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For almost two decades, I’ve been confined to a cold, dark, and gloomy prison cell as I pay my pound of flesh and soul for the choices I made as a youth.

I currently reside in a facility located on the outskirts of a rural California town, a facility designed to rectify the failures of society. But, instead of rectifying Society’s ills, my residence is nothing more than a graveyard of broken lives and fading dreams.

As I reflect upon the dark parts of my life, it’s taken a large amount of strength for me to muster the courage to share my story and message with you. I share this message because I care deeply for you and don’t want to see you follow in my footsteps and down a path of self-destruction.

You see, I’m what they call a barrio (neighborhood) kid. I grew up in the ghetto of a city we call Longo and raised by my abuelitos (my grandparents). They loved and cared for me and wanted only the best in life for their hijo (son). My abuelitos were first-generation Mexican-Americans who believed in the virtues of hard work, education, and struggle to realize one’s dreams—in a society where brown-skinned people have to work twice as hard to succeed.

My abuelitos’s message sounded good, but my idea of success was different from theirs. For me, the veteranos (older homeboys) in the barrio (neighborhood) held the keys to the type of life I wanted. I idolized and looked up to the veteranos because they possessed what I thought was respect, loyalty, and honor.

I followed their example because I honestly believed that I was destined for a life of “barrio stardom.” Being a hurt kid who felt abandoned by my parents, I thought I had to prove myself to others for my self-worth. And becoming a barrio star seemed like the best way to prove my self-worth.

By proving myself in the barrio, I thought that I would be empowered, respected, and feared—that way no one could ever hurt me emotionally as my parents had. My parents were themselves caught in a web of criminal addiction. My father spent most of his life in prison and was absent a lot during my childhood.

While my mom was constantly struggling to support my younger siblings, she was a slave to the game of selling drugs which she must have believed was the best way to support her family. All of this caused me to develop deep resentment toward my parents because I felt alone, confused, rejected, and abandoned.

Every child deserves to have parents who love and support them—parents who raise them to become productive citizens in a society where the odds are often stacked against them!

Growing up, I didn’t know how to express what I felt inside, so I learned to suppress my emotions and used violence to demonstrate my disregard for others, which was only a mask to hide my internal pain.

Being a hurt kid who felt abandoned by my parents, I thought I had to prove myself to others for my self-worth. And becoming a barrio star seemed like the best way to prove my self-worth.

It was in grade school when my life took the turn which would eventually become a nightmare. During this period of my life, I began to learn the unwritten rules of the streets and picked up “game” from my tios (uncles), who were from the barrio. They were the ones who laced me up with the tools necessary to survive on the mean streets of a city where racial tension between Mexicans and Blacks would eventually erupt into an unending street war which destroyed countless lives on both sides.

I, along with other kids from the Eastside of Long Beach, had strong family ties to the barrio and wanted to fight in the war, but was too young to take the vow of an “Eastsider,” so we formed our own crew at school, known as the Lokitos (crazies) and began emulating the broader, more violent patterns we witnessed in the barrio.

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However, my time as a Lokito was short-lived because a friend betrayed me by telling on us kids for a burglary we committed on school grounds. The betrayal of my “friend” confused me because in the barrio you learn not to tell, show weakness, or cooperate with the police. In short, you had to show corazón (heart) and be down for your homies.

I also felt ashamed because now my abuelita (grandmother) knew of the evil deeds I was doing behind her back. While she thought I was an angel, I was out committing crimes. I knew my actions hurt her, buy I refused to acknowledge it and blinded myself to her pain. At this stage in my adolescent life, everything was all about me!

After hanging around with my uncles and his homeboys for a while, the time had come for me to make a choice. I remember that summer night well. They asked me if I wanted into the barrio as I was already tagged with my uncles’ moniker, “Sharkie,” and didn’t want to let them down.

With a simple “yes,” the choice was made. There was no going back. I began a life of crime that led me to commit two execution-style, gang-related murders at the age of 16. Because I was too young to be executed, I was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole!

Fortunately, I have a chance to regain my freedom one day. Through what I can only describe as a miracle, my case was overturned on a legal technicality and I was given a second chance at a “new” life.

This second chance has caused me to take an honest look at myself. I knew I had to change the beliefs I had that made me a cold-hearted gangster who didn’t care about anyone, least of all myself.

Now I realize that, not only did I deprive my victims’ families of happiness, peace, and love, but I hurt the very people who had tried to love me. Mis abuelos (my grandparents) loved me with all their hearts and tried to raise me the right way, but I didn’t listen.

What hurts the most is that they have passed on without me being able to say, “I love you”--to offer them an apology for the harm and suffering I personally caused them and my victims.

Don’t listen to the lies and the poison your so-called homeboys put in your head. I made that mistake and learned through time and experience that the very things I thought I was against—betrayal and deceit of those I love—I wound up doing myself. I hurt my family—I did wrong by them! In the gang and criminal lifestyle, everyone is expendable, including any one of us. The homeboys will use and abuse you until there is nothing left to use.

I conclude my message by saying that if you are hurting inside, find someone who will listen to your troubles--whatever they may be. Don’t hesitate to seek help for the things ailing you inside.

You should know that your life matters to the world and to those around you. I wish I had had the opportunity that you do have right now: to make better choices and avoid coming to prison—or worse, like being killed in the streets.

It simply is not worth it, little brothers and sisters!

Change is possible. It might seem hard right now, but remember: A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. So take that all-important step and maybe your life wont’ be like mine.

Joey Vasquez