(For a slight change of pace I wanted to share a simple portrait of a man I interviewed during my recent field research trip.)
What’s the best way to put a stubborn stereotype to bed? Tell a different story. Better yet, let the subject of the stereotype tell a different story himself. It may not be perfectly representative of the group – lone stories never are – but if it’s honest and true, I figure it’s worth sharing.
Here’s what “Manuel”, a forty-something Hispanic man and former gang member from New York, told me at a Greyhound stop in Cleveland the other day as we waited to board our next bus. It was not our first encounter: over the past 24 hours, Manuel and his black wife and I had traveled several hundred miles together on the same bus, sharing rest stop pleasantries, laughing at a fellow traveler’s incessant harmonica, and trying to sort out the on-again, off-again wifi when sleep eluded us at one of the early-morning layovers.
By the time of our conversation, I had formed an impression of a tender man and interested husband who paradoxically bore the marks of ghetto life – tattoos up his neck, bits of shiny bling, a slight limp. I was not prepared for just how low his life began and how far he’d come. The following snapshot from my interview, while incomplete, gives a glimpse into a life vastly different from my own – common stereotypes, uncommon changes and all.
I used to be that little boy in the ‘hood that your moms would tell you to stay away from. I was in gangs, got caught up in a lot of drug dealing, extortion, even murder. I survived a lot and did a lot of time.
It wasn’t just my family – my whole neighborhood was dysfunctional… [As kids] we’d play cops and robbers but nobody wanted to be the cops, everybody wanted to be robbers. You tend to wanna grow up and be like that [in the inner city].
I used to be a recruiter for the gang. I used to make the young guy think I really cared about him. I’d be his father figure, I’d be the big brother that he’s missing. Then I’d give him a bag of dope, a gun and he’d do anything in the world to impress me. I’d tell him I love him. But when he goes to prison, he don’t get no letter from me, no money from the gang. Only thing he has then is his family.
I know it sounds crazy, but I always wanted to get shot, get that badge, go to prison. There’s a lot of kids like that, want to go to prison. I went and kept on going. Got shot four places in my legs and once execution-style in the head. Don’t know how I’m still alive. My father, my uncle, my other uncle, my homeboys all got murdered. I got shot and left, did hard time. In prison I got stabbed eight times, watched a lot of other people die.
So far, a pretty grim confirmation of the popular stereotype: another young man of color in the inner city breaking the law and getting into trouble. But that’s not the end of Manuel’s story.
Then I had enough and hung up my guns. Only guns I play with now are [over there] in the arcade… I’m a life skills coach. I go to junior high schools and high schools and talk to the kids who got suspended, kids in detention. I let ‘em know how it really is, how gang life isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. I don’t want them to have to learn it the hard way like I did.
A lot of my kids, when I go back to the school next year they’re not in trouble any more… some of them straightened up.
When I came out [of prison] six years ago, I met my now-wife. When I went back in for two-and-a-half more years, she stood by me. Finally I came out and married her. We got married November 4th. Now we’re on honeymoon. We’re going to start a new life in California, start a conflict resolution center to reach more young kids who need help. You’ll read about it someday…
Manuel isn’t perfect – far from it. He’ll be the first to admit his flaws. But he’s more than just a felon from the ‘hood with brown or black skin and a criminal record to prove it. He’s more than just another victim of the institutionalized poverty and lack of opportunity that continue to plague American inner cities and many rural areas. He is a husband and mentor and inspiration to many kids – and much more than I could hope to uncover in our interview.
Here’s to the complex, multidimensional thing that is the human being, stereotypes be darned.