This is the third and final installation in a three-part series on gangs.
The life 16-year-old Joey is living now couldn’t be more different than what it was a year ago. Now days, the teen fills his days and nights with extra homework and studying, volunteering with a local youth group, and working with his school’s ROTC chapter, which is miles away from the days when he was running with a Norteño street gang. Back then, Joey (not his real name) spent his days and nights selling drugs on the streets and fighting for his gang.
“I have a lot of regrets from that time in my life and a lot of ground to make up,” Joey said.
For Joey the path towards the gang life began like it does for so many kids, out of a search for belonging and companionship. His father was frequently out of the picture and when his mother died unexpectedly, Joey, than an 11-year-old boy, was essentially on his own and desperate to feel the sense of security that a family can provide. He found that security by bonding with a group of boys in his neighborhood that had a similar lack of family connections.
A smart boy with a penchant for the history of Roman armies, Joey was one of the principal founders of the gang. The name of the gang is not being used to help protect Joey’s identity. The newly formed gang affiliated themselves with the Norteños and started sporting red clothing.
Joey, a previously good student, started ditching school to hang out with his new found friends. By the age of 12 he had been in countless fights and carried around a pair of brass knuckles and a switchblade knife for protection. Kids who had once been his friends were now his targets.
“I would fight anyone who would talk about our gang, and I would pick on whoever was vulnerable,” Joey said.
In addition to the fighting, Joey was drinking on a daily basis and had also become a moneymaker for the gang by spending his nights out on a street corner selling dope.
Looking back on those days, Joey remembers it as a stressful time period. “You were always having to watch your back,” he said. “Every day I would wonder if this was the day that I would get shot, caught, or something worse.”
Joey’s road back to redemption began on a night when a bullet from a rival’s gun lodged itself into the back of Joey’s 15-year-old friend. The teen was shot by a group of boys wanting to know what gang he claimed. Within minutes of the shooting, the grapevine on the street had reached Joey and he ran to the scene. Afraid to move closer because of the police presence, Joey said he stood a few blocks away and watched as emergency personnel worked to save his friend’s life.
“That was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to watch,” Joey said. “I never wanted to go through something like that again. It had my head spinning.”
As a child, faith had always been a part of Joey’s life and at this crossroad, he said he turned to God to help him find his way again.
“I prayed all the time and each day asked God to just let me get past this day,” Joey said. He says the prayers worked and since putting himself into the service of God, his life has made a complete turnaround. He’s active in his church and is planning on joining the Navy when he graduates and become a pilot.
“I feel like I have a whole new life ahead of me now.”
To contact Sabra Stafford, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 634-9141 ext. 2002.