This is part two of a three-part series on Northeast San Fernando Valley resident and actor Danny Trejo.
Actor Danny Trejo doesn’t hide his past. He’s completely open about the very hard life he led long before he became an actor and doesn’t take for granted the second chance at life that he's received.
He tells those he meets on the street and at detox centers that the guy they’ve seen on the big screen understands what it feels like to be in the tight grip of drug and alcohol addiction.
He talks “straight” to scores of kids at juvenile hall to tell them he’s been exactly where they are right now — and how that road led him from juvenile hall to the youth authority, to camp, to state prison.
SFV Sun/El Sol Editor Diana Martinez talked to Danny Trejo at his Northeast Valley home. This video was produced by Susana Duenas (camera), Marita De La Torre (sound) and Alejandro Chavez (sound)of L.A. Media Group. This video cannot be duplicated or reproduced without permission.
“The biggest problem, especially with young Latinos. is that they are told that they aren't worth sh*t; they’ve been told that they’re stupid and they're dumb,” Trejo said. “When I go to juvenile hall, I actually see kids that feel they are thrown away and that they aren't any good. It’s up to us to bring them back.”
For those that ask him about what it was like spending time in prison, he doesn't mince words in describing what it's like to be locked up.
“Prison is probably the only place on earth where you are going to be either predator or prey... that’s it!” Trejo said. “Every morning you are going to have to make that choice. I've seen some people get killed for just dirty looks, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or because [they] didn't get a birthday card.
“Prison is a waste. Prison is a warehouse for insanity, that’s what prison is. You go in there and can be completely sane and you come out of there with an attitude that is very, very sick.”
Trejo gives credit for the support he received from self-help programs that take strength from a higher power, and that saved him.
“If it wasn’t for AA and Narcotics Anonymous, I'd be dead,” he said. “Without God, I wouldn't be here …that’s all. Without God, Danny Trejo wouldn’t even be here and I know that — that’s a fact.
“I think I’m part of the community, that wants to do the best we can for the community — I think one of the commandments is being of service,” a belief which appears to be at Trejo’s core.
He shares that he just received a phone call to tell him he lost another friend. “He was clean for a very long time and he decided to try it one more time [and he died]...they say they have a war on drugs — bullsh*t, we have a war on drug addicts.”
Trejo believes the business of illegal drugs is so profitable that it impacts the effort to really stop it and “it's the little guy selling crack who is going to pay for it[by going to jail or prison],” or the ultimate cost of people losing their lives.
It’s because of his life experience that Trejo has much to say, whether it’s about an inadequate school system, a health system where uninsured patients with mental health illnesses have no where to go but on the street, police who aren’t trained properly to handle those who have autism or bipolar disorder, or a court system that unfairly dispenses sentences. He points to the big cracks that people are falling through, the cracks that cause huge tragedies.
From juvenile hall to prison, Trejo had a front row seat that has brought him to the opinion that we have a system that fails us — that is wrought with racial discrimination, fueled by drugs that are in truth a lucrative business that destroys lives, and a money making prison system that continues to build more prisons instead of getting underneath society’s problems that point people in that direction.
“I got into a lot of trouble. I wasn’t like your all American kid — I went to juvenile hall quite a bit, and that’s when I realized that there was something wrong because I knew white guys got into trouble but they didn’t go to juvenile hall,” Trejo said.
“I went to juvenile hall so many times that I thought Mexicans were supposed to go to juvenile hall. Then I went to camp, and from camp I went to youth authority, and from youth authority I went to the state penitentiary. For some kids there’s grammar school, junior high, high school and college, and for some other kids there is juvenile hall, camp, youth authority and prison.”
Trejo produced a documentary, called Surviving Prison that showed statistically that something is really wrong when the biggest population in state prison is comprised of young Latinos and African Americans.
“A black kid can do two years for two rocks of crack cocaine and a young white man can do eight months for a couple of pounds [of cocaine]. We have an adversary court system that has nothing to do with justice …nothing.”
Trejo believes the system is “set up.”
“It’s the District Attorney’s job to put people in jail. And if you have a district attorney that lets too many people go, he’s not going to have that job,” explained Trejo, who gives an example.
It’s a scenario where people hearing that it will cost far more money than they have to fight the case, and, knowing they have a job they can lose if they are in jail and oftentimes have a family to support, will feel they have no choice and will take that deal even if they aren't guilty.
“So, when you come before him, the first thing he does is say, ‘This case carries five years and if you want to go to court, [you will need to spend] $25,000. Or instead, you can plead guilty, and get out in eight days with community service.’”
So...“Check one for the D.A.” he said.
While the District Attorney’s reputation for being tough on crime is elevated, for people who now have a record, the course of their lives can be forever changed.
He also points to the need to have a real support system for those that get out of prison. Trejo has built his own circle of people who informally and formally offer that support. He encourages people to believe they can have a good life after prison by giving them tangible resources that can go so far as to pick them up and drive them where they need to go to get help.
He talks with pride about how well his cousin Gilbert has done. Gilbert, who went into prison at the age of 15 and didn't get out until he was 55, is now a member of the electrical union and “drives a Lexus, a better car than I have,” he laughs.
Trejo provides insight that few understand. It takes much more than picking yourself up with your own bootstraps or finding an employer willing to give you a chance. When people go to prison at a young age, they get emotionally stunted and don’t grow in the same way they would living on the outside.
“It takes a really strong person — prison teaches you no social skills whatsoever,” he explains.
The threat, impact and inequality of the prison system is a national issue. Trejo also points to the blatant hypocrisy and the link between US immigration and the prison system.
There have been cases of people in this country legally who have been unlawfully arrested by ICE and families now living in fear.
While in Washington, Trejo said he met two “DREAMERs” who had a 4.0 grade point average. They were very worried about the possibility of being deported. At the same time, he said, the prison system keeps thousands of undocumented immigrants in prisons and is making no moves to deport them.
“If you are a DREAMER, you are going to college, have a job and pay taxes — that sounds like a pretty good citizen to me and they’re trying to send them back. At the same time, we’ve got illegal immigrants in prison, an abundance, we have thousands. We won't send them back because we are making money on them. But we have good citizens, DREAMERs, and we want to send them back,” Trejo said.
Trejo is also concerned about the devastating separation of families that is causing more harm to kids.
“That’s been one of the traumas of [our time] that is going to be written about in history; that our President separated children from their parents. That’s his [Trump’s] legacy. He wanted to bring this wall as his legacy, but he took these kids from their parents... that’s his legacy. He wanted to please his base and it backfired on him real bad,” Trejo said.
He also points to our massive homeless population that he attributes to the Reagan years. He said he goes downtown to pass out socks and underwear to people living on the street and it's clear that scores of homeless people have mental health issues and aren't able to provide for themselves.
“When Reagan closed our mental health facilities, I thought it was the dumbest thing that could have happened. And that’s why we have homeless generations in California since Reagan, we have kids going to school that are homeless.”
“What I'd like to see are more rehab centers, more cultural centers, more and better schools. Our prison guards make more money than our teachers; that’s sad! Now they are creating private prisons and building more. It’s so sad that we have so many kids in juvenile hall. For what? For skipping school? School's boring, let's make it interesting,” suggests Trejo.
“We’ve built five times the number of prisons than we have schools and we have so many prisons and less education centers. It should be the other way around.” Trejo maintains.
In next week's issue we share our conversation with Danny Trejo about his upcoming projects, what it takes to “make it” in entertainment and the importance of mentoring.
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