Jackie Cruz left gang life behind and now helps others avoid her mistakes
Thursday, July 3, 2008
Her transformation alone gives hope to teens trying to escape the trappings of gangs and poverty. Jackie Cruz, a daughter of farm workers, joined a Salinas gang at age 10. Cruz wound up in juvenile hall at 11 and was pregnant by the time she was 14.
Wanting a better life for her son, Luis, Cruz dropped out of gangs, got off welfare and eventually landed a professional job at United Way Monterey County.
Now the United Way’s workplace campaign director, Cruz in her spare time helps families teach their kids to avoid what happened to her, by instilling core values at home and unlocking their kids’ creativity.
“She is a prime example that you can change yourself,” says Brian Contreras, executive director of Salinas gang prevention and intervention organization Second Chance. “You can make a mistake and have a second chance to change your life.”
When Cruz was 16, she went through Second Chance to have her gang tattoos removed. She and her new husband, Tito Ortega, volunteer with the organization, giving presentations on gang awareness and parenting. Cruz also facilitates classes for Partners for Peace’s Strengthening Families program and teaches drama and performing arts to east Salinas kids.
Starting in 2004, Cruz served on the founding committee for Strengthening Families. She volunteered for two years and now helps teach the seven-week program, which covers everything from effective communication to family values. She knows first hand the effects a dysfunctional family can have on a child– her parents were alcoholics and her mom also used drugs.
“I think no kid should have to go through what I went through,” Cruz says. “No kid should be exposed to alcohol by the time they are 5 or should be using drugs when they are 11 years old.”
Still, Cruz, 28, says her father introduced her to the values of giving and respecting others that fuel her today. She shares her unrelenting survivor mentality with others.
“One of her great traits is to be able to deliver that message of hope to kids and their families,” says Daniel Villarreal, program director for Strengthening Families.
Last year, Cruz’s optimistic outlook transferred to an artistic medium. She teaches painting, acting and singing once a week to about 20 kids at an affordable housing complex on Falcon Drive in Salinas. The class is a collaboration between the Arts Council for Monterey County and Poder Popular of the Community Foundation for Monterey County. The students use recycled materials to create puppets and then write scripts centering on themes of violence and drug use. They performed at First Night Monterey 2008 and are preparing for next year’s event.
Kira Carrillo Corser, arts and education director with the Arts Council, says Cruz is part of a pilot program that trains artists, and is developing her mariachi singing while learning to teach art. Carrillo Corser says Cruz is a natural in the classroom.
“She can see challenges that kids are having and families are having and then think of creative ways to address that and keep their self esteem and pride intact,” she says.
Cruz says she stays inspired by hearing how her actions have helped change lives. Even while teens are routinely being murdered in Salinas, Cruz’s hopeful stance doesn’t waver.
“I know we are not going to change Salinas overnight,” she says. “But we can make a difference one family at a time.”