Homeboy Goes to Harvard

Homeboy Goes to Harvard

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Create Your Best Future

Homeboy Goes to Harvard

Intolerance is the first sign of an inadequate education. An ill-educated person behaves with arrogant impatience, whereas truly profound education breeds humility.

~Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

As I walked into the building, I heard whispering among them. Hidden behind dark glasses with a red bandanna wrapped around my head, I approached the front of the room. I wore a long, black coat, a blue shirt buttoned to the collar, baggy trousers and black patent leather shoes. I strutted across the stage and bellowed out the words, “How dare you! How dare you look at me as if I am a good-for-nothing lowlife doomed to be dead!” I looked around again. Their eyes quickly shifted away as my eyes made contact. It was as if I had a disease.

They were educators who had come to hear a speaker talk about gang prevention and intervention, about the increase of violence in schools. They expected to meet Mr. Richard Santana, a Harvard graduate. Their eyes continued to shift.

“They call me Mr. Chocolate… and I’m here to talk to you about life.”

I’ve always known my life was different. My mother died when I was three months old, and my father left before then. I, along with my two older sisters, was moved from foster home to foster home in Fresno, California. My parents were caught in the juvenile justice system and the welfare system. I am a product of the system. I hated it.

I was introduced to gangs, drugs and violence at an early age. My uncle, a tall, strong man covered with tattoos, came into my life after serving a sentence in the state penitentiary. He was part of the largest institutionalized gang in the state of California. My uncle played an instrumental role in teaching me the rules of the barrio — the school of survival. This, along with drugs and alcohol, gave me strength to deal with the shortcomings of my life.

I grew up fast, and I developed an inner strength that made the homeboys I ran with gravitate toward me, making me the leader of the gang. My homeboys’ trust in my leadership gave me courage and a deep sense of comfort. I held them close. I was prepared to die for them.

I was proud of all this, yet I often wondered, Why can’t others outside my gang see the strengths that my homeboys see in me? Lack of acceptance by adults around me fed my resentment. So I grew intolerant of anyone who denigrated or disrespected me.

Funny thing is that even while I was rooted in the street life — the drugs, the violence, as well as the love and empowerment of being a gangster leader — part of me was elsewhere. I lucidly saw everything my life was about, as though I were looking at my own life and the lives of those around me from a watchtower high upon a hill. This wasn’t a single and sudden moment of lucidity; rather I always had this perspective.

From this watchtower, I saw my homeboys’ lives growing shorter each day. Whisper, a talented soccer player who was recruited for the U.S. junior team to compete internationally, gave up his dream when he got his girlfriend pregnant. Menso’s ability to take pictures of life with his mind and create beautiful artwork through his hands was lost to his love affair with a syringe. I could name more. Despite how affirmed and familiar I felt with the street life, I knew I wanted another way to live.

One day while looking for a job, I dropped by the Chicano Youth Center (CYC), which offered after-school jobs regardless of my affiliation as a gang member. Through CYC, I went to Washington, D.C. for a student-leadership conference and gave a presentation on issues related to gang violence. This marked a turning point in my life — a point when I realized that I could make a positive contribution to society. As a result of this trip to D.C., I was recruited through the Educational Opportunity Program to attend California State University at Fresno.

In college, I learned about my heritage and the sacrifices made by my race. The protest for access to the university and the struggle for equality had a tremendous impact on my perception of life. I grew to appreciate my culture. Yet I was still heavily involved with the violent realities of the streets. I felt split between being a college student and a street thug.

While in my first year in college, I was approached by the campus police and frisked. When I asked why I was being searched, they informed me that they had received a phone call claiming that someone fitting my description had threatened to shoot a professor for not getting an A in the class. When the officers found nothing, I smarted off, “Well, you better get busy ’cause there’s this dude looking just like me about to shoot a professor.” Naturally, they didn’t appreciate my humor.

If they would have checked my student status, they would have found that I was getting straight As. I knew at that moment that I would always be treated differently, dehumanized because of the way I looked. For this reason, I made a commitment to dedicate my work toward breaking down barriers that prevent other homeboys and homegirls just like myself from entering college.

I dress as a gang member, enter a room with an audience and speak to them on a variety of educational issues; I then take off a layer of clothing to reveal a shirt and tie. I make many people uncomfortable; I have caused many eyes to shift, many bodies to squirm. But by presenting my life story, I have been able to teach others ways in which they can put aside those biases and prejudices that push youth down.

~Richard Santana

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