I remembered sitting inside a holding cell waiting for sentencing, asking myself how did I allow myself to reach this low? When did I become so callous that I didn’t even care about my own life, let alone the life and feelings of others? How did I become so self-centered, selfish, egotistical and repulsive?
Looking back to my childhood, I realized how innocent and carefree life was. You see, my upbringing was a little different. I was born and raised in Ponce, Puerto Rico where the ocean breeze was ever so lightly, the sunshine bright as ever and the fun and laughter seemed to be everywhere.
Although my mom and dad were divorced, it didn’t seem to be a major fuss as both made sure my siblings and I were well taken care of. The attention was ever present, the love always felt and the family always united.
At the age of twelve, I moved from Puerto Rico to San Jose, California with my mom and brother. It was an immediate culture shock and the result of that left me feeling alone and torn without the rest of my family support.
Soon after, I started school and it wasn’t long before I was exposed to violence, segregation, and a community that I felt was isolated. I didn’t speak English so things became more complicated.
The pressure of life became overwhelming on this young man’s shoulders. Mom had to work late to support us, supervision was minimum, and my need to feel accepted and valued was all the more apparent. As an innocent kid, I began to gravitate towards gangs and before I knew it I was within the grips of this evil and life consuming addiction.
By the age of fifteen, I was a full gang member, living almost on the streets and doing everything possible to preserve the validation, acceptance, and the recognition I was receiving to the point I murdered a beautiful human life: Joshua Antonio Hernandez.
Sadly, my change still didn’t begin there. The evil lifestyle I had adopted continued in prison. At the age of twenty-seven, I was charged with murder-robbery, gang enhancement and gun enhancement and soon after I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. For the past twenty-three plus years of my incarceration this has become my reality.
Yet the reality of it all, was that all along I was presented with opportunities, but I failed to take advantage of them. I was so busy shifting blame that I neglected to take responsibility for my life and the choices I made. It also took a great amount of courage to admit and confront the distorted belief system I had adopted.
Through my actions I robbed the Hernandez family the chance of seeing their own son grow, be a dad and become an outstanding member of society. His sister, Shannon Hernandez, said it best, “their lives were forever changed,” a fact that took me quite some time to acknowledge. Being able to comprehend this on a deeper level allows me to be honest with myself and re-connect with those emotions that I once thought had ceased to exist.
I needed to reconcile with my past. I had to dig deep and address the real issue…me. All this came with the help of self-help groups such as Criminal and Gang Members Anonymous, Alternative to Violence Project, P.O.W.E.R. and a huge amount of a support system that believed in me.
Though change was gradual, I remained persistent and the initial and most important part came from me when I decided to leave all that self-destructive lifestyle. A commitment I hold proudly as I honor Joshua Antonio Hernandez’s life.
The main reason I share my story is to bring awareness to the fact that this lifestyle, whether it be gangs, drugs, or violence, they don’t discriminate. Ethnicity, wealth, gender, old or young it doesn’t matter. It consumes all of us. It affects all of us, destroys all of us, and victimizes all of us.
We all have a choice and the potential of becoming anything we set our mind to be, but we can’t sell ourselves short. Unfortunately, it took me this long to recognize. My hope is that you will be able to see it for yourself before it’s too late. Don’t fall victim to peer pressure. The choice is yours. Anything is possible. So tap into your potential.