Justice Now

Solutions in Sight: Social Justice


(Where you come from)

Youth Advocates

A Conversation with
Victor Gonzalez

May 1997

At age 12 Victor Gonzalez was a member of a Los Angeles gang. When he was almost killed by rival gang members he knew it was time to change his address and his plans for the future. At his new school in Northern California he chose not to get involved with gangs. Instead he spends some of his time volunteering at Youth Advocates, an organization that does sex education and anti-gang outreach.

The InSite: How did you get involved in community work?

Victor: I am from El Salvador. And when I was over there I never heard about HIV or AIDS or STD's [Sexually Transmitted Diseases] or all these things. When I came to the United States, Youth Advocates came to give a presentation at my school, and I learned a little bit about this stuff. I wanted to learn a little bit more so I came to the clinic to get more information. And I met a guy who told me they had some vacancies so I could work. He told me to fill out this application and he said, "Oh, you speak Spanish too." And that's an advantage. Then I got in. Sometimes we do street outreach. Go talk to young people and give out condoms.

TI: So you're talking to them about safe sex and how to protect themselves.

Victor: And abstinence too. You know, not to have sex.

...you don't have to be in a gang to be cool.

TI: What kind of response do you get?

Victor: Well, sometimes they say, "Yeah, well I'm not going to get that. I don't do those things." And I say, "That's great. But someday, if you do have sex, you've gotta know what's out there. 'Cause if you make a mistake it's going to effect your life."

TI: Could be a deadly mistake.

Victor: Yeah!

TI: About how many hours a week do you put in at Youth Advocates?

Victor: About 16 hours a week. Tuesdays and Fridays. Because on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday I go to Canal Ministry.

TI: What do you do there?

Victor: It's like an after school program for middle school kids. There are about 27 kids. We help them do their homework. There are some kids who don't know how to speak English so I teach them and how to write it too. Then on Mondays and Wednesdays we have a group at Canal Ministry. Me and one other guy from Youth Advocates. We talk to the kids about drugs and peer pressure. We teach them about conflict resolution. We help them out and just keep them off the streets, not to be wandering around and getting into trouble. We just talk about gangs and how you can not be in a gang. And we tell them our experiences. All the things that we've been through but we're still here and we're doing positive things now. They get it. And they're like, "That's cool!" And I tell them that you don't have to be in a gang to be cool. Because I'm not in a gang...

TI: ...and you're cool!

Victor: Yeah!

TI: What was your experience with gangs?

Victor: When I got to the United States I was 12. I lived in L.A. I saw these kids hanging around corners. And I was in a gang. But I got in a fight with this other kid and his cousin was looking for me. Then after school I was just walking home and there was a drive-by shooting. And one of my friends got shot in the chest. Like five or seven times. And he died! I was seven feet away from him. Then two weeks later one of my friends said that the shots were not meant to hit him, they were meant to hit me! So I told my mom that I wanted to move because I was in big trouble. My aunt was here, and then I came here to San Rafael [Northern California]. When I got to San Rafael High I used to see these kids trying to be in gangs and I was going to go that way too, but I was like, "No. I don't want to be there in a gang. Be in all this trouble for nothing. It's not worth it." So then some of my friends told me about some group called Raza Studies. And I met this guy named Miguel and he was the mentor for the group. So I used to go every Thursday and we used to talk about Prop 187 [an anti-immigrant law passed by California voters in Nov. '96] and what we can do about it and how we can get people involved. And how to get young people not to be in gangs.

...one of my friends got shot in the chest...
the shots were ... meant to hit me!

TI: Why do you think kids join gangs?

Victor: Because they don't get attention at home. And they go outside and see other kids with money or they have more friends. And they want to be part of the group. They want to be known as "somebody." Not anybody like a nerd who just goes to school or whatever.

TI: Being part of a group is a good thing, so when you tell young people not to be part of gangs you've got to give them something to replace it with. What have you got for them?

Victor: Well, I tell them what I've been through. And you know if they want to get out of the gang, or if they have problems I give them Miguel's phone number for the Raza Studies. I tell them "Just call Miguel up and come to the group only once to check it out. To see that you can have power some other way, not physical power. You can show your abilities in positive ways. And then you can be a positive role model for your little brothers and little sisters."

TI: How long have you been involved in Raza?

Victor: For two years.

TI: And have you noticed some changes in that time?

Victor: Yeah. If it wouldn't have been for the group I would have been in the streets and everything. We do presentations to church groups, to other groups and before we were 7 and now we are 22! Most everybody in the Canal knows the group and they tell us to come do presentations for them. And we did a presentation for San Rafael High School teachers. We told them about how we felt and how some other people in the school felt. And they liked it. I think we're doing some positive things. We're letting other people know how the youth feels these days.

TI: All young people feel that pull, that peer pressure to be part of a group in whatever community they live in. And maybe the leaders of those groups are not making good choices about the way they live their lives and they pull in other kids who are just not sure but they really want to belong. What would you say to them?

Victor: If you really love yourself and respect yourself you don't need to go through all those problems. You can really do something for your community. Work. Get involved with groups. Help people out. Because even though nobody was there for you, you can break that cycle. You can help somebody else. So those kids won't go through the same things that we've been through.

TI: Are you in school?

Victor: Yeah. I'm 18 and I'm a junior.

TI: You have another year of high school, but what do you think you're going to do when you're finished?

Victor: I want to go to college. I want to be a counselor. Like Miguel.

...even though nobody was there for you,
you can break that cycle.



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