Richard Santana walked to the center of the Modesto High School gym Wednesday night as his alter ego, Señor Chocolate, a third-generation gang member clad in baggy denim pants, dark shades and a black trenchcoat.
Santana started his presentation as the thug he used to be on the street and shared his tragic experiences with alcohol and drugs.
"I grew up in the barrio," Santana told about 100 people who gathered in the gym. "The No. 1 killer in the barrio is stress. I got drive-by shootings, fights, domestic violence, drugs."
Santana used street lingo to share his experiences and illustrate gang attitudes and behaviors.
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Modesto City Schools and Modesto police invited Santana, an anti-gang educator, to share his message of hope at a gang awareness presentation they held at Modesto High.
Santana demonstrated his real-life metamorphosis, shedding his gangster attire and emerging as a college graduate, counselor and educator, dressed in a shirt, tie and slacks.
With the help of educators and mentors, Santana said, he left the gangs, drugs and alcohol behind. He graduated with a bachelor's degree from California State University, Fresno, and went on to earn his master's degree from Harvard University.
He credited his change to those like the educators and parents in the gym "who put aside their biases and prejudices and got to know me on the inside."
"There is a way to connect to your child's life. There is a way to get around the walls we build to protect us."
Santana is the founder of Homeboy Goes to Harvard Productions, a group of Latino motivational speakers who discuss diversity, self-esteem, education, gang prevention, drug awareness, pregnancy prevention and healthy choices. They speak at educational conferences, parent workshops, staff development events and school assemblies.
Organizers said they hope Wednesday's event will serve as a catalyst for discussions between parents and children about gangs and drugs.
John Ervin, director of community affairs for Modesto City Schools, said that gang culture changes rapidly and criminal activity could go unnoticed.
"As parents in the community, as youth, you have to be aware of the signs," Ervin said to the audience, which included several students.
Other law enforcement and community organizations were invited to share information and tips with parents.
Among the speakers was Jorge Perez, who grew up a gang member but now works as a coordinator with an intervention team for youth involved in gangs. The team is part of a joint effort between Modesto City Schools and the Stanislaus County Probation Department.
"Thanks to an intervention and prevention program, I was able to change and transform my life," Perez said. "If someone was able to help me change, we believe we can do the same."
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For more information about Richard Santana, go to www.homeboygoestoharvard.com.