Below is a transcription of Rudy Balles’s story, as told to Greater Good Editor Jason Marsh.
I was in a neighborhood gang in Pueblo, Colorado, about two hours outside of Denver. The steel mill closed down in my city, which laid off a lot of workers. Jobs were really scarce, especially for the Chicano community out there. In the depression of the period, people searched for love in all the wrong places. I think a lot of us looked to gangs for what we weren’t getting at home. The only way we thought we were going to make it was in the total idea of the violent life—of just carrying a gun and rob¬bing for what was ours and keeping whatever made us happy and riding that to the fullest.
But when I heard Rigoberta Menchú Tum speak at a PeaceJam conference, that told me something else. She looked so little. Then I heard her story of having to put up with her mom and dad being so heinously murdered, and of her having the courage and spiritual strength to continue to do what was right, and to speak up for the justice of the Mayan people in Guatemala. I had thought I needed to be bigger and badder and scarier than everybody else on my street so that I could get some respect. But when I saw this Mayan woman stand up without using any of those tools, she made me realize that I needed to do something smarter. I saw that what my grandmother was asking of me at the time was very reasonable: to leave the gang, to love my family more, and to do something better for other people, not just for my own self-indulgence.
I started going to community college and got a degree in computer graphics and web design. Then I got a job as the director of the Gang Rescue and Support Project (GRASP) in Denver. I work with young people in my own community around gang issues, and we have weekly support groups. We kind of have an AA for gang members. We just talk about life. We don’t talk about how the Crips and the Bloods are doing or how the homies are doing, but how we’re doing.
I’m not moving out of the hood. I’m not forgetting about anyone where I live. I love my friends. Some of them might have hurt me, but I still love them. That’s what I’ve learned from Rigoberta Menchú Tum and the other Nobel Laureates: forgive, and continue to work toward healing.