From menace to mentor
At 10 years old, Juan Lopez was carrying a gun. Growing up in the 1970s in Humboldt Park, a community rife with gang activity, he was easily lured into a lifestyle that promised power and respect.
Even after he was shot twice, Lopez’s allegiance to his gang didn’t waver until he started losing cousins like “running water.”
“I guess that made me kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel and say, ‘Whoa, this isn’t the life that I want. If anything, what I would like to do is stop some of this gang violence and contribute to society,'” said Lopez, who asked that his real name not be used because it could place him in danger from former gang acquaintances.
But in 1982, still involved with his gang, Lopez went to prison for murder after stabbing a rival gang member to death.
More than 20 years later, Chicago has at least 40 organized street gangs, with a total of about 38,000 members, according to the Chicago Police Department.
And in the first three months of 2003, at least 29 of the 121 homicides in Chicago were gang-related–with youth accounting for many of the casualties.
Mayor Richard M. Daley vowed to crack down on the city’s bloodshed after 11 people were killed in a series of shootings over Easter weekend in April, and a 12-year-old boy was later slain after being caught in gang crossfire.
Lopez feels that talking to children early on can curb violence. After he was released in 1994, Lopez was introduced to Freddy Calixto, executive director of Broader Urban Involvement and Leadership Development. Known as BUILD, the nonprofit agency focuses on reducing gang violence and membership.
Lopez says Calixto saw potential in him and gave him a chance, recruiting him to work for the organization. Since 1997, Lopez, now 40, has served as one of BUILD’s intervention specialists, speaking to youth about the harsh realities of gang life.
He recently shared his story with The Chicago Reporter
What led you to gang fife?
My family was involved with gangs, and, as a result, I just got into it. It was something that just came kind of naturally.
Tell me about your gang experiences.
I would lose my focus as far as my education was involved, and I was focused more on the gang members. We would just let it be known that we ran our school. I was thrown out at the age of 16.
I went to the penitentiary [for] murder. That’s not something I’m proud of. At the time, I was so deep into the gang that it didn’t matter to me. [The incident happened after] rivals saw me. They chased me, and I was into running so they couldn’t catch me. There was this one guy, one of the rivals, and I guess he was high-winded so he stayed up with me. When I turned around and I saw it was just him, I said, ‘Okay, now it’s even.’ And I had a pocket knife, and unfortunately, trying to defend myself, I stabbed him once and … he died.
Did anything happen in jail to change your mind about gangs?
While there, I noticed that myself and the gang I was in, along with the rivals, [got along in prison]. I guess it was because we were all in one close compound. And if me and you fight, the guard in the tower, he’s not going to ask you, ‘What gang are you in?’ So I started thinking, ‘Perhaps I can carry this onto the street.’
What was your worst experience?
Going to prison, because I lost my freedom. I didn’t realize I had it until I lost it. My [wife], she was pregnant, and when I got out, my son was 10. I couldn’t be there for my son, and I couldn’t be there for her.
What are you doing to make sure your son doesn’t go down the same path?
I let him know this is what happened to me. And I let him know that, during all the time I was in prison, my [gang] only sent me $5. So, per year, that’s 50 cents for losing my freedom for being in this gang.
When you see stories on the news like the recent fatal shooting of a 12-yearold, what goes through your mind?
Unfortunately, people are still putting guns in the hands of youth. … And if a person has a gun, he thinks that he has so much power. And as we see, he has the power to take a little innocent 12-year-old’s life.
When I was young, unfortunately, I had to go through the same thing. I’d go shoot without ever having any target, and no lessons on how to shoot a gun, and unfortunately somebody else would get shot. And it just breaks my heart to see that this still goes on. Instead of them shooting a gun, I wish I could be there to let them know, ‘Man, shoot this basketball. If you want to shoot something, shoot this.’
What would you say to people who don’t know anything about gangs?
Help to do something to reach some of these kids. We have to catch them young. If we don’t do it, somebody else will. And that somebody else is going to give them money, they’re going to give them guns, and the cycle is going to continue.
COPYRIGHT 2003 Community Renewal Society
COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning