Eddie Chagolla speaks to El Portal Leadership Academy about
Gilroy – Standing underneath a blue posterboard with classroom rules reading: “Be non-violent” and “Maintain a drugs and weapon free environment,” former gang member Eddie Chagolla spoke of days when he would dole out guns before a night out and tie his friends arms so they could inject cocaine.
Wearing black shades and a heavy black button down jacket, Chagolla spoke to about 70 students at El Portal Leadership Academy, showing them pictures of friends and family members he’s lost to the gang lifestyle.
“I’m an ex-gang member, an ex-drug addict, an ex-drug dealer and a high school dropout,” he said. “My father was shot because of me … There’s a lot of pain in there that I have to live with.”
Chagolla was 15 when he first joined a gang in the Southern California city of Riverside.
It took him 13 years to ruin his life – and the death of his father to bring it back.
Though Chagolla’s father did not die from the gunshot wounds he suffered when rival gang members mistook the elder for his son, his early death from an aneurysm in 1990 brought his son out from a life of drugs and violence.
“Each one of you knows someone in your life who has made poor decisions,” he said. “I’m asking you – do you want to break the chain in your families? Of your friends?”
Chagolla has been clean from the gang lifestyle 15 years, 50 days on Friday.
Currently he works at a continuation high school in Riverside as a campus manager counseling students, and serves a motivational speaker, trying to save as many kids as he can from dropping out of school and joining gangs.
“This lifestyle will follow you wherever you go. You can’t say, ‘Hey, time out. I’m home now – free space.’ It isn’t like that,” Chagolla said.
No one left during his presentation.
Afterwards, students went up to Chagolla asking to see the photographs and prison letters he brought with him. Perhaps it was out of curiosity, perhaps it was a comfort.
“I know how he feels when he said his family was hated on his street,” said 15-year-old Prycilla Gracias. “We just want to be the ones to change the family.”
Coming to El Portal has helped Gracias get out of the gang lifestyle.
“You can’t wear red, you can’t wear blue,” she said, referring to the colors worn by the Norteño and Sureño gangs.
She believes Chagolla’s speech resonated with students.
“It needs to affect people,” she said.
El Portal’s Counselor of Academics and Student Leadership Services Tom Hernandez spent the past year trying to coordinate a time for Chagolla to talk to students.
“A lot of students in Gilroy, they look at the way he walked in, the way he looked, and this is the type of person who gets their respect,” he said. “We have a lot of students who have family members who are gang members … who don’t have a father figure.”
El Portal staff try and step in to show them a better path when no one else does, he explained.
“Students of that age are intrigued with the gangs,” he said. “They’re not thinking the ultimate outcome … that when you’re in a gang, either you or your friends are going to die or go to prison.”
He believes students got the message from Chagolla’s speech.
“Especially with the recent shooting in Gilroy, they know this is real,” Hernandez said.
Student Body President Jorge Lustre has opted to stay out of gangs. He is friends with members from both the Norteño and Sureño gangs, but isn’t a member of either.
He wants to go to college, maybe even be president one day, he said.
“(Gang members) don’t understand that if we trace our heritage back – we all come from the same place,” he said. “It’s time for them to turn off the lights and see that we’re all the same.”