EDITOR’S NOTE: Pete Duarte and David Talamantez Mendoza are walking descriptions of redemption. Duarte grew up in Merced, and Mendoza in the toughened barrios of southeast Fresno. Their paths never crossed until two weeks ago when both took part in a Latino graduation celebration at Fresno City College. Although both are former gang members who have resurrected their lives, they do not know each other. These are their stories.
Pete Duarte remembers the night he decided to become a nurse.He was at a party and one of his buddies was shot multiple times. A second friend was stabbed moments later.Duarte had taken a first responders class at a continuation high school, so he knew to apply pressure to his friends’ wounds. As he attempted to stop his friends from losing more blood, another friend rushed the group to the hospital.Years after that incident, Duarte has turned a violent night into a positive moment. Duarte, 29, received a degree in nursing from Fresno City College last weekend.Fifteen years ago, though, Duarte could never have imagined that he would be sitting on the patio outside of Fresno’s Community Regional Medical Center, wearing his white scrubs and telling his tale of success. That’s because fifteen years ago, Duarte was living in a gang environment, surrounded by drugs and violence. At that time, he said, there was just one place he could picture himself ending up: Prison.“That’s where I’d seen everyone going,” Duarte said. “That’s what I looked up to.”
Duarte grew up in Merced, surrounded by his family members who, he said, were all into gangs. He was raised by his father, who he calls a “mean alcoholic” and a “rolling stone.” By the age of nine, Duarte and his father were homeless. They ate meals at homeless shelters and at churches, they lived “here and there,” and Duarte went to elementary school “off and on,” he said.He grew up quickly, he said, and learned to live and behave like those around him. “If you’re a kid,” Duarte said, “you don’t know no better.”Duarte said he was already consuming alcohol and smoking weed “like coffee, all day long,” in elementary school. By fifth grade, he was inhaling rubber cement. By the age of 12, he was doing cocaine and methamphetamines.But by age 15, Duarte said he was ready to get out of all that. And when he later found out that he had gotten a girl pregnant, and he was about to become a father, he knew he had to change his lifestyle.Getting out of that life, though, was difficult. He had to find new friends, change his attitude, and change the way he walked, talked and dressed.“You can’t have one foot in and one foot out,” Duarte said. To get out of a gang, he said, “people have to see you do it and do it for a long time. It takes a long time for them to actually believe you.”By 16, Duarte kept out of trouble by immersing himself in weightlifting, boxing, and wrestling. He worked long hours at McDonald’s to earn money to support his son. He went to a continuation high school, and eventually graduated from Golden Valley High School.Once he was out of the gang environment, Duarte said he never had any interest in returning. “Was I tempted to go back?” he said. “Go back to what?”“Life is beautiful, freedom is beautiful. When I was a kid, I didn’t like (the gang environment,) I just didn’t know it.”
Growing up, Duarte said, “I knew where juvenile hall was at, but not college.” He said he knew where the homeless shelters were, but he never went to the library.It’s completely different for Duarte’s 12-year-old son, Pete.Duarte said his son is a straight-A student who reads one book a week and has his own “homework spot” in the house. “I never had that,” Duarte said.“I was very street smart,” Duarte said. “They would eat him alive.”Duarte said he talks to his son about everything, including his childhood. He has shown his son the garbage cans he used to eat out of, the churches where he’d get free meals, the juvenile hall he’d visited on a few occasions. But Duarte also takes his son to visit colleges. “This is where it’s at,” he said he tells little Pete.“I keep him as young as I can, as long as I can,” Duarte said. “I love my boy more than anything I’ve loved in my life.” Now that he’s received his Associate of Science degree in nursing, Duarte is determined to continue on to get his bachelors and masters degrees.His voice fills with excitement as he describes the other activities he wants to experience for the first time, with his son by his side: fishing, skiing, camping.He’s also interested in working as a mentor for troubled kids, maybe at the continuation schools he once attended.Given that opportunity, Duarte said he would tell the young people that he believes in them. “I don’t think they believe in themselves and I don’t think enough people believe in them,” he said.“I’d probably listen more than anything else,” he said. “Everybody tells them things. They got that coming from their parole officer, to their mom and dad, to their teacher, to the judge who’s telling them things. I’d rather listen to them.”
David Talamantez Mendoza got rid of the demons inside of him the best way possible: He ran away from home and vanished into a life of crime at the age of 11.“All I knew was violence from when I was a child,” said Mendoza, a 36-year-old father of three who earned his certificate in alcohol and drug abuse counseling at Fresno City College but has instead decided to become a social worker.Mendoza got into a physical fight with his junior high school principal on the first day of school. From then on, Mendoza was constantly in and out of court, the California Youth Authority and the state prison system.It was not until 4½ years ago that he realized he had to change his lifestyle.“I remember looking at all my so-called homeboys and I told them, ‘Hey, after I get out, I’m done. I’m not gang-banging no more,” he recalls telling his friends at Wasco State Prison.Their reaction? “Whatever. You’re coming back.”Mendoza has proven them wrong.
Mendoza remembers watching ‘Leave It To Beaver’ on television as a child and thinking, “it was the white man’s way of lying to us.” That was not the way families functioned.“I thought that only white people had that, and even then, I knew that after the show the child would get molested, that the mom got beat behind doors,” said Mendoza. “I seriously never knew a life other than violence and gangs.”Mendoza, one of 14 children, grew up in a dysfunctional family.“My father was a pimp,” he said. “I was sexually abused. I was physically abused. I was mentally abused. I was told that I was nothing, that I would never amount to nothing because I didn’t look like my dad.”Mendoza describes a childhood living in fear. “I lived in the shadows of my house. I learned to blend in with the walls, and even then I was found so that I could get beat, so that they could hurt me.”He vividly recalls being choked by a “sick, twisted guy saying I was going to do what he wanted me to do or he would kill me.” No one would help him.When he was unable to put a stop to the abuse, he “went to the streets. That’s where my life of crime started.”His rap sheet includes auto theft, burglaries, drug dealing and fighting. But, he was no drug or alcohol addict.“I was the guy that turned people into drug addicts,” he said. “I was the guy that didn’t need to get high to get back into prison. I was the guy that people were never ever going to get the best of.”As Mendoza said during the Latino graduation celebration, “I was born into gangs. I was born into violence. I didn’t choose it, it chose me.”
Redemption didn’t come easy for Mendoza. He would read whatever he could get his hands on behind bars, Stephen King novels when he was 13, psychology books later on, and, mostly, books that “would tell me that the white man is a killer.”He also wrote and painted behind bars. His stories were never about him. “I wouldn’t write about my emotions,” he said. His artwork gave him a chance to escape prison. “I would open up my drawing pad and by the time I sat down to draw, I wasn’t in prison no more,” said Mendoza.He would draw clouds, the sun, places far away. “Emotionally, mentally, I wasn’t in prison,” said Mendoza.He gave his writings and drawings away “because I knew the more pictures that went on people’s walls, the more places I would be. There would be more of me out there than there could ever be inside, not just inside prison, but inside of me.”One reason he decided to straighten out was his oldest son, David Anthony, now 15, and daughter, Destinie, 13.“Dad, spend as much time with me before you go back,” his son would tell him on the rare times Mendoza would be out of prison.David Anthony would also write, “If you really, really love me, why aren’t you out here with me?”One time, he drew a bunch of stars in the sky, with one star away from the others. “I feel like that star alone without you,” he wrote.Destinie’s writing included, “I need you here dad.”Mendoza was one strike away from being locked up forever.“It scared me. I knew that I was at a crossroads, and I knew I had to make a choice,” he said.With the help of his parole officer, Mendoza enrolled in a rehab program in 2001.
Mendoza, who is heavily tattooed, found work as a dishwasher in food services at California State University, Fresno. Within two years, he was the supervisor of 79 workers there. He also managed three fast-food restaurants.“It was a turning point,” said Mendoza, who obtained his GED in time for the birth of his oldest son “so that I could show him I had an education.”Mendoza had steady work, money in the bank and, more importantly, “I knew I wasn’t a gang member anymore.”However, something gnawed at him. Work consumed his time so much, that he was in danger of losing his financé. He also felt that God wanted him for something else. He decided to enroll at Fresno City College to get his certificate in drug and alcohol counseling.“I knew I had to go back to college and learn so that I could come back to this neighborhood and tell people, ‘Sí se puede.’”Easier said than done. His first day on the college campus was scary. “My first day of class when I walked onto the campus, I saw all these young people. But in my mind, I saw David Talamantez Mendoza turn around and giving up. It was so vivid that for a second I actually thought I was walking out.”Mendoza, who has faced murderers and the hardest-core prison environments, felt that he was not good enough. “It took all the courage I could muster up to go into my first class.”Mendoza plans to enroll at California State University, Fresno and get his degree in social work.One thing he has learned is that gang members who cause great pain in others do so for a reason. “You have to hate yourself so much. You have to have so much pain inside for yourself. You have to think so little about your life to be able to do the things I’ve done in my lifetime,” he said.“And I never want to go back to feeling that awful feeling that I carried inside my heart for all those years.”