Over the last two decades, I have seen what violence does to people, families and communities. As the founding member of the Los Angeles branch of Homies Unidos, I’ve borne witness to the cycles of trauma, devastation, and turmoil our young people face every day in the home and on the streets. In their eyes, I see my story and the stories of many young people who grow up hurt by the very systems that are supposed to keep them safe.
Studies show that, in California and nationally, survivors of violent crime are more likely to be low-income, younger than 30, and Latino or African American. These are communities that are most harmed but the least helped. For immigrant communities, like the mostly Latino and largely Central American communities of Pico, Westlake, and Koreatown that Homies Unidos serves, there are additional obstacles to overcome, including language barriers and the threat of deportation.
Recently, I joined more than 100 crime survivors from around Southern California for Survivors Speak Los Angeles held at the Crenshaw Methodist Church. The event was organized by the Los Angeles chapter of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, a statewide movement of thousands of crime survivors. We shared stories of healing, honored loved ones lost, and called for new safety priorities in Los Angeles and around the state that truly reflect the needs of crime survivors. Hearing these stories helped me to reflect on my own path – from feeling violence in El Salvador at age 7, physical abuse at home and bullying at school to serving time in juvenile detention, prison and jails.
My path towards healing came much later in life when I realized I I didn’t want to fight, I wanted to live. The organization I now lead teaches life skills to at-risk and gang-involved youth, supports families with incarcerated loved ones, and helps people reintegrate successfully back into the community after being released. After acknowledging the harm I endured—and the harm I have caused in my own community—my life goal is to create safety and peace. This starts with working for a justice system that puts crime survivors at the center, and one that prioritizes healing and recovery. Far too often, these needs go unmet.
If we want peace and safety for all, we must offer opportunities for people to acknowledge the pain they wrought, understand why they did what they did and take responsibility for their actions. Instead of simply investing in prison or jails, we must invest in prevention, rehabilitation, and treatment.
For many of the families I work with, simply knowing the person who caused them harm is behind bars often doesn’t provide healing or closure. They need access to services to help them recover from the trauma. And for Latino and other immigrant survivors, they need culturally appropriate services from people who understand their background.
For Latino immigrants, whose perspective has been missing from the dominant narrative of who survivors are and what they want, the healing process begins when we receive support and solidarity from others who share our experiences. Joining a movement of survivors empowers us to share our stories and advocate for changes in the criminal justice system.
The immigrant youth and families I work with are ready to be vocal advocates for smarter policies that can prevent crime, improve the justice system, and better support survivors, our families and our communities. Through Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, we are working to create a new model of justice that better reflects the needs of crime survivors.
Hurt people hurt people. By helping survivors of crime heal, we can create safer communities for all of us.