Couldn’t Become a Better Person Until I Started Asking Hard Questions

As my sentence went on, I began taking college courses and going to self-help groups. For the first time ever, I started to recognize that besides simply understanding what I was reading, I also needed to ask questions. This questioning eventually became a powerful tool for investigating my distorted beliefs and the negative actions that had sprung from them. More than anything else, I started recognizing how wrong my definition of masculinity was. I believed that the more money I had, the more women I slept with or the more I could dominate others, the more of a man I was. I began to realize that this toxic belief was behind many if not all of the reasons I had objectified human life.

People always talk about how time flies, but I spent close to 19 years in prison and I felt and lived every single day. In 2018, Governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence. I stood in front of a parole board and was found suitable for release.

It felt like a dream, but it’s not.

“”

I Left Prison a New Man, but the Outside World Is Still the Same

Life is good, but it’s not over. I find myself standing next to the beach, remembering how I almost drowned in the shallow end. The weight of knowing that I’ve been in prison longer than I’ve been physically free weighs heavy, but it doesn’t bring me down.

There have been many moments where I’m overwhelmed by waves of insecurity and doubt, and I feel like I’m drowning in the shallow end of my beliefs. It’s in these moments that I remember to stand up, not only for myself, but everyone around me as well.

My city is going through tough times at the moment and the racial tension I remember from the 1990s is back.

Just yesterday I was at a gas station pumping air into one of my tires and a car slowly pulled up next to me. A tinted window slid down and a gun pointed out, two feet from my face. The person holding it asked where I’m from. I looked into his eyes and said, “I’m not from anywhere.”

I don’t remember what he mumbled, but I do remember how vulnerable I felt as I watched the car take off. I picked up the air hose that I dropped on the ground and put it back in its place. Filling up my tires didn’t seem that important anymore.

The tension between Black and white is becoming unavoidable. Every human life is precious and irreplaceable, and even through the fear I’m left with the strength to plant my feet on the ground and stand up for everyone regardless of the skin tone.

My uncle had it right. All we gotta do is stand up.

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