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My story starts 29 years ago in a small town called Presa la Villita, just outside the city of Lazaro Cárdenas Michoacan, Mexico. I grew up there for most of my youth until I was 15. That’s when my family and I came to the U. S. Though my father was living in Springfield, Tennessee, at the time, I stayed in California in search of a job to help provide for my family.

Overcoming My Pride

I was raised in a good household with good parents and siblings. I am the third-born of my parents’ four children—two older sisters and my baby brother. Thus, I’m the oldest boy.

Although we were poor and didn’t live in the best environment, my parents did the best they could in raising us. They taught us right from wrong and how normal, law-abiding people were supposed to behave. Nevertheless, as young kids, we were exposed to a lot of violence, drugs, and injustice and that framed our existence—the way we viewed the world.

Where I was from, people who were “soft” simply didn’t make it, so I adapted to my situation. I put on a mask to guard my true self—the mask I would wear for many years, a mask of toughness, heartlessness, and ruthlessness.

I’m from a place where police and law enforcement were rarely seen. In fact, crime was so high that we used to joke that the law might as well not even exist. Everybody took the law into their own hands and lived according to the rule that stated that a man should do what he has to do to provide for and protect his family.

That meant if a person had to rob, steal, sell drugs, or even kill to survive it was okay, as long as you didn’t do it to the wrong person (someone who would retaliate). We all knew it was wrong, but we justified our actions by saying that we didn’t have any other choice. It was what we had to do to survive.

I remind myself that in my early years, I was a good kid. I listened to my parents and stayed out of trouble. Despite what should have been a good foundation, however, my criminal behavior began when I was 7 or 8. That’s when my cultural environment—the people, places, and things in my life—began to influence my conduct in a negative way.

As I mentioned earlier, my family was poor, so my brother and sisters would get teased by the other kids because we didn’t have as much money or as many clothes as they did. Once, when I was about 8 or 9, an older kid made fun of my little brother for being poor. That incident caused a lot of resentment within me. I felt helpless, vulnerable, and angry. Being teased and seeing my siblings teased gave me the motivation to survive their tauntings, to prove to everyone who put me down that I too could have what they had. It was a catalyst for what I became, but what I became was a completely different person, almost unrecognizable from the good kid I had been and had been taught to be.

Where I was from, people who were “soft” simply didn’t make it, so I adapted to my situation. I put on a mask to guard my true self—the mask I would wear for many years, a mask of toughness, heartlessness, and ruthlessness. Out of fear and insecurity, I created a new persona that would allow me to do what I had to do to provide for my family and protect it. I started stealing and selling drugs, and my behavior progressed until I became involved in taking someone’s life.

I was scared, but I gave in to peer pressure from the people and circumstances that surrounded me. I was dared to steal money from my own uncle. I remember being so frightened and insecure, but I just had to do it, just to prove myself and fit in with the crowd and earn that all-important RESPECT.

Once my “homies” saw that I was willing to go to extremes, I started gaining that respect, and the respect I got from my peers felt good. It gave me a sense of gratification. Soon, though, all the money that I was making from my “ill-gotten gains” was not enough (sort of the way people need more and more drugs to get that same high). At the same time, all the attention I was getting fed my ego and made me even more self-confident and pleased with myself.

So, in order to continue feeding my ego, I felt that I had to do bigger, more impressive things. I went from stealing and selling drugs to getting involved with people who were planning and performing murders.

Looking back at my life, I now realize that my need to prove to people that I was more than just the poor kid and that my family was just as good as everyone else’s allowed me to justify my actions to the point that I no longer felt the guilt that I should have.

But look at me now. I am in prison for the horrible crimes that I committed!

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On April 25, 2005, I was arrested and accused of a murder-for-hire. I was 17 years old, facing life in prison, but all I could think of was how I was going to survive in that new environment awaiting me. On the one hand, I felt ashamed because I would no longer be able to provide for my family, yet, on the other hand, somehow I really didn’t care. I was convicted of murder and sentenced to 25 years to life.

When I arrived at Salinas Valley State Prison, there was a war going on between the Mexican Southerners and the whites. I was young and afraid (all over again). I did not know what to expect. I was not a tough guy (in reality), but I had to develop a tough exterior in order to survive. It was my first time ever being locked up, but instinct told me not to let anyone know that I was afraid—that would be a death sentence for me!

So I did what I now realize what most people do when they first come to prison. My go-to response for every situation was violence (a reaction so common for most newbies). Developing that kind of defense mechanism brought me a lot of problems during my first few years of incarceration—including many write-ups for hurting people in my “new neighborhood.” I had felt the need, once again, to prove to people that I was not a “punk.”

After I began to gain the respect I craved from other prisoners of my race, I did what I was used to doing to support myself—I resorted to selling drugs (believe it or not, something very easy to do behind prison walls).

After about 4 years of being a prison “dope man,” I got caught. As a result, I lost my visiting privileges for three years. I could not see or talk with my family during that entire time!

The time I spent in the “hole” as a result of all my absurd actions, did cause me to reflect—maybe this self-inflicted punishment was a blessing in disguise. When you are in the hole, you have a lot of time to think. And, boy, did I think!

I thought about the fact that, while trying to do what I thought I needed to do to provide for my family, I ended up separated from them. I thought about all the damage I’d caused and all the victims that I had created by doing what I thought was the “right” thing to do. Not one time when I was selling drugs did I stop to think about the effects of what I was doing nor did I think when I got involved with people doing murder-for-hire that we might get caught. Perhaps worst of all, I had given no thought about the pain and suffering the family and friends of my victims would go through.

The more I came to grips with what my actions were doing to me and to others, the more I became disgusted with myself for the way that I had been living. I was tired of going back and forth to the hole but I did not know how to change. But I did what had always been so hard for me to do: I sought help!

I looked at the people, now older and more experienced, who were now surrounding me who I knew had once lived the type of criminal life-style that I had lived. Over time, I had come to respect them. When I recognized how they once lived and how they had now changed their lives, I began to think that it was possible for me to change too. I often wondered why I had done a lot of the things that I did, but when I began attending self-help groups, I started to gain the necessary tools and insight to fully grasp the reasons for my behavior and how I could truly change for the better.

Having attended numerous self-help groups for the past few years, I must admit things for me haven’t been easy. But it feels good to live my life without feeling like I have to hurt people or get over on others in order to get by. It also feels good to not have to pretend to be someone that I am not.

I soon began to take seriously the groups and courses I had signed up for. I began to gain an understanding of myself that I never thought possible. I have overcome my fears and insecurities and have finally found a purpose and meaning for my life. I know who I am, where I come from, where I am now and where I’m going.

I hope that my story helps anyone who is struggling with a destructive life-style to see the light. For those who want to take a different path and can’t seem to find their way, a good place to start is taking a long, hard look within yourself. Then try to recognize how the outside pressures in our lives influence our behavior.

For me, I did eventually follow my own advice (because it was not and can never be too late). It is, therefore, up to you to consider your own options--but only once you truly know what you want out of life. I hope you decide to choose right over wrong.

I am thankful for the opportunity to share my story. If my words can be the wake-up call that causes someone to change, then I will have done my job of helping others avoid making the same mistakes that I did.

Eved Romero