The four young men grew up on the rough streets of the barrio, in northeast Los Angeles, in the 1960s.
One of them was taken to his first drive-by shooting at age 12. The others ranged from a hardened gang leader to a self-described “little hoodlum” to a youth who had his own scrapes with the law, busted for shooting out windows with a BB gun by the same police officer who had saved his life when he was only 2.
The four men, all talented either athletically or in some other way, were products of the same streets. Yet they carved out vastly different fates.
Richard Montanez rose from a janitor at Frito-Lay to high-powered business executive, after inventing the popular snack Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Bobby Castillo became a relief pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, credited with teaching the screwball to pitching phenom Fernando Valenzuela. Richard R. Ramos, who is in Buffalo this week telling his story, has become one of the nation’s foremost experts on gangs and youth violence.
And “Camel” Luna became a drug addict, landing in a wheelchair after being shot in a gang dispute. He never lived to adulthood.
“You have four talented youths,” Ramos said Tuesday, inside the Hyatt Regency Buffalo. “Three made it out of the barrio. One didn’t. What made the difference? I think, in fairness, we have to say it’s a combination of destiny, a little luck and family influence.”
Ramos, 58, will be the keynote speaker at a community conversation on gang prevention, being held at 6 p.m. Thursday at Bennett High School on Main Street. The event is free and open to the public.
As founder of “Parents on a Mission,” a parent-leadership movement, and president of the Latino Coalition for Community Leadership, Ramos also has helped steer up to $2 million in U.S. Department of Labor funds to Buffalo.
Three agencies – Peaceprints Prison Ministries, Catholic Charities and the H.E.A.R.T. Foundation – could receive up to $400,000 each over a two-year period. The remaining $800,000 would be spent on job training.
Besides his anecdotes, Ramos brings a strong conviction about the way to combat youth violence and gangs. The key, he believes, is to foster personal growth and maturity of the parents.
“I say parents cannot be replaced by programs,” he said. “Any community I’ve gone to, the solution to any of these problems is a youth program. If the problem were solvable by youth programs, we would have solved the problem years ago.”
Ramos remembers attending a young man’s birthday party in the 1990s in Santa Barbara, Calif., where Ramos had carved out a reputation working with high-risk youths.
A grandfather approached Ramos and asked him to get these troubled youths together and talk with them.
Ramos said he would continue to do that but added that that wasn’t the best way to solve the problem.
“If you walk in your neighborhood and look at all the yards and all the flowers, and you see all these flowers wilting and dying, who would you rather spend your time with, the flowers or the gardener?” Ramos said he told the man.
The flowers, of course, are our children. The gardeners are the parents. If you’re going to solve the problem, Ramos said, you have to mentor more gardeners.
Ramos knows all about the role of parents. His father was an alcoholic who wasn’t in the picture, but his mother, Mary, who still lives in the neighborhood at age 96, was a strong disciplinarian.
“My mom raised five of us in that neighborhood,” he said. “We all went off track for a while, but we all came back to lead productive lives.”
Like Castillo, the baseball pitcher, Ramos used athletics – college baseball and football – to escape the perils of the streets. In Ramos’ view, the role of gangs is interwoven with shortcomings in a young person’s family.
“A gang is nothing more than a second family,” he said. “That’s what a gang is. It gives you belonging, security, identity, purpose, love and acceptance – all the things that a family should give you. The gang replaces the family, because the family is not fulfilling that need.”
Ramos also likes to talk about destiny. At age 2, he was rescued from railroad tracks by two Los Angeles police officers, after being “frozen in terror” by the sound of an oncoming train, according to a newspaper account. Then at age 12, he was collared for shooting out windows by one of the same officers.
That was no accident, he feels: it was destiny. And that’s what Ramos thinks about being in Buffalo this week.
“Certain people show up in your life at the right time and place,” he said. “That’s what I believe about being in Buffalo at this particular time. It’s time for us to work together in a way that will transform lives.”
Ramos came to Buffalo late Monday to spend three days in training sessions with the three local not-for-profit agencies, in effect training the trainers who will take those lessons into the community and work with parents.
The grants coming to Buffalo are part of the Work and Gain Education and Employment Skills project, designed to improve the job prospects of young adults, 18 to 24, who have been released from prison or dropped out of high school.
Ramos’ message is that minorities living in poverty in a tough neighborhood face so many obstacles. Some overcome then; others don’t.
“My goal is to help as many people as I can to get out of that lifestyle,” he said, before reflecting back on his own youth. “You know, so much talent is buried in the graveyard, and I never forgot that.”