A future professor is rescued from a life of violent crime by books and people who saw his promise.
Cuate Mexica describes himself as a predator who liked to intimidate people; sometimes it was for money, sometimes it was just what he and his friends would do for amusement. He spent time, lots of it, in juvenile detention, and along the way he re-created himself.
This month, Mexica will earn a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Washington, which is not the usual outcome for people who start out as he did. He and I have talked about that a few times since I met him last year, and now he’s starting to share his story with other people, especially young people. Every person’s story is unique, but I want to tell you a little of his because parts of it are common to many other people who wind up in the juvenile-justice system. Maybe it will spark some thought about how we might, as communities, save ourselves the pain and cost of crime and lost potential.
As a kid Mexica shuttled between Corpus Christi, Texas, and his grandmother’s house in Sunnyside, Yakima County, where his mother eventually settled.
Mexica was expelled from school in fourth grade for flipping the bird in the class photo. Expelling students is pretty much guaranteed to get them off track, and Mexica sees that moment as the beginning of his becoming a delinquent. “I pretty much gave up on mainstream society then,” he said.
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He told his mother about being kicked out, and her response was, ‘If they don’t want you, you have to do something else.’ So I ran the streets.” He was 10 years old in a neighborhood where gangs were common.
Over the years, he would go on lots of crime sprees, and for some of his violence he did time.
In 1992, at age 12, he joined a gang, then dropped out of school in sixth grade, and at 13 years old he was locked up at Echo Glen Children’s Center. He’d been with some older teens, who shot at (but didn’t hit) some other people. He wasn’t the main shooter, but he said he accepted the blame because otherwise the older teens would have gotten longer sentences.
He was sentenced to 65 weeks, and he said it was a badge of honor among the people who mattered to him. He came out even more committed to gang life than when he went in. Three weeks after he got out, he stabbed a guy, but got off on a self-defense argument.
Three weeks after that, he shot a guy four times. The victim survived. Mexica was 14 and the prosecutor wanted to send him away as an adult. Mexica’s record included at least two dozen offenses, but there were people in the system who advocated for him because he was smart and well-read. He was sentenced to juvenile life, which means until 21, and he was kept in an isolation unit because he was too violent to be with other inmates.
A lot of the people who worked in the facility believed in the ability of juveniles to change, he said. They noticed that he loved to read, so staffers brought him books. He worked out a deal in which he would be allowed to do class work without being in class, and he got his high-school diploma that way.
One of the supervisors told him he had a promising intellectual life before him. They worked out a deal in which Mexica would not attack staff for three months, and staffers would speak to him more respectfully. He kept the bargain and eventually was allowed to go to a group home in Yakima. During the day he worked as a house painter, and at night he went to his room and read, especially history and philosophy.
One of the staffers urged him to go to college, and he agreed.
Mexica enrolled in Spokane Falls Community College in 1999, with a parole officer checking on him periodically. After a year, he transferred to Eastern Washington University. His father was in prison for murder, and his mother was in federal prison for drug trafficking, which made filling out financial-aid forms a problem. The solution was to list himself as a ward of the state.
In school, he got involved in student leadership, and he joined the Chicano student organization, MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán).
He did summer research at the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois.
Along the way, he’s received a number of honors. He was awarded a Ronald E. McNair program scholarship that funded his summer research, and when he came to graduate school at the University of Washington he got a Bonderman Travel Fellowship, which paid for travel in Latin America and Turkey in 2008-2009.
He gave his first speech on his story to students from the UW College Assistance Migrant Program. That was last Wednesday, and a young woman asked how he’d decided to change. Did he get up one morning and make a resolution?
“My change was a very long hard process. … It took years,” he said.
The journey began when Mexica was 16 and a fellow prisoner suggested he read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” Mexica had told me, “The part that really shook me was his transformation.” He read the book in one sitting, through the night and into the next day. The book led him to other books that together altered how he thought about himself and his place in the world. “I thought if I ever wanted to change, I could,” he told me. He even adopted a new name to reflect his newfound ethnic pride.
Change was not a straight line forward. There were lots of detours. And it wasn’t fueled by a single advocate but several people intervening at opportune moments.
Transformation should be by design, not chance. It should be built into the system, for instance, that young kids aren’t expelled for something like what he did. There were flags waving for a different kind of attention, but he didn’t get that until much later.
Mexica’s plan now is to teach college courses, to do research and write and to keep speaking to young people, especially really young ones who can still avoid the mistakes he made, with a little help.