Originally published September 13, 2012 at 11:08 a.m., updated October 23, 2012 at 3:35 p.m.
It's hard to pinpoint the moment that propelled Danny Gutierrez's life into a spiral of self-destruction. After all, there was no singular instant that set him on a path of joining a gang, breaking the law, using drugs, and causing pain to those around him.
Whatever it was, speaking to Gutierrez today, you can see in his eyes just how grateful he is for finding his way, and turning his life around. Tears well when he thinks of the honor recently bestowed on him by Union Bank and KPBS. That of 2012 Hispanic Heritage Month honoree.
“First and foremost,” says Gutierrez, “It is a great honor and I give all glory to God. I didn’t realize how much of a big deal this award was until Council President Tony Young, and the Chief of Police, asked me if I would go and take pictures with them so they can let everyone know that the local hero came out of their community. I was like, ‘Wow.’ It was pretty cool!”
Gutierrez is a 2012 honoree for the work he does to help the youth in his community stay safe. He explains what led him to give back.
“When I first started, my mentality was that I caused so much damage in this community that I needed to do right for all the wrong that I did.”
In 2008, thanks to a connection through his church, he began volunteering his time to help police conduct curfew sweeps. This soon led to helping families of juvenile homicide victims cope with the tragedy of losing a child to violence. He trained others and soon formed a team.
“We started getting known as the Compassion Project. Anytime there was a homicide, we were there. First, just juvenile homicides, but then we helped with other homicides, too. If a police officer or captain, or lieutenant, would call and ask us to help out, we were there. Sometimes, residents would get a hold of us before the cops did.”
Gutierrez and his team provide a unique service. “When we went to families’ homes we would show comfort and see to their needs. Knowing that in the next 24 hours there would be dozens of friends and family members coming by, we’d get donations for cases of water and sandwiches.”
Gutierrez and his team would also apprise families of victim’s rights and help them through the process of making funeral arrangements, making sure the families weren’t taken advantage of and overcharged in their hour of grief.
Eventually, the work Gutierrez was doing caught the attention of Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation. “Somebody from the Jacobs Center was at the curfew sweeps, saw the way I worked and offered me a job. Up until then I had no job. I had Jesus, my wife and two kids. They invited me to come in for an interview, I got hired and four, going on five years later, here we are.”
At the Jacobs Center, Gutierrez serves as a coordinator for Project Safe Way, a program that helps children safely get to and from school. Late last month, however, the program was cut back and five of the six coordinators were let go, leaving only Gutierrez.
Gutierrez speculates, “Why was I able to stay on—because I won the Union Bank/KPBS award? No, I think management has a plan, and I fit the plan. I was probably a bit more computer savvy than some, and right now I think the reporting, the computing part of the safety program is really what’s being pushed as far as training others and moving the program forward.”
Gutierrez has come a long way from the dark, grim days of his youth. A first-generation Mexican-American, he was born in San Diego to parents who had crossed the border, and met in Los Angeles before settling here. He points out that his father “was drafted to the Vietnam War without being an American citizen or speaking English.”
And, while he may have been growing up on the north side of the border, you’d never know it.
“It was pure Mexican culture in my house growing up in Southeast San Diego, right in the heart of a neighborhood known as Lomita Village,” he explains. “When I started school I spoke nothing but Spanish. And then we went to school and it was taught in Spanish. Now, in retrospect, what the heck? We’re in America!”
One day, in second grade, as he ran innocently out of class with his friends at recess, he saw a body hanging from the swings of a nearby park. The body turned out to be that of a transient, apparently a victim of a homicide. It was later attributed to a gang that didn’t want the transient infringing on its territory. For Gutierrez, it was a sight he'd never forget.
The incident led to him and some of the other students being bussed to Field Elementary in Clairemont, a world away from his Chicano neighborhood. It didn’t take long for the “Gringo” kids to taunt Gutierrez and his friends, and they were quick to fight back.
“Because we were different, we were made fun of,” remembers Gutierrez. “They’d make fun of our Spanish or English. Everybody was white, and we just started bullying them, but it didn’t feel like bullying. It felt like defending your honor, defending yourself.”
After his sixth grade promotion, Gutierrez returned to school in his own neighborhood. As he talks about this period of his life, you can easily see the tension spread across his face.
“The neighborhood put me on the darker path,” admits Gutierrez. “Bullying, that was just kid stuff. I would go to Field (elementary) and after school come back to the neighborhood. My friends there, they were lobbying, ‘Hey, come hang out with us here.’ I always knew that I belonged to this neighborhood. So, little by little you just start hanging out with friends from your neighborhood and then it isn’t just friends from the neighborhood anymore. It’s a gang.”
Yet, when he compares his life in a gang then, to gangs today, Gutierrez believes things have gotten a lot worse, and he’s pretty sure he knows why.
“Our youth is being influenced by more darkness than I was as a youth, and I remember doing some pretty horrific things. I feel like this generation is on a whole different level of evil. What I’m seeing is that the way these kids are speaking to their parents is wicked. I used to run with the homies, come home after a night of drinking, or smoking weed, and if my parents were home, I’d be scared. And, I was a pretty tough guy! But I’d do anything I could to show them respect. Kids these days? Don’t care. I’m like wow, that’s your ‘jeffita,’ that’s your mom, because if there’s anything that my homeboys always regulated and always checked each other on was, you don’t disrespect your parents, or your grandparents. There is no honor anymore.”
So, how did Gutierrez finally find his way, to become an upright man who gives generously of himself to the community? It took one last meaningless fight that left two men nearly dead, and one near-arrest that left him tormented by his life choices. Add to that, the reality of being a father, and the responsibility it brings. The desperation within him, and the searching for answers, became insurmountable. Which is how Gutierrez discovered his spiritual side.
“My motivation is a very, very deep encounter with my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,” he says, fighting back the tears. “And, I know this gets touchy, but for me, that was it. It was 100% God turning my life around. After 10 to 12 years of alcohol and drugs, and just a crazy, destructive lifestyle, from one day to the next, calling out to Jesus changed my life.”
He pauses, and then adds softly, “And I’ve been sober ever since. Seven years with no alcohol.”
It is Gutierrez’ spiritual self that helped him change his life for the better and focus on what’s important—his children, his work in the community, and the tenets that guide his life, forgiveness and love.
“I’m a hippie Christian and I believe forgiveness and love will overcome anything. That love will conquer all. Crime rate would change by itself if people just loved themselves. Because when you love yourself, you start to love others.”