TOPICS > Education

One Man’s Journey From Gang Member to Academia

BY Mike Fritz and April Brown  February 1, 2012 at 12:39 PM EST

Rios listens to adolescents he mentors in Santa Barbara. NewsHour photo by Mike Fritz

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. | It’s clear why 19-year-old Miguel doesn’t like labels.

To the state of California he is a high school dropout. To the city of Santa Barbara he is a gang member with a criminal past. And statistically speaking he is as likely as anyone to end up in prison.

Miguel, who asked the NewsHour not to use his last name, did his first stint in juvenile detention at age 12 after he was caught stealing a bike. He’s been in and out of the justice system ever since and remains on probation.

Yet Victor Rios, a sociology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, labels Miguel as a work in progress. Rios studies street-life-oriented youth and has written two books on his own life and juvenile delinquency.

Raised in some of the worst projects of Oakland, Rios came to the United States with his mother from Mexico when he was 2.

“We had to face violence, poverty and dilapidated housing,” Rios said. “For example, one day my little cousin was sleeping in his crib and we had rats that crawled on his crib and began to chew his face up, his lips, his gums, his cheeks. He was hospitalized for months and his face had to be reconstructed.”

That dire poverty led Rios to drop out of school for the first time in eighth grade. At 14, he says he joined a neighborhood gang for protection and was often living in stolen cars for months at a time.

Rios went on to high school but dropped out again and was back spending his days on the streets. Then, he saw his best friend — a fellow gang member named Smiley — murdered in a gun-fight with their rivals.

“Smiley’s death changed my life around,” Rios said. “I began to think about what can happen to me. I began to think about facing hard time in prison if I continued on this path like many of my friends or ending up dead like Smiley.”

With the guidance and dedication of a teacher named Flora Russ, Rios began making a slow transformation that ultimately led to his graduating on time with his high school class. Russ, who now is retired from Berkeley High School in Berkeley, would call him at night and said Rios was one of many students she visited away from school.

“I remember talking to him about Shakespeare at his house,” said Russ. “I’m pretty sure we were studying Macbeth at the time, and I guess I was just trying to be there for him if he needed help with anything.”

Rios said it was crucial for him that someone decided to take an interest in his life and had expectations for him.

“It was important for me to hear an adult tell me, ‘listen we know you are a mess-up, we know you are a dropout, but we still believe in you.’”

That belief propelled Rios on to college and eventually to earn a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley. An unlikely success story, no doubt, but Rios said teenagers on the fringe are salvageable and worth the cost for society not to give up on them.

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“Over the last 25 years in California, for example, these kids get locked up and they cost taxpayers $30,000 a year minimal,” Rios said. “And when they get out it’s a revolving door because there is at least a 70 percent recidivism rate.”

Today, Rios runs a program in Santa Barbara for at-risk adolescents every Friday. Miguel first started coming to the meetings two years ago, as a paid subject in one of the professor’s studies. Miguel admits that he initially came because he got paid $10 to be there.

But Rios said Miguel is now one of the leaders of the program, in charge of rounding up fellow “homies” as he dubs them, from the neighborhood to come every week.

“I felt like I can relate to him,” Miguel said. “He knows how to come at us, you know, and at what level of respect to come at us.”

Miguel shakes his head and laughs at the question: What if he had never met Rios?

“Honestly, no one has ever taken an interest in me like this before,” said Miguel. “I’d probably be in jail right now for doing something dumb had I not met him.”

Since meeting Rios, he has begun the process of completing his GED and hopes to one day become a mechanic. But serious challenges remain for Miguel, who was hospitalized recently after being stabbed eight times in a gang-related incident.

“I am not going to be an angel all of a sudden, you know,” Miguel said. “It’s kind of hard to do something different from what you’ve known most of your life and it’s a process.”

That process of perpetual encouragement and never giving up on a student is what Rios devotes his life to now. And after he completed his latest book he sent a copy to his teacher Ms. Russ.

In response, she sent a note with a simple message.

“Thanks for keeping my philosophy alive.”

The NewsHour will air a report on Victor Rios and his efforts on Wednesday’s broadcast. Join a live chat with Rios on Feb. 3 at 1:30 p.m. ET here.

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