Sleeping with one eye open

How one young man escaped a life of gang banging to pursue an education


Photos by Damian Jimenez and Denisse Duran


“Where you from, blood?” This is the first question, yelled in a menacing pitch, that I was asked by a gritty young gangster from West Side Piru, an infamous blood gang that originated in Compton, Calif. in the 1970s.
“I don’t bang,” I replied as I chucked my head and shoulders up as if I were doing chin ups to show I’m not a pushover. He continued to size me up as I proceeded past him. It was my first day of high school and the beginning of my journey as a young man. In that moment, I knew the gang lifestyle of Compton was more than a hobby to those affiliated; it was an urban warrior’s creed and a way of belonging.

Compton, known to many as the “Hub City,” has been a city known for its deep-rooted gang culture and edgy youthful demographic. From the likes of rap pioneers such as Dr.Dre and the late great Eazy-E, celebrity athletes like Serena and Venus Williams, and a new generation of rap stars like Kendrick Lamar, dreams and success can be reached for some who come from the hood. But the road out is rarely an easy one.

I was raised in Compton by a misguided single mother of two boys who never learned how to raise them. My father was a deadbeat dad I never knew, and I quickly became a product of my peers, smoking weed, cutting class and chasing girls. These were my vices. Having the freedom to rebel and no cares in the world felt good until I was involved in my first brutal fist fight.

I remember being drawn out like a bad card in a poker game by a short Mexican who was known to be a firecracker of craziness. I was minding my own business when this black hooded, beanie wearing, chipped tooth gangster walked up to me. “You think you hard, huh?” he asked as he trash talked me and egged me on. Time seemed so slow at that point but I didn’t break until he pushed me. Adrenaline filled the air like bad smog as a fist-to-face brawl equal to an ultimate fighting match took place. Feeling my bare knuckles crash against his sallow cheek bones while taking a hit to the chin was a turning point. After gradually taking the advantage by backing him up against a wall and sweat and anguish dripped from my pores, I realized I didn’t know what I was capable of but more importantly, that if I were to join a gang, spontaneous fights would just be the tip of the iceberg. Raiding homes, carrying a 9mm, 38 specials, getting separated from family and friends or even ending up six feet deep in a casket were all risks I’d have to be willing to take to be a gangster. Somehow, I walked away hurt, but not broken.

With so much going on in Compton it was hard to think straight but I managed to see better days and graduate Centennial High School at 17. I had a passion for writing and music, but pushed my pursuit of a higher education to the side to chase cash. I quickly learned that finding employment as a young black man was not going to be easy. By nineteen, I had been turned down countless times for employment. I remember submitting an application to work part time at a Subway restaurant in Torrance, eight miles away from Compton, just to keep a little money in my pockets. I walked in dressed professionally, application in hand and approached the cafeteria-like counter, greeted the first employee I saw, and asked to see the manager. He came out and looked at me strange and wide eyed as he greeted me without a handshake. “Is everything filled out fully?” he asked quickly as he looked over the application. “Yes sir,” I said. And then he boldly asked, “So how long have you been living in Compton?” “Pretty much my whole life,” I said. “Well…we’re not exactly hiring at the moment but you should try applying at one of our restaurants in your area.” He handed me the application back and I thought to myself, “What the fuck just happened?”

It made me stop and realize that an education was my only route out of Compton but I remained fixated on the flashy lifestyle only quick cash could bring. I finally landed my first job at 20 as a stock associate at a Food 4 Less in Watts but things still weren’t adding up. My only brother left for the Navy and one of my best friends went to jail for drug possession.

It was already hard for me to stay out of trouble, and then my mother finally cracked under the pressure of seeing my aunt strung out on heroin and cocaine. She left everything behind, including me, to live a new life in Rancho Cucamonga in the Inland Empire, over 50 miles out of Compton. It might as well as been 500 miles away. Surrounded by the San Gabriel Mountains and planned communities, it is one of the safest cities in Southern California. In other words, it was worlds away from Compton.

I was furious and distraught that she left me to fend for myself in the ghettos of Compton. I resented her with deep hatred and ended all contact. Holding back tears of hurt, the thought of ever making it out of the hood was bleak. But one hardship gave me the push to leave the hood behind and actually pursue the knowledge that the angel on my shoulder was urging me to go after all along.

I remember being racially profiled many times, but there was one moment I knew I was being stereotyped and judged once again just for trying to do the right thing. I was exhausted from finishing a grueling eight hour work shift, with nothing but the edges of my work badge and a pocket Bible outlining my work pants. I started my trek home only to be stopped midway by a Los Angeles Police Department officer.

The feeling of nausea rattled my stomach as I braced myself for what the end result of this horrible situation might be. “Where are you coming from?” the officer said as he stared me down and invaded my personal space. “What’s in your pockets? he asked. “I’m just getting off from work sir,” I replied.

I was boiling up inside with attitude and defiance. Not only did I have to deal with a cop who seemed to have nothing better to do but harass me, but I also had to look over my shoulder for reckless enemies that had just been involved in a drive-by shooting on my block. I swallowed my dry spit along with my lion pride and complied with the officer’s demand for an explanation. I meant to keep the peace, but more importantly, keep my life. This experience set off a new lust for education that took precedence over money and hood aspirations.

My mother’s drama free life in Rancho Cucamonga was working well. One day after work, I was kicking it and smoking with one of my co-workers and the phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number. It was my mother. I was startled to hear her voice. It had been more than a year since I spoke with her. My voice trembled as I put down a blunt to talk to her.

“Hey, it’s your mother, how are you?” she said.

“I’m good, what’s it to you?”

She snapped at me.

“Don’t even give me that shit!” she said.

“I tried as hard as I could to be there for you but there was so much going on in the hood that influenced you, I didn’t feel strong enough to put up with you. I figured you would find your own way without me.”

I was mad as ever. I could not understand why she would just leave. I buried myself in sorrow and wondered if I should release the resentment I had toward my mother. It took another female to change me forever.

While hanging out at a house party full of thugs and local members of the neighborhood in Gardena, Calif., I laid eyes on the most beautiful girl I had ever seen in my life. Standing 5 foot 6, with long black hair, tight black leggings and a bright light skin complexion, this girl’s look blew me away. I knew there was no way I would leave the party without trying to talk to this girl, even if it killed me. I caught her attention as she sat on the couch texting on her phone and called her over to me but she didn’t budge. I slightly panicked and was worried because I knew what I had done could garner the wrong attention from the gang members at the party. But before I knew it, I was engaged in a conversation with the girl of my dreams. During our talk I felt so comfortable with her that I began to open up in ways I never would have imagined.

“Why do you seem so uptight?” she asked.

“No reason…well, I mean I’ve actually been having a hard time dealing with my mother but other than that, I’m okay.” I explained to her the severity of mine and my mom’s broken relationship.

“I’m pretty sure your mom really loves you,” she said. It was at that moment that I realized a relationship with my mother outside of the hood was possible.

At 22, with a new girlfriend by my side and no job, I started to see things differently. The reconciliation between my mother and me was the beginning of my journey to become educated. I put all the bullshit aside and started to visit my mom more often. As time passed, we shared thoughts and laughter about things that happened in our lives when we were apart. This made our bond stronger. My girlfriend knew about my desire to continue my education and she told me about Mt. San Antonio College. We visited the college together and when I first set foot on the campus, I was overwhelmed that there were no gangsters growling me down and testing me. Everyone I encountered from counselors to administrators smiled and embraced me. I knew this was a place I could pursue my education in a safe place.

Making it out of a place where a smile is a sign of weakness, misery loves company and blood on the pavement doesn’t evaporate, is a grand testament to the idea that anything is possible. Through my eyes, the world will always be a ghetto because of political gangs, senseless killings, world poverty and war. And to cope with these day to day hardships, some of us might sometimes feel that there has to be a little gangster in all of us.

Substance is a publication of the Mt. San Antonio College Journalism Program. The program recently moved its newsroom over to Medium as part of a one-year experiment. Read about it here.