The “Dead End” cover story by Stephen Dark [Nov. 11, City Weekly] took me back 10 years to my first meeting with Jose Hernandez, then a 16-year-old incarcerated youth sitting in a poetry workshop I was conducting for ARTEC, a transition program for youth in detention who are on the verge of re-entering society.
It was in that workshop that Jose, a gangbanger and heroin addict since the age of 11, became hooked on poetry. From that day forward, our relationship grew. Four years later, Jose asked me if he could call me Dad—a moment that I wholeheartedly embraced without hesitation.
The events that shaped our father-and-son relationship were based on our respect for poetry, for the truth and for each other. Jose had dignity and integrity; he treated others, regardless of their affiliations, with dignity and respect. He made my job working with gang-affiliated Mexican youth, most of whom were undocumented, the high point in my life.
Jose became my guide and mentor into the world of undocumented youth: gangbangers. He taught me that gang-affiliated kids hunger for good alternatives, that none of them want to be in gangs, and those who are in gangs welcome a way out.
Jose saved hundreds of kids from drugs and gangs, and turned a racist, like my former self, into a decent human being. He helped me see that the baggy pants, homemade tattoos and mad-dog stares are nothing more than a cry for help that goes unheard. The journey Jose took me on has kept me awake, haunted and driven to dispel the myths about these kids. Jose was an ambassador, a gang-prevention specialist, and a son no father could be more proud of.
What I learned from my experience with Jose, and so many other kids like him, is that there’s no such thing as a bad kid. There’s no such thing as a hopeless kid, just kids without hope. The cost of not providing that hope is staggering to kids and to society at large.
My sincere thanks to Stephen Dark for his time and talent, and for finding the truth and telling it with honesty and compassion, and to City Weekly for informing us on issues of human rights.
Ex-gang-prevention specialist/former racist
Salt Lake City