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By Charles Lam
Photo by James BunoanAs a reporter who covers the never-ending war between gangs and cops in Orange County, I'm used to writing depressing stories about people doomed to a lifetime of pointless violence that ends in incarceration or death. So when I first met him three years ago at the Santa Ana city jail, Eddie Quiñones—a severely overweight, bald-headed 18-year-old member of the Anaheim street gang Down Familia de Wicked Soldiers—seemed like just another born loser.
Cops and gang members themselves have a saying that sums it up: You can take the gangbanger out of the gang, but you can't take the gang out of the gangbanger. So I could never have guessed that, by the next time I saw Quiñones, he would have completely turned his life around. It's not supposed to happen.
Leaving the gang life behind wasn't easy for Eddie. Both his father and his older brother are serving prison sentences, and he admits to at least eight arrests—for everything from grand theft auto to street terrorism—during his days as an active gang member. In July 2000, police raided his father's home and arrested Eddie for violating his probation by carrying a pocketknife. He spent five months behind bars. On more than one occasion, jail officials locked all the inmates in their cells because of race riots that broke out in the jail cafeteria. During one of those lockdowns, Eddie celebrated his 18th birthday—in solitary confinement. He spent so much time in the hole that he even missed a court appearance when guards forgot where he was.
The experience left him determined never to go back to jail, and more importantly, made him realize that if he kept hanging out with gang members, he'd end up following his father and brother on the well-worn path between state prison and the county's barrios.
Back then, Quiñones told us all he wanted to do was study hard and stay out of gangs. That's exactly what he did. He signed up for continuation classes at Gilbert High School. After a year of classes, he spent a semester at Loara High School and graduated in June 2002 with a 4.0 GPA. Since then, he has been working as a teaching assistant for Anaheim Union School District and playing football at Fullerton Community College, where he's registered to get his associate in arts degree. He wants to become a public-school teacher.
He became a new man in another way as well. When behind bars at Santa Ana's city jail, Quiñones weighed 280 and was on antidepressants. After exercising just about every day since his release, he dropped 110 pounds. He completed both the 2002 and 2003 LA marathons.
Quiñones says he plans to enlist in the Marine Corps to pay for college—and to get himself out of the neighborhood. "I'm into God now, not gangs," he said. "I started believing in myself and that allowed me to believe in God. I did that right here in this gang-infested neighborhood. So when people ask me where I'm from—what gang I'm from—I say, 'Nowhere. I ain't from nowhere."