Two street gang survivors from the mean streets of East Los Angeles made the rounds of Napa schools last week as part of the showing of the documentary, “G-Dog.”
Hector Verdugo and Fabian Debora, who figure prominently in the film, now work for Homeboy Industries, a rehabilitation program for ex-gang members in Los Angeles, started by Father Greg Boyle, a Catholic priest, 25 years ago.
“Anybody who is a gang member, convicted felon, you can come to Homeboy Industries. When you’ve hit rock bottom, then come and see us,” Verdugo said.
Both Verdugo, 38, Homeboy Industries’ associate executive director, and Debora, 37, a substance abuse counselor for Homeboy, told of their struggles growing up in the housing projects in East Los Angeles.
Verdugo said his father died of a heroin overdose before he and his twin brother were born. His mother was also an addict. Like Debora, Verdugo said he witnessed domestic violence as a child. He joined a gang before high school, then became a drug dealer and was incarcerated multiple times.
“Dealing with neglect and no love, that is really, really hard. I know that if affects me even today,” he said. “Those are deep, deep scars.”
“What really kept me really, really going forward was my twin brother,” said Verdugo, who started working for Homeboy on the bottom rung and is now second in command.
Debora’s life turned around after he barely missed being hit by a truck crossing a freeway while high on drugs. That was his second suicide attempt, he told a group of students at Valley Oak High School earlier in the day.
His mother used to call police on him as he struggled with drugs, said Debora, who considers joining a gang the worst mistake he ever made.
“I’ve hurt a lot of people throughout my journey. It really took me away from my visions, dreams and aspirations that I once had. It robbed me from what I wanted to do as a little kid. The hurt that I brought upon my mom,” he said.
A 17-year-old girl whose parents are former gang members asked how to protect a younger cousin from the pressure of joining a gang.
Verdugo and Fabian told the young woman to spend time with her cousin, embrace her. She will listen, Verdugo said.
“You’re young. She’s young. Even when you think they’re not listening, I swear ... they’re listening,” he said. “I guarantee you, she will cherish you. She will love you. She will be so appreciative of you if you don’t let go.”
Others questioned how one can reach out to young people at risk to join a gang or use drugs and how they managed to leave the gangs and drugs behind. Both men spoke on the importance of “kinship” — of listening and trying to understand the underlying reasons why a young man or woman becomes a gang member instead of casting judgment.
“It’s really seeing the human for what he is and not for the worst mistake he ever made … and we get caught up with that,” Debora said. “Their choices are defined by the environment they’re growing up in,” he said.
A lot of times, people do not make the efforts to pay attention until it hits home, Debora said. “And I think it’s important that we begin to really look at what it is that is taking place in our community before it hits home.”
The Napa Valley Film Festival, which showed “G-Dog” at last year’s festival, sponsored the screenings as part of its education program. Students enrolled in Legacy, a class for at-risk male students based at Vintage High School, hosted the program at the District Auditorium, acting as ushers and asking the first questions.
“They can have an open, frank dialogue and they’re role models,” said JoAnne Miller, education programs consultant with the Napa Valley Film Festival. “They’ve lived that life. They know what’s on the other end — whether it means jail and death or good and promising life where you can contribute.”
Verdugo and Debora spoke last week to students at screenings at the District Auditorium in Napa, Valley Oak High School, American Canyon High School, the court schools run by the Napa County Office of Education and in St. Helena.
Homeboy Industries hosts programs to help men and women who have been in gangs and incarcerated. With a motto that reads “Nothing Stops a Bullet like a Job,” Homeboy offers jobs at its bakery, cafés, farmers market and other enterprises it operates in Los Angeles, as well as schooling and counseling.
The documentary, filmed in 2010 and 2011, shows Boyle as he leads the nonprofit organization through financially troubled times.