Gang leaders are "fighting for the hearts, minds and souls of our youth," Watsonville Police Chief Manny Solano told the crowd of participants at Wednesday's Youth Violence Prevention Planning Summit in Live Oak.
Moments later, a 16-year-old who grew up in Santa Cruz's Beach Flats neighborhod took the microphone to explain how that can happen.
Jose Xilonzochilt, who now plays on Aztecas, a unique soccer program in Watsonville that puts former gang members on the same team, said he fell into the gang lifestyle at age 11 but the foundation was lain years before.
He was 4 when he started playing soccer with boys in his neighborhood, "not knowing they would be my homeboys in the future." The park they played in became their turf and, when he was 11, other boys fought an outside group to stay out of the park.
At the time, Jose didn't understand what motivated other boys to fight. He also didn't know why a couple of his uncles had been killed, he told a roomful of people at Wednesday's summit.
But the next year, when Jose was 12, neighborhood gang members came around to bring Jose back to the park, where they drank alcohol and smoked marijuana. He started selling drugs for the gang, girls liked him and liked feeling protected by "his homies."
"I was building a reputation in the street," explained Jose, a student at Costanoa High School in Live Oak.
When he was 14, another uncle died in a gang-motivated attack. This time, he knew what being in a gang meant: Jose and his friends were fighting to protect their park, and he went to Juvenile Hall several times.
Jose was eventually arrested for attempted murder, a turning point for him. He saw how deeply his choices affected his family and decided to change.
"I started to become more responsible and change my life before it was too late," Jose said.
Jose, today not a kid in trouble but a talented soccer player, closed his speech by telling the adults in the room that kids need support—he was thankful for donations that helped him by clothes to replace his gang attire—and employment opportunities.
- Youth Violence Prevention Planning Summit
- Aztecas Soccer