From the September/October 1994 issue
I N MY DREAM, I’M RUNNING THROUGH A RAIN-SOAKED Chicago street in the predominantly Latino community of Humboldt Park, where I live. As I race by, I look around at the dilapidated, three-story brick apartments of an area a real estate agent once called “Beirut.” The usually crowded streets are empty.
I see a body lying on the street, face down on the wet asphalt. I run toward it, bend down and turn the body over. To my horror, it’s the corpse of my 15-year-old son, Ramiro.
I awakened at that instant, my face and neck soaked with sweat, my breathing strained. It was more than just a bad dream: in Humboldt Park, drive-bys, drugs and police attacks have claimed many young people.
I got out of bed and opened the door to the room where Ramiro sleeps, next to the back porch, but there was only an empty bed. The dream and the shock of not seeing Ramiro asleep there pushed me into a raging panic. I threw on my clothes and gathered my keys. My wife, Trini, woke up, rubbed her eyes and asked what happened.
“Ramiro’s gone,” I responded. “I’m going to look for him.”
I rushed out into the blustery night to find my boy. For some time, Ramiro had been a member of one of the city’s hundreds of gangs, known in the streets as “Nations.” In our neighborhood, gang symbols tridents and crowns, flaming torches and stars, skulls and Old English letters cover most walls.
Ramiro’s gang was a small but close group, about 100 members. They were known as the “troublemakers” at school, always fighting, always at war.
Ramiro had found a fellowship and respect in his Nation that he had never felt before. He also acquired a new name, “Mexico,” which linked him to a land he was two generations removed from, a country he did not know. Nevertheless, the name defined who he was among the predominantly Puerto Rican members of his group. But there were other pulls to gang life that were much more self-consuming and destructive.
Ramiro had related to me how once, while he was waiting alone at a bus stop, a carload of rival gang members pulled up. He didn’t have to do anything, but he impulsively gave them a hand sign identifying him as an enemy. The rival gang members yelled out obscenities as their car screeched around the corner. Ramiro said he felt both fear and exhilaration a powerful, almost addictive combination. Being so close to his own death excited him.
From my own experience, I knew about the pull of gang life and I had told Ramiro, “You ain’t joining no gang.” I didn’t want my son to be killed.
When I found Ramiro that night, he was drinking with his boys. After a loud exchange of ultimatums, I wound up going home alone, wondering how I could compete against the gang and regain my status with a troubled boy who said I no longer mattered to him.
This story is about how I tried to save my son’s life and also how he may have helped save mine.
WHEN I WAS ELEVEN YEARS OLD, a handful of my friends in a community east of Los Angeles started a “club”; a place for us to belong. This was important. I felt demeaned and invalidated in school, where teachers often told me I would never “amount to anything.” The Spanish language, my first tongue, had literally been beaten out of me. The other Mexican immigrant youth in my club felt the same way I did. “We will always be there for you,” our leader said. “You got to be there for us.”
Gang life for me soon escalated dangerously. At age 12,1 started doing drugs, going from dropping pills to sniffing aerosol spray cans to shooting up heroin. I was first arrested at age 13, innocently enough, for stealing records. Later, I progressed to auto thefts, burglaries and armed robberies.
Being violent soon got me kicked out of school. I was in and out of jails for disorderly conduct, gang fighting, rioting and eventually for attempted murder in a drive-by shooting when I was 17.
I should have been dead. I had been shot at several times on three different occasions, but never hit. I had a near-death experience sniffing intoxicants. I did everything I could to die: standing on street corners, inviting the bullets, taking all the dope.
Yet, like many young men, I somehow managed to “mature out” of the gang. With the help of community activists and caring educators, I was able to find a job and get married. Ramiro was my first born, followed two years later by my daughter, Andrea Victoria. But after barely four years, unemployment, heavy drinking and constant fighting broke up my marriage.
Following the breakup, I went through a series of jobs until I realized an old dream of mine: I got a job at a weekly East Los Angeles newspaper as a reporter/ photographer. Busy creating a new life for myself, I rarely saw my children except on weekends. To Ramiro and Andrea, I was Disneyland, journeys to the park, a movie and a good time.
One night, my ex-wife dropped off the children to visit me. Depressed as usual, I started to drink. The children refused to stay quiet after I put them to bed. Then, one moment, without warning, I snapped. I felt as if another person filled my body, commanding its motions. I picked up 4-year-old Ramiro by the arm and threw him against the wall.
Even as I recall this, tears well up in my eyes. I almost killed my son! Fortunately, Ramiro was okay. But the most amazing part was that the incident wasn’t enough to stop my drinking.
In 1985,1 moved to Chicago, partly to get away from the abyss of my life then and partly to pursue my interests in poetry and journalism in a new surrounding. My children visited me every summer. But I was too busy, working long hours, day and night. Sometimes, I came home around dinner time, said hello, then was on my way out again. I didn’t mean to be so absent I was trying to get my life together. I just felt that if I didn’t pursue my own dreams, I would die inside.
As Ramiro got older, he began to grow colder toward me and withdraw into himself. He didn’t share his imaginative stories anymore. It was as if he stopped caring. He told me later that no matter what he did or said to get me more involved with him, he told me later, “nothing changed.” I was too busy even to see the impact this had on him. But Ramiro still needed me.
When Ramiro was 10 years old, he tried to run away from his mother’s home to “find his father.” He walked the length of a freeway, attempting to get to Chicago. He went some 20 miles before he was spotted, hungry and tired. Another time, he hopped a train, but he didn’t get past the LA. city limits.
For my kids but unknown to me at the time the periods in between the summers were filled with constant moving, new schools, overcrowded homes and beatings by the alcoholic men in their mother’s life. Ramiro wrote a poem about one of those men: Running away was the salvation of my problems./ Walking from one dark street to another during the daylight hours/was the only thing left for me./Whack!/Whack!/One beating after another./I was nine years old./Wasn’t five anymore./I thought the stinging pain of smelly leather had gone./ Thought my mother’s high heels across my face/used to be just my imagination./ Well, reality was real and he knew it:/ A beating for borrowing pencils./A beating for not doing my homework./ He didn’t beat me for these things./He beat me because I was my mother’s son./ The mother he treated like an animal./ The mother he cheated on.
Things changed suddenly when Ramiro was 13- After a particularly violent argument, his mother called me and said: “Now it’s your turn to be a father.” Over the years, I had faced bullets, survived drug overdoses, police beatings and cellmates who held razor blades to my neck. I risked life and limb working near the heat of blast furnaces, hundreds of feet in the air at construction sites and amidst dangerous chemicals in refineries. But nothing scared me as much as being a father again. I was scared I would fail. My own rage, my own doubts, swirled in and around me.
IN ONE OF THE CLUTTERED emergency surgery cubicles at Saint Mary’s Hospital in Humboldt Park, I watched a doctor put 11 stitches in Ramiro’s eyebrow. Earlier that day, Ramiro had been in a brawl at school. He had been living with me for about a year then and had already been kicked out of one school. He had violent outbursts, defied authority figures and regularly got kicked out of classes. He was doing everything he could to fail.
It was soon after this school brawl that Ramiro snuck out of his bedroom and I found him in the street with his boys. Since our arguments weren’t going anywhere, I tried to interest Ramiro in some father-and-son activities. We looked into martial arts training; Ramiro started his comic book collection, something I also did as a child. But the crises kept escalating. Ramiro got kicked out of school again, this time for talking back to a teacher.
Soon after, the police called to inform me that Ramiro had been picked up at a gang fight At the precinct station, I was told Ramiro would be sent to the “Audy Home,” the county’s youth detention facility. When I asked if Ramiro could instead stay with me, one officer said, “It’s out of our hands.”
There was only one way to keep Ramiro from the Audy Home: I had to admit him to a psychiatric hospital. After the police offered me the name of a therapist who could help him get admitted, they let Ramiro go home with me. But I blew it the first day by insisting he get out of his gang.
“It’s my choice,” he shouted at me. “And there’s nothing you can do about it.”
“Oh no! I know what I’m talking about, and you can’t be in a gang and stay in this house.”
“I joined the gang because I needed a family,” Ramiro screamed. “They are my family now.”
At this, Ramiro ran out the door and stayed away for two weeks. At first, I was angry he had run off and put new locks on the doors in case he tried to come back But then I thought about when I was a teenager. Unlike other fathers, I knew about the validation a gang provides young people. After a while, I decided to try a different tack no more ultimatums.
I removed the locks and put food out for him in case he got hungry. I even left notes in the basement and kitchen, imploring him to stay. At night, I drove around searching for him, knocking on doors, talking to the young men on street corners.
One night, I found a tall teenager standing at the door.
“You still looking for Ramiro?” he asked.
“Yeah, sure where is he?”
“He’s staying at my homey’s crib,” the young man said. “I can take you there. I know Ramiro’s going to get mad at me for this, but I think he needs you.”
In that moment, I saw how important Ramiro’s friends were to him. Ramiro said they were the only ones he could count on.
Ramiro’s friend took me to a rundown brick apartment building. Ramiro was staying in an overcrowded room in the basement crawling with small children. He insisted he didn’t want to come back, although I could see he was hungry and ill-clothed.
I told Ramiro we could not ignore the problems between us as father and son. We had to work out whatever it was that was gnawing at his gut. I offered him an arrangement: We would work together to strengthen our relationship and I would stop demanding he quit the gang that defined and valued him.
It was only then that Ramiro agreed to return. His identity, his whole being, was wound up with his homeboys; whenever I attacked them, I attacked him. “The Nation is me and I am the Nation,” Ramiro told me. “They are my brothers.”
This loyalty and caring in the gang were not the problem. The issue was how someone like Ramiro, with his history of abuse and abandonment, could “use” the gang. He was more “out there,” more willing to pull out a gun and challenge rival groups. Even his closest homeboys had to restrain him on a few occasions. One of them told me, “Ramiro just gets more into it.”
I needed a way to get Ramiro off the streets so I could talk to him on a daily basis and help him turn around his life. So, with the help of a cooperative therapist, I had Ramiro admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
THE HOSPITAL’S RUSTIC RED BRICK building was surrounded by one of the poorest and most violent communities on Chicago’s West Side. Ramiro could look out a window and see people stealing cars, having arguments and running lots of running.
Ramiro, however, soon regretted being there. The ward had young patients who ran the gamut from being suicidal and substance abusing to being victims of neglect. A few were in gangs. The staff forbade any gang signs, any gang clothing, any gang gestures. Ramiro could not even stand with his arms folded across his chest, since this is how Chicago gangs indicate whether they are “Folks” or “People,” the two main gang groupings.
Even though Ramiro had volunteered to stay at the hospital, he couldn’t leave without authorization. In this structured setting, he regularly went off. Many days I would visit Ramiro only to find him in full leather restraints following a violent eruption. The attending psychiatrist began to prescribe anti-psychotic medication for him. I met with all of Ramiro’s team members. I pleaded with them to stop medicating him so we could begin to address what lay behind his anger. Most of the staff listened to me and seemed to agree to reduce his medication, but there were those who didn’t care a lick for this parent’s so-called advice.
“I think we can explore some of these approaches,” a staff member said. “But don’t forget, we have to first safeguard the institution. We can’t put all our efforts on just one kid.”
This really got me going. For all my life, and for most of my son’s life, institutions were constantly being pitted against the individual. They just didn’t see that the “institution” that would make a difference would be the one willing to put all its efforts on “one kid.”
Yet, I also realized that to get Ramiro the help he needed, I had to get some of them on my side. Ramiro’s therapist became a strong ally. This helped, since our sessions together, as father and son, proved important for both of us, They helped us talk honestly for the first time about the abandonment, abuse and humiliation Ramiro had experienced in his life. He wrote essays and poems about what he felt and what he remembered, even though he tended to “forget” a lot of things, including the incident when I threw him against a wall.
One of the most important moments was when he finally was able to say to me face-to-lace, “Where were you, Dad, when I was in the streets, running and fighting… where were you, man?” I hugged him and told him I was sorry and that I would never let him down again. Although I was crying, Ramiro did not show any emotion. But the therapist noticed a change in Ramiro’s demeanor; after that, he was more willing to listen and talk.
During this time, he wrote the following poem: So many false hopes./So many false answers./Who am I?/What am I?/ Did I come into this/world unknown?/ Did I come into this/world with a gun in my hand/and a needle up my arm?/ Was I born to die,/crying for salvation?/ Crying for hope?/Is my pain ever going to/be healed?/ts my hurt ever going to be/noticed ?/Walking down a lonely/path into/a lonely world with a/lonely hurt meant/for me.
After three months, Ramiro was discharged from the psychiatric hospital and came home. After much haggling, tests and evaluations by the Chicago School Board, we also got Ramiro into a special program where again he found an ally, a teacher who had Ramiro’s best interests in mind.
This was a difficult time for Ramiro as he began to take some responsibility for his own feelings. Before, life was simpler-, whatever he did was in the name of the Nation. He didn’t have to think of the effect of his actions on me, his mother or, most importantly, himself.
In the streets, Ramiro now had to stop and think before he committed himself to certain acts. All the dangers were still there the drugs, the robberies, the shootings. To survive them, Ramiro would need self-discipline and our love. Without that, without any viable alternative to street life, why would he stop? Why would anyone?
I also knew I had to build a haven out of my home. With my wife, Trini, I created a sanctuary of sorts, where everyone could communicate, respect one another and take a break from the complexities and anxieties of the outside world. This meant no screaming, and laying down clear expectations and rules without making arbitrary decisions. I wanted home to be a place Ramiro wished to return to.
This time, there were no more excuses. This time, I had to be the father my children and my community demanded. After 20 years, I finally stopped drinking and got involved with a recovery program to help with that part of me that had seemed uncontrollable my entire life.
IT WAS A HOT AND HUMID SUMMER night in 1993. I received a late-night phone call. Ramiro was on the line, but he could hardly speak “They beat on me, Dad,” he said. “Who beat on you?” “The police they beat on me while I was on the ground already handcuffed.”
Up to this point, there had been backsliding, intense moments, but also some triumphs. Ramiro was off medication and back in school. He even had a job in a grocery store. The family at home had become important for him again not enough for him to leave the gang, but now he thought about us, too.
The police beating was a major setback. The first priority was to deal with a gun possession charge against Ramiro. He had been arrested with a loaded .25 caliber handgun in his jacket, which he carried, he said, because of threats from rival gang members (he had been surrounded by them at the high school the week before). If convicted, Ramiro could serve time as an adult since he was already 18 years old. The beating would become immaterial.
My attorney obtained a year’s supervision for Ramiro and 40 hours community service, which he served through a not-for-profit literary organization that got him more involved with the poetry community and his own writing.
If Ramiro had gone to jail, I would have lost him because he still had not gained enough clarity or strength to avoid letting the conflicts in his heart impulsively guide his decisions. He was at the beginning of his maturing-out process learning that life was not a series of clear-cut distinctions: here’s an enemy, here’s a friend; here’s right, here’s wrong; here’s happiness, here’s sadness. Real life is the delicate tension and balance of all these dichotomies. He had to learn that a father who had hurt you could also be the best thing for you.
But, man, this is one of the hardest things for any young person to grasp, let alone one with deep problems like Ramiro.
FOR FOUR MONTHS, BEGINNING IN April 1993, one of Ramiro’s friends, a leader of the Nation, stayed with us on house arrest after the court accepted me as his guardian. Pedro was an intelligent and respectful young man who had never had a father. He took all my messages when I wasn’t home and I gave him books to read. We all felt close to him.
When Pedro was finally released from house arrest, he moved out of the old neighborhood with his girlfriend and her young son. Every once in a while, he called to say hello. He was still a gang leader, but he was also on the verge of getting his life together.
But Pedro didn’t make it.
In November of that year, Pedro was shot three times at close range, once in the leg, once in his side and once in his hand, which cost him two fingers.
When I went to visit him at the Cook County Hospital, the boys from the Nation were everywhere. Within a week of the shooting, another homeboy, a close friend of Ramiro and Pedro, was ambushed and killed on his way to school. Angel was 15 years old and an honor student at one of the best schools in the city. Apparently, the same guys who shot Pedro were also involved in Angel’s death.
There were plans for retaliation and Ramiro began getting swept up with the cries for revenge. Somehow, I had to try to stop as much of this as I could, for Ramiro’s sake, for the other Nation members, so others like Angel would not have to be sacrificed. I decided to talk to Pedro.
At the hospital room, with his mother and girlfriend sitting nearby, I asked Pedro to call off any acts of revenge for Angel’s death.
“You’re only going to set up other homeboys, you’re only going to get more of them killed,” I said. “I can’t just sit here and let you do that.”
“But we got to do something,” he said. “If we don’t, they’ll get us again.”
“But you get one of them, they’ll have to get one of you,” I said. “When does it stop? It’s as if the same bullet is taking all these dudes a bullet fired a long time ago, and it just keeps going and going. They listen to you, Pedro. You can get them to chill out.”
“What if Ramiro was killed?” Pedro asked. “Wouldn’t you try to get the ones who did it?”
“Listen, if they get Ramiro, it will be too late,” I responded. “What difference would it make then what I do? Ramiro would be gone. I have to try and save him now! I have to try to get this retaliation to stop before Ramiro and others are killed.”
A tear fell down Pedro’s cheek He was in conflict: as a leader, he was expected to act a certain way, to do certain things. But Pedro had a streak of decency in him. I knew he cared about Ramiro and he cared for Angel, like he cared for all the others whose lives were on the line. Pedro and I had been through something together; I only hoped that meant I could have some influence with him.
I left, not sure what Pedro would do. Later, I found out that he told the Nation members not to retaliate, especially not to involve the younger guys, who were the easiest targets.
That night, I took Ramiro and Pedro, who was on crutches, to Angel’s wake. Pedro cried the hardest. I knew he deeply felt this death, so linked to his own trauma. But something disturbed me even more. I looked over at Ramiro he didn’t cry at all. Although not considered manly, crying is a way to release the pain, the anger, the grieving that these boys need to do. But nobody teaches young men to do this. They must “hold it all in,” be tough. Yet it comes out in other ways in inexplicable rages, in violence against spouse or children, in the slow death of alcohol. I have been through all of this and I knew that one day, Ramiro would have to cry.
For the time being, a major breakout of war had been averted. But it did not end there.
One day some months later, police surrounded our house. They were looking for Pedro. The night before, Pedro had allegedly shot and killed one of the guys who was supposedly responsible for Angel’s death. It appeared that although Pedro stopped the others from getting involved in the war, he could not remove himself.
This caused great turmoil in the streets.
Some declared Pedro a renegade. The rival gang wanted the Nation to turn him over. He became a fugitive.
During this time, I saw Ramiro get pulled again into the vortex of hatred and self-hatred of street warfare. Once, he chased after rival gang members while driving his mother’s car. Ramiro’s love for Pedro and Angel was mixed up with emotions that often where hard for him to deal with.
Again, I had to be there for my son, so he could get through this without risking his life and the lives of others, including our family. We held a number of family meetings, including my ex-wife and Andrea, to help Ramiro figure out what was happening.
Ramiro’s stance at first was that he had to be there in the streets, as a soldier. We tried to make it clear that his actions now endangered others. His mother, for example, could be a target if they spotted her driving her car. Somebody might try to shoot at the house, endangering Trini and Andrea.
After some difficult discussions, Ramiro began to calm down. He found another job, started to study for his GED and tried to occupy his time. Since we couldn’t stop the war, the least we could do was help keep Ramiro out of the streets as much as possible.
Ramiro has stayed close with a few of the remaining boys. But he felt a sense of betrayal from those who joined other gangs or left town in the midst of the war. Ramiro was willing to put his life on the line for Pedro, and in the name of Angel. He felt others should have done the same. Ramiro gave his heart and soul to the Nation. Now some of his boys were disappearing before his eyes. Ramiro, who saw his first family fall apart, was now witnessing his second family also coming apart.
Today, Ramiro is working, paying his bills and sending money to his own baby, Ricardo, who was born in late 1992, when Ramiro was 17. The issue for Ramiro now is whether he can be the father he needs to be for Ricardo, the kind of father he felt he didn’t have for so long.
Ramiro has also been writing poetry, exploring other means of expression than just exploding in rage. Recently, Ramiro’s verses were published in an anthology, Open Fist: An Anthology of Young Illinois Poets. Last fall, Andrea and Ramiro read their works, along with me, to an audience of a couple of hundred people at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Both my son and daughter have also been active in youth organizations, retreats and conferences. They are now working with young people from across the city to establish a new organization of gang and non-gang youth. Ramiro has involved some of his homeboys in these activities: it appears to be a continuance of them helping one another. Ramiro says he doesn’t force them to get involved. He just tells them things like, “I want you to meet my father,” or “Let’s get out of the ‘hood for a while.”
This is hardly the end of the story. We are talking about a maturing process that develops in stages and takes a long time. The key thing now is that Ramiro has become an increasingly active participant in his own transformation. Even though he and I have finally gotten closer as father and son, it’s also time for him to get out on his own. It is as if the family being there for him now is both a strength and a weakness. It provides him with the guidance, love and protection to keep him going, but it can also impede his ability to determine his own way. Like all young people, at a certain point Ramiro must break the “spell” of the family. In his case, it maybe breaking the spell of two families that occupied converging but clearly distinct aspects of his young life.
Even though I care, and am undeniably involved, it’s Ramiro’s time now. I can only hope that the full and healthy growth of his powerful imaginative and intellectual qualities will finally be realized. His gift for poetry may give him one way to tell his truth, the truth of so many like him, a truth of our time. To end, here’s one of Ramiro’s most recent poems: Reality is the death of life./Reality is a simplicity/ that comes and goes,/but never ends./ Who wants to live in a/world full of reality?/Why not live in a world full/of strange and bizarre images?/Where we could fly and/fly and never worry about/ people shooting us from/the ground./ Where we could use/our minds for advancement/and technology and never/worry about people telling us/ we’re stupid./Where we could fall/asleep into a deep/everlasting dream and never/ worry about somebody/trying to wake us up.
LuisJ. Rodriguez is a poet, journalist and critic. His memoir, Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA was published in paperback in 1994 by Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster. He is also director of the Chicago-based Tia Chucha Press.