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When I was a teenager, I reached the point of critical mass. I grew up in the South Bronx during the eighties. Needless to say, I came up in an extremely rough area, during a very harsh period. I encountered particularly challenging times during those awkward teenage years. Though they were just as hard as anyone else’s, I also faced a unique set of circumstances that perhaps others would not understand.
I looked like a white person, but I was latino in a mostly latino and black neighborhood. One major issue I endured was the constant threat of violence on the streets because of how I looked and behaved. I was an ambitious young man who wanted to get an education and move ahead in life. However, the constant violence kept me on the edge, and I often struggled with how to reconcile this. Why were my “own” people beating me up, while calling me “white boy?”
The other problem was that in my neighborhood, the path that I was taking implied weakness, and it made me even more of a constant target. I was a sheep among wolves if you will. Surviving those days required special skills for someone like me.
One day, a group of hard-core gang members approached me; they knew my circumstances and offered me their protection in exchange for loyalty. I started to hang out with these guys, and suddenly; people did not trouble me as often on the streets. I began to learn the rules of the gang, and started the process of becoming a full-fledged member.
There was one time my services were requested by some of the junior gang members. I was asked if I wanted to join them in resolving a small situation with a rival gang. I knew the way things worked, and I knew that I had to prove myself on the battlefield. If we were going to go forward with this, I had no choice, I agreed to join them.
We all took a short train ride in search of the target. They found him relatively easily and approached him with some questions. Apparently, they already knew the answers because before the target could even respond, fists were flying into his face. He attempted to make a run for it; he could sense that I was reluctant about all this. He made the logical decision and ran towards the newbie’s direction.
Though it may have seemed logical, this was a strategic mistake. It all came down to me to stop his escape, and I had the most to prove. I immediately reacted; I blocked his way and slammed his face into the bricks of the building. At that point, he knew he made a mistake, then more fists flew. I saw his head and face slam into the bricks from the force of the punches. That’s when the blood began to flow. As we held him cornered, I watched all of this unfold as if looking through a window, I was in disbelief.
Am I a part of this? Holy crap, I am a part of this. I thought to myself that I had homework to finish, why was I there, doing this?
After several moments of pounding on the cornered kid’s face, the gang members told us to let him go. The kid made a threatening motion to wait, as he ran into his building. Moments later, he returned with twice as many people as our small group had, and they had weapons.
Am I really here? What about my math homework?
This was the time to make an exit. The official gang members threw up the gang sign, and we all ran for the train station. The enemy group was quicker, and they caught up to them very fast. However, some of us faster ones had a different set of issues. We were caught by the police as we jumped the subway turnstile. We were now being held in one of the secret rooms in the subway platform.
One of the officers said: “What’s your name kid? Don’t lie to us, we’ll know! Oh, by the way, a bunch of n***ers are about to beat up your sp*c friends. Want to go help them? We’ll let you all fight, then take in the winners on assault charges. Let the animals kill themselves; that’s what I always say.”
The police officers continued to look on through the small slit in the door. Then they saw the weapons, now things became serious. The police officers ran out with their weapons at the ready, and all the individuals scattered. The few of us who were caught by these officers got off easy. The cops gave each of us a ticket for the fare evasion, but did not arrest us for the gang fight. That was my first lucky break, but there is more.
Later that week, one of the top-ranking gang leaders found out about the incident. He approached me and inquired about it. I was proud, naturally I thought I was about to receive praise from one of the older gang leaders.
After sharing the details of the story with him, I was shocked at the outcome. The leader slapped me on the face, grabbed me by the shirt, and told me that I was forbidden from ever hanging out with those gang members again.
I was confused, there I was expecting recognition for helping my potential gang members, but this gang leader was scolding me for making what he called a stupid decision. He told me that I had great potential, he told me that I was not like the others.
After slapping me up, he stated that he knew and understood the reasons why I was doing this, but that he could not cosign on the ruining of my life. The gang leader reiterated that I was not to partake in any further gang activities, and that if I did, he would personally green light a beat down! Basically, that means he’d get the gang members to kick my butt.
His final words on the topic were the following: “If you need help, you come to me directly. I’ll take care of it.” I nodded and went home feeling dejected and humiliated. As I sit at home some decades later, I understand him. He lost his life a few years after our talk, and I realize that this could have easily been me!
There were many factors that have led me to where I am today, but that’s the story of how a gang leader helped save my life. I am forever grateful to him for his tough love on that day.