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Photo courtesy of Lifetouch Photography

Transformation.

Richard Santana, once a third-generation member of one of California’s largest gangs, put the focus on transformation – in message and in action – during his speech to the National Hispanic Council of School Board Members’ Sunday breakfast at NSBA's annual conference in Nashville.

Beginning his remarks in a trench coat, torn jeans, sun glasses, and a denim shirt, Santana transformed, discarding the shades and outwear to show what was beneath the veneer: pressed pants, white shirt and tie, and a graduate of the Harvard School of Education.

“If you were to have asked me as a kid, ‘Do you want to go to Harvard?’ I’d have said, ‘You must be smoking some good stuff.’ I would have said, ‘I’m supposed to be demoralized, to get my picture on a wall, to get killed,’” said the former gang member known as Senor Chocolate.

“But (someone) said that not only was I to go to Harvard, I was supposed to become something I hated – I became a teacher,” he said. “It’s the path I chose. It’s the path I respect. It’s the path I couldn’t have taken if it wasn’t for someone who cared.”

It was a hard start for Santana, whose mother died when he was 3 and whose father disappeared even earlier.

“Growing up, I was a file, I was a number. I was a product of the system,” he said. “You want to know what the No. 1 killer is in the barrios, in the ghettos? It’s stress. Stress because of the guns. Stress because of the drugs, the gangs, the suicides, the poverty.”

Santana said the reasons he and other youth join gangs are similar to what many in his audience sought in their earlier years.

“How many of you want a sense of family in your lives? How many of you want to be accepted? How many of you want to be supported? You have the same needs as the kids in the gangs,” he said.

To get away from that life, Santana said he turned to school. It wasn’t a great start.

“When someone like me walks into your school, a teacher says, ‘Take off those glasses, take off that trench coat, you are inappropriate.’ I’m inappropriate? I’m looking the best I can,” he said. “I get to school and feel good about who I am and what I represent, and one of your teachers disrespects me in front of my friends, how to you think I’m going to act? All I thought is that here is another adult who asks a question and doesn’t care about the answer.”

Ironically, the transformation of Santana’s life was sparked by another teacher “who took a chance.”

“She was a white teacher who cared, because she could outlast and out love me. Because she believed, slowly and surely, her energy penetrated my heart and I changed,” he said.

“Now it’s on you. Someone like you saved my life. Someone like you reached out and grabbed a hold of me, even when I resisted, you still held on and said, ‘Come with me today.’ You saw my potential,” Santana said. “I ask you when you go back, what are you going to do to help someone like me? When you serve someone like me, when you represent someone like me, if you identify those biases, maybe you can do something to change them, to overcome those little barriers inside yourselves when it comes to serving someone like me.”

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