Daniel “Nane” Alejandrez does not pretend to be perfect. Thirty-three years after founding the now nationwide nonprofit Barrios Unidos, Alejandrez speaks openly and frankly about his own battles with violence and addiction. He bears the scars and tattoos of a former gang member and a former drug addict, and the roomy fit of his dark jeans and buttoned-up short-sleeved shirt make no apologies for who he is, who he has been and who his people are. He is proud of his heritage as a member of the Latino community, and he would fit in just as comfortably were he sitting at a picnic table at a backyard barbecue with friends and family instead of in his office.
Perhaps it is because he is so honest about his past — in his words and in his appearance — that he is able to convince so many people, young and old, to choose a path of nonviolence.
Speaking from his Santa Cruz office, Alejandrez tells the story of Barrios Unidos (BU) and the thousands of men and women whose lives it has changed. The organization is devoted to preventing youth violence by providing young people with alternative opportunities to survive and succeed.
Barrios Unidos was born in a UCSC apartment, the brainchild of Alejandrez, a community studies major at UC Santa Cruz. He had been the perpetrator of violent acts, as a gang member and as a soldier in Vietnam, and had suffered the losses of 14 family members to “what we called the madness.”
These firsthand experiences with violence had a strong effect on Alejandrez, and he struggled to cope with them. After the war he returned to Santa Cruz addicted to heroin and battled his addictions as he began doing peace work with Barrios Unidos, which means “united neighborhoods” in Spanish.
“I had several of my family members killed while I was in school,” he said, “and trying to deal with that, and trying to deal with the violence, and come back to school, and taking family members to different prisons to visit — it was just madness. I don’t know how I was able to do it.”
Alejandrez graduated from UCSC with honors and turned down offers to join the staff of the Stanford University film department and the Mexican-American public administration in San José to continue the BU work he had started as a student. Though he had come to be regarded highly as an authority on the subject of ending gang violence, Alejandrez did not know how to give up drugs, he said.
“I was shooting dope in places I had never thought I would be,” he said. “I was doing things I had never thought I would do, and the drugs consumed me.”
Now 23 years sober, Alejandrez credits a close friend, Walter Guzmán, with drawing him back to sobriety.
Like Alejandrez, Guzmán had personal experience with gang violence and drug addiction. In the process of his own recovery, Guzmán found his calling as a substance abuse and youth counselor, eventually starting a seperate culturally-centered substance abuse recovery program and serving as the first board president of BU. Guzmán died in 2000, but he left a strong impact on Alejandrez and BU.
Alejandrez remembers the powerful impact of being presented with the sobriety of someone to whom he could relate — a friend, who had encountered similar obstacles and experiences in his life. Alejandrez credits his recovery to Guzmán.
“Walter was the first [sober] person I respected,” he said.
Though he’d given up violence when he founded BU in 1977, it was only after Alejandrez kicked his drug habit that was he able to become the sober, nonviolent role model Santa Cruz youth would look to.
Responding to the need for culture and family unity, the organization’s core mission became restoring local youth with spiritual and cultural rituals and counseling. Much of the faith-based work is grounded in Native American traditions, passed on by community elders and used to unite young people with a positive form of community.
“We have to give them a cultural and spiritual grounding so that they know who they are, they know where they come from,” Alejandrez said.
Clean and sober, Alejandrez was ready to take BU to the next level: spreading the group’s philosophy across the state, country and eventually the world.
Alejandrez began to work with the United Nations and traveled on a peace delegation to Libya, a trip which was followed by work with the U.N. in Switzerland and peace work in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
“That just kind of opened my eyes to a whole different world,” he said. “See, I had been overseas, but I had been overseas for the wrong reasons, for the war. What that did for me … it showed me that I could do something, that I could change things and possibly influence other people.”
In addition to doing international work, BU began to grow in the U.S. Alejandrez and the other members incorporated BU, formed a governing board, built a staff and began applying for grants. Nine BU chapters were formed across the state, and the group drew the attention and support of public figures like Danny Glover, Carlos Santana and Henry Belefonte. BU’s services were in demand as juvenile violence in California began to increase in 1985, according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice.
Breaking the Cycle
Now in its 33rd year, BU continues to focus on ending violence and crime among the youth of Santa Cruz County as an alternative to incarceration. With projects ranging from prison and juvenile hall programs to a T-shirt shop and a young fathers’ group, BU aims to end the cycle of violence at every stage, including working with prisoners.
“A lot of fear is created around gangs and the prison community, but do they focus on the people who are changing their lives? No,” said Angie Espinoza, third-year community studies major and volunteer at BU.
Alejandrez attributed some of the recent increase in gang activity in Santa Cruz to a failure to invest in violence prevention in the past.
“People thought this could not happen [to] SC,” he said. “Well, we neglected it, and let it go, and groups formed, and there was not enough people involved to deal with the issue, and now we have violence. So as adults we have to invest. We have to rescue, we have to restore [youth], and reach their potential.”
Diana Sanchez and Brenda Garibay visit the Santa Cruz juvenile detention facility three times a week doing outreach work with BU. Both women are strongly invested in their work, in part because of their own experiences with drugs and violence.
“Before I had children my life was completely different,” Sanchez said. “But after being in a relationship where there was a lot of domestic violence and a lot gang activity and drugs, and after seeing how my kids suffered, I wanted to make a change.”
Sanchez remembers visiting the BU offices before she joined. The group was exhibiting art from San Quentin inmates, and Sanchez instantly felt like she belonged.
“Since then my heart has been with the kids, with the men, and trying to create change with everyone in the community,” she said. “My way of change is loving them with the heart, like a mother would love her child.”
Garibay, a recent UCSC graduate, joined BU shortly after she left school. She found that working with the BU kids’ club fit well with her interests in education and in improving the lives of the children in her hometown.
“Everyone will tell you [the youth] are our future, and for me I see our youth and a lot of them are struggling,” Garibay said. “Their parents can’t see beyond survival. That’s how I grew up, my mom’s reality was day-to-day.”
Garibay encourages youth to look beyond the present and see that they have a future, she said.
“We like to do a lot of personal growth discussions around the issues that they face day-to-day and how they can overcome them and how they can prepare themselves for reentering their communities,” Sanchez said. “And looking towards their futures, helping them envision what they want for themselves and how they can make that happen, decisions such as like hanging out with different people, or laying low, not going out and hanging out like they have in the past. Just making wise choices.”
In addition to organizing games and events that celebrate the inmates’ cultural diversity, the women do one-on-one check-ins with the kids.
“We see if they’re just feeling low or feeling positive or just want to talk about it,” Sanchez said. “We give them the opportunity to talk about anything they want.”
The women also lead groups in a program called Rule of Law (ROL), which educates inmates about social justice and how they can work with the law instead of fighting, running or lying.
Garibay and Sanchez recalled a recent visit to the Sacramento juvenile detention facility, where BU will soon be working with the incarcerated youth.
“They renovated it and spent like $107 million on the renovation — it’s huge, it’s disgusting,” Garibay said. “But it’s big and it’s built for the population growth. And it’s a trip to think, ‘Oh, we’re planning to send the youth there.’ So to me it’s like, shouldn’t we be building schools or universities? These kids are going to end up somewhere. Why are we building a big juvenile detention center?”
The Prison Project
Espinoza recently attended her second Cinco de Mayo festival, a part of BU’s prison outreach program, in the Tracy city prison, where she saw firsthand the importance of working with inmates to help them reenter the community.
BU began the prison outreach project, which includes classes for inmates and cultural ceremonies organized by inmates, in 1994.
“I knew that we needed to get behind the walls to reach some of our brothers and sisters who were influencing a lot of the young kids,” Alejandrez said. “If we could get them to be supportive, and to realize what was happening to our young kids, then maybe we could stand a better chance of controlling this, or eradicating some of the violence.”
One of the core beliefs behind BU’s prison project is giving men and women in prison new opportunities.
“Organizations like ourselves and others that go [to prisons] gives [prisoners] a connection to the outside, a feeling that they’re not left alone, that they might have an opportunity to return to their communities and be part of a society,” he said.
While at the celebration, Espinoza watched men who had been incarcerated for years get excited at the prospect of having a job upon their parole. This is essential to getting and staying out of prison, she said.
“Some people lose contact with their families, they lose hope, they lose faith. How are they going to change?” she said. “How do we expect them to come back into the community and not go back [to crime and gangs]?”
In the 16 years since the inception of the prison outreach program, members of BU have spent a lot of time and effort attacking the problems of violence that they see being cultivated in the prison systems. Alejandrez has seen the results of their work with the men in Tracy prison, he said.
“[The prisoners] want what is good for their families, and they hold themselves to a respectful manner,” he said. “Now this doesn’t happen with everybody, but the majority of people that we have encountered carry themselves this way.”
The Prison Project extends beyond the Cinco de Mayo celebration BU and the prisoners hold. The BU staff has turned to the organization’s roots on the UCSC campus to help provide the inmates educational opportunities.
Angela Irvine, a research associate at the UCSC Center for Justice, Tolerance and Community and owner of Ceres Policy Research, was approached three years ago by Alejandrez and asked to teach in a vocational institute with UCSC professor John Brown Childs. Vocational education is designed to prepare trainees for jobs based on practical activities, which in this case provides prisoners with an alternative to gang membership and crime.
Irvine has taught writing to men serving life sentences in the prison, and she laughs while confessing that she often jokingly exaggerates the danger of her job working with murderers.
Although she does in fact work with men who have committed murder, the joke to her is that many people think working with these men is a frightening and dangerous job. Having spent years getting to know the inmates she works with, Irvine no longer thinks of the men as criminals to be feared, she said.
“All the men in our class are as likely to kill a person as anyone who’s free,” Irvine said. “I think that most people might be scared of murderers and might assume that it’s like an unending pathology, that once you’re prone toward murder you will murder again.”
Irvine explained that for most of the men a variety of sociological and personal reasons contributed to the murders they committed 20 or 30 years ago. Having been in prison for many years, the inmates she works with have become different people, people who have a very good understanding of the consequences of their actions, she said.
“The men we work with are equal to or more skilled than people who are free because they are working so hard to become free,” she said.
Irvine described her conviction that the men she worked with — not all inmates, but those whom she teaches — are no longer the same people they were when they committed the crimes that earned them life sentences years ago.
Through the prison project many of them are given an opportunity to prove this, she said, and to stop the cycle of violence that landed them in prison.
“I sit in these meetings and think, ‘Why aren’t these men on the outside?’” Irvine said. “They should be directors of nonprofit organizations, and they want to do that, because they’re all so personally committed to stopping community violence and stopping young men from being incarcerated, so no one has to experience what they’ve experienced.”