I realized early on in life that every one has a choice on what path they want to take in life. I was Seven years old when I knew what choice I would make. Memories of my childhood are a bit hazy. It’s probably because I started smoking pot at a very young age; I think that was the start of my “developmental” years. There are memories that I can revisit and vividly recall every word that was spoken, like a movie reel being rewound, like a song being replayed, I remember tones of voices, accents of words, emotion, and I remember all of those things in some of my memories. These memories haunt me, they eat away at me and make me wish I could go back in time and react differently or change the course of the people I love. I take solace in the fact that I feel like I’ve made some right choices in my life, I truly wish I could say the same for others.
I grew up in San Juan Capistrano, California. The city is known for it’s mission and beautiful basilica. When I tell people I grew up in south Orange County they immediately think of beautiful beaches, multimillion-dollar homes overlooking the ocean, strip malls, Mercedes Bens, and all things that acquired wealth can get you. These things exist in San Juan Capistrano and they always have. But behind the Orange curtain there is a hotbed of cultural heterogeneity. San Juan was an entirely different city when I was growing up. While up in the hills behind those gates that guarded the million dollar homes where families that went to sleep peacefully were calm and quiet; the neighborhoods below occupied by immigrant families of first generation Chicano men and women were swelling with violence.
Disenfranchised youth have always been the make up of gangs. In cities where wealth and poverty are so strikingly apparent, people want to belong to something bigger than them selves. It is one of the only ways to come to accept your lot in life. Gang culture has a lure that one can’t really explain; it’s romanticized in the mind because the outlaw-anti authority-camaraderie that one can only hope to feel at least once in their life is a reality to those living within the culture. Gangs in San Juan were a space for kids with absent parents to congregate and feel like someone cared for them; they cared about each other and if someone hurt one of them then retaliation was necessary. Imagine the closest thing you feel to a family member is killed by a group of people who you are told and taught to hate from the very second you are initiated. Revenge is what drives you, pain is familiar to you, and your future seems like it is not of any importance, because you are one of them.
My brother was one of those hurt kids; he was born to my mother, his dad left him and her when he was born and was hardly around while he was growing up. My mom had one more child with someone else before she met my father, and they’ve been together ever since. My brother was a fatherless kid with an unclear future ahead of him. Like I said; San Juan was different back then. Everyone knew someone in the gang or had a family member in the gang. The attraction to a group of friends willing to do anything for you isn’t hard to understand. My father and brother did not get along and I know my father feels some kind of regret for how things ended. I always got along with my brother. While he was out I used to sneak into his room and listen to his music that I knew I shouldn’t have been listening to at that age, but I was attracted to it. I fell in love with rap music. I fell in love with the message, because I knew my brother was living that lifestyle. I wanted to be like my brother. I looked up to him.
Eventually things at home got a little too out of hand and the tension between my brother and father got to be too much to handle. My brother was kicked out of the house and sent to live with my grandparents who lived in down town San Juan. Now I want to pause right here and have you imagine how my brother felt. He had no father growing up. He grew up in a household with two working parents. He was a part of a group of people that cared about each other and shared a bond with each other that no one else could be apart of. He is kicked out of his home. And by now I’m sure you can see this perfect storm brewing in his head.
I don’t exactly remember how long it had been since I saw my brother before he went away, in my memory it feels like days. I do remember the last time I saw him, when he got kicked out. He was angry and punched a hole in the wall. My grandparents came and picked him up and I knew I wouldn’t see him often anymore. I didn’t know it would be the last time I would see him free.
Not long after my brother moved in with my grandparents, he and 3 of his friends took park in events that would cause an everlasting ripple effect on 5 families, and completely change the trajectory of all of our lives. The story goes like this: weeks prior to that night, a member of San Juan was shot at in his truck with his two kids in the passenger’s seat. The shooting was by the rival gang from San Clemente. In gang culture, women and children are not to be harmed in these turf wars.
On Sunday October 6th 1996 my brother was hanging out at the local park where him and all of his friends hung out. One of his friends spotted out of towners at a gas station in town. This was a perfect time for revenge or to find out who shot at two kids in a car. So the idea was to let this altercation be an initiation for a new recruit, a 15-year-old kid. The 15 year old was given a gun in case things got a little too crazy. My brother took the gun from the kid and told him to sit in the back of the car; he was too young to handle something of this magnitude. They all got in the car and they rolled up to the gas station, and as they were pulling up; the other guys were pulling on to the free way. The group of friends decided that they were going to go looking for trouble, not on their turf. My brother recalls driving passed the freeway exits, watching them go by in short controlled bursts. Palm trees lined the free way and as the mission basilica faded away in their rearview mirror they knew that they were heading into no mans land. They lost the people they were following on the freeway. So they went to go look for them at the known hang out spots. My brother knew San Clemente, his dad was from there, and his other grandmother lived there. When the search seemed like it was coming to an end, my brother suggested one last spot that he knew of. They drove up to the spot and no one was there, as they sat at a red light ready to enter on to the freeway; they heard a whistle. They pulled out off the red light and approached a park where three kids were walking up and asking where they were from. “San Juan, Varrio Viejo” the guys in the car yelled. Knowing that would set them off, they got out of the car. That’s when they realized one of them had a gun. My brother knew that this was a decision that meant life or death; it was either he or the other guy with the gun. One boy was shot and fatally wounded. It was only a matter of seconds before the guys got piled into the car and drove off. When my brother told me this story, his words would pause in the most calculated places, as if he was living this event all over again. The way he said he knew this would be the last time he was free, the way he said he looked up at the palm trees that covered the rival’s streets that are so similar to ours. The vote was made to try to make it back to San Juan. I think they knew that they weren’t going to make it, but when you’re in trouble; home is where you feel safest. My brother told me that he knew he was done so he rolled a joint while Bone Thugs in Harmony (one of his favorite rap groups, and mine considering that was the main CD I looked for in his room while he was gone) played in the background. It didn’t take long for the highway patrol to do their job. My brother and 3 of his friends were stopped under the Ortega highway overpass on the 5 going northbound.
That night my mom, dad, second oldest brother, and I all went to celebrate my second oldest brothers birthday. I can still remember that night so clear. We ate at a local Pizza Hut and played arcade games. I played Bart Simpson on a Simpsons arcade game that was covered with oil from greasy hands. We spent a lot of nights at that Pizza Hut, but the mood in the air that night was different. We left early that night because my mom wasn’t feeling well. Looking back, I know it was intuition; a mother feeling their offspring in trouble. The way home took a little bit longer than usual, as there was traffic. I remember there was a traffic stop under us that seemed like a big deal. Traffic was at a dead stop as we made a left onto off of the Ortega exit onto the 5 northbound. My mom couldn’t sleep that night; she woke up vomiting, and had bad anxiety.
Monday October 7th started out like a normal Monday. I remember waking up and starting my morning routine of begging my mom to let me stay home from school (I’ve always hated it). The phone rang; my mom answers “hello?” and remember when I said that there are some memories that I vividly remember? This is one of those memories. I remember exactly how she said “hello?” so innocently, as if it was the most innocent thing that could have come out of her mouth at that moment. She paused for a few seconds and she let out a big scream, “my baby! My baby!” my dad asked what was wrong. My mom fell to the floor crying. Even at the age of 7 I knew this was one of those turning points in my life. She told us that Michael had been involved in a murder and he’s in jail and doesn’t know if he’s ever going to get out. I remember the panic that she went into. She called my grandparents. She called her boss. She needed to take us to school. Life would never be the same again.
My mom spent most of what she had saved on a lawyer for Michael. She even borrowed money. We never had that much money, but she made it work. Michael and three of his friends all got charged with murder or second-degree murder. Two of them were 17, one 16, and the other 15. Michael was 17 years old when he went to jail. He was 17 when I last saw him outside. He is now serving a life sentence with out the possibility of parole.
A year later on the anniversary of my brother’s actions, his best friend was kidnapped by Varrio Chico (San Clemente) and tortured. His San Juan tattoos were cut off with a knife, and his tongue cut out as well. He was left against the wall facing the train tracks right across the street from the local private Christian school. I think that was the nail on the coffin of that era of gang violence in San Juan. There have been multiple gang related deaths since then, but not as frequent or as brutal as the mid 90’s.
I’m not sure what the point of me writing this is. I think I needed to purge my self of all these conflicting thoughts in my head. I remember for a while after I wanted to get revenge on these people that made my brother do what he did to get put away forever. I remember wanting to be a part of that group of people that cared about each other, that went down with together. My mother was caught up in my brother’s court case the rest of my elementary school years. I remember asking my self if anyone else in my school was going through the same things I was going through. I remember one instance where my 3rd grade teacher tried to get on my case about me not doing my homework, I finally broke down and cried to her about how I spent the night visiting my brother in jail, talking to him behind glass.
I know my mom tried to juggle her imprisoned son, her two growing boys and growing daughter, a job, and her marriage. We all came out ok, not unscathed, but ok. I just knew I never wanted to make my mom feel the way my brother made her feel, I made that decision at a young age. Later on, years after my brother had settled into his new life; he confided in me that none of his actions were worth it. That him and his friends were a group of hurt kids channeling their anger in violent ways. Few if any of his friends have talked to him since that day. His position is a constant reminder of a terrible decision he made when he was 17, and that he has seen the aftermath of his actions and the ways it’s left it’s mark on my family.
He’s spent more time in prison than he has spent outside of one. So I try my best to live for him.