My mother died in my arms when I was 16, and, immediately, my sisters and I kind of became homeless until our relatives, a couple of months later, took us in. I dropped out of school a week or so after my mother died. I was the oldest of four, so I would do whatever I could to make money. Everybody else I knew was going to junior and senior proms, and every morning I was going to carry groceries or shine shoes or something else to raise money.

The reason gangs are together, I think, is because people make a solemn commitment to care for one another when other people won't. And I didn't have that. So I found myself drawn to the lure of the gangs of the street. I didn't have any skills. And by the time I was 22, I had five small kids [of my own] to care for. I always wanted to do better, but I could not explain why things were the way they were. After a while, I stopped asking myself.

When I was 22, I was on a street corner in the middle of the night, passed out. I think you get so close to death that you feel it, you hear it and you sense it. I think that is where I was that evening, so close to death, giving up. I had a "conversation" with my mother, and I saw the pain and anguish and disappointment in her face -- because of the way she had raised me. I got up from that corner and got on my hands and knees, praying. The next day, I was a new person.

I went to the gang to tell them I was out, and of course you are in for life. So the minute you say that, you immediately become a victim of the gang, and the person that "takes you out" moves up a notch. There were a number of attacks on me over the next several months because I had broken the bond. There is no letter of resignation you turn in to a gang.

I survived. You know, years go by, and I sit around and kid with my sons and their wives, and now my grandkids, about how things change. And they think I'm ancient, and that I've seen so much. But that's the way life is.

-- Interview by Cathy Areu