Hardened by gang life, many young Latinos leaving prison are now using their toughness to help others

The warriors: hardened by gang life, many young Latinos leaving prison are now using their toughness to help others

Rupa Shenoy

When Manuel Feliciano was a young boy growing up in Humboldt Park, Puerto Ricans who saw each other on the street would thrust out a fist or point both index fingers in a gesture of solidarity.

That’s when the Latin Kings “were for the people,” he said. They fed the poor and participated in politics. Many “clubs” like the Latin Kings sprung up and played baseball games against each other.

Then the games got out of hand. “All of a sudden, it became a gang thing,” Feliciano said.

War broke out everywhere–on buses and trains, in lock-up at a police station–over girls, money and territory, he said. Gradually the gangs turned to dealing cocaine, acid and pot. At 16, Feliciano became a member of the Spanish Cobras, and he said he turned along with them.

Soon Feliciano rose to the top of the gang. Fellow members nicknamed him “Belushi” for his resemblance to actor John Belushi. He earned respect by building a reputation for beating people. That lasted until 1987, when he was convicted for the murder of a Vice Lord gang member. Feliciano said he was framed by another member of his gang.

Thousands of Latinos have followed the same path as Feliciano: from a gang to an Illinois prison. Many picked up violent convictions along the way, earning them years, even decades, behind bars. Since 2000, Latinos were more likely than blacks or whites to serve sentences of at least five years, according to a Chicago Reporter analysis of the Illinois Department of Corrections data. For many, that length of time, and the ways they used it, determined their success when they got out.

Feliciano didn’t enter prison preparing to reshape himself; he wanted revenge on his former enemies. But the same men who had fought against each other in gang wars were sharing cells, and other inmates told him that things were different in prison. “All you learned in the street was ‘me or you,'” Feliciano said.

He started listening to older men who were sentenced to decades or life in prison. They had been locked up so long they remembered when prisons didn’t have televisions–just radios that only played “hill-billy” music, he said. Feliciano spent time with them studying or in school, learning first about Puerto Rican culture and history, then about other groups. “My mind started to change,” he said. “When you see the struggle Puerto Ricans went through–struggling to become someone, a lot like I was doing then–you ask yourself, ‘Why am I fighting another Puerto Rican?’ Indians, blacks, Mexicans–we were all slaves in some sort of way.”

With new insight, Feliciano earned his GED, studied computers and took college courses. He knew he was changing. “I used to shake hands like a gang member,” he said. “I got to a point where I was shaking hands like a man.”

Feliciano organized group discussions between members of different gangs. Guards brought them Hispanic foods, and the group organized a Latino day and cooked food for the entire prison.

Now, at 39, Feliciano is a brown-skinned, muscular man with a kind face and receding hairline. He’s married, owns his home and works as a claims representative at a parking company.

Even though he begged his children to stay clear of gangs, one of his two sons went into the Spanish Cobras, and one of his two daughters is living with a Latin King and only calls when she’s in trouble.

Still, if necessary, Feliciano is always ready to take off his jacket, push up his shirt sleeves, display his gang tattoos-and throw down like he used to do. “If I were to return to prison, it would be because someone did something to my family,” Feliciano said.

Despite their troubles, Feliciano said he will stand by his children. “That’s why all this happens. People who succeed had someone who didn’t give up on them,” he said. “I want to teach my kids their culture.”

Latino culture stresses loyalty to family, but young men apply that to gangs, too. And they often show loyalty to their gangs through violence, said Xavier McElrath-Bey, who spent 13 years in prison for a murder he committed as a member of the Latin Kings. “They get this sense of ‘This is my people,’ and ‘I’m a warrior and I’m going to protect them.'”

McElrath-Bey, now in his second year of the master’s degree program in community counseling at Roosevelt University, was jailed a month before he turned 14. During his years in prison, he completed two associate degrees, a certificate in computer technology and a bachelor’s degree in social sciences, also from Roosevelt. He earned honors and had a 4.0 grade point average.

Now McElrath-Bey casually speaks with the diction of an academic textbook. He stresses that people who educate themselves while in prison have more options and confidence when they come out, and are less likely to go back. “Not everyone takes the classes,” he said. “But it pays off if they do.”

Kevin Ronquillo, who is black, shakes his head when remembering the opportunities he saw young men pass up during the four years he spent in prison. “Instead of taking vocational school, they’d go out to play basketball,” said Ronquillo, the maintenance supervisor at St. Leonard’s Ministries, a West Side organization providing housing and supportive services to men and women who’ve served time in prison.

David Rosa, a Puerto Rican who spent 25 years in prison for murder, saw many men with drug convictions cycle in and out of prison. “In my time, I used to see a guy go home and come back six months later,” said Rosa. “As long as you keep your nose clean, you’re out.”

When he first got to prison, Rosa operated the same way he did on the streets. “All you’re thinking about is self-preservation,” said Rosa, who now runs St. Andrew’s Court, a home for male ex-offenders. “I was in the same cycle, the same company.”

After his first nine years, Rosa went before a panel every year and answered questions about his plans, his family and his progress. Inmates serving shorter sentences should be similarly scrutinized, he said.

As time passed, Rosa took one course, then another, studying for long hours. Then “one day, up out of the blue, they said, ‘You can go home,'” Rosa remembered.

Manuel Vasquez was about to turn 20 when he left his home and family for gang life–and what ended up being 20 years in prison. “When I heard that [prison] door slam shut and lock behind me, it was the loneliest day of my life,” said Vasquez, a former gang member who was convicted of murder.

Soon after entering Menard Correctional Center, Vasquez heard about work release, which allows inmates to live in halfway houses and have normal jobs. Vasquez couldn’t qualify because he was convicted for a violent crime, but, after studying the program’s policy, he found a loophole: A letter from the director of the Illinois Department of Corrections that vouched for his credibility could get him in.

It took 16 years to get that letter. To prove he deserved it, Vasquez got his GED and took college courses in prison. He worked as an assistant to prison administrators and as a librarian–all while cleaning and waxing the prison’s floors by night. “You come in and you’re no good and rotten. You have to show them there’s some good in you,” said Vasquez, now 41 and a supervisor at a car dealership. “I busted my ass.”


Making Changes

Among Latino inmates paroled from Illinois prisons during 2000, the

recidivism rate was far lower for those who had served more than five

years than it was for those who served less time.

Served 5 years Served more than

or less 5 years

Black 62% 51%

Latino 44% 23%

White 51% 37%

Note: Figures indicate the percentages of inmates who were paroled from

Illinois prisons during 2000 and returned by September 2003. Length of

prison stay denotes the inmates’ most recent stints in prison prior to

getting paroled in 2000.

Source: Illinois Department of Correction; analyzed by The Chicago


COPYRIGHT 2005 Community Renewal Society

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning