As a young boy living in Mexico City, Victor Rios often cried himself to sleep because he didn't have enough to eat. Poverty plagued the lives of Rios, his mother and his younger brother and pressed his mom to move the family to Oakland, where Rios would eventually fall into gang life.
"When we moved to Oakland, we realized that things weren't going to change," he said. "We would remain poor."
Last weekend at St. John's Hall in Napa, Rios told an audience of about 50 how he went from being a gang member to a college professor at UC Santa Barbara. Rios' powerful talk was sponsored by the Napa County Office of Education and Puertas Abiertas, a coalition of nonprofit organizations based out of St. John's Catholic Church that assists parishioners with mental and physical health needs, educational and housing opportunities and immigration assistance.
The Jan. 21 presentation was designed to educate parents and their children about the dangers of gangs, according to Francis Ortiz-Chavez, Puertas Abiertas coordinator.
Rios, one of nine speakers who addressed the problems of gangs in Napa, told his own typical story of joining a gang. When he was 13 and living in Oakland, he got routine beatings from local thugs as he was on his way to school, he said.
Before each beating, gang members would ask Rios what gang he was from. Rios would tell them he wasn't in a gang and that his mother forbade him to join one. When he discussed the problem with his mother, she told him to walk on the opposite side of the street, Rios said.
The gang members would cross the street to confront him. "I didn't tell my mom because she didn't know how to solve my problem," he said. "I invented my own solution."
After taking his share of beatings, Rios caved in and joined the gang, he said. "A lot of people enter a gang to solve their problems," he said. "In that instance, I thought that all of my problems were solved."
Rios was wrong. One day, he said, he and a friend entered a rival gang's territory to meet some female friends and the rival gang shot and killed his friend.
"When a tragedy like that happens, kids won't go and tell their parents," he said. "I went to the only person who told me she would be there when I needed her. This person was my teacher. The teacher planted a seed inside me so that I began to believe in myself."
With his teacher's help, Rios graduated from high school, stayed with his part-time job, left the gang and embarked on a path to higher education. He earned his doctorate in sociology and became a professor at UC Santa Barbara. He specializes in gangs and violence prevention.
Another speaker, Yolanda Schonbrun, said she became acquainted to the horrors of gangs when her son, who was 13 at the time, joined a gang while attending Redwood Middle School.
"I would come home and find lots of his friends hanging out there," she said. "His grades were slipping and he told me he couldn't wear certain colors. I would notice that my son wrote in Old English lettering and he started wearing the Virgin of Guadalupe on his clothes. I didn't think anything of it. Then one day, I got a call from juvenile hall. He was being detained for beating up another boy."
Schonbrun told the group that she confronted her son and urged him to find new friends, but her son didn't listen.
"I told myself he was too deep in the gang," she said. "So then me and my family did everything in our power to help him out."
The gang violence eventually wore him out, she said. He exited the gang at 21, she said.
Other speakers included Vanessa Luna of the Napa County Office of Education Gang Violence Suppression Program, Vicka Llamas of NCOE's Community Challenge Grant, Rosa Ramirez and Alfonso Ortiz of the Napa Police Department, Ernie Biera of Aldea Children and Family Services, and Jeremy Kelly and Manuel Aguirre of the Napa County Probation Department.
Ortiz-Chavez said she felt the meeting "was informative and very positive. It's making people realize that there is a problem. Even though we didn't have a (big) turnout, I really feel that it was productive. I really think it's a scary subject that people do not want to be, in any way, exposed to. It's more of a fear factor that kept people from coming."