Vice Principal /Counselor Director - South Phoenix

Alternative School for Globe/San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation

Counselor, Canada College

Principal, Desert Eagle High School, Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community

Clinical Director, Tri-City Family Guidance Centers

Juvenile Detention Education Director

Ethnic Studies Assoc. Professor UC Davis

Youth Minister, Our Lady of Victory, Compton

Teacher for LAUSD, Oakland and Boston Public Schools
Biographical Information

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My father came to the U.S. to work in the lettuce fields as a bracero, and met my mother at "La Placita," the historic Mission that gave birth to Los Angeles. They moved from Watts to North East Los Angeles during the Riots. Highland Park, a previously white neighborhood, became entirely Mexican as the old residents fled to the suburbs.  

In this new ethnic neighborhood, I saw the first gang form on my street by a few kids who didn't like school, and instead spent their days hiding from the police, lying to parents, and looking for money and diversions. Over time they progressed to addictions, serious crime, irrational violence, and long incarceration. Few of those friends are still alive.

I had an odd advantage. As a young teen I suffered a physical disability that kept me close to home. Boredom led to an interest in music. Fortunately, I had parents smart enough to take hard earned wages and support my musical ambitions. They bought me instruments, paid for lessons, and gave me rides. Music gave me an avenue for pride, a positive identity, and a decent set of peers.

But I saw what was happening to those I grew up with. At 16, I approached Father Joseph Greeley, now a monsignor in Lakewood, and told him the Church should do something to help gang youth in the parish. He made arrangements for me to visit friends inside juvenile hall, and these visits led to an idea. Father Greeley encouraged and helped me start a support network for kids exiting from incarceration. We set them up with tutors, youth groups and mentor families. The success of that venture confirmed an intuition: What my troubled friends needed was a community of adults willing to give them essential skills, experiences, and acknowledgment.

Three years later I had another inspiration. This time my mentors were the fighter Sugar Ray Robinson, and two nuns, Sister Natalia Duran and Sister Georgiana Cahill. With the support, advice and funds these 3 gave me, I was able to attract a grant from the Campaign for Human Development and start an alternative school for the Clanton Street and Primera Flats gangs of East and Central Los Angeles.

At the time, I was assistant to the local truant officer, and frustrated at our futile task: Everyday we chased the same Primera Flats and Clanton gang members around the neighborhood, forced them back into school, and then watched them climb over the school fence an hour later. The routine became so predictable that truant teenagers would wait on corners because they knew I would drive by, and being chased by the truant officer's assistant became a way to break the boredom of their day. 

We needed to do something different. We needed to create a school that these kids did not want to run away from. 

I started El Santo Nino by asking "what does a troubled kid, a gang member, need in order to be competent, feel good about him or herself, and become invested in a future he doesn't want to jeopardize?" As I answered that question, I also learned that few of the gang members could read, and learning disabilities were the rule. School had obviously been a painful place for them. So we attracted volunteers from the police department, colleges, mental health agencies and parents. Enough adults that we could work long hours one-to-one and teach these kids in a way that made them feel prized, not shamed. One of my best memories is of a police officer stopping by and helping "Sharky" learn to read. The officer listened to this 13 year old for a couple of pages, and then put his arm around Sharky's shoulder and told him "You get better every day. I always knew you were a winner." I saw the pride in Sharky's face, and knew that some great shift in self-definition had began.
That year we visited buddhist monasteries, walked through museums, found employments, went to the movies, learned to read, and got involved in athletic leagues, police explorer scouts, and oratorical contests. Not one student missed more than 2 days of school or was arrested that year. 

In the years that followed, I worked with gang youth in Watts, Oakland, South Boston, Salinas, Phoenix, South Central & East Los Angeles. I directed a mental health clinic in South Central Los Angeles that worked with the families of gang members. I pursued a doctorate in educational psychology at UCSB in order to research why the majority of gang youth in prison had moderate to severe learning disabilities.

I published a story about the gang members I taught at El Santo Nino. This story circulated among tribes in Indian Country, and I began consulting with the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community about their gang involved youth.

While working with the Pima-Maricopa, I published Peace in the Streets: Breaking the Cycle of Gang Violence. I included the story of El Santo Nino, and added what I was learning on the reservation. The book attracted national attention and I spoke at 100 universities and communities over the next two years. Best of all, I was offered the opportunity to principal the first secondary school on the Salt River Reservation and build an education system for their juvenile detention system.

The part of my message that found resonance in Indian Country was the notion that a gang problem had to be solved as a community, and that delinquent kids had needs that required long-term community planning and support: Tribal leaders already believed this, and wanted a strategy to implement such a philosophy. The tribe wanted a school where no student would ever fall outside the tribe's watch and nurture. The school we started (and that continues) followed a powerful communal strategy that I wish we had the common sense to use off the reservation. The article "a different healing: one tribes approach" covers much of what we did and follows one intervention where a Indian gang member in juvenile hall was released on Friday nights to play on the high school football team. 

The Pima-Maricopa understood that all children require essential experiences in order to become true adults, especially youth who fail, grow angry, and give us grief:  In Salt River I saw what is possible when a community decides to re-own and properly raise its lost children.

Over the past few years, I have continued to work with gang, probation and other troubled youth in places like South Boston, Los Angeles, Oakland (Cali) and Phoenix. Currently I am in central Arizona working with youth from the San Carlos Apache Reservation, and from the mining towns of Globe and Miami, Arizona, and raising my wonderful, twin daughters, Anais and Ixchel.

I have just published a novel "The Music of Jimmy Ojotriste," a beautiful, strange story I have had in mind for years; and will publish the third and last revision to Peace in the Streets sometime in 2016. So much has changed in our world and it has affected kids and the ways we work with them. 

Thank you for your interest in my story, and many blessing in your own work with youth.

Students from El Santo Nino. A South Central L.A. school for the Clanton Street and Primera Flats gangs I started with a $10,000 grant.
2006 recipient of  the national AAHHE "Outstanding Latino Teaching Award in Higher Education"
Aso see my bio at