I had to join a gang to protect myself from bullies when I was 12. In fact, I joined the same gang as my father and was he was the one who had me jumped in [assigned him his initiation duties]. And by 15 my mom had provided me with 2 women who’s job it was to keep money in my pocket by whatever means. It was not the life I wanted, but it’s what kept me alive so I lived it to the fullest, and even began to like it. Welfare doesn’t pay the bills, and food stamps don’t buy the drugs my mom needed to be at her best for her job, if you can call it that. 

Growing up this way seems the worst, but when you are born into a life like this, it’s all you know, and the other side of the coin seems unbelievable to you.

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As early as the age of four, I can remember seeing my mom in a room with three men who were doing things to her that I thought I had to call the cops! When I think about it now, nothing was funny about the life it brought me, endless men and the occasional woman in and out of the house, having to hide in closets because my mom didn’t want some clients to know she had a kid, always lots of money for her fashion and lifestyle, but not enough to properly feed or clothe me. 

Growing up Latino was hard enough where I’m from, but a severe lack of education and the disease of gang life gave me no choice and no options. Miraculously, I was naturally smart and both craved and sought education, which cost me being the target of ridicule. Where I’m from, you’re either in the streets, or a victim of them. The only thing I needed to learn according to mom was women and the streets. To her, they were the same, and for her the sooner I had women like her, the better off I’d be.

Imagine being under the belief that a two parent household, money to have whatever you want, collage, safety, true love, are things that only come to people in fairy tales — because for as far as the eye can see, all that’s around you is the opposite. A dog in the front yard for some is replaced by millions of roaches in the house for others, where a good day is making it home safe in a neighborhood that sees a shootout like others would a game of freeze tag. Only, when you get tagged in my world, you really do stand still… forever. 

By the age of 20, I had lots of money, my mom had died a victim of the trade, my dad was gone somewhere, and I found myself in a court fighting a murder charge. Maybe things could’ve been better, but when you come from where I’m from, you use what’s around you to get a slightly better look out of a filthy window, and dream that one day you live long enough to at least see the betters across the city.

Jermaine Smith