Transitioning: The road out of gangs and violence


For Alisha Ruiz, 21, the beginning of her fall into gang violence and drug addiction began at school.

All her memories from her few years in school still make her cringe. “Mr. Reynoso [used to] put me down because I didn’t know my multiplication tables when I was in 6th grade.” He would call her to the board and when Alisha stumbled on a problem, he would scream, “You should know your multiplication tables! You’re never going to get nowhere in school if you don’t learn!” she recalls him saying.

Alisha never felt smart enough in school and in middle school, she relied heavily on her best friend Van Lam. “From 6th grade to the middle of my 8th grade we were real tight,” she said. “She would sit there and she would teach me what I didn’t understand. But what started as simple guidance soon became cheating. “I barely made it [that year] because I cheated in all my tests. I cheated on my math tests. I cheated on my reading tests. Van gave me all the answers.”

At that time, Alisha began to yearn for change, “I wanted something different. I always felt that I was boring,” she said. She began getting pressure from other girls in her school to hang out with the wrong crowd. When her friend Irma offered her crystal meth during their lunch break at school, she didn’t hesitate. “When I did it, I wanted to be around her all the time. I was hooked instantly. I was feeling so good,” she said. “I just felt numb.”

She succumbed to the pressure and became affiliated with the neighborhood gang Florencia, in El Monte, and, in a series of setbacks that ended with several convictions including one for manslaughter, Alisha hit bottom before beginning the long steep climb back to self respect and productivity.

Alisha, along her path to securing a self assurance, serves as an example of how young lives can so easily go wrong. As a former affiliate of an Inland Empire gang, her struggle against society was as monumental as the one she faced within herself. She had to learn, for example, how to control the anger and addictions that gang life provided her, a sort of twisted security that plunged her deeper into a lifestyle from which she is now extracting herself. Moreover, as a teenage mom, Alisha and others in her place must learn how to be parents years after they have become parents.

Schools have tried to save a generation of urban youth from the aggressive recruiting of gangs that occurs these days, according to Los Angeles police, and schools and nonprofits have responded with anti-gang programs. But there are few safety nets for the young person who becomes involved in the gang lifestyle after they’ve already dropped out of school. One program is Homeboy Industries, founded in 1988 whose programs were later expanded to include young women like Alisha. “Homeboy Industries is the best thing that ever happened to me. It saved my life because I would have given up hope a long time ago,” Alisha said.

Her hope now comes from her arduous work at Homegirl Café. As part of Homeboy Industries, the café offers jobs to young women with extensive criminal records. Alisha finds the work to recovery grueling, and she’s forced to address issues that first surfaced when she was still a middle school student.

A surrogate family

While still in school, crystal meth allowed Alisha to forget her academic troubles, but most importantly it made her forget that at home, her mom, who had belonged to a gang, was also getting high and that her dad, who had lost their house and his business license, was also giving in to drugs.

Her family of four was living in a motor-home on a different street every night. Both her parents were fighting constantly over not having enough drugs.

“Everything was such a mess and it went on for a while,” Alisha said. “We were asking relatives to let us take showers in their house every day.”

Alisha grew up in El Monte, California surrounded by family members that belonged to the El Monte Florencia gang. The gang though, was not accepting girls. “I wanted to join, but at that time they didn’t want any girls because they got into way too much trouble.”

She was never formally part of El Monte Florencia, but the gang was her family. “I was affiliated. I was never jumped in but I was always hanging out with the homies,” she said. In fact, her mom, who had endured family abuse and neglect, had been part of the same gang years before and continued to have the same friends.

The Office of Juvenile and Delinquency Prevention at the U.S. Department of Justice “estimated that 11 percent of all gang members [nationwide] were female.” But the research seems to be dependent on the definition. Some are officially members after being jumped or sexed in and others are simply associated by hanging around the male gang. According to the variant definitions, the numbers can range from 8 to 38 percent female gang membership.

Although the numbers are not clear since female gang association has not been thoroughly researched, what run parallel are the reasons why young women join gangs. Girls who join gangs lack parental care, support and guidance. And it’s the familial neglect that pushes them to seek love and protection elsewhere. Middle school girls between the ages of 13 and 14 are so vulnerable that once in, the gang, which provides direction and support, shapes their values and interests and ultimately their whole life.

Alisha had lost respect for both her parents long before she ran away from home to spend time with the gang. “The drug took control over me. It was my world.” At 13, she got her first case for grand theft auto.

While hanging out with her friends, Alisha said, “We would all steal cars to sell the parts for drugs. It was like a rush and I wouldn’t think. I would just do it. After I came off my high, I just thought I needed more drugs.

“Boys liked to be around me because I was down for the cause. Whatever was going to happen they knew that I was gonna do it,” she said.

At 14, she decided to run away from home, “at that time I was so ignorant I didn’t want to listen to anything and I wanted to do things my way. And I said to my parents ‘I know what’s best for me.’”

Alisha dropped out school shortly after starting 9th grade and moved on to get an education elsewhere. “I had been around the gang all my life and I knew how to do it all,” she said. She also started dating a 19 year-old gang member who encouraged her drug addiction. “I had lost all my real friends. Those that were in school and got good grades,” she said. “All I had were the homies.” She lived in friends’ houses and in cars for more than a year.

Losing control

“One night, my best friend and I decided to steal a car after snorting meth.” Alisha and her friend drove around the streets of El Monte until three in the morning. The ride ended when a woman coming home from work crashed into their car at an intersection. Before she fell unconscious, Alisha turned to her right to see her best friend Michelle dead.

“I was in the hospital getting stitches on my chin when the detectives came into my room,” she said. “I was wanted for manslaughter.”

She was on the run for more than a year until she got pregnant with fraternal twins. At birth, she lost one of her daughters and her second was diagnosed with heart problems. With the hospital bills, the police found where Alisha was living. She was arrested while visiting her daughter Elizabeth at the hospital.

After going through trial, Alisha was charged with involuntary vehicular-manslaughter. She spent 16 months in jail. “At first, I was really scared to go because all my homies kept telling me how everyone got raped and beat up,” she said. “When I got there though, I knew everyone. Everyone I knew from the streets was there and they all took care of me.”

She got out and returned to her old life of drugs. But during one of her trials for grand theft auto, 20-year-old Alisha, afraid to go back to jail, asked for help through proposition 36. “I told [the judge] I knew I wasn’t going to get better unless I got help.”

Under proposition 36, the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act, first and second time drug possession offenders can ask for assistance. In the Rio Hondo court, the judge told Alisha she was a danger to society and she needed to straighten out otherwise she would be in and out of jail for the rest of her life. “At that moment, I didn’t believe him because I knew that wasn’t going to happen to me just for having drugs. But then I realized that that was exactly what my life had been,” Alisha said. After spending a week in jail experiencing withdrawals, Alisha was sent to Socorro Cri-Help Rehabilitation Center in Los Angeles.

During her six months in rehab, Alisha learned how to trust other people and take control of her drug addiction. Transitioning to the outside world was a different story. In March of 2008, she finished her treatment and was released to confront the world, “I was scared to get out because I was on my own. I was like a kid with training wheels and then they took off the wheels,” she said. “And it was all up to me and I didn’t have all the people around me anymore.”

Once outside, she was determined to find work, but was faced with the reality that employers reject anyone with a criminal background, “I applied everywhere, but nobody wanted to give me a job because of my record,” she said. She applied for work at Wal-mart, CVS, McDonalds, Albertsons, Jack in the Box and Farmer Johns and they all told her they would call her back after a background check. Every time, “I would go home and cry and tell God that I needed to prove myself.”

Weeks passed and she never received phone calls. “How do [they] expect us to change if they don’t give us a chance?” Her frustration forced her to consider using drugs again.

She went back to the rehab center looking for support and that’s when she read about Homegirl Café on a flyer.

"I fight for my life each and every day"

Alisha showed up at the café and told the recruiter, “I’m ready to give up. I don’t know what I need to do to get a job. I explained my situation and they gave me my uniform and they told me to start the next day.”

The café has provided her with a safety net around which she is rebuilding her life. “The education I’m getting at Homeboy is so important. I’m trying to learn everything, every type of food. I’m learning how to get me back. It’s going to take time, but it’s keeping me safe,” she said.

Her improvement has been recognized by the whole staff, in fact her supervisor, Erika Cuellar says Alisha’s hard work gives the other girls an example to follow. “She’s very different from the girls. She carries this strong positive energy; an energy that she shares with her daughter and with the girls at the café. This energy she gets from staying away from the gangs and drugs and has left all that behind.”

She now works at the café from Monday through Saturday and takes Tuesday’s off to attend classes. In order to control her drug addiction, she attends Narcotic Anonymous meetings, “I’m trying to do good and stay connected to people who are fighting for their lives. I fight for my life each and every day that I stay clean. And I always remember where I came from because it’s always so easy to fall back.”

More important to her are the parenting classes she takes once a week. “It’s feeding my mind because I don’t know how to be a parent. I barely started learning how to express myself. I’m starting to know what triggers me off to want to do something stupid.

“I need to have a lot of patience with my daughter just like God had patience with me. It took me a lot of falling and a lot of stumbling. I know that he’s guiding me this far and I know that’s what I got to do with my daughter. I got to guide her. And it has a lot to do with communication. That’s what I learned in parenting classes. If I can’t spit I out what I feel or what I want her to know, she’s never going to learn and I’m going to tell [her] the truth. I know she’s in a similar situation so if she tries to do what I did at least I told her the truth.”

Alisha has long brown hair that she twists into a bun when she’s working. Her cheeks, once sunken in, are now round and full, “I eat all the time now, that’s what I miss about the drug, it used to make me really skinny.” She used to have thin, high eyebrows but she grew them out giving way to her natural beauty. Her scars and tattoos are perhaps the only physical evidence that gives us a glimpse of her old life. The tattoo on her ankle reads “high life”; she got it when she was 15 while living in motel rooms, “I was in a room with this tattoo artist who was strung out on meth and I just told him to give me one.” She has two on her chest that read “Michelle” her best friend that died in the car accident and “Elizabeth” for her daughter. On her back she has one that reads “Tell It Like It Is.” “I got this one because I want everyone to just be real, you know, to be honest and tell it like it is.”

For Alisha, the hope she talks about comes in little steps. She has learned how to be one of the best employees in the café to earn her own money, and has forgotten about stealing cars and purses. She worries about providing for her daughter and family and doesn’t think about spending money on drugs. She’s planning on going back to school to earn her GED and has forgotten about the education she received while living her old life.