Former gangbanger-turned-teacher offers hope through poetry

Fresno City College English and Chicano Studies professor Kenneth Chacón read from his first book of poetry May 3. ‘The Cholo Who Said Nothing’ explores his thoughts about a life that went from a gangbanger to a college professor.
Fresno City College English and Chicano Studies professor Kenneth Chacón read from his first book of poetry May 3. ‘The Cholo Who Said Nothing’ explores his thoughts about a life that went from a gangbanger to a college professor.

Kenneth Chacón traded in his knives, guns and meth for pen and paper.

Instead of blaming God for taking his mother when he was 13 years old – and a life of hunger when he once lusted a $3 burrito a fellow Fresno City College student could afford – Chacón is now at peace with himself.

That anger is gone.

In its place is a polished speaker.

Being a father, husband, grandfather and teacher will do that to a former gang member whose right forearm tattoo is witness to a previous life as a young member of the Northside Fresno Bulldogs.

Life came full cycle earlier this month at the college’s Old Administration Building’s auditorium, where Chacón released the demons from his past by reading excerpts from his publishing debut ‘The Cholo Who Said Nothing’ (Turning Point, 2017).

The collection of poetry is frank, dark, and revealing. It contains “harsh issues and harsh truths.”

“My mother died when I was 13 and I began to hate myself. I stood up late nights starring into a full-length mirror while violently ironing my clothes, mouthing cusswords at my reflection, the lyrics to gangsta rap, while pressing razor sharp creases down the legs of my khakis, thin lines down the center of my shirts after snorting fat lines down the center of the mirror I’d made in shop class ...”

Poetry, said the 41-year-old Chacon, is the best way to “say something meaningful to students, say something meaningful to Fresnans, say something meaningful to you, my audience.”

When his mother died, Chacon lashed out at God, women and himself.

“I instantly hated women ... I began to hate myself ... I cursed God,” Chacon writes, as if using the roiling blood in his veins as ink.

The gang life beckoned. Chacon quickly accepted.

“I was a young man looking for a family, and the gang gave me that,” said Chacon, who works with his students to use poetry as a way to find hope in their lives.

On the evening when he marked a triumphant return to the community college that launched his comeback from a bruised life, Chacon shared the stage with four students and two former gang members who have also resurrected their lives.

The student poetry ranged from poverty to hunger to abortion.

“It took 4 children, 144,000 sins, and 22 pounds of meth before my mind, my heart, was allowed to change.”

Mario Reyna (a former student from Sanger’s notorious Chancla hood) and, Santiago Luján (a Pinedale-bred homie who survived getting shot in the head) spoke about their experiences.

Reyna, the oldest of three raised in a single-parent household, was “washed up” on meth at age 16, recovered for two years and then got hooked on the drug again.

His youngest brother was shot and killed outside their home, the victim of gang violence.

“I was unfortunate to see him take his last breath,” said Reyna, how an athletic trainer at Sunnyside High School.

His salvation was his wife. “She gave me something no one had ever given me: She made me a father,” said Reyna, who has four daughters.

Reyna earned a bachelor’s degree in 2014 from Fresno State.

Luján was 11 years old when he landed in the California Youth Authority. He has vivid recollection of Labor Day 2001 when he was shot in the head (the shot was fired from inside a metallic blue, white top car with whitewall tires).

“I remember fighting for my life,” said Luján, who has had friends die after getting shot in the head. His left arm and his legs from the knees down were paralyzed.

“Being shot in the head was the greatest thing to happen to me,” said Luján, who does outreach for Cornerstone Church.

“You see I hated myself, my station in life, but that’s because Sin was crouching at my door, licking its lip with anticipation.”

Chacon is big on hope because his poetry allowed him to regain his life.

“I am not trying to tell you that you have to go to church or find God to find hope,” he said, “or find it in poetry. When you find it, hold on to hope and never give up.

“In times of darkness, what else do we have but hope?”

Hope for him came in his writing. That poetry helped steer him toward a purpose, that included a teaching position at Fresno City.

Until then, Chacon “learned to shut down my feelings and keep them bottled up.”

He was afraid he would succumb to violence or addiction.

The road back wasn’t easy. He would show up as a student at Fresno City fighting hunger. That’s when he would dream of being able to buy a $3 burrito.

His transportation was FAX route 30 “up and down Blackstone. I could only dream of a car.”

When he received a financial aid check, he would buy three, different colored T-shirts and mix-and-match with two pair of pants he owned.

“Now, I get paid to teach. I get paid to write,” said Chacon.

Chacón graduated from DeWolf Continuation High School after attending classes at Hoover High, Fresno High, Bullard Continuation and Hamilton. He graduated from FCC in 1998 and from UC Davis with a degree in English in 2000. He graduated from Fresno state with a master’s of fine arts in poetry in 2004.

His story is “not about me,” he said.

“Everything is possible for those who believe,” said Chacon. “To believe, don’t look at your current situation. See your potential to do great things.”

‘The Cholo Who Said Nothing’ can be purchased at