Sunday, October 21

After gangs, life goes on


Tired of years of violence, these students exchanged their guns for textbooks and made their way to UCLA

B.K. had heard that the guy from Asian Boys was carrying a couple “boats” of Ecstasy. Each boat contained about a thousand pills. B.K., along with a few other Wah Ching members, surrounded the Asian Boys member and pulled out their “gat.” It’s what they call hijacking: stealing a rival gang’s goods so they could sell it themselves.

It was hustling. It was business.

When Eddie Garcia was at a party with his homeboys, the weed was drying up. He needed something else, though he was far from sober.

“Here, smoke this,” a man offered. It looked like a cigar.

Garcia took a deep puff. “It’s shrooms,” the man said.

It was family. It was fun.

For two UCLA students, Eddie Garcia and B.K., who asked to be identified by his initials to avoid repercussions and stigma in his professional life, high school life was not all about grades. It was about gangs ““ a life dominated by drugs, crime and loyalty.

“I was the guy that got everyone bad, (but) I was never evil. I was the gangster with morals, … but within my moral limit, I was crazy,” said B.K., a third-year molecular, cell and developmental biology student. “I was trying to be a gangster of virtue.”

Both eventually became pre-medical students at UCLA, exchanging thug life for college life. Both realized they needed to abandon their criminal past in order to move on and be successful.

Garcia, a fifth-year biology student, originally from Ventura County, joined a small Latino gang, looking for friends who would understand him.

“I started hanging out with my cousins. Unfortunately they were involved in gangs. … (I) kind of got swallowed up into it,” Garcia said.

Garcia noticed that many of his contemporaries were attracted to the gangster lifestyle because of the media’s glorification of the image. The commercialization of the gang image appealed to a larger audience, he said.

“During that time Dr. Dre and the whole gangster rap thing really blew up,” Garcia said. “A lot of people who normally wouldn’t have been in gangs actually started to gravitate towards that lifestyle and then they got sucked into it without knowing what it’s all about.”

Garcia said he never got “jumped in” ““ which is when a gang member is initiated by being beaten ““ since his family was already in the gang, but he said it was common for other gang members to go through the process in order to join.

“I was definitely criminally active at one point,” Garcia said. “When I was 17 I was involved in a fight at my school. During the fight someone got stabbed. I was somehow involved,” Garcia added. He was arrested and spent a week in juvenile hall.

He was unwilling to elaborate because he is concerned his past will affect his future professional aspirations.

“I’m not sure how my past will affect me,” he said, “but I think I will actually write about it in my med school applications.”

Though he never killed anyone, he had a friend in his gang who shot and killed a rival gang member. Garcia said the rival member had been taunting his gang, repeatedly entering his neighborhood.

“It was more reputation than territorial,” he added. The gang had to uphold their hard image.

B.K. shares a similar gang background. He joined as a freshman in high school and was an active member of a gang called “Wah Ching” in Cerritos. He did not get “jumped in” because he was close friends with several members.

“I was like an honorary member and then I got in,” he said.

B.K. said his gang was part of a wide network involving drug distribution. He added that the gang originated in San Francisco by Chinese immigrants.

“Wah Ching (is) all over the nation. … It means “˜Asian youth,’” B.K. said. “They wanted to protect their friends in the neighborhood, … but they eventually turned into a crime organization.”

His said the gang hustled pre-tariff cartons of cigarettes and illegal drugs.

“There’s a big difference between hustling gangs like Wah Ching, trying to make money, and our rival gang was Asian Boys, which was more like a street gang that would just (gang) bang for the hood, … marking their territory and instilling fear in other gangs,” he said.

Music and the rap culture had a heavy influence on his gang’s image and behavior, B.K. said. Gangs identified with Tupac “2Pac” Shakur, the street gangster, or Biggie Smalls, the hustler.

“I guess when I listen to 2Pac I feel a lot of his (image). On the same token, I think he ruined a lot of peoples’ lives. When we used to bang, when we were rolling in cars looking for trouble, that’s the music we’d listen to,” B.K. said. “Listening to that kind of music might push you beyond what you usually do.”

For both Garcia and B.K., the glory of thug life faded quickly.

Neither of them were officially “jumped out,” though many gangs require a blood payment for leaving.

“Some Latino gangs require “˜blood in’ and “˜blood out’ ““ you shoot someone to get in and you get shot to get out,” B.K. said. “I left the area for a while. … I was still homies, but the way we were, … we were friends before I got in, so it wasn’t a bitter thing,” B.K. said.

He said he still has friends who are gang members, some of whom are almost 40, and continue to live off of money from hustling.

“You don’t leave,” Garcia said. “If you do, it’s because people get families and kind of fade away. And sometimes people would just disappear; they moved to a different state or went to jail. … (Some) you just never heard from again.”

Garcia’s story was slightly different.

“I was getting sick of the lifestyle of partying. I was very unhappy with where my life was ““ not because I wasn’t in school. I really didn’t want to go to school at all at any point in my life,” Garcia said.

He never anticipated getting back into school, let alone UCLA. But Garcia knew he needed something different.

“Inside my heart, I was like, yeah, I want to change. I want my life to change.”

He became a Christian after going with a friend to church one Friday night. He believes his decision was the first step in turning his life around, and from then on, he decided to rebuild his lifestyle from the ground up.

“If you really want to live for God, you can’t live the same. I had to completely cut (my homies) off,” Garcia said. “I had a whole new life, … but for them, it was tough. … They depend on you to be there when they need you.”

After a missions trip to Australia through his church, Victory Outreach, and reading a book by Dr. Ben Carson, Garcia decided to become a doctor. He knew he needed to go back to school.

At 22, he enrolled in a community college. Since he spent most of his time in high school gangbanging, he had to start from scratch, learning simple pre-algebra and working his way up. Five years later, he transferred to UCLA as a biology major.

“I’m about to graduate,” said Garcia, who is 30 years old. He has plans to attend medical school in the future, and wants to work overseas through a Christian organization.

B.K. “resigned” in his junior year in high school after being expelled the year before. He moved from Cerritos to Monterey Park to live with his straight-edge cousin, and joined the Marines out of high school. The discipline of the Marines and the chance to get higher education appealed to him. He also wanted to make his parents proud because they expected that he would eventually attend college.

“I didn’t want my parents to think that they raised a failure, and I definitely wasn’t ready for college right out of (high) school,” B.K. said. “Me and my parents are really close. … Even when I banged, I still had them in my ear. … I think that’s what separated me from other gangsters,” B.K. said. “They’re really missing that love and camaraderie in their broken homes so they find (that) in a gang.”

After completing his year-long Marine training, B.K. enrolled at East Los Angeles College, and then transferred to UCLA in fall 2007.

“I fell in love with the campus,” B.K. said. “Now, I just go to school. … Now I’m a Bruin.”

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