By Brian Lopez
Poverty, Violence, Death; what is a kid to do? Have HOPE! Hope as a word is difficult to understand. It can be defined as many different things depending on the individual. But as a concept, hope can be the most dangerous possession a person can have. Dangerous, in that it can help a person become stronger in every aspect of his life, yet at the same time, it can destroy every aspect of a person’s life (false hope). Nevertheless, throughout the darkness, sometimes hope is all we have left. Throughout my life, I have had this deep inner sadness that only an old tortured soul can know. I always wondered, why me? Why did I have to go through so much? Why are my eyes so sad? Was it to be strong for my family, my friends, or maybe my God? In the end I will never know, but I guess God works in mysterious ways. As a kid, growing up in “the hood” seemed like growing up in any other area. I had family, friends, and even a dog. I thought that life was pretty basic, but things soon changed as I entered my teen and adult years. Throughout my teen and adult years, I was witness to several severe incidents of poverty, violence, and death that would change my life forever.
As a youth, I often wondered what the word poverty meant. To many, it means not being able to afford the finer things in life, but to some, it means not having food on the table. The meaning of poverty that I use is the latter. Poverty to me is not having food on the table, not having school supplies, never having money to get anything you want, and sometimes not even the items you need. As an example, consider my first year of high school. I attended a small elementary and middle school in which we all wore uniforms; white tops and blue bottoms. We all looked the same; it was great! To a degree, we were all the same. Three years went by before we graduated. When I graduated and started high school, it was a rude awakening.
While all my old friends were wearing new clothes and shoes, I found myself in the same uniform from our old middle school. I wore those same two white shirts and two pairs of blue shorts (which I clearly had outgrown) for the entire year, rain or shine. I recall that my first fight started because a student kept picking on me and eventually felt he could beat me up. He soon found out that he was wrong. I also recall that my friend eventually bought me a pair of shoes because he felt so sorry for me. My shoes had holes in them and my feet would get wet during the rain. Although I was grateful at the time for the gift, my friend never let me live that down. Ultimately, I felt angry that I owed him for pitying me. But it was the truth. Throughout these years, I was foolish enough to feel like my family had let me down. But the reality was that we just didn’t have the money. It was during this time that I truly realized that I was poor.
Along with being poor, I soon realized how violent life could be. The true heartbeat of “the hood” is its level of violence; primarily, gang violence. The odd part that I never understood was that many of these gangs were fighting for streets that they didn’t own. They would give their lives for a lifestyle that didn’t have hope, but instead led only to violence and despair. The philosophy of the streets was simple: Only the strong survive. What I came to understand was that gangs, and others living within “the hood,” weren’t necessarily fighting over the streets, but more over the territory that it consisted of because their families lived in those areas. It was about respect and survival!
Many people looking in from outside usually never understand this. Instead, they think that the law can protect them. However, in “the hood,” the cops are always too late and the way of the gun rules. This is the sad reality. I recall my days as a teenager fresh out of high school. I still went to parties and other social events, even though I didn’t have the money. There was always an individual getting stabbed or shot at events. Fights were quite common. It was the norm. We always just chalked it up to life taking its course.
One New Year’s Eve, three friends, including my best friend and I,went to a huge “rave” that took place every year in Los Angeles. The rave went all night and into the early morning. We showed up at 10 p.m. since that is when the event started. We parked in a dark parking lot, at which point I warned my best friend that we shouldn’t park there, because it would be dark and secluded when we get out. He told me not to be so paranoid. As far as the event, it was a great time with many different cultures coming together to celebrate the coming of a new year.
My friends were a bit bored with the event and were simply satisfied with hitting the new year. I, on the other hand, was glad to have survived another year and hoped that I would survive the next. We decided to leave “early” since it was getting late (4 am) and the event was dwindling. But when we went to the parking lot, four individuals were breaking into my friend’s truck. As soon as our eyes met, everyone except for me (I wasn’t carrying a gun) opened fire. When the smoke cleared, everyone was dead or dying. My best friend was lying on the floor holding his stomach. I ran over to him and picked him up in my arms. Our eyes met and I could see the fear in his eyes as he pleaded that he didn’t want to die, then he quickly toughened up.
Eventually his last words were about how he was sorry for not parking somewhere else. Nevertheless, by the end of the night in that cold dark parking lot, with only his hopes of forgiveness to sooth his fear, my best friend died in my arms. When I got home, I wondered what had just happened. Why didn’t I get shot? Why haven’t I died yet? Most importantly, I wondered what to do next.
Life is not without a sense of irony. Although I was never fatally wounded throughout my years in “the hood,” I soon realized that death had other plans for me. As a kid, I first witnessed death when my godmother Sally died. She had a stroke and for years I helplessly watched her body deteriorate. Years later, I lost my grandmother to cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. My grandmother had taken me in, after my mother had chosen her boyfriend over us. My grandmother was my rock; I always knew she loved me. We always talked, laughed and most importantly cried together. She was our queen and we were her soldiers. I will always miss her and to this day, give her the majority of the credit for who I am today.
I will never forget the day when she asked the nurse “Who is this man?”, referring to me. Talk about a broken heart! Then, just four months after my grandma left us, I lost my grandpa to a heart attack. I recall finding him in his bed. It was eerie, but he had a smile on his face. I like to think that before he died, he saw my grandma as she welcomed him into heaven. Around that time, I also lost a girlfriend. She was going home to see her parents, but had a car accident on the way and died. She was so beautiful and she treated me with a respect that I have yet to find again. She truly was my better half. I always wondered what could have been. My heart lost a bit of itself that day. I didn’t even get to say good bye to her because her family flew her body back home to Florida. I recall going to the beach at night and crying for several weeks.
During these losses, the sunrise was dimmer than usual. As time went on, I lost several other friends to violence and other causes. It was very rough, but once again life is not without a sense of irony. During the worst years of my losses, I attended 33 funerals in three years! These were the darkest of my days as I found myself fighting everything without my friends and family to help or guide me in the right direction. This was when I realized that for my family, I had to become what we never had, a symbol of hope.
As the darker days subsided, I began to see the light. I started to focus on the positive. As a kid, I was deemed “gifted” by the State of California. During my middle school years, I had a true believer who had really helped me by the name of Jennifer Martin (who later became Jennifer Corey). She was a teacher at my middle school. She always gave me hope that I could be whatever I wanted. She would even play hockey (my favorite sport) with me after class. She would defend me from the laughter of the other kids, as I was the only kid with roller skates while they had rollerblades. I always wanted to tell her thank you; maybe someday we will meet up again. As high school wrapped up, I asked myself what next? I wondered, after everything I had been through, what was I doing here? What did I want in life? That’s when I realized that I had hope, since a person without hope doesn’t concern himself with their future since they don’t care about it. Fueled by the confidence that Ms. Martin had had in me, I started to hope for a better future for me, and more importantly for my kids.
I don’t currently have kids, but someday I will. If they go through what I went through then I failed as a man and more importantly, I will have failed at being a father (which is something I never had). After careful thinking, I decided to attend Cal State University, Los Angeles. I went through all the problems a college student faces, which seemed minor when compared to what I had been through. I eventually joined a fraternity (Sigma Nu) and the Student government (ASI) and became an officer in each. I eased through college, with a major in Political Science (Public Administration).
I felt that this degree, along with my training and future experience, would allow me to give hope to those that had none, while at the same time providing for my family. I learned that hope inspires. I have since mentored several students, while contributing to my community through several outlets. I believe that the ultimate form of hope I can offer people is my story. I came from humble beginnings, with poverty and death always lurking behind me. I had no father, and lived in some of the most impoverished and violent areas of the country. Yet, I am a college graduate, who will be working on a master’s degree.
I am currently employed by a great company (Fortanasce Neurology Center) and pushing to learn more and more every day. I know that all this is because of hope. I had hope that I had what it took to get this far, even with the little I had. I had hope that I had the strength to stay the course and take others to a higher level with me. I had hope that I could be the person that I believe God had intended me to be, with all of his tests and trials. Finally, I had hope that I could be proud of who I am and finally let go of what I’d lost and be happy with what I had.
Growing up in East/South L.os Angeles was a difficult living experience. Overall, I believe it helped me become a well-balanced person, while helping me secure the strength necessary to be steadfast in my beliefs and morals. I guess that’s the point of struggle; to allow a person to know what life truly is worth.My life was rough throughout, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, however it was a life worth living and a life that I am proud to say is mine. I hope that the message is clear; hope is good, maybe even the best of things. I hope you enjoyed reading this tale of a kid who came from dirt to become a man with integrity and values who is on his way to becoming what he wants. I guess God does work in mysterious ways. God bless!
Brian Lopez is the communications and event coordinator for renown neurologist and bio-ethicist Dr. Vincent Fortanasce, founder and president of the Fortanasce Neurology Clinic and author of The Alzheimer’s Prescription. To contact Brian, email firstname.lastname@example.org and your email will be forwarded, or comment below.