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Searching for a Way to Leave No One Behind: The Transformation of a Mexican Gangster
By Arturo Esquer
I was born in 1976 in California. I’m the sixth of my mother’s children: five boys and two girls. We are Mexican.
The earliest time in my life that I can remember is when I was around a year old. My mother, my older sister and my four brothers and I lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment with one of my mother’s boyfriends who was always grouchy and yelling and complaining about everything. I never met my father. One of my brothers told me he was in jail; that’s all I knew.
Not too long after that, my mother met another man at a bar where she was working. Eventually, we moved with him to a two-story, three-bedroom apartment in a block of apartments. They became the managers of the apartments, which were owned by a Buddhist monastery. I remember the nuns, with bald heads and dressed in black, would come to the apartment sometimes. A year later my mother and her boyfriend were married, and I was their ring boy.
When I was two and three, I pretty much just ran around and played with the kids in our apartment complex. My two closest friends were two brothers who were seven and nine. They lived in the back of the apartments with their little sister and their mother. When the two brothers went to school, I would play with their sister and her friend, who was ten.
There were always a lot of people partying at the apartment when I’d go play with them, guys and girls who lived in the neighborhood. They would dance, drink liquor, smoke pot and do different drugs and have sex all over the apartment. They didn’t seem to even notice us or could care less.
One time while the two girls and I were playing “Candy Land” on the floor in the corner of the room, a guy and a girl came in kissing and feeling on each other and went straight to the nearest bed. We just sat there and watched them have sex. After they were done, they fixed their clothes and left.
It was the first time I had witnessed such a thing. “Why did the girl let the guy hurt her like that?” I asked.
She laughed, “he wasn’t hurting her! That’s what all the older girls and boys do to enjoy themselves.”
Then she tried to explain to me about sex, but I didn’t really understand much. As time went by I came to understand what was occurring around me, especially with her help; she seemed to know a lot more about the way things went than her brothers.
She would tell stories about her sister’s relationships with boys, which I enjoyed very much. She never kept a boyfriend for more than a week, it seems, because when they tried to talk her into having sex with them, she’d get mad and throw them out, often without their clothes. “She will decide when she was ready to have sex, and if the guy couldn’t accept that, he’d be out the door,” my friend told us.
I truly admired the older sister for choosing to keep her self-respect. I felt that a girl should never be made to do something she didn’t want to do. And although I noticed that the guys treated her with respect and did what they wanted with the other girls who didn’t seem to have too much problem with jumping in the sack on the first meet, even if they didn’t really want to, I didn’t feel it was right to treat them differently.
When the two girls and I were together we would play board games, jax, paddle-ball, handball, doctor and house. The boys and I would usually go play war and have rock and orange and egg fights with kids from the apartments, or we’d steal candy from the liquor store and roam around the neighborhood beating up other kids. Of course, they did most of the hard work; I would just help out by kicking the other kids while they had them down on the ground.
Just before I turned four, my mother and her husband gave me a bike for Christmas. One time when my two friends and I were returning home after riding around racing and fighting with the kids in the neighborhood, they stopped outside the house of some new kids, a brother and sister, and began to pick on them. The new kids didn’t do anything to provoke a fight, so I didn’t agree with my friends. “We don’t want any problems,” the sister kept saying. “But we’ll fight if you try anything.”
“Forget about it!” I told them. “Leave them alone.” But they didn’t listen to me. So I jumped off my bike and slugged one of them on the nose. His nose was bleeding, but that didn’t stop him and his brother from beating up all three of us, including the girl.
After that, these two kids insisted that I have dinner at their house. And they became my new friends. They told their parents what had happened, and they thanked me for standing up for their kids and told me I was welcome in their home any time. That night, I got to eat unburnt enchladas with fidello and frijoles for the first time – my mother usually burnt everything she cooked. She wasn’t a bad cook; she just liked her food to be on the crispy side.
Later, I got my old friends to make peace with my new friends, and they ended up becoming boyfriend and girlfriend. I still fought with my old friends when I didn’t agree with them, but we stayed close friends nevertheless.
Even as a little kid I always gained joy and happiness from doing for others and seeing them happy.
I didn’t know too much about gangs in those days, but I remember a lot of the teenagers had a different dress code, and would hang around the neighborhood and drive around real slow in their low-riders, commanding respect. The guys wore razor-creased pants and shirts, which were usually a couple of sizes too big and were dark colors. Some people wore suspenders and Tango hats, which were brimmed and usually black or grey. And they wore black or grey trench coats. The girls seemed to wear almost the same things, except certain shoes and a few blouses and pants and shorts that were especially for them.
The guys wore their hair short and neatly combed back with Tres Flores (Three Flowers) hair grease, and sometimes with a thin hair net to keep their hair trained. And they also wore dark black sun glasses. The girls wore their hair feathered in two arches in the front like an “m”; big-looped, gold earrings; dark black sun glasses; and lots of make-up with dark eye-shadow and plenty of blush.
Gang members wanted to let others know that they were gang-affiliated and were proud of it. And one of their main objectives was to dress to impress.
In those days, the gangs used to have rumbles a riverbed with bats, chains, bumper jacks and knives. The only other times they would fight is when they came across each other while they were cruising their low-riders on Whittier Boulevard, or if they caught another gang member from a different gang in their neighborhood. There were fights usually every day, involving both guys and girls, but not many people were seriously injured unless a knife or gun was involved.
I can remember only one murder when I lived there. In an apartment near us a man who was arguing with a woman was stabbed with a screwdriver in the head by the woman’s husband. I didn’t know anything about death then. I clearly remember seeing a stretcher with the man on it covered in a white sheet being wheeled out of the apartments. Everyone was saying that he was dead, but I thought he was hurt just like the others I had seen being wheeled away and that he would be running around the neighborhood again soon.
We moved when I was five. My mother had just had my younger sister and by now my four brothers had moved out on their own. The house we moved to was on a very quiet and peaceful street where there were only houses a nd no apartments.
My mother enrolled me into school that year. My first day was a true blast. I really enjoyed participating in the various art projects they had us do. And I remember I used to feel quite excited about learning new things and playing in the playground.
A few months after this my mother took me to the funeral of one of my uncles, my father’s oldest brother. Everyone called him Pansn, which means someone with a big belly, even though he was tall and had a light build.
I met my uncle Pansn’s wife and her children for the first time. I remember my aunt saying that I looked just like my uncle, and that he would often talk about me. From what I heard around me, it sounded like he was well liked, really loved and respected by many people, and that he had a big heart and was always trying to help and do things for others.
Apparently he died after shooting at some glass bottles in the back of some apartments. He carried a gun for self-protection. When he put the gun away in his belt it accidentally went off and shot him in the stomach.
I remember my uncle’s coffin. I looked at him lying there, motionless, as if he were asleep, and my mother was crying. Everyone seemed to be crying but I remember that no tears came to my eyes; I didn’t really understand what was happening.
“What’s going to happen to him?” I asked my mother.
She pointed to the sky with a small smile and tears in her eyes and said that he was going to heaven. I didn’t know where heaven was, but I thought there must be another place or world we went to after we died, which was above the clouds.
A week after the funeral, my aunt and my cousin asked my mother if they could baptize me, because my uncle had said he wanted that. The baptism took place at a huge church in Los Angeles on a street well known for year-round festivals and Mariachi bands. Then we went to eat at an open-air restaurant and listened to one of the bands, and they bought me gifts. They didn’t explain what it meant to be baptized, so I just figured it was something that everyone did.
My mother wasn’t into religion, so the only time I had ever seen a church was on an occasional Easter Sunday. Thus I didn’t really understand what church stood for.
By the age of five and six, I seem to have learned how to behave in the presence of adults and didn’t cause too much trouble. I would observe how people presented themselves and took in what I felt was the right way to be. My mother more or less managed to keep me in line and spanked me what I got out of line. But, of course, it was different when there were no adults present.
The first time I started to understand what the word God meant was at school. I asked people about God and they would say that he lived in heaven and that he created us, the world and everything in the universe. If you were kind to people, or at least tried to be, and didn’t harm anyone, when you died you would be with God in paradise. But if you weren’t kind and you harmed people, you would go to hell with the Devil and burn forever. I remember when I asked further questions, they would become very frustrated and felt that I was ignorant for not being convinced. So, even though I wasn’t fully convinced, I decided it was best to not ask too many questions on that subject.
I would keep my eyes and ears open and observe the way people presented themselves in my surroundings. And what I noticed was that people would talk about being good and kind to others but would often treat people badly. People seemed to do the complete opposite of what they said. I didn’t feel this was right, and eventually I came to believe that God, the Devil, heaven and hell were something that adults made up, like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, to make us kids behave and follow the rules.
So I stopped listening with full attention to what the people who didn’t practice what they preached had to say concerning issues on life, and instead I took heed of what I felt was right, even if some people didn’t fully agree. I still felt there had to be some type of superior being in the universe somewhere, though. And I felt that no matter what I did externally, be it good or bad, this superior being knew my heart completely and would understand the reasons for my external actions. If I had to do something considered bad, such as stealing a birthday present for my mother because I didn’t have the money to buy one, then this being would understand that in my heart I meant well.
When I was seven, my sister had a daughter. I didn’t get along too well with my sister then, and when she was pregnant she’d often say that the baby wouldn’t like me. But after she was born she and I became instant friends, and often she’d only stop crying when I picked her up. I ended up often baby-sitting and my brother’s baby son, because they seemed to enjoy my company.
When I was eight I made friends with a boy who was thirteen and lived across the street, and his sister, who was ten, as well as their older brothers and sisters. Although their parents were quite strict, they always welcomed me with open arms and said that their door was always open to me.
Of all the families I’ve met throughout my life, I have never felt as welcomed as I was by theirs. They truly treated me as one of their family. Their parents insisted that I call them Mom and Papi and always invited me to eat dinner with them.
What really amazed me was that they had their children so well disciplined, and they paid for them to get a better education at Catholic schools and then at college. This was rare in my neighborhood. Their main source of funds was two lunch trucks that the parents owned, and sometimes I would go to work with his parents in downtown Los Angeles. (His father always insisted on paying me for my work, although I wasn’t helping out to get paid.) The children usually worked summer jobs too. It was like they worked as a team to make sure that every member of the family received a good education and was well provided for.
In the evening we all used to lay out big blankets on the grass in their front yard and sit in a circle and listen to his twin sister and their older sister tell ghost stories. I enjoyed these scary stories very much; they said that they had come from their grandmother in Mexico. When it was chilly we would cuddle up and drink hot Mexican cocoa.
One night I was sharing a blanket with my friend’s sister, and we held hands and cuddled up together. It was the first time a girl had held my hand and I was nervous at first. But when Alejandra winked at me my butterflies went away. She became my first girlfriend, but our puppy-love relationship didn’t last too long. Her brothers called her a cradle-robber because she was ten and I was eight, and they pressured her into giving me up. She told her brother to tell me that she liked me but it would be best if we remained just friends.
I had enjoyed the tender moments with her, so my heart sank and tears came to my eyes when he told me this, although I tried to fight off my emotions. I felt like someone had got my heart and crushed it. I didn’t even want to say a word to anyone that day.
Eventually my feelings for her vanished, especially with the help of my other friend, who, the next day, had taken my hand in both her hands and reassured me. “Don’t you worry. There are plenty of pretty girls to choose from.” Soon I got a crush on her, but I never built up enough courage to tell her because she was a lot older than me.
She would tell me that girls liked to see boys dressed neat and looking sharp from head to toe. I was rough on my clothes and shoes then, so she showed me how to wear my clothes and how to style my hair. I wasn’t too comfortable at first, but to make her happy, I did as she said. She was very pleased with the result and would show me off to her friends in her cheerleading squad at high school.
My next girlfriend was when I was ten. Because I was in the same class as her younger sister, I think her mother thought that I wouldn’t be too much of a threat, so she’d let me spend time with her in her room. We would cuddle up together and watch movies and listen to slow-jams (love songs) and tell each other our dreams. And we talked about sex a lot and did many sexual things together. I would plead with her to do more, but she said she was saving her virginity for when she got married, and I respected her wishes.
But we broke up after six months because she didn’t like me hanging out with my friends. More and more I was spending time with other kids from a block of apartments in the neighborhood that would be central to my life in the next few years.
By this time I was learning that respect was the main issue for everyone. If you didn’t have respect, you were no one: that was very clear to me. And already everyone on my block showed me the utmost respect because of the fights I had fought, so people never gave me hard looks or talked to me in a disrespectful way.
But at school and in the park around the block from my mother’s house where I’d play baseball I felt I needed to be more aggressive because there were always new people coming and going, and I needed to let people know that I was to be respected.
And it was clear that the people who gained the most respect were the guys from the gangs. Two of my new friends had already gotten into the neighborhood gang a few months before. I began to meet more of them.
By the time I was eleven, one friend and I decided we wanted to be from the gang, too. It wasn’t common for guys our age, but another friend talked to a few people. It was decided that two guys would jump us into the gang, which made them more or less responsible for whatever we did. In other words, if either of us ever backed down from a fight, for example, the other guys in the gang would get on these two guys’ case because they gave their votes to allow us to get into the gang. But if we proved to be brave in life-threatening circumstances, it would go good on our sponsors’ names.
Our initiation into the gang occurred in the back of an apartment building by some railroad tracks. First three of us beat up on one for ten minutes; then the three of them beat up on me. Usually you’d have to fight with eight or ten guys, but since we were young they made an exception.
The point was to see how much heart you had in a fight and to show how you would defend yourself in a fight with more than one person – which often occurred if you were caught in a rival’s neighborhood. It didn’t matter if you won or lost: as long as you had the heart to fight with a guy twice your size or more than one person. If you showed any type of weakness or you relented during the initiation, you would not be allowed into the gang.
We showed that we had heart. Now that we were officially from the gang we were given nicknames that distinguished certain characteristics we had. And we began to dress in the average gang attire: black Ben Davis pants; white tank-tops and a plain white t-shirt; and black and white tie-up shoes.
It was made clear to us that since we were from the gang now, the city belonged to us as it belonged to the rest of the gang; and part of our responsibilities was to make sure that rival gang members and anyone, in fact, who didn’t live in the neighborhood were not allowed to be there unless they had permission. If the people were rivals they were attacked on sight, unless they were with young children or female members of their family, in which case they were asked to leave. If they simply didn’t live in the neighborhood, they would be asked to leave, and if they didn’t comply they would be beaten up.
We were to respect all members of our gang and treat them as brothers and sisters. The people who lived in the neighborhood who were not from the gang knew that if they did not show respect to any member of the gang, they would have problems with the entire gang. But they also knew that if they made good friends with the gang members they could go for help or protection. Because of this the gang had knowledge of everything that occurred in the neighborhood.
When I wasn’t at school, I would spend my time spray painting on the riverbed walls with my friends and hang out in the neighborhood, getting to know the older members of the gang at parties and barbecues. And because there were not many rival gang members my age, I was able to hang out with girls and party in different neighborhoods without having to fight.
Mostly I would hang out at the apartments, which were like one big party house: always plenty of girls, beer, hard liquor, drugs and music. It was an all-day, every-day thing, especially in the summer.
It was here that I met a very special girl in my life, while I was still eleven. I was at a party at my homegirl’s apartment one night, when she came up to me and introduced herself and asked me if I had any marjuana.
“Would you mind smoking a joint with me?”
“I’d be delighted,” I told her. There was something about the way she looked and acted that made my heart race, just like when I was with girls before.
We smoked and talked and then we danced. After we were done, she kissed me on the cheek and asked me if I’d like to keep her company for the rest of the night. I was about to accept when someone called me over.
“I don’t want to burst your bubble or anything, but I’ve known her since we were little girls and I’ve never seen her date a guy, let alone be with one. I don’t want you to feel like you made a fool of yourself by coming onto a girl who doesn’t like guys, that’s all. And anyway, a seventeen-year-old girl is a bit too old for you, don’t you think?”
My friend, who was nineteen, and her friend had become dear friends of mine since I got into the gang and had sort of taken the responsibility to look after me. I thanked her, but what she told me was hard to believe. I knew how it felt between this new girl and me.
A few days after the party I was smoking weed with my older homeboy on some steps when she walked out the door of the opposite apartment. I told my homeboy that I was sure she liked me.
“I hear you, young homey,” he chuckled. “But there isn’t a doubt in my mind that that girl is a lesbian. She’s turned down me and every guy I know who’s asked her for the time of day.”
“Maybe she didn’t like you or those other guys,” I said. “I’ll prove to you that she likes me!”
I went over to her as she was coming down the steps and gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek, keeping my arms around her waist. She looked surprised, then smiled and said, “Maybe one day, but a friend tells me that you are younger than I think you are.”
I felt as if she’d hit me. And to make matters worse, my homeboy said, “I don’t want to rub it in, young homey, but I tried to tell you but you wouldn’t listen.”
I still didn’t accept what they said about her, but I decided to try and avoid meeting her again. Which worked for a while, but some weeks later she saw me and asked me to go to her apartment to talk. I tried to make excuses but I found it hard when she smiled at me.
We smoked a joint and talked and she apologized for what she’d said on the steps. “I’m sorry about the way I acted, someone had just got on my case about you being too young for me, and I was upset that I was being accused of leading you on. But, honestly, I can care less what she has to say about you being a few years younger than me.”
She looked at me with a smile and said, “Tell me, is the reason you were upset and trying to avoid me bec ause you like me?”
“Yes,” I said. “But it’s my fault for being dumb enough to half-believe what I heard about you not being interested in guys.”
“I don’t want to know what idiot told you that, but whoever told you that lied to you.” Then she said, “So you really like me, huh? Does that mean you’d like to be my boyfriend? If so, then I’d love to be your girlfriend.”
I thought I’d heard her wrong at first, but then she asked me to kiss her. After I kissed her, she said that now that I was her boyfriend, she wanted me to make love to her. I was so surprised, I just stood there staring at her and didn’t know what to do first – even though I would have known what to do with my other girl if she had let me!
“Is this going to be your first time making love to a girl?” she asked me. “Because, if so, it will be very special for me.”
“Yes,” I said. And I was her first boyfriend, she told me. She smiled, took my hand and led me to her room.
We spent that day and night together. Later, she made me dinner and we talked about each other’s lives and the things we enjoyed doing.
And we went out the next night to an amusement park, where we had a complete blast on the rides and playing miniature golf. Being a gentleman, I let her beat me. It made me feel good to see her happy for winning, and I said she could pay me back by taking me to dinner at my favorite Mexican restaurant, where we went dancing. Back at her apartment, she sang to me. I had never heard a song sung so beautifully and with so much feeling, and it truly touched my heart. And later that night, she sang until I fell asleep in her arms.
I would often spend the night with her at her aunt’s place, where she lived. Her Aunt said she didn’t have the slightest problem with me staying with her, as long as we behaved like responsible young adults and didn’t have any outrageous parties while she wasn’t there. My girl would ask me to tell my mother where I was so that she wouldn’t worry, but I would always make some excuse because I felt that she would be afraid that I would want to leave home. My mother never knew about her.
She allowed me to do almost anything I wanted if it made me happy, but she would fight me like a tigress to prevent me from staying out late with my homeboys or to make me do my school work. But even though I loved her with all my heart – she was my friend, my sister, my lover, everything – I learned that I had the power to tell her what to do and not to do and the freedom to do almost anything I wanted.
For the rest of that summer, I would spend my days running around town with my homeboys, making trouble. We would start fights with people we disliked or just to prove that we were to be feared. When I hung out with the younger kids in my neighborhood, we would go to other neighborhoods to mess around with girls, beat up other kids and spray paint our gang on their walls. We would go to shopping malls and steal clothes and other things that we could get money for, and we’d start fights with other gang members or anyone who would give us hard looks. Everywhere we went we acted as if we were invincible and as if we owned everything.
I started sleeping with other girls, too. It started with my homegirl a couple of weeks after I was with my girlfriend. My homegirl told me to sleep with her. I was a bit confused and reluctant at first, but I ended up giving in. She said that she understood that I cared a lot about my girlfriend, but there was nothing wrong with having a little fun with other girls, especially since I was young. And anyway, what my girlfriend didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. At first I felt bad deep inside, that I was betraying her. But the feeling eventually faded away on its own.
I started sixth grade at Junior High School that year, and I really began to cause trouble. I would get into a lot of fights when I thought that certain people weren’t giving me the respect that I felt I deserved, especially the older guys. I wanted them to respect and fear me, and I wanted girls to respect and love me. When this didn’t happen I would go out of my way to make their lives miserable. I never had problems with the girls but a few guys had to pay harsh consequences for not responding to my orders. And when they fell out of favor with me they fell out of favor with everyone else in my gang.
I liked learning the various new things in my class room and did my class work well, but I would drive my teachers wild because I’d always be disrupting the classes by cracking jokes and showing off in front of the girls. It got so bad that they said I’d have to leave unless my mother attended classes with me. It worked for a while, but when my mother wasn’t around I went back to my old ways. And one day the principal caught me having sex with a girl in the eighth grade restroom. So they made me go on home studies – which just gave me more time to be with my girlfriend and to run around with my homeboys.
She was quite upset at first because she said that a good education would help me out in the future. She would have me meet her at her apartment on her lunch breaks from her job at her aunt’s sewing factory and help with me with my home-studies program.
During the rest of the time I would kick back with my older homeboys, smoking weed, or go to “ditching” parties with other kids who were skipping school. At these parties you just went to smoke drugs, drink liquor and have sex. There wasn’t much time for dancing, and there usually wasn’t any fighting. You went because there was a ninety-five percent chance that you would get sex.
By this time I’d already slept with many girls, and already they were just pleasure objects for me and I didn’t have the slightest feelings for them. But being with my girlfriend was always so beautiful, and I loved her all the more for being so precious.
It was during that summer that I first got into trouble with the police. I would hang out with a group of younger kids from my neighborhood and participate in their activities when I’d see that I could profit from it. Although they weren’t as violent as my homeboys, I respected their courage. They used to break into new cars that were kept on trains in a yard in our neighborhood. One week there was a shipment of Mustang convertibles with good quality radio-cassette players and speakers, so we cleaned them out. I would sell them to my older homeboys or trade them for weed.
But someone snitched on me. The federal police came to my mother’s house and roughed me up and said that they had witnesses who saw me steal the things. I denied it of course, and my mother yelled at them and told them to leave her house. I was furious that someone would even dare mention my name, and I decided that I would deal with them personally when I discovered who it was.
I had to go to court for a hearing and I ended up doing a deal and was put on probation. But I had the names of the two people who snitched on me, a guy and a girl, and I gave them to my homeboys. The girl was brutally beaten and the guy was run over by a truck, which left him paralyzed from the waist down. They’re lucky to be alive, I thought to myself.
I was becoming more and more violent, and I felt totally justified. This was how you dealt with life. You had to be strong, fearless, and you had be to respected, at all costs. And you had to have respect for others, and I did. I was trying to be like one of those hard-core mean-killer characters in movies like The Godfather and Scarface: the good guy who would tolerate no shit from no one, who took care of his family and friends and had respect for others, but who didn’t hesitate to kill anyone, friend, family or foe, if the situation called for it.
I didn’t see this as contradictory, then. This was my method for making people happy. I wanted people to be happy and I would do everything in my power to make it happen, even if it meant making others suffer.
At the same time, I would go out of my way to help a person who was not being treated fairly, even if the majority of people were against that person. And I wouldn’t hesitate to support that person by hurting the aggressor. Also, if I saw someone mistreating children, animals or insects in my presence, I would ask them to stop doing it as a favor to me. If they didn’t comply, it served as just grounds to cause problems for them.
When I was running around with my homeboys and they wanted to start trouble with people who were minding their own business, I would try to dissuade them from doing it. If they chose not to listen to me, I would create problems for them and make it clearly known that I disagreed with their actions and that it made our neighborhood look like we only picked on people who wouldn’t fight back. This would often make them turn away from hurting those people, but if it didn’t, I would end up fighting with them. Many times, my struggles to prevent people from being mistreated caused many problems and fights for me, but hearing the sincere thanks from the people I had helped and seeing them happy that they weren’t stepped on unjustly made it worth my minor hassles. And it actually ended up earning me more respect for standing up to people others wouldn’t have.
But sometimes there were cases where I couldn’t help a person, regardless of how much I disagreed with what was happening to them, because the aggressor had more authority in the neighborhood. So I would have to hold back my anger and walk away from the situation. It would really burn me up that I couldn’t do anything. It became very clear to me that the only way I would be able to help people more often was to gain more respect and authority. But I always did my best to use what little authority I had to prevent many people from getting hurt.
There would be times, of course, that some people I had helped would have other problems that I couldn’t help them with, or they would continue to do what caused them to get into trouble in the first place. But no matter how much I felt let down, I continued to do what I felt was the appropriate thing to do.
As I gained more respect and authority in my neighborhood, I was able to do more favors for people and help them out in certain situations. And these favors were something I did for anyone: I would lend people money, help one of my neighbor paint her house, take care of someone’s kids, help one of my homeboys cut the grass, help friends with their daily chores.
Wherever I went to hang out, I liked my surroundings to be pleasant and everyone to be happy. If I saw that someone was unhappy, I would go out of my way to try to cheer them up or to comfort them. If someone started to cause trouble by hassling people or giving someone dirty looks, I would make sure they were removed, which meant I had to get violent with someone in order to make things pleasant again.
Around this time many gangs that had died out began to sprout up again. That meant more rivals in my neighborhood to go to war with as soon as we crossed paths. But they didn’t pose a major threat because they were small, so we would easily crush them. After these encounters we would pile into our cars and drive into the rivals’ neighborhoods, humiliating them by stabbing and beating them in their own neighborhood.
Things became quite dangerous around this time. There wasn’t a day that my homeboys didn’t rob, shoot, stab or kill someone. They were just itching for someone to step out of line, and as soon as someone did, they were attacked in a heartbeat. The apartments got so bad that the newspapers started calling them the Hell Hole.
One night, about thirty of my homeboys and I were outside the apartments when we heard some cursing and shouting. An older guy was threatening to kill another guy with his Rambo knife because he was accusing him of robbing his girlfriend.
When one of my homeboys asked the older guy where he was from, the older guy hesitated at first and then said the name of a rival gang. Immediately my homeboys leapt to their feet. The older guy dropped his knife and ran for his life, but they caught him. It seemed like the whole apartment complex was on him. Even little kids spat on him and kicked him while he was down on the ground in a pool of blood.
And it got to the point where we couldn’t even trust our own homegirls. If they had bad vibes with their homeboys or their ex-boyfriends, they’d tell you where you could find them if you wanted to kill them. Often the girls were used as bait, or they’d set you up for an ambush or they’d even try to kill you themselves. Many times guys would have girls drive with them into a rival neighborhood and they’d get them to flirt with the guys there. When they came over to the car, my homeboys would pop up and shoot them.
One of my homeboy’s cousins, who was sixteen years old, had been gang-raped three times because she was related to my homeboy. After her third rape she began to sleep with guys from rival gangs, and when they had finished having sex, she would kill them. Eventually, a guy got her gun before she did and killed her.
All this caused a lot of chaos and bloodshed, with so many girls getting raped and killed.
Sometimes it would be days before I would go home. I’d spend all day running around with my homeboys and spend the nights with my girlfriend. She’d plead with me to tell my mother that I was okay, but I never would. It became too much for my poor mother. She would go to the apartments and give my homeboys a hard time, shouting at them that they should leave me alone because I was a juvenile. I ended up living with my girlfriend for a while after she threw me out.
She was quite sick at the time and I was looking after her. She begged me to go and apologize to my mother after she got better. The idea wasn’t too appealing but I promised I would. My mother cried and said she just didn’t know what to do. The streets had made me so selfish and cold that I didn’t even feel bad that my mother was crying. But nothing changed, and I continued to do exactly what I wanted.
Around this time – I was twelve years old – I got a really strict probation officer who had a reputation for locking up her case loads for even petty things. And she made the apartments off limits. My mother was so happy about this, but I said I would rather go to jail than follow the orders of some big-mouth probation officer.
At my first meeting with this probation officer my mother came to the conclusion that she couldn’t put up with my behavior any more.
“What do you feel is the best thing to do with your son?” The probation office asked her.
My mother began to cry. “I love my son with all my heart and I want the best for him. I don’t want him to go to jail, but he’s just too much for me to handle. I can’t control him no more and he won’t listen to anyone. So maybe jail will be the best thing for him.”
“And what do you think?” the probation officer asked me.
I just laughed. “I don’t care what you do with me. And if you do lock me up I can just go see my homeboys that I haven’t see for a while.”
“Don’t you care about your mother?”
“Couldn’t no mother put her child into jail if she truly loved him,” I said.
Although I laughed, I felt betrayed. I couldn’t believe my mother would do such a thing. I told myself that I didn’t have a mother anymore and that the only person in the world I could count on was my girlfriend.
Juvenile Hall was nothing like I pictured it. There were no bars, like in the movies, and it seemed like some kind of youth center. We were able to play various board games, watch TV, write letters, use the phone, and they even fed us after-dinner snacks. “This is a piece of cake,” I thought.
But when they locked us down in our small, concrete single-man cells with nothing to read or do, I began to feel lonely and depressed. I would think of my girll and how I wasn’t going to be able to touch her or hold her any time soon. And being told what to do all the time really burned me up inside. But as time passed, I got used to being alone and saw the situation as something that would pass sooner or later. Now I could focus my attention on proving to others that I was someone to be feared and respected. When I went to school in Juvenile Hall I would hang out with guys who were deep into the gang life and were respected by others.
It was the first time I had contact with other races, especially blacks. I’d never even met a black person before. We Mexicans usually treated each other with respect and did favors for one another, and the only time we fought was if we were from rival gangs or if a certain person fell out of favor with the rest of us. We gave other races a hard time, though. I got into many fights with blacks because in my eyes they tended to show a lack of respect for others, which was something I wouldn’t tolerate. But as time passed I made a lot of black friends.
I gained a good reputation and much respect after I beat up one of my enemies pretty badly during a Bible study class. This guy, who was six years older than me (I was housed in a unit with sixteen-to-seventeen-year-olds while waiting to go to Juvenile Camp) was known to be feared and highly respected. His admirer sitting next to him told the guy where I was from and then this guy did a few gang signs at me. Him smiling at me like I was a little kid burned me up, so I leapt out of my chair and started pounding on him.
Two officers had to pull me off him. “You’d better watch out what you say to little guys,” one of them laughed. Then they sent this guy to the box (solitary confinement) because he was renowned for fighting all the time.
Word spread around Juvenile Hall and what little respect I had increased. People listened to what I had to say, did favors for me, and didn’t dare say anything around me that would disrespect me, and I was considered a good guy. Just the way I liked it to be. It felt really good to be highly respected and feared by many people, especially the older inmates.
By now, any feelings of loneliness had vanished. In fact I scolded myself: “Only weak people have these feelings.”
While I was in this older unit I observed how things were among my people. The group of guys I hung out with made sure everything was organized well, that the standards that we lived by on the streets were enforced. If anyone of a different race had a problem with one of our people, the Mexicans, we all got involved. If one of our people had an enemy in the unit, he had three days to fight with that enemy, and if he didn’t he would get a beating from his own gang. He was considered weak and would become an outcast, having no respect. You’d get the same treatment if you backed down from a personal fight or refused to get involved in a race riot.
I felt that it was vital to maintain these standards, to keep everything in line and our people strong and united. I would observe the actions of everyone and refrain from doing things I felt were faults in others. It was important to me to modify my actions in order to properly represent myself and the gang I was from. By keeping my ears and eyes open and my mouth shut, I learned pretty fast how things operated.
You showed respect for all, but if anyone said or did anything you felt was disrespectful to you in any way, you did everything in your power to crush and eliminate that person. And you made sure that you dealt with every situation and problem that came your way as skillfully as possible.
I spent five months in Juvenile Hall and Camp. I continued to go to school and enjoyed some good studying – as well as the girls who also came to the classes. And I learned how to use computers. I truly loved this and would go every day to the teacher’s office to learn. And I managed to have sex once with one of the girls, although I got caught and was sent to solitary confinement, the hole.
I was released three months before my thirteenth birthday.
Back on the streets again, it didn’t take me long to get around the strict rules of my “gang probation,” which said that I couldn’t associate with gang members or dress in gang related clothes, etc.
And I was back with my girlfriend. We spent days together, having fun as always. I truly enjoyed being with her. She was always so full of energy and shining with joy, and it seemed as if almost anything I did made her happy. Our first night back together we spent dancing to live Mariachi bands – I danced until I could hardly stand! And we had our photos taken at one of those booths where they make the pictures of you look like you are at the beach or a movie star. She decided she wanted us to look like a bride and groom at a wedding. I didn’t find that scenery too appealing, but she was ecstatic.
“This is nothing compared to the ones we will take when we actually get married!” she said.
I just went along with it so as not to spoil our day, but deep down inside I felt that being married was another state law of probation for couples. I didn’t agree with it at all.
I went back to school again. They’d checked my grades from camp, which were excellent, so they put me in a special class for kids who get straight As. I enjoyed the classes and attacked the work with vigor. And, as usual, I especially enjoyed the attention of the all the girls.
Things were different, now, on the streets. Many of my old homeboys were locked up, and I didn’t know or trust many of the new guys. But they were my homeboys and I figured they deserved to earn my trust. My girlfriend would cry and beg me to not hang around the apartments so much. “I know they’re like your family, but I’m real scared that something will happen to you on the streets.” I would feel real bad deep inside when she cried like that. I would hold her in my arms and tell her I would be okay.
Her aunt had moved in with her boyfriend, so we had fixed up her room for me and my homies to kick back in. “You and your homies can party here any time you like, I just want you home with me,” she said.
She started talking about having kids. She was always amazed at how my nephew and nieces loved me so much and listened to whatever I said. I didn’t want her to feel I loved her any less, so I told her I adored kids, but perhaps it wasn’t a good idea for her to get pregnant when she was the only one working. In fact, I would have loved to have a son or daughter to give my love to, but I was clear that I didn’t want to raise a child while I was heavily into gangs. I’d always disagreed with my homeboys and homegirls who didn’t properly raise their children.
I got my first gun not long after my thirteenth birthday. Those days, there seemed to be more shootings happening, although gang stabbings and rumbles were still the common gang warfare. Although you could hardly call all the incidents “rumbles”: when it was just a few carloads of guys driving into another neighborhood and beating up enemies with bats, bumper jacks, chains etc., we’d call these rat-packing or simply jumping enemies.
I started to sleep with my homegirl again and I sold cocaine for her. Cocaine and PCP were the main drugs in use then, by everyone, not just gang members. And this seemed to change the environment dramatically. A lot more crimes occurred, there were more fights, people were always in bad moods and more selfish and greedy, and a lot of common values and certain codes of respect for women, mothers and family were declining. It seemed to me that no one cared about what others felt, thought or said any more. They only cared about when they would get their next high. They acted very cold and impatient. People were either roaming about lost and zombied out from smoking PCP or running around in a state of panic, chasing drug pushers for their next high and doing very degrading things to pay for it.
If men didn’t have money for their drugs they would steal anything for you, sell you their sisters or daughters, and even kill for you. The women would steal for you, perform sexual favors for you or anyone else you demanded of them, and they’d kill for you as well. It was very sad, because I had grown up with a lot of them, I’d known them all my life. It depressed me very much to see my people being so weak, and I cursed them for being so. Which caused me to treat them like dirt.
I’d ask my homegirl what she felt about this. “Don’t worry too much about it. That’s just the way life is. Those junkies roaming the streets and selling their asses for dope choose to be that way on their own. Even when someone does try to help them out, they end up robbing them as well. And if we can gain from their weakness, why not? Someone has to be strong around here. If we don’t profit from them, someone else will.”
Then she would laugh and say, “Life is what you make it. It can be like a great orgasm or a dead lady’s butt!” I would think to myself, “I sure don’t want the dead lady’s butt!”
The next day I came across a group of my homeboys with the mother of one of my school friends in an empty car port at the apartments. She was badly strung out on cocaine and was performing sexual acts for them. It really shocked me because she worked at the neighborhood park and was always very kind and sweet to everyone. I told my homeboys to give her whatever drugs she needed and that I would pay for it. She quickly took her clothes and left.
I followed her. “Why are you doing this?” I asked her.
“Don’t be mad at me. It’s just that it helps me escape from all the problems I have with my husband, the family, the bills. But don’t worry. I swear to God that you won’t ever see me around here again after I finish this lot.”
A month later I found her doing the same thing. I told myself, “My homegirl told me, but I had to find out for myself.” After this I decided that I wasn’t going to let my life become as pleasant as a dead lady’s butt. Things were going to be my way or the highway! In other words, things were going to be the way I wanted them and I didn’t want to hear anything else!
So much hate began to build up inside me. I started to treat everyone really badly, especially drug users and people I felt were causing me to be unhappy. If my cocaine customers couldn’t come up with enough money, I made them do things that would make them feel not even worthy of eating dog shit. I even made some of them eat dog shit.
Whenever I was unhappy, I went out of my way to make others unhappy. Many times I wished that someone would try to be brave with me when I said something offensive to them so that I could shoot them. But they just nodded their heads in fear. And I started to go shoot up my rival gang’s neighborhood with a friend of mine who wasn’t from my gang. These weekly shootings started because a rival gang shot one of my homeboys outside the apartments. I thought to myself, “How dare they come into my neighborhood and think they can get away with shooting someone!”
And I continued to treat girls as if they were all whores and deserved what anyone did to them. My thoughts were getting to me so badly that I started to distrust my girlfriend. I told her I knew that she had been sleeping with other guys while I was in jail and I demanded that she tell me their names. She cried.
“How could you even think I was that type of girl!”
I kept on her. “I’m not thinking. I know it’s a fact! Couldn’t any girl enjoy having sex so much and then go without if for so many months! You’re probably having sex with someone at your job as well!”
“I won’t listen to this! No! No! No!” she cried, tears streaming down her face.
It just made me madder. “All women are whores and have sex with anyone who asks them! You can’t deny it! Even women know this is true and have told me so a hundred times!”
Then I told her to have sex with me, and during it I called her different girls’ names. She just lay there and cried. Later, we had dinner and watched TV together. I felt terrible that I had treated her so badly, but I found it hard to believe to that a woman could be loyal to one guy.
I got arrested again later that night. After she had gone to sleep I went on a rampage with one of my friends. First we went in search of someone to rob and carjack and then drove into rival neighborhoods, shooting enemies. After unloading a full clip of bullets onto a group of guys, when we put the pedal to the metal and hit the main boulevard, our stolen car started overheating. We stopped for water at a gas station and while my homeboy used the bathroom I called my girlfriend. Just then, a police car swooped up and the cops jumped out with their guns pointed at me and told me to hang up. I told her that I loved her and then they grabbed me and slammed me on the hood and searched me.
The man we stole the car from was with them and identified me. At the police station they roughed me up and demanded the name of my homeboy. I said there wasn’t anyone else. They said they weren’t going for that story and would give me five minutes. I didn’t say a word more. I spat at them and tried to kick them – and woke up later in a dark cell.
Two weeks later I pleaded guilty to armed robbery and was sentenced to three years in the California Youth Authority, a prison system for thirteen-to-twenty-five-year-olds. I was thirteen-and-a-half.
They kept me in Juvenile Hall for two months and then sent me to CYA. We were taken out of the vans in our hand cuffs, slammed up against a wall, then uncuffed and told to take all our clothes off and throw them in the trash. A female officer had us do the usual search procedure one at a time: hands in the air, turn them over twice, run our fingers through our hair, pick up our private parts and then drop them, turn around, life our feet one by one, showing the soles, then bend at the waist and do two squats and a cough. Then she weighed us and issued us a new set of clothes, and sent us to nurses and doctors who gave us shots, took urine, etc. Then we were assigned and sent to a unit.
CYA was easier than Juvenile Hall and camp. I was real angry and frustrated at Juvenile Hall and got into many fights. And at night my thoughts were always of my girlfriend. At CYA we were allowed to have books and magazines, cigarettes, radios and TVs in our cells and we had cellmates – cellies. There was a gym with weights, a swimming pool, a good school. Being there took the load off my back, and the thought of seeing my girlfriend soon brought a little ease to my heart.
But my heart didn’t stay light for long. That first week, I received a letter from her saying that she wanted to speak to me as soon as possible. When I phoned her she told me that she was four months pregnant and she wasn’t sure if she was going to have the baby or not. Her words took me by complete surprise. I just couldn’t believe it. She used to beg me to allow her to have a child for me! I told her that I thought I would never hear her mention abortion to me, but since she even had the thought, I had nothing to say to her any longer. Now I knew the only reason she wanted a child from me was so that I would stay with her, I told her. And now that I was looking at three years locked up, she had the nerve to say she wasn’t sure about it.
She s aid that it wasn’t that, but she didn’t want the baby to be born with me not there, she wanted the baby to have both of us. I told her that if she had an abortion, I would never forgive her and would never see or speak to her ever again. And that now I didn’t want a visit from her until she had had the baby.
She cried and said that she was so sorry to have even brought any disturbance into my heart and that she would love me till she died. She kept repeating herself over and over again. I told her that she knew that I would always love her more than anyone in the world no matter what, but that I would never forgive her if she killed my child.
A week later I received a letter from her and the wedding scenery photo. She had had the abortion, she said, and she would never forgive herself either. Then she told me about the precious moments we had shared together and how much happiness I had always given her. She said she had thought from the very beginning that we were made for each other and that she would never let anything separate us. She had tried to figure out a way that she could take me away from my gang life and have me all to herself, but no matter what she did I just would never let my gang life go. So she just learned to accept it as a part of me that I had to let go of on my own. And she believed that I truly didn’t see any real significance to devoting my whole life to something so futile, but that I only kept with it because I was searching for something that would make everything better for everyone without leaving anyone behind. And because I couldn’t find this something, it drove me wild inside my heart.
Then she told me how sorry she was that she had brought sorrow into my heart and sadness upon my face, which she had never done before in her life. And she said she truly believed that I could never hate her, but would never forgive her for her ignorance. Then she said that she prayed and would continue to pray that I find a way deep inside my heart to forgive her and allow her to become a part of my life again and marry her. But if I didn’t, she would just have to live with the hope that some day I would call out for her to be with me again and bring life back into her out-of-order heart.
My heart was shattered into a zillion pieces. And I was completely torn: one part of me wanted to hold her in my arms and tell her I forgave her to make her sorrow go away. I wanted to tell her I would never put her through such misery again and would never leave her side. But another part of me kept bringing to mind that she had killed our baby, even though she knew how much I wanted it. I felt completely betrayed again. I thought: “The two people I love more than anything in the world, who I would kill and die for, have betrayed me. I would be a fool to forgive them.”
I would look at the photos of us and my eyes would fill with tears and my heart would fill with pain. And it made me feel so empty inside. I would ache for her touch, the comfort of her body, her smile, her kiss. And I wanted to forgive her so badly, to see her beautiful smile light up her precious face. But then I would get so mad and curse myself for being so blind and soft-hearted. “How could I be so ignorant to believe I wasn’t betrayed.”
To ease the pain in my heart I ripped up all our pictures and her letters and flushed them. And I decided it would be best to let her go. I told myself that I would never dare give my heart to anyone ever again – it would only bring more pain to even attempt to do so – because it belonged to her. So I did my best to keep her off my mind and to keep the love she gave me deep within my heart.
CYA [California Youth Authority] was a world of its own, and I soon got completely involved in it. There was little time to even think about what was going on on the streets. My people lived by the standards here as we did at Juvenile Hall, but there were a lot more rules to follow, which were set up to keep my people strong in their actions and to eliminate the weak. Much of it was to do with your conduct, such as keeping yourself, your things, your room clean; never allowing other races to wear your clothes or drink out of the same cup, etc. And whoever didn’t follow these standards were beaten severely and made an outcast.
There were a lot of fights, but because we were able to go to each others’ rooms undetected, it was considered cowardice to fight in the open where the officers would break it up in a few minutes. Behind closed doors, we could fight longer and not get sent to the hole for it. I had a few fights, but most people kept out of my way.
When I turned fourteen they sent me to another institution (Fred C. Nelles in Whittier, not far from Pico Rivera). I’d heard many wild stories about this place, that there were riots, stabbings, rapes and the rest. But I was ready for it. When I first arrived I had fights and was sent to the hole twice for two weeks. And I knew I had a lot more fights coming, because it seemed that many of guys here had real bad attitudes and played a lot of disrespectful jokes.
I met the main shot caller on my unit. He told me he knew who I was and where I was from and that he respected me (he’d heard about my fights). One of the guys I’d hit had been the second shot-caller, he said. He explained the rules of our people and how the program was set up. He invited me to join his ranfla (the group of guys you hang out with most); one of his homeboys had been shipped to another unit, he said, and I was welcome to take over his chair and kick back with him.
I became good friends with the head shot-caller, who was in his twenties. He said CYA was much worse when he was fourteen, with more stabbings and riots. He would tell me about which male officers bring in drugs, cigarettes, coffee and hard core sex magazines, and which female staff would let you have sex with them. He told me about the various guys on the unit and throughout the CYA, and who I could and couldn’t trust. And he would tell me which ones would take a fall one day and which would stay strong till they died.
I quickly absorbed what he told me and began to figure out who was who and how everything functioned between the inmates and the staff. And a lot of things surprised me; things happened in jail that I’d never known about.
I began to see people fall, just as he told me. People had to prove that they were strong and were always being put to the test. And if they failed, the humiliation was brutal. People with even a little power could ruin someone’s life so easily. And I did the same.
When I was fifteen I was sent to a lock-down unit for six months, which is basically where you’re locked in your cell, with someone else, for most of the day. My celly was from a rival gang, and for two weeks, every day, I fought him until he said he didn’t want to fight anymore. Once I got him to accept defeat, I proceeded to humiliate him completely. I had him curse his own neighborhood and family. I took everything he owned, made him clean the cell, make my bed, wash my clothes. He had to give me the food I wanted off his tray. I read all his letters before he read them, and read his letters before he sent them out. I got him to ask the mother of his only child to write me sexual letters and send me photos of herself naked, and I would make him read the letters I sent her and her response to me. Then I would sell the photos to other guys in my unit. I would hit him continually and demand that he hit me back, but he never did. All he had to do was fight me, I told him, then I’d respect him again and leave him alone. But he would just say that he didn’t want to fight. I never let up for a minute and always thought of something new to humiliate him.
I know that I shattered his spirit and made his life a living hell. It seemed to me, then, that it wasn’t the fact that he was my enemy that caused me to feel so much hate and rage; it was because he wouldn’t stand up to me and, in my mind, then, made my people look like cowards. There was so much madness in my mind, and I didn’t seem to care, didn’t even notice, how much harm I was doing to people. Fortunately, my celly’s torment came to an end when I was sent to the parole unit.
Many of us who went to the parole unit weren’t really fit for parole, but because there was an inmate overpopulation everywhere, they gave us the benefit of the doubt. As soon as I and several of my old trouble-making friends arrived, we quickly enforced our rules on everyone and took full control. And most of the staff complied willingly with our demands.
But we had fun in that unit, too. Close to our parole date I was put on an out-of-the-institution clean-up crew, which paid us $5.35 an hour – the first job I’d had! There were six Mexicans and three blacks on our crew and we would drive through the city of Whittier and trim the trees and clean up the parks. Then we’d have four-hour lunch breaks in the parks before going back to the institution.
I was paroled on July 9, 1992 when I was sixteen-and-a-half. I’d been locked up for three years. I didn’t know it then, but it would be two months exactly before I would be back in prison, this time for life.
It felt so good to be home again! My homeboy held a barbecue party for me. There were a lot of new faces but many old friends from my younger years, too, and I was welcomed back with open arms and many kisses. He told stories about when I was a kid, and joked that I must be dying for the touch of a girl right now!
It was such an intense two months. I had so much energy – for girls and partying, and for violence. And for the first time I began to open up my heart to another girl. (Someone told me that she thought my old girlfriend had moved to Puerto Rico with her aunt.) I first met this girl three years before, and I vividly remembered that meeting. I was struck by how she talked, dressed and presented herself, and I was so very attracted to her. She had what we call la estila de la ranchera: the style of the women on the ranches in Mexico, a style that I truly adored: great dignity, self-respect and loyalty. And she reminded me of my old girlfriend. I told myself then that “one day she’ll be mine.”
She was the sister of my homeboy and she now had a two-year-old son. Every day of that two months I made sure I spent time with her and her little boy. I felt so good to be with her. But I met many other girls when I went partying with my homeboys, and I couldn’t resist them. My mother had moved out of the neighborhood so I just went from one person’s house to another, going, going, going. Nothing could stop me.
I soon discovered that things were different on the streets. Most of the generation of my homeboys that I had grown up with were locked up, and everything was more dangerous now. Two of my homeboys had been killed just before I got out of CYA. But the event that truly shook me was the death of one of my homeboys. He was killed a week after his party for me. That very night he had warned me to be on my toes, because “people are dropping dead all over the place.”
He had been shot by a rival gang at our neighborhood park in the middle of the day. I had arrived there soon afterwards, and there were police everywhere. Many people were crying and his girlfriend, who was pregnant with their child, was hysterical, cryin g out his name over and over again. I couldn’t believe that someone would drive into my neighborhood in broad daylight and shoot someone with hundreds of kids and people around. It made me feel like a stranger in my own neighborhood. And I felt very cold inside.
We got news at one of my homeboy’s houses soon afterwards that he had passed away in the hospital. We were filled with rage and a deep sorrow simultaneously. A great anger began to burn at the very core of my heart, and I thought to myself, “Don’t worry, I will personally make sure those who are responsible for this, and many others, will pay with their lives.” But we knew that we would have to wait till everything cooled down because the police would be waiting for us to retaliate.
I spent that evening with my new girl. Her little boy and I became friends at first sight, and it enabled me to put my anger and sorrow aside. She cooked us dinner and later she sang us some songs. Her voice captured my heart, and tears came to my eyes when I thought about how my homeboy would never get to hold in his arms the child that was still in his girlfriend’s belly.
My homeboy’s funeral was held soon after. I met with my homeboys outside the church and watched while people by the hundreds arrived. I greeted many of my older homeboys and homegirls and many other people I hadn’t seen for years. During Mass, me and my homeboys stayed outside the church and talked, and later we all lined up to pay respects at my homeboy’s open coffin. The sight of his mother and sister crying brought so much pain into my heart, and I felt as if C was saying to me to help him. I vowed that the people responsible for killing him would pay triple for what they did.
For those next weeks, I kept my word. I met up with one of my old homeboys who’d just been released from prison, and he introduced me to few of his friends who were itching to prove that they had more heart for my neighborhood than the rest of my homeboys running around the streets. They wanted to cause great problems for our rivals, and they wanted to make a little money.
We’d go steal a car and rob the person of their money, and then go shoot up a rival’s neighborhood. I thought to myself, “Won’t no one in my neighborhood have to worry about getting shot no more, because I’ll make sure I put so much lead in my rivals’ asses that they won’t even find the time to come to our side of town.” I went out of my way to keep the heat on my enemies. I felt that if I didn’t, they would end up killing another one of my homeboys or me.
On our shootings, we made sure someone was laid out on the ground, full of bullets. “They’re going to wish they never got caught up in their gang, for this is only a taste of what lies ahead,” I thought to myself. If they want to play the game they have to pay the price, because when you get into a gang, you know it’s either kill or be killed. Nothing could stop me. I felt invincible. And the thought of getting caught simply never occurred to me.
On September 9, 1992, exactly two months after my release, I was back in jail. “I never learn,” I thought to myself in my cell at Juvenile Hall. But I wasn’t too concerned because I knew the police had nothing to hold me on that linked me to the crime they were accusing me of. But they decided to keep me in jail until they found something, and a year later I was tried as an adult (I was sixteen) and convicted of three counts of attempted murder and sentenced to three life imprisonments, to be served in CYA until I was eighteen and then in a state prison. I heard the words of the judge, but they sounded very far away, as if he was whispering them. Almost like a dream.
They put me in the high power security unit of a county jail first, and it was just like I’d always pictured jail: tiny cells, bars, cockroaches and mice, terrible food and no sunshine. That place was the pits.
I did a lot of contemplating about prison now being my new home. I thought about how to survive in this new world and how to make the most of my life. It would only cause me heartache, I decided, to think about and cling to the outside world, which I would never get to experience again. What I had to do was get the respect and power I wanted inside, which would make up for my loss of happiness and freedom. I told myself, “You have been strong all your life and will continue to be strong till you die. You made your bed, now you’ll have to sleep on it. And the bed you sleep on depends on the bed you make from now on.”
When I turned eighteen they transferred me to Folsom, a state prison near Sacramento, and celled me up with another Mexican. It was similar to CYA, but the guys were a lot older, there were homosexuals dressed up as women, the guards in the towers on the yards had rifles with real bullets in them (in CYA the rifles had rubber bullets or sand cylinders), there were more drugs and there were more stabbings than fights.
Once I learned about how everything ran, I chose to hang out with just a few guys from time to time. We played handball, lifted weights, played soccer and baseball, boxed in the gym, talked about the streets and women and joked around. Most of the time I just kept my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut.
Soon I learned that this yard had many older guys who liked to snitch and who didn’t follow the standards that my people had lived by ever since I was a kid. And what really disturbed me was that the rest of my people let them get away with it. So I began to associate with less and less guys.
I decided that if others were going to just stand around and ignore what was taking place in our presence, I would have to deal with it myself. I felt that I couldn’t allow people to shame the standards that hundreds of my people had died for. They were a disgrace. So the first opportunity I got, while I was working in the kitchen, I sliced the throat of an older guy who I knew was a snitch and punched him till officers pulled me off him.
In the hole, my new celly explained that it was good that I was off that yard. Most of those guys, he said, were outcasts who didn’t care about our standards, and all my people back here in the hole made sure that these standards were followed. And they taught the guys who didn’t follow them a brutal lesson. Everyone takes care of each other back here, he said, sharing books, food, stationary and cosmetics and watched each other’s backs like brothers. It was the way I knew things to be, and I felt at home. We treated others with respect, exercised together, played handball. We had everything under control back here.
And we studied together. Because I was confined to my cell for most of the day, I had plenty of time to study, and to think. I had started looking into the history and ancient languages of my people when I was at Juvenile Hall, and I continued here. As I learned about the struggles of my people in Mexico and in this country, I began to develop a strong desire to do something about it. And when I thought about how people with money and even a little power, as well as other races, treated my people like dirt or wild animals, a strong hatred began to build up inside me. I would think, “How could a country like the US, which talks about liberty for all, make a law like the one just passed in California that denies Mexican women and children medical help and education? This land isn’t even theirs! There should be a law making white people go back to Europe!”
I began to figure out ways to help my people financially and politically so that they could overcome their oppressors and eventually destroy them. I had many plans to make those with money and power in the US suffer severely for mistreating my people. I realized, though, that I needed to establish a positive image first, so I decided I should become a writer.
I would write poems and essays, and I remember in one essay I wrote abou t an “inner voice.” I’d never heard this phrase before; it just came to me, and the thoughts just flowed.
The prison decided that we had things too well organized in this security housing unit, so they sent many of us off to other prisons. I was transferred to Pelican Bay, which is the top security prison in California. It was built eight years ago, and, I believe, one of its main purposes is to keep the worst trouble makers from the rest of California’s prisons off the main lines of those prisons.
They celled me up with someone, who had traveled with me on the bus the long ride north from Sacramento. The program was pretty much like every other prison I’d been in, just a little tighter. There were only eight cells in each section of the security housing unit, four on the top and four on the bottom. They kept us in our cells for twenty-two-and-a-half hours a day and only let us out to go to the small enclosed yard (a little bigger than two cells, which are about ten feet long and eight feet wide), alone or with our celly, for an hour and a half each day. There are no windows, except for a plastic skylight in the yard. We were let out also to shower and shave, cut our hair, go to the law library for a couple of hours every few weeks, and to see visitors for two hours at the weekends. And we only had direct contact with our own celly, although we could communicate from cell to cell. The only possessions we were allowed to have were ten books at any one time, paper and ball-point pen, letters, photos and a TV. We could check books out of a library, also (we couldn’t visit it).
I had two more years in this environment, and because I had no contact with anyone except my celly, therefore no need to fight anyone, I had the time and the inclination to put all my energy into my studies. I began to study the histories of other countries, a little philosophy, psychology, sociology, physics, as well as astronomy, which was one of my favorite subjects in elementary school.
The more I read and heard about the suffering that my people had lived through and continued to live through in Mexico and this country – my celly had a TV – the more inspired I was to better myself in order to help them in the best way that I could manage while in prison. My wish to become a writer, for the benefit of my own people and the world in general, increased, so I devoted several hours a week to bettering my grammar and writing skills. And as I learned about different things in life, I would reflect on how I had lived my life.
And I started looking into Christianity with an open mind and heart. I wanted to see what there was that I could use from what I learned in Bible study courses to help me better myself and my way of living. But a lot of it didn’t make sense to me. If only Christians could be saved, what about all the Jews, Muslims and Hindus and all the rest who prayed to the same God? And I had other questions. I asked one of my homeboys who had become a Christian, but he didn’t have any answers that satisfied me.
One day a friend of mine lent me a book written by a Japanese Samurai master about Zen, and it really went to my heart. One thing he said had a strong effect on me: “Man yearns for what is true on earth, for only by finding truth will he put an end to his restlessness and find within himself the foundation he seeks.” And: “Buddhist practitioners aspire to place themselves in the same responsive relationship with the universe as did the Buddha and Jesus, so that they may experience it firsthand. The Buddha said, ‘Look within, thou art the Buddha.’ Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is within you.’”
It seemed very logical to me that the “looking in” that the Samurai master described served as one of the main factors in finding this truth. He also said that all living beings have an inherently pure Buddha-nature and were oneness with the entire universe; I found that very interesting.
It was the first time I had ever even heard about Buddhism, and I was eager to learn more. I asked my friend what Buddhism was, but he didn’t know, but he said that he had heard that Buddhists were very disciplined and dedicated people.
At first I thought to learn to use Zen as a discipline to refine my character and will in order to help me become steadfast in my efforts to help my people and crush their oppressors. But my ideas were starting to conflict, and I began for the first time to question whether my way of life, my gang activities, actually helped my people. This wasn’t easy because I had always had 110 percent devotion to my way of life, even if it cost me my life.
I needed to learn more about Buddhism. In the library, I came across a book by Lama Thubten Yeshe called Introduction to Tantra. I didn’t know what tantra was, but I found the subtitle very appealing: A Vision of Totality. I liked very much the idea of totality. What really affected me was the section on the three principles of the Buddhist path: renunciation, bodhicitta and emptiness, especially bodhicitta. Lama Yeshe really shook my heart. I had never heard such a compassionate outlook so logically explained. It completely penetrated my heart and slapped me in the face simultaneously. I was forced to see that much of what I had done with my life was senseless; that my gangster way of life only brought more problems to my people, it didn’t help them at all, although that was always my intention.
Even though I had been totally into the gang lifestyle, I truly can say that my true state of mind, or being, had never changed ever since I began to walk and talk, maybe even before that. I’d always gained joy and happiness from doing for others and seeing them happy – but, of course, only the people I called friends.
It was so clear to me, after reading Lama Yeshe, that everyone wanted to be happy, and that if I truly wanted to make others happy I would have to stop labeling people friends and enemies, which is what my gang activities had been based on. I realized that I had to develop compassion for every living being, not just my friends.
Reading about Buddhism was like meeting myself. After reading Lama Yeshe’s book, I felt very clear minded and exalted, as if I could answer any question anyone wished to ask me. And I thought to myself, “Buddhism is what I’ve been looking for all my life.” How right my precious girl had been! She really knew my heart when she said that I was “searching for something that would help me make everything better for everyone without leaving anyone behind.” I decided that even though I was not Oriental, I would somehow find a way to walk the path of the Buddha. (I had no idea that Western people were Buddhists.)
That very same day I happened to watch on TV a program about a group of Tibetan monks who visited a juvenile camp like the one I served time at when I was younger. The monks showed the juveniles how to make sand mandalas in their own style but using traditional Tibetan methods. And they talked to them about universal compassion and did some chanting.
Apparently the visit of the monks completely changed the previously hostile atmosphere at the camp to an atmosphere of peace and compassion, and it stayed that way for many months. Everyone at the camp, inmates and staff, were amazed. Watching it, I experienced a deep euphoria.
I began to try to meditate when I went to yard and in my cell when my celly went to the yard. And I thought deeply about what I’d read in Lama Yeshe’s book and about how I viewed things myself. It became clear to me that if I truly wanted to help my people, there was no way I could remain true to the standards I had lived my life by until then. It seemed ridiculous to even think that the gang life brought even the tiniest benefit to my people; in fact, it was clear that it was a major cause for my people’s suffering and their inability to raise themselves out o f their situation.
So I had to make a choice, that was clear: I was either going to walk the path of the Buddha or continue to adhere to my old way of life, even though I could see that it only led to more suffering and bloodshed. I decided to do some research on Buddhism and its history. First I read The Three Pillars of Zen by Roshi Philip Kapleau, which a white friend of mine lent me. It was very impressive, but it said nothing about Tibetan Buddhism.
Then I came across The Wisdom of the Buddha, by Jean Bossilier. This was what I wanted. The author was a non-Buddhist historian and scholar and his book was a history of Buddhism in general and Lord Buddha in particular. It started off with a brief overview of how ancient India was in the early sixth century BC, just before Lord Buddha was born; his last two past lives as a bodhisattva before being reborn in Tushita and into the world as Siddhartha; the life story of Lord Buddha with brief anthropological findings and small maps; and an overview of the history and development of the Hinayana and Mahayana, including Tantrayana, and how they branched out and developed in Tibet, China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, Ceylon, etc. I really enjoyed this book because it stuck to its facts and findings.
After reading this I was truly convinced of the authenticity of Buddhism and it served as sufficient grounds for me to make my choice to start my walk on the path of Lord Buddha. Then I had to decide what tradition of Mahayana Buddhism I wanted to study and practice.
What I had read on Zen Buddhism was very appealing and complete in itself, but the little that I had read on Tibetan Buddhism seemed to present Lord Buddha’s teachings in their most complete form, and Tibetan Buddhism seemed to emphasize the fully open and dedicated heart of bodhicitta. So, all there was left for me to do was seek out more books on Tibetan Buddhism to determine if this tradition was indeed the one I would follow for the rest of this life and those to come.
After watching the TV program about the monks, I had written to the FPMT, whose address was at the back of Lama Yeshe’s book, asking them for help in my studies and practice and a copy of their magazine, Mandala. In July last year, soon after I made the decision to find more books on Tibetan Buddhism, I received a reply from a nun in the FPMT, Thubten Kunsel, who happened to be a student of Lama Yeshe. She sent me copies of Mandala and a copy of Wisdom Energy by Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. She said she would be delighted to correspond with me and would even try and find a way to come visit me.
I took this as a very special sign of my connection with Tibetan Buddhism, and it completed my decision to fully dedicate the rest of this life and the ones to come, 110 percent, to walking the path of Lord Buddha and attaining complete enlightenment for the sake of all living beings.
It’s now eighteen months since I began devoting my days to study and practice, with the help of my precious friend Thubten Kunsel. Next, she sent me Pabongka Rinpoche’s Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, How to Meditate and Reincarnation: the Boy Lama. Liberation, a detailed presentation of the lam-rim, was the greatest book I had ever read! Every time I read it I felt full of so much energy. And my meditation practices brought me great tranquillity and clarity of mind. I felt so very blessed and fortunate to have come into contact with a path as great as Buddhism.
At first I wanted to burst out and tell as many people as I could about this great and wonderful treasure I had found and that I knew so many people were not even aware of. But something told me that Dharma shouldn’t be presented in that way, so I decided to keep my thoughts to myself and let others know what type of books I had received and that they were welcome to read them.
My precious friend Thubten Kunsel explained to me how to do my daily practices, from the moment I wake up until the time I go to sleep at night, including prostrations. Her words were very clear and explicit. I was so grateful for her wonderful advice, and it benefited my mind very much. And I was very happy to start doing purification practices such as prostrations to the Thirty-five Buddhas.
I truly felt deep regret for the all the harm I had done to so many people in my life because of my ignorance and my blindness to the beauty of life. And I deeply regretted the suffering I had brought upon the parents and families of the people I had harmed, who had enough pain and sufferings to live with already. I could almost feel their pain and sorrow.
I could feel especially the pain of my dear mother, who did her very best to provide and care for my brothers, sister and me, though she had to go without food and other material things herself many times, as well as teach us right from wrong. Who washed pots and pans and scrubbed filthy floors on her hands and knees in low-down bars for many hours at a time when I was young in order for us to have food to eat, clean clothes to wear and a place to sleep. Who loved me with all her heart and might and tried to make up for the love she felt I was unable to receive from my father and others. But whom I ignorantly caused to shed endless tears and to have many sleepless nights, worrying sick about whether I would make it home alive after running around the violent streets all day. Whose heart I broke by turning my back on her and taking her love for granted. A woman I owe my very life to.
Oh, how I pray that one day I may pay her back for the selfless and boundless love she has given me and truly show her how much love I have stored in my heart for her and truly free her heart from all the pain and suffering that it has undergone since beginningless time and open it up to the greatest bliss of enlightenment.
I knew there was nothing I could do to heal the deep wounds I had inflicted on the hearts of so many people, but I vowed that I would never again harm another living being, and that I would dedicate myself entirely to the welfare of all living beings.
In November last year I had the good fortune to meet Thubten Kunsel. It was a very special day for me that I’ll never forget, for it was the beginning, or should I say continuation, of a very precious friendship. At first I was a bit excited and nervous, because it was the first time I had met a Buddhist nun, or any Buddhist for that matter (and it was my first visit with anyone for more than three years). I wasn’t so sure about what words I should use or how I should act, but she made me feel very comfortable and warm inside. I was very happy.
After our visit – which was for just two hours and with glass between us – I was full of inspiration to continue studying and practicing Lord Buddha’s teachings with vigor. I would spend most of the day studying and meditating on my bunk, and when I went to the yard or my celly did I would do the prostration practice to the Thirty-five Buddhas, physically as well as mentally. From the beginning I liked to memorize my prayers and practices, as well as various parts of the books I was studying. And I made my first mala – using the Os from Cheerios cereal!
I would eagerly watch anything on TV about Buddhism. I saw several programs at this time, but one especially touched my heart and made me feel closely connected to other Buddhists. It was “Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha,” about a pilgrimage to holy places such as Lumbini, where Buddha was born, and Bodhgaya, where he got enlightened. It was a true blessing for me.
In December, my precious Thubten Kunsel added a meditation on Mother Tara to my practices, and she said that she had contacted Geshe Lama Konchog at Kopan Monastery in Nepal, who had been a close friend of Lama Yeshe, and asked him if there was anything I should do to help me get out of prison. He told her that I should recite The Praises to the Twenty-one Taras every day and that she should find someone to speak on my behalf – meaning a lawyer.
Although it doesn’t bring me the slightest uneasiness that I might never see the streets of North America again in this life, I had by now developed a strong aspiration to find a way to get out of prison, become a monk, study in a monastery and complete a geshe degree. Then, I felt, I could truly help establish the Dharma and monasticism in the West; I firmly believe monastic communities throughout the West are essential.
Reading about the difficulties that Western monks and nuns have had over the past twenty-five years of trying to help establish the Buddhadharma in the West really saddened my heart. But hearing about such adversities had a powerful effect on my mind, filling me with determination to do what I can to spread Lord Buddha’s precious Dharma and Sangha in this world. If I had been willing to die proudly for the name of a town that I didn’t even own (the neighborhood of my gang), how much more willing was I now to die for something that I really believed in with my entire being and that has brought so much meaning into my life. “There’s no half-stepping in this game!” we would say in the gang world. That’s definitely how I feel now about the Dharma!
At the end of the year I took Refuge with my precious Thubten Kunsel and took the five lay vows: no killing of any being, no lying, no stealing, no alcohol or drugs and no sexual misconduct. I received the name Lozang Tendar from the great Ribur Rinpoche, who, Thubten Kunsel said, chose the name on Lama Tsong Khapa day. After this I was filled with intense inspiration and my mind felt very clear. I had the strong desire to do more meditation and purification practices, but was limited by the fact that I shared the cell. But I continued to study Lord Buddha’s teachings – by now Thubten Kunsel had sent me more books – and I made many prayers to Buddha Tara. And I tried to practice mind transformation.
By then I had been thinking about when it would be appropriate to let my people in my surroundings know that I was a fully dedicated Buddhist, and that I had given up my old way of life. But first, I had wanted to make sure that I had a good understanding of certain Buddhist principles in case they asked me any questions. In January, for the first time, I told my celly about my new ways of thinking.
We talked for several hours. I explained how I now felt that there was more to life than being caught up by materialistic things and achievements and self-centeredness and the pursuits of our gangster fantasy. I was surprised that he agreed with much of what I said. There was a such a warm feeling in my heart during our talk, and it felt as if the prison had faded away. He said that he, too, had been thinking deeply about these things, trying to find ways that he could better himself and work for our people. (Thubten Kunsel had told me that it was auspicious that my celly and I had moved into cell 108 – a special number for Buddhists – around the time I started writing to her. Our cell 108 certainly felt blessed now!)
My celly, too, is now devoted to the Dharma and is being helped in his studies and practice by Thubten Kunsel. He took Refuge with her and received the name Thubten Kyabdro from Lama Zopa Rinpoche. For myself, I took all this as a blessing from Mother Tara, that she had removed the obstacles to my being able to practice more fully. It was so good to be able to practice and talk openly about the Dharma with someone from a similar background.
On February 4 this year I turned twenty-one. My precious friend Thubten Kunsel sent me a picture of the Merit Field and some money, and I received a card with many birthday wishes from members of Tse Chen Ling, the FPMT San Francisco center. I was very happy.
I also received a long letter of advice from Lama Zopa Rinpoche that had started off on one card but ended up filling six! He told me that “prison” was just a concept: it’s “what you label and how you use the place. For another mind it is the same as a hermitage.” I understood this: I already felt fortunate that I had the conditions that allowed me to practice without interruption. I had nothing else to think about, no need to work or get money; people brought me my food, everything was taken care of.
As Rinpoche also said, “. . .you can use the Buddhism of the Mahayana tradition to see your bad circumstances as supportive circumstances to purify your negative karma and to achieve enlightenment for sentient beings. You should realize actually that the situation you are in is the best situation, given to you by the police, the court people and the people who were also involved. Actually these people are helping you by having put you in this situation, supporting you to develop your mind in the path to enlightenment and to finish all the suffering and its causes.”
He said that this external prison was nothing compared with the inner prison that most people lived in: “a prison of ego self-centered mind; jealous mind and desire prison; and. . .a prison of anger.”
Rinpoche also told me to do 200,000 prostrations, which would give me “quick realizations and an open heart.” Plus 400,000 mandala offerings and 20,000 Vajrasattva mantras. And he advised me to study and meditate on the lam-rim, using Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, starting with guru devotion. I felt truly blessed to receive advice from such a great being.
In August, Francisco and I moved to separate cells, and I write from that cell now. I will get out onto the main line – the general population of the prison – soon, and I had a great desire to spend more time by myself so that I could reflect and meditate on Lord Buddha’s teachings. I want to be able to integrate them into all my actions so that I can truly serve others while faced with the adversities that are bound to come my way.
Many inmates tend to act aggressively towards people who walk a spiritual path, and now that I’ve given up my gang life style, there is the strong possibility that I will be attacked, including with weapons. I pray that I can accept whatever abuse I receive from my precious mother sentient beings and be able to look upon them with great compassion and love.
This, of course, includes the people I used to see as my enemies: snitches, rivals, child molesters and the rest. It is clear to me now that these people for whom I’ve held so much hate in my heart, only want to have happiness and avoid suffering, just like me. It is senseless to me now to harbor bad feelings for them or to wish them even the tiniest harm; may I only help them.
I fill my days and nights with practice and study. I like to get up before dawn, when there is quiet – a rare thing, even here where there are only sixteen guys. The noise is not nearly as intense as in the general population, where there are hundreds of guys together, but most of the time it is still bedlam. I divide my days between prostrations and other purification practices, lam-rim mediation, visualization mediation, mantra recitation, study and memorization; memorizing Pabongka Rinpoche’s lam-rim outline has helped me very much in my lam-rim meditations.
My studies are divided between lam-rim, mind transformation – including teachings on purification and vows – and philosophy, and some basic tantra.
I have had several more visits from my precious Thubten Kunsel during the past year. She never fails to fill my heat with joy and inspiration. After her visits I am always filled with intense energy to completely renounce the eight world dharmas and strive with all my heart and might to reach buddhahood for all my precious mother sentient beings. On her next visit I will take the bodhisattva vows.
In July, she added something to my Tara meditation. Just before the dedication prayers as the end, she said to visualize my root guru at my heart chakra and then recite this prayer:
Please Root Guru, glorious and precious,
Remain upon a lotus at my heart,
And looking after me through your great kindness,
Grant me siddhis of body, speech and mind.
Until then I did not know who my root guru was. I would always imagine the deity as the guru, and I made many prayers to recognize him. When I added this new part to my Tara practice, I was thinking, “Who should I visualize at my heart?” Instantly His Holiness the Dalai Lama popped into my heart chakra with his famous smile and blessed my Tara practice with his holy presence. It was such a blissful experience, so I’ve continue to allow him to remain at my heart chakra and to feel his presence during all of my practices, as well as at all times now.
I’ve been reading two books of His Holiness lately, a lam-rim commentary, The Path to Bliss, and a commentary on Bodhicaryavatara, A Flash of Lighning in the Dark of Night. They both go straight to the depths of my heart! His Holiness truly has a special way of presenting Lord Buddha’s teachings: so clear and powerful and to the point. His words rise so much energy in me.
At one point recently, while I was walking in the yard reading The Path to Bliss, my eyes filled with tears. I put the book down on my coat and started to prostrate with a very deep devotion for my most precious guru. Tears don’t come easily to me eyes, and it has been a long time since they flowed down my cheeks like that, but these were tears I could not fight off. I have never had this sort of feeling before: incredibly strong and deep devotion and deep compassion simultaneously.
I have written to His Holiness requesting to be his student. I can only pray from the depths of my heart that he accepts me and guides me on the path to enlightenment during this life and all future lives so that, like him, I can truly bring benefit to my suffering mother sentient beings.
Whether I get out of prison or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that I benefit others, wherever I am.
I am full of gratitude to many people: the FPMT for their support and for offering me and 40 other prisoners free subscriptions to Mandala: it is my connection with the Buddhist world; the IMI, the Sangha of the FPMT, for offering me their newspaper; Wisdom Publications for offering their books to prisoners free and their kind benefactor who enables this to happen; Shambhala Publications and Snow Lion Publications, wo offer their books at discounted rates and Snow Lion for their newsletter and book catalogue; and Root Institute for offering me their newsletter.
My Dharma brother Francisco who has always been very kind to me and helped me face and gain more control over my prideful mind; my Dharma brother Peter Iseli for his many photocopies and photos of his masterpiece thankgas of the precious buddhas and his brief inspirational letters; my Dharma brother Ueli Minder for his very precious photo of His Holiness the Dalai Lama; my Dharma sister Diana Vélez for helping me better my Spanish and her letters of inspiration; and the many people who have made offerings to Thubten Kunsel during the past year to help cover the costs involved in her making the eight-hour drive to visit with me.
My older sister Lorraine for her prayers and support; and my very sweet friend Janell for his kind hear, support and prayers.
The great Ribur Rinpoche, Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche and Geshe Lama Konchog for their prayers and guidance; and my precious Thubten Kunsel, my sister, my dearest friend and my refuge, who has brought me something more valuable than a wish-fulfilling gem: Lord Buddha’s teachings. She remains right in the center of my heart, right next to His Holiness.
And my precious guru His Holiness the Dalai Lama for being the greatest inspiration of my life, the very source of all my happiness and goodness and the cause of my developing a fully open and dedicated heart for all living beings.
I pray from the very depths of my heart that all of you who read this, and all my mother sentient beings who are as vast as space, may be liberated from all suffering and delusions and achieve the wonderful, unsurpassed bliss of supreme enlightenment.
On October 8, I was informed by the prison authorities that I am still considered very dangerous and therefore would never be getting out of the security housing unit of Pelican Bay as long as I am in prison (and I have three consecutive life sentences). In other words, I will not be let out onto the main line at any time in the future.
Actually, they’ve done me a favor, even though they may think they’re causing me great suffering. Practicing Dharma on the mail line would be far more difficult, because of the omnipresent tension between the various races and gangs. Being in isolation in my cell here is a pure realm for me, truly the best environment to help me develop my mind in renunciation, bodhichitta and emptiness in order for me to be of benefit to others.
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- Buddhism Breaks into Prison
- Writings from Death Row
- Searching for a Way to Leave No One Behind: The Transformation of a Mexican Gangster
- Letters from Prison: Jimmy Tribble
- Ode to John Schwartz
- Letters from Prison: J.W. Johnson
- A Day in the Life of an FPMT Lama
- His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the “eternal optimist”
- Letters from Prison: Paul Dewey
- Finding Freedom: Practicing Dharma in Prison
- Home Truths: November-December 1997
- The Passing Scene: November-December 1997
- Lama Zopa on the Road in America
- Letters from Prison: Timothy Haremza
- Beauty is in the “I” of the Beholder
- Searching for a Way to Leave No One Behind: The Transformation of a Mexican Gangster
- Maitreya Project tackles the engineering challenges involved in building a statue to last for 1000 years
- Thirty people to start seven-yearFPMT Master’s Program
- Letters from Prison: Milo Rusimovic
- Lama Osel’s News
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- Preliminary Practices by the Zillion
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- ‘Subduing the Mind, Actualizing the Path’ Resource Area
- Maitreya Buddha Statues Photo Gallery
- Khensur Rinpoche Lama Lhundrup Rigsel
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In my mind, one of the beauties of Buddhism is that it offers us a practical training for our mind. It does not say, ‘Bodhicitta is fantastic because Buddha said so!’ Instead, it gives us the methods for developing such an attitude and we can then see for ourselves whether it works or not, whether it is fantastic or not.
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