Friday, October 28, 2011

The Definition of Family

Jose (center) at this year's Lo Maximo

Every morning before we start work, someone gives the "thought of the day." Jose Rodriguez had the thought today, his last day of work at Homeboy Industries before starting at Project 180 next week as a case manager.

Months ago, before Jose was interviewing for his new job, he sat down and told us his story. This is it.

"I was born and raised in South Central with no father, I never met him, and my mom was very abusive. Every time she had a man, a boyfriend, she would drop me off with relatives. I never had a good relationship with my mom. My room was always a small closet.

I started being booked and released at age 9 for assault, breaking and entering, vandalism. I was first in Juvenile Hall at age 11. Juvenile Hall was better than home: I had three meals a day and it gave me a break from my mom. It gave me a break from the abuse. She would use an extension cord. Sometimes I wore three shirts to school so no one could see the blood and scars that I had on my back.

My first use of drugs was at age 8 when I tried alcohol. It progressed to sniffing paint and glue and then crack, pcp and heroin. When I was actually jumped into a gang at age 12 it was nothing compared to the abuse I got from my mom.

I was homeless because no one wanted me around. I went from friend's house to friend's house. Incarceration was okay, it was a roof over my head. I had two daughters. I went to jail and when I came out I went deeper and deeper into my drug use. My family was homeless as a result of my drug use. My fiance left me, she could not continue to see me getting high and have me around my daughters. Nothing was more important to me than getting high.

I ended up living on skid row in downtown Los Angeles, behind a dumpster. I was on the street for two years, during which time I did not see my kids.

Five years ago, I went to my first NA meeting. My life has been good because of the choice of getting clean. I was invited to speak at an NA meeting at Homeboy. When I walked in, I saw many guys that I had done time with, got loaded with and gang banged against.

Homeboy was a place that welcomed me. I could not find work or a job and I stayed around Homeboy, coming to all the classes: parenting, anger management, and substance abuse. Someone asked me if I wanted a job, and I said yes. We went to talk to Father Greg. I didn't want to talk to Father Greg; I was resistant to meet him because of what he gives people, true love. G is too nice and I was not sure how to receive him.

G said 'my son, where have you been all my life?' the power of this moment made me feel like I was home. That is as real as it gets. He asked me if I wanted to work for him and be part of his family. I knew that I wanted to be at Homeboy and have been here ever since that moment.

Homeboy is my family, and it has taught me what a family should be. I've become a friend, a father to my daughters, and a role model because other people here have taught me how to be these things. My ultimate goal or something I would like to do is to be a case manager because I can help people. I want to show people in need that if I can do it, they can do it."

Today, Jose says he's learned that change takes real "action"- by working on himself, his fears, and his discomfort with letting people in, he began to change. From his friends at Homeboy, he learned how to be a good father. From his former enemies, he learned friendship. "I never thought that I would carry the casket of someone who used to be my enemy at his funeral."From the homies that passed while he was working here, he learned laughter and loss. Today, Jose says, he's learned that "it's not what you've got, but what you've got to give." Jose closed by sharing the definition of family that he looked up in the dictionary: "a person having kinship with another or others." Jose will always be our family, and we wish him more than luck!

Jose on his last day of work with one of his heroes, Dolores Huerta