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Richard Santana speaks from experience

Trace Christenson
The Battle Creek Enquirer

(Originally published by the Battle Creek Enquirer on May 6, 2005, and used with permission. The opinions expressed by the Battle Creek Enquirer, visiting Expert in Resident, or the host organization do not necessarily represent those of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.)

The solution to gangs sat in front of Richard Santana all day.

A former California gang member who quit drugs and now holds a master’s degree from Harvard University, Santana told audiences across Calhoun County on Thursday they all are part of the problem and the only fix.

He told high school students and kids locked up at the Calhoun County Juvenile Home to respect themselves and others and play by the rules.

And he told adults to put aside their prejudices and treat those around them, including youths, as humans.

“If you think I am no good for nothing,” he told about 500 people Thursday night at Kellogg Community College, “that is what happens. That is what is expected of me.”

Santana, who left the gangs and drugs of California to graduate from California State University in Fresno and then earn a master’s in education, human development and psychology from Harvard, spoke as a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Expert in Residence about gangs and drugs and his life on the streets as Señor Chocolate.

Today he meets with Battle Creek middle school and high school students and then with a small group of community leaders.

Beginning each program dressed in baggy clothes, sunglasses and a bandana, and finishing in a white shirt and tie, Santana said he left his life of drug abuse, casual sex and gang involvement on the streets and encouraged others to turn away from similar behavior.

“I used to sell PCP and I was thinking I was somebody,” he told students Thursday afternoon. “Then they shot up my house in a drive-by. And the people who shot up my house were my friends. What comes fast, goes fast.”

His father disappeared before he was born and his mother died when he was three months old. He lived with his uncle in a drug house and was told the best thing that could happen was to be killed and have his friends wear a memorial T-shirt with his name and picture or to gain respect from his friends because he was in prison.

“If that happens, you got nobody to blame but yourself,” he told 25 young people at the juvenile home. “If you become a victim, you give up the only thing you have — the power. And it’s a sad day when you think this is where you belong. My goals were about getting killed or locked up because I was told that this was the best that could happen.”

He told each group of youngsters that drugs, which he used for years, and sex will destroy them.

“You are not bad enough for the drugs,” he said. “The drugs will destroy your life. Drugs are an unnatural thing to do to your body and you are not supposed to be strung out on drugs. There is no such thing as responsible using.”

He said sex — not love, which is a beautiful thing — is used to impress others but harms yourself and your partner.

“To be a man, I was supposed to use the young ladies,” he said. “I did ugly things thinking I was going to be somebody, but what you are doing is disrespecting the person you came from. The women, they are only disrespecting themselves. For young ladies, with sex, you set yourself up. You are not ready because you can’t take care of yourself.”

Joe Warden, 16, of Battle Creek, listened to Santana at Battle Creek Central High School in a program sponsored by the St. Philip Advocates, a gang intervention and youth outreach program.

Warden was listening and “I learned not to do wrong and not to do gangs,” but others in the crowd, “they weren’t taking him seriously.”

Santana knows not everyone accepts his words. “I am not here to entertain,” he said. “I give them the message and I give them the opportunity to think about it.”

To adults, Santana said they, too, are the problem when they look only at the outside rather than at the core of people and dehumanize some people by deciding “it’s OK that they not make it in life. There is someone like me dying on the streets today.”

Larry Ramos, 31, lives in Lansing but has parents in Battle Creek. He brought his children to hear Santana but left knowing the message was for him, too.

“It really hit home,” he said.

Kari Masters of Battle Creek brought her children and heard a message that people do not respect each other.

“He really tapped into some things people are thinking. And I like his passion.”

For Evelyn Rosario of Battle Creek, “his testimony is beautiful and he is such a good example just to accomplish his graduation from Harvard.”

She left the program wanting to guide kids.

“I want to try to help to be a positive person to them.”

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