A Change of Heart This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

December 21, 2012
By , Pasco, WA
The people living in the war between blue and red put their lives in danger every day. They wake up not knowing if today will be their day to die. They go through the day not knowing if a family member could be the victim who pays for their mistakes.

My entire life I have been surrounded by gang life. I was influenced by cousins, uncles, and friends; following in their ­footsteps was something they expected. At 13 I believed that gang life was the only option for me.

On November 19, 2011, I woke up with a knot in my stomach. It was 3:32 a.m., so I assumed I must have had a bad dream. By habit, I reached for my phone and saw that I had eight missed calls and one voicemail from Gabby, my cousin Junior's girlfriend.

My heart raced as I listened to the message. But weirdly all I heard was faint talking and crying and then – click – she hung up. Worried, I called Gabby's number, but she didn't answer.

I woke my parents and told them what I had heard, and they quickly called my aunt, Junior's mom. Our house was completely quiet, so I could hear my aunt trying hard to talk between sobs. After my mom hung up, she just stared into the darkness of the room.

Overnight my cousin Junior had been beaten and shot, and had died in the hospital. He had gone to a concert in Spokane with Gabby, their friends, and her family. At some point, Junior's friends had called him, saying that guys from the local gang in Spokane were banging on their hotel room door. My cousin ran to help them, and in the process he was beaten up. Gabby tried to keep them from hurting him, but they bashed a glass liquor bottle over her head.

Junior was just 21, with a beautiful 3-year-old daughter and a newborn son. He and Gabby were planning to get married soon.

The news left me in a daze. I couldn't concentrate at school. I ignored most of my friends. I was pretty much a hermit at home in my room.

This wasn't the first time I had lost someone I loved to gang violence. Earlier that year, my friend Luis was killed. When I checked Facebook that morning, I found my news feed covered with pictures of Luis and the letters R.I.P. There were long statuses dedicated to him, talking about how much he'd be missed and describing how he had been killed. When I called one of my best friends she confirmed everything I had read was true.

Luis had been set up by two girls he had once called friends. They had helped rival gang members get him. The girls threw a party and invited Luis; he went with his girlfriend. As they were leaving the party, a car drove up and two gang members shot him multiple times. He lost so much blood that he died in the ambulance.

Losing two people who were close to me this way was really life changing. It made me think about all the things I'd done wrong and could have done right, and those thoughts gave me the energy to strive for what others said I could never accomplish. I turned my life around. Suddenly, my education felt very important to me. I worked hard for months to catch up. I had ups and downs, but I always pushed to do my best. My attitude at home and with teachers changed, and many people noticed the change in me.

I realize now how stupid I was to be connected with a gang. Knowing that I am going to graduate high school on time is an amazing feeling. Since my change of heart, I try to spread the word and help others who are heading in the wrong direction.

I thank Junior and Luis for transforming me. It's because of them that I am alive and happy today. It's never too late to change, and with determination and patience, anyone can do it.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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