Two former gang members become scholars: one a lawyer, one a Ph.D.

  • April 18, 2013

By Kim Lamb Gregory

Sociology professor Victor Rios remembers days when it was routine to drop to the ground at the sound of gunfire.

“There were multiple times I would lay on the ground and look up and there would be bullet holes in the wall next to me,” Rios said.

Francis “Frankie” Guzman, an attorney, has two brothers in prison for murder. Guzman himself was sentenced to 15 years in the California Youth Authority for armed robbery and parole violations, serving six.

“For many years, I didn’t have a name, just a number,” Guzman said.

The two men, who have never met, redirected their lives after running with gangs and landing behind bars.

Rios, 35, grew up in poverty in Oakland and now teaches at UC Santa Barbara.

Guzman, who turns 33 this month, grew up in Oxnard’s La Colonia neighborhood and now works for a youth law advocacy group in Oakland.

Both of them lost a best friend to violence. Today, both are dedicated to helping young people find success despite poverty, violence, despair and ignorance.

Both are crusading for change in schools, law enforcement, prisons, courts and juvenile detention facilities to help weaken gang influence and build lost adolescents into strong adults.

Rios and Guzman spoke recently in Ventura County. Guzman spoke March 22 at a graduation ceremony for the California Youth Authority in Camarillo. Rios gave a presentation that same week at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.

“I feel like I’ve lived two lifetimes,” Rios told a standing-room-only audience of more than 200 in the Lundring Center on the CLU campus.

Guzman was born in Ventura and raised in La Colonia. His mother and father divorced when Guzman was young, so his primary protector and role model was his older brother, Arnold “Freddy” Guzman.

The Guzman boys, their sister and mom had little money after the divorce, so they stayed with friends and family members until Guzman’s mother made enough money cleaning houses to rent a Rose Park apartment when Guzman was 3.

“Within two years, my brother was arrested for second-degree homicide,” Guzman said.

Freddy Guzman was 16 when he was convicted of shooting someone who had beaten him at a party, Guzman said.

“He was jumped at a party,” Guzman said. “He got a gun. He said, ‘I never thought about what I was going to do.’ ”

Guzman’s brother was sentenced to 17 years to life and still remains at Tehachapi State Prison. He is now 44.

“I missed my brother and wanted to be with my brother,” Guzman said. “I would leave the (prison) visiting hall crying. ... He was like my Superman. He was brave. He was handling it.”

While attending Oxnard High School, Guzman wore his brother’s prison number on his school identification badge.

“I would say at about 10, I started to get very angry and hurt. ... It might have been just me with a chip on my shoulder,” Guzman said. “But my early outlook was seeing people arrested on a daily basis or people dying from overdoses. I could easily visualize myself going to jail. Police were ever-present and not the friendliest.”

In his teens, he began running with a gang, and at 15, he and a friend stole a car and robbed a liquor store.

They were apprehended in the parking lot and Guzman was sentenced to 15 years with the California Youth Authority.

While Guzman was in prison, there was loss on the outside. A friend of his died after being stabbed 15 times in the neck. He was 17.

Then, his beloved uncle Joe died at age 38 of cirrhosis of the liver. Guzman’s uncle struggled with alcohol and drugs for most of his adult life, but he did give Guzman words of advice Guzman never forgot.

“He said ‘Learn to work with your brain. Your brain won’t give out on you. Your body will,’ ” Guzman said. “He was a septic system technician. He dug the ditches for septic systems.”

When he got out of prison, Guzman violated parole and landed behind bars again until he figured out he had to get away from the influences in La Colonia.

“If you’re always standing in smoke, after a while, you can’t smell smoke,” he said.

Guzman earned his high school equivalency certificate in prison and when he was released at age 24, he set his sights on college. He decided to shoot for the stars and apply to UC Berkeley, and was accepted. He worked hard, graduated, and found an internship with the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland.

He was then accepted at UCLA School of Law. With financial aid and the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans, he worked his way through law school.

“He’s a leader,” said UCLA law professor Sharon Dolovich. “He’s able to bring out the best in people and encourage people. He makes people want to do the work and he has a way of bringing people on board.”

Guzman’s roommate, Caliph Assagai, 29, of Sacramento, marveled at how both he and Guzman passed the bar exam on the first try, even though Guzman was involved in the legal troubles of his younger adopted brother, Alex Compian, 21, who was on trial in the murder of his neighbor.

“His brother went to jail and got convicted during our bar studies,” Assagai said. “He was constantly taking time away from the bar supporting his family and frankly, supporting me. ... He would say ‘You’re spiraling. Let’s go for a hike.’ ”

Compian was convicted of first-degree murder and received a sentence of 50 years to life last summer.

To this day, Guzman continues to try to get help for his brothers.

From gangs to a Ph.D.

Rios was the second son born to a homeless young mother in Mexico City. He grew up without a father.

“We often slept in small, crowded concrete shacks with tin roofs and dirt floors,” Rios wrote in his 2011 book “Street Life: Poverty, Gangs and a Ph.D.”

Desperate for a better life, Rios’ mother hired a “coyote,” a human smuggler, to get her and her 3- and 7-year-old sons across the border to the U.S.

Border Patrol agents foiled their first attempt and Rios, his brother and mother wound up begging on the streets of Tijuana. Family members scraped up enough money to pay another coyote and this time, the three made it.

A friend in Tijuana told Rios’ mother about a place called Oakland where “the streets are paved with cement instead of dirt ... and ride around in buses instead of on burros.”

After she earned bus fare working as a maid in Los Angeles, the family arrived in Oakland to find paved streets, but conditions not much better than in Mexico City — at least not in the area they could afford. Rios’ mother found work cleaning tables for $2 an hour while Rios and his brother waited in a tiny, locked apartment for nine hours a day with rats and roaches.

As Rios grew into adolescence, he got work as a gardener and began hanging out near a liquor store — the “kick-it spot” for the local gang. His “placaso” or nickname was L’il Puppet.

“My gang life made me forget my morals, my obligations, my sense of reality,” Rios wrote.

One day, Rios and his best friend, nicknamed Smiley, and another gang member named Big Joe drove into rival gang territory to meet with two girls.

When they arrived, they were surrounded by eight rival gang members and a fight broke out. When somebody pulled a gun, Big Joe, Smiley and Rios ran, ducking between cars during the gunfire.

After the rivals left, Smiley was face-down on the ground, with blood pooling around his head, where he had been shot.

“I thought, as the movies had taught me, that he should have been dead the instant the bullet his skull, but he continued to twitch and shake as we drove him to the hospital,” Rios said.

Smiley died a few hours later.

Smiley’s death caused Rios to reassess his life. If he didn’t make a change, he, too, would wind up dead or in jail.

Rios decided to appeal to Flora Russ, a high school teacher who had showed him compassion.

“She said, ‘Victor ... when you’re ready to change, I’ll be here for you,’ ” Rios said.

Victor was ready soon afterward and Russ helped tutor Rios. He graduated from high school with the rest of his class.

“She said, ‘I”m so proud of you. Now it’s time for college,’ ” Rios said. “I thought ‘What’s this teacher smokin’? I’m supposed to be a gardener or a mechanic.’ ”

Rios had been in and out of juvenile hall, so he worried about getting into college, but he was accepted into CSU Hayward on a probationary basis. He did well and transferred to Berkeley, where he earned his doctorate in ethnic studies. He is now married with twin daughters, 12, and a 3-year-old son.

Both Rios and Guzman now crusade to put more money and resources into therapeutic intervention and education rather than suppression and correction once juveniles are in custody.

“We need to be dealing with them in a developmentally appropriate manner,” Guzman said. “We should be cultivating citizens and not just good inmates.”

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