A different kind of Homeboy
Reformed gang member visits Hueneme High School
By Michael Sullivan 01/26/2012
The Hueneme High School gym bleachers filled quickly for a special occasion last Friday morning. Wilfredo Lopez, 26, of Ventura County was to deliver a speech to the student body. But Lopez isn’t any average motivational speaker. Lopez is a reformed gang member and was asked to come because of his work for Homeboy Industries, an L.A.-based nonprofit organization that offers former gang members job assistance, training and various other services.
Grabbing the microphone, Lopez began to tell his life story. He was raised by a single mom, along with four siblings. His father had abandoned him before he was born. His mother, an immigrant from El Salvador who could barely speak English, worked several jobs, trying to sustain her family. It wasn’t the ideal environment for Lopez as he rarely saw his mother and often did many things by himself. When he was 10, however, he had a chance meeting with his biological father that really changed his life. Finally, a father figure.
“I met my father behind my mom’s back,” a heavily tattooed yet soft-spoken Lopez told the audience. Almost instantly, he recalled, the two bonded, the father giving his son anything and everything he wanted, from attention to toys and money. Three months later, Lopez received the tragic news — his father had been murdered, found with his head split open in a bathroom stall at work. He never found out why his father was murdered, but that was the tipping point. At 11 years of age, Lopez shaved his head, became involved in gangs and wound up in juvenile hall.
“You will never find a gang member that says he is so successful, that he is so happy to be a part of that gang” Lopez said. “We are all running, seeking something. I was masking the feeling that my father was murdered.”
He was in and out of juvenile hall for the next four years until one particular offense landed him in the California Youth Authority. This time, he would be incarcerated until he turned 23. While locked up, he became more involved in crime and gangs. The Youth Authority, also known as Gladiator School among those who have spent time there, made Lopez into a fighter, always looking for the next punch. Once he was released, thinking he knew how to get away with more after his time locked up, his cockiness apparently led to a parole violation and more jail time. Though this time in jail, he had an epiphany.
“I had a 6-month-old baby [a daughter] on the streets, and I remembered that insanity is making the same choices and expecting different outcomes,” Lopez said.
From jail, he went to rehab because of his affiliation with gangs. On a day-pass from rehab, shackled with a house arrest, GPS-tracking ankle bracelet, he strolled into Homeboy Industries and decided it was time to turn his life around.
“I made a commitment to be there for my daughter, to be present,” he said.
When Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, met him, he told Lopez that he was right where he needed to be. But this wasn’t a chance meeting — Lopez had met Boyle at Mass when he was a teenager and incarcerated, and apparently Lopez had never forgotten Boyle. And just like that, with an open heart and a clear mind, the former hard-core gang member let the past go.
Now, Lopez has a job, working as a domestic violence counselor, and remains steadfast in his commitment to his daughter, to always be there for her.
“I want to change the stigma, not to hurt women,” Lopez told the audience, who cheered and applauded.
Lopez didn’t come to Hueneme High School on a whim, but rather because of one man’s perseverance and inspiration. His name is Walter Moody and he teaches communications classes at Hueneme High School. A humble, sometimes emotional man, Moody is always on the lookout for books that will draw in his students. He recalled coming across the book Tattoos on the Heart by Father Boyle. Immediately, he felt moved by the book — reading it in one day — and thought it would catch on with his communications students. He was right.
“I knew we were on to something when, instead of the students saying, ‘Hi, how are you?’ They asked, ‘Are we reading the book today?’ ” Moody said.
He said he knew that many kids in Oxnard, and some of those attending Hueneme High School, are at-risk for joining gangs.
“I went to school here and had coaches and teachers who saved me, and I wanted to give back,” Moody said.
Moody’s philosophy, though it may be cliché, he said, is if you can help just one kid, then it’s worth it.
Abad Gomez, 17, a senior at Hueneme High School, has already had a number of tough lessons in life, and people like Lopez and Moody only keep him more focused.
“I grew up in South Oxnard,” he said. “I was watching what was going on … what it was like to be in gangs. I lived in a neighborhood that had the most killings in the state back in the ’80s and ’90s.”
He recalled his strict dad, but what really got under his skin was his brother’s reckless lifestyle on drugs, getting DUIs and fighting. He remembered not knowing what to do when his brother was overdosing on crystal meth.
“Seeing that, drugs are not my style,” Abad said. “I didn’t want my parents to look at me the same way they look at him.”
Though Abad’s brother is doing much better, he said he learned a lot from that experience and also from reading Tattoos on the Heart.
Moody relayed that more teachers at Hueneme High School had put in a request for more copies of the book and that his students would also be visiting Homeboy Industries in the spring.