I grew up in one of the toughest neighborhoods in San Francisco, the Mission District, which is known for its vibrant culture and delicious restaurants. But in the evening, it becomes another place, plagued with gangs, drugs, prostitution, and robberies. In my late teens, I ran with the wrong set of people, members of the Norteneño Gang, a mix of Latino and black teens. My friends and I used to make money by “pulling licks,” in other words, by committing petty robberies and selling drugs. By the time I was 17, I had been to one high school and three continuation schools. In my last continuation school, Life Learning Academy, the principal spoke to a judge on my behalf to get me out of a petty robbery charge. Initially, I’d been charged with a felony. After she spoke, the charge was reduced to a misdemeanor. As a punishment, I was given community service. That way, my record would remain clean.

Not everybody was as lucky as I was to have a principal who fought in court for her students. In fact, many of my friends and family members went to juvenile early in their life for petty crimes, and now they’re in for more serious reasons. Most are locked up for a decade at least.

I have had so many examples in my life of people who have made the wrong decisions. One of them was my cousin, in whose steps I was following, because I thought he was cool. He had the girls, the clothes, and a nice car. However, once he was sentenced to prison for attempted murder, I knew this was not the life for me.

Thankfully, I had people pulling me away from that life. I had my principal, Teri Delane, and I also had my mother. Even though she was working two jobs, she always tried to push me in the right direction, by giving me her love and support. This made me not want to disappoint her or make her cry anymore, as I had done in the past through my reckless decisions. After my cousin went to prison, I knew did not want to be a statistic; I did not want to be trapped in a city where I was given limited options because of my race and my background. That’s when I started to pay attention to the United States Army and Marine Corps commercials with the slogans “The Few, the Proud,” and “Army Strong.” Hearing these words made me start to dream of a prosperous future. In the ruthless gang environment I had grown accustomed to, such dreams had been impossible. But the words of the slogan gave me hope. They made me believe I could do something meaningful and that I could be helpful to others. I saw what I could become and what I could learn from joining the military — discipline, leadership skills, and teamwork — in order to help the weak or the less fortunate.

When I turned 18, I went to talk to a Marine Corps recruiter. I wanted to take up the challenge in order to be a part of the few, the proud. However, once I was evaluated, I was told I could not join because my continuation school was not on par with a regular high school. In addition, the tattoo on my wrist was against regulations, and it was grounds for automatic disqualification from enlisting with them. Disheartened, I was approached by the Army recruiters, who told me about their GED Program and how they could get me in right away. I so badly wanted to leave the poverty and violence I had grown accustomed to, and so, within two weeks, I had completed the paperwork and had been assigned a date for departure — August  8, 2010 — to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, where the start of my successful future began.

Andy Ochoa, U.S. Army 82nd Combat Sustainment Brigade, served four years active and two years reserve. His major at UCSB is Bio-Anthropology, and he will graduate in June 2020.

This Voice was originally submitted in 2019, and the link was re-posted in 2021.


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