As the son of Salvadoran war refugees who could barely speak English and were constantly working to make ends meet, I struggled with a sense of identity as a child. I did not understand any of it at the time but I was alone, seeking attention from anyone because my parents were strangers to me.
During my middle school years I had a style all my own that clashed with the rest of my classmates’ hip hop and street culture. For 3 years they bullied me relentlessly and with every attack, every insult, I learned anger, rage, and hostility. They buried themselves deep inside my heart and I became cold and distant.
It would take about twenty years before my wife would eventually explain to me that I had begun walking down the stairway of depression. Not only had I learned about pain, rejection, and depression, from the roots of my anger, also began to become very afraid. I feared rejection and pain, I feared embarrassment.
After graduating from middle school, I would rebuild myself. I would create for myself a new persona, based on strength and dominance. I would hide my shame, my anxiety, my pain, but most importantly, my fear.
Growing up on the border of downtown and south central LA in the 90s and early 2000’s, I was inundated with the street and gang culture. I saw some of my neighbors go from innocent children playing with WWF action figures to hardened taggers, crew members, and gang members almost overnight. Their new toys were spray cans, knives, and small caliber pistols. They listened to only hip hop and rap and believed anything that was Caucasian was pathetic and weak. Before I knew it, their lifestyle became very narrow minded, misogynist, racist, and criminal. There was wildness to them. You could see it in their eyes, there was no stability, just a shifty gaze that was constantly plotting. The only time their eyes were calm were when they were dreaming under the influence of some drug. They were learning from their parents and uncles who were drug dealers, ex-pimps, and murderers. I had no idea that I was in a bubble, protected by the neighborhood “OG.”
I had grown up with some of these young bloods. We prided ourselves for having known each other since we were in diapers. They introduced me to this lifestyle. And one day I listened to Tupac Shakur for the first time and I connected with his passion, his angst, his anger. I lived my life by the words of the mighty Big Pun and learned about women through Suga Free. In 8th grade we read S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” and someone dared to compare me to Johnny. But she was right. I had been beaten one time too many. And I guess when you push someone hard enough and long enough, eventually they’ll start pushing back. If they don’t end up getting killed that is. I swore to myself I would never be “weak” again. And just like that, I replaced Legos for a knife, some Adidas, and a white Pro Club T-shirt.
I swore to myself I would never be “weak” again. And just like that, I replaced Legos for a knife, some Adidas, and a white Pro Club T-shirt.
I rebelled in high school and created an identity for myself based on gang culture. It was about strength and I glorified it. I grew up in a rough neighborhood, therefore I was rough too. And that is all I needed. I lashed out and unleashed the rage inside of me. I raced into fights, purposefully sought out trouble, robbed people, ran from the police, drank, smoked and committed many other crimes. But it wasn’t me. It was not who I really was inside. After school, while my friends ran off with their corresponding crews and gangs, I stayed behind to play sports. Academics came easy for me. I was living a double life. I wanted to do well in school and participate in school functions meanwhile back home I was memorizing back allies and planning “get away” paths. I was what was so endearingly called in the streets a “half-way crook” and lived my life trying to prove to my teachers and coaches that I was a “good boy” while being a “bad boy” to the rest of my friends. The girls loved it. The local gang however, would eventually catch on to my antics and began asking questions. They had my bus routes memorized already. I was avoiding them by finding different bus routes with other friends that lived nearby. I would eventually become a part of a crew, authorized by the two local gangs to operate in the neighborhood. I was a part of a rather short lived 27th Street MOB crew. My moniker was “wild.” This veiled my half-way crookedness. This stopped them from following me to and from school.
Eventually, my mom and dad’s schedules became more normalized and they began to influence my life in a different way. I began to get to know them and understood who I was dealing with. Years of a bloody war and struggling, working to the bone, made my parents into very hard people. No matter how hard I thought I was, my parents outmatched me. My dad stressed in me the importance of an education and hounded me about it for the rest of my high school years. My mom fought tooth and nail to force me to go back to church. I had first heard the gospel and believed in Christ when I was about 5 years old. But how much can a 5 year old understand? Their ultimatum for me was easy: I would succumb and get my act together, or I’d find myself in the street, homeless. I was not going to try to call their bluff because Lord knows, bluffing, they definitely were not. I would graduate from high school and get accepted into quite the prestigious university. And even though my mom’s church was not the most scripturally sound church, it fueled the little flame that had sparked inside me when I was 5 years old. I began to get closer to God. The Bible made sense and God began to work in my life in way that made me say that so many happenings in my life could not be coincidence.
God began working in my life. It was undeniable. I could see it. But in the hardest moments in my life, I would still run away and escape with my crew. Our crimes were getting heavier and darker and now, the price for making a mistake was fatal. Many of my friends had already spent some time in prison; others were on their way there. For others, I regret not going to their funerals. Life was quickly changing around me and for the few in my crew that were still free; their eyes were trapped in addiction. They were not the same people I knew. They had changed, controlled by some inescapable inevitability, slowing withering away. They could not understand why they were living; they could not understand the point. Meanwhile, after so many years, I became the person I wanted to be, I was feared, I was envied, and I was strong. This was my kingdom. But I was never satisfied.
I drove home in tears. God had spared me. And at that moment I knew that I had come to a crossroads.
I could not tell you when I became a Christian. As far back as I could remember I have always understood that I was a sinner and so deserved to go to Hell. I knew that without repentance, without the forgiveness of Christ, without accepting Him, I was well on my way. But such as it was, I always had a relationship with God. I knew I was saved. And perhaps I am a prodigal son, but for whatever reason, God, waited for this very moment in my life to destroy the person I had become. Of all my flaws, He decided to start with my pride.
Jealousy led to some of my closest friends to finally call me out for not being truly hood. I was soft. And so their coup began. They had planned it out and decided to finally spring their trap. Alex had been drinking and decided to do some cocaine to bring back some of his energy. Meanwhile Bito watched eagerly, relishing the moment as his hatred for me began to overflow. “Yo, let me buy that burner off you.” Alex had asked.
It was a .38 special police bulldog revolver. We had stolen it from a police officer. I figured the thing was going to get me killed so I decided to sell it to him. Red flag #1: Alex wanted to do the exchange at an alley behind his house. Why not just make the exchange here at Bito’s house? Red flag #2: “Alright, whatever, I’ll drive us over there.”
“Nah, I’ll meet you there.” It made no sense that they wouldn’t want a ride. Why would we need to do this in an alley anyway? We could just do it at Bito’s house. Bito’s mom wouldn’t care. She wasn’t even home.
Of course I didn’t trust my friends so I took the bullets out of the gun and put them in my pocket. When they finally got to the alley, Alex was standing in front of me. Bito was standing diagonally from me and asked me for the gun. They were curiously silent and I understood what was going on. I was not sure if either one of them had a gun on them but they were standing close enough that I could rush them if they did. I decided to play along. I gave Bito the pistol. Alex snatched it from Bito’s hands and asked, “You scared?”
He pulled the trigger. A fight ensued that eventually spilled out into the parking lot of a corner store. A crowd was gathering and our entire crew and many of our family members witnessed it. Eventually, in a lull in the fight as we were all huffing and puffing, Bito and Alex ran off cursing and calling me out for a half-way crook, unworthy of the streets, unworthy of 27th street MOB. I drove home in tears. God had spared me. And at that moment I knew that I had come to a crossroads. For years I would claim that God had given me a choice at this moment: continue in the streets or turn to Christ. Later, I realized this was not true. God had already made the decision for me. Had I continued on my path, I would have ended up dead or in jail. From that moment on, my life changed completely.
Now, I am so far removed from that world, I marvel at how God could make such a complete transformation in a person.
I would come back years later, a much more mature Christian, to find that I had been completely forgotten in the streets. Shortly after I was attacked, 27th street MOB had dissolved. There was no one left “on the block.” My friends had died, been sent to prison, or moved away. One of them even ended up in Arkansas of all places.
I was non-existent in my old neighborhood and anyone that might have known me moved away. The records of my actions, my dirt, and my crimes had been lost. Anyone who might have cared to remember, who could recount my stories, was long gone.
I was a no-body in my old kingdom. It was as if God had completely eliminated all traces of my sin.
Now, I am so far removed from that world, I marvel at how God could make such a complete transformation in a person. Granted, things did not just change for the better over night. God had to break me down and destroy the person I had become so that eventually, many years later, he could rebuild me with a new identity found solely in Christ.
Francisco Carranza is a husband, father, and National Guardsman, and he serves on the board of Prodigal Sons Inc.