Editorial: Realities of gang life in the Valley 

Published: 7/5/2016 11:32:56 PM

Last December, Ricky Aviles joined with six other inmates to participate in “Letters from Inside,” an oral history project about incarceration that appeared as a two-day series in the Gazette. Their voices provided an element usually missing from debates about the role jails and prisons play in our society.

Today, Aviles is free, but he faces the challenge of remaining free after spending 16 of his last 22 years behind bars for offenses arising out of his gang activity, primarily in Holyoke.

He and Christian Lopez spoke before their recent releases from the Greenfield jail with Revan Schendler, an independent writer and editor who collaborated with the Gazette on the “Letters from Inside” project and an earlier series, “Talking Portraits,” that marked the 350th anniversary of Northampton’s founding.

Aviles and Lopez provide a no-nonsense view of contemporary gang life in the package featured in today’s Viewpoints section. It provides an unusually frank picture of the difficulty of breaking free from gang activity.

Last December, Gazette readers responded in numbers to “Letters from Inside,” with many saying they were moved and informed by first-person accounts provided by Aviles and the others who participated — Erikah Carter, Devin Hurlburt, Joseph Kuntz, Jeremiah Longe, Clay Perry and Kerry Williamson.

Shorn of sentiment, their stories offered insight into the mistakes, misguided decisions and simple bad luck that can land people in jail.

In today’s coverage, Aviles and Lopez go deep, in their conversations with Schendler, on the initial appeal of gang life. But as their stories build, the dangers of their chosen lives seem overwhelming.

Their honest account holds the promise, if it can reach the right ears, of warding young people away from a life that leads nowhere. As Lopez puts it at one point, referring to his friend Aviles, “This gang life is worth nothing. Me and you have wasted almost 60 years of our lives doing nothing. It’s not worth it. We’re fighting for a cause that’s never going to do anything for us.”

That’s not the way it seemed to him at first, when Lopez and his mother happened to encounter Aviles years ago, and his frightened mother told him to look away. And years back, before he moved with his mother to Northampton in 1993 at the age of 13, Aviles was himself enthralled by the street life he witnessed and the exploits of an uncle. “Growing up in Chicago, all I could hear was gunshots, fighting, rumbles,” he told Schendler. “It was all gang-related situations. And I learned my father’s youngest brother was gang-banging, so I tried to figure out how I can be around my uncle more, find out what he’s doing, without him trying to jump down my throat.”

Not long after arriving in Northampton, as his family split to different parts of the country and to Puerto Rico, Aviles began to make a name for himself in gang activity in Holyoke. Though he was admired and feared by younger men like Lopez, Aviles says he learned in time that gang life would take much more than it would give. He speaks of lost relationships with family, the violence he inflicted and endured, the emptiness of machismo and the personal burden of having set a bad example for other men, including Lopez. “Every day I regret what I’ve done gang-banging and running them streets,” Aviles says. “You find yourself alone inside (jail), you got no money, you’re striving, sometimes you’re hungry at night and miss your kids, you start missing your family, you have your regrets. That’s the only time I find myself vulnerable, but I can’t show it.”

In jail, before his release, Aviles was taking a class called “Nurturing Fathers,” hoping to be one himself, some day, and perhaps learning after the fact what the absence of his own father meant to the direction his life would take. “I never reached out to my dad and told him how I felt. I kept my feelings to myself and searched the streets for a way to fill the emptiness.”

As he prepared to be released from jail, Lopez knew that people back out on the streets expected him to return the way he left. “Next time I see my so-called brothers, they’re going to tell me, your work isn’t done. You have your whole life ahead of you. You can stop when you’re old. That’s what they’re going to tell me. You stop when you’re old and we can’t use you no more.”

By sharing hard-earned truths, Aviles and Lopez make a genuine contribution to public understanding.



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