Prospects were bleak for the young gang member, juvenile delinquent and high school dropout. Yet Victor Rios did not give up.
Today Rios is married, a father of three children, has from Ph.D. from UC Berkeley, and is an author and professor at UC Santa Barbara.
Rios inspired the audience at the first ever Southwestern College Men of Color Conference, where they learned their rights and roles as minority students.
Rios said his experience with incarceration came when he was still in the womb. His mother was jailed when she was pregnant with him. She sought an abortion because she felt unfit to be a mother. Rios said he is here today because jailmates talked her out of it.
“Today, the people I like working with the most are those who get caught up in the system,” he said. “In many ways, they saved my life before I was even born.”
Rios said the election of Donald Trump was a setback for people of color. Badly needed educational support looks to take a severe beating from the Trump administration.
Minority communities feel threatened with deportation, increased incarceration and a militariazion of police forces, he said.
“To talk about men of color is to talk about the well-being of our entire communities,” he said.
“Focusing on minorities of color reflects the community and the truth within individuals.”
Men of color often face hardships starting as children, Rios said. Many care for loved ones and work to support their families as teens as they simultaneously try to attend high school or college. Heavy responsibilities placed on the shoulders of these young men often lead them into dangerous situations, he said, and risky shortcuts
Men and women of color often get the short end of the stick in life, Rios said, including police brutality and violence within the school systems.
“For many of us, by the time we’re teenagers, we’ve lived an entire lifetime,” he said. “So how do we provide opportunities for those young people who are out there right now? To help young men of color, it’s going to take young men of color.”
Rios encouraged young men to focus on the bigger picture. Although it is important to graduate college and get your degree, he said, it is imperative to find purpose beyond the degree.
After Rios and his mother crossed the border from Mexico into the U.S. they lived in extremely impoverished conditions, he said.
“I don’t want to live like this anymore,” he remembered thinking. “I want to get my family out of poverty.”
In eighth grade Rios dropped out of school to work a landscaping job with a man who paid him just $1 per hour. His mother was also paid less than minimum wage.
“Are you starting to see a theme here that happens to our people?” he asked. “We get exploited.”
Rios said people of color frequently expect less-than-humane treatment and that needs to end.
“The way we’re going to do that is by changing the systems that lead to exploitation,” he said.
Rios said he believed that if he worked hard, he would get what he wanted. He later realized that working hard is not enough. Successful people also work smart.
Despair and powerlessness forced his mother to sometimes work in illegal and unethical jobs, Rios said. She did this to make a better life for her family.
“One hundred years of research says that people of color don’t value education,” he said. “Only in the past 25 years has this evidence changed a little.”
There is considerable trauma and abuse within the Latino and black communities, Rios said.
While working with his students, they told him their teachers would tell seven and eight-year-old Latino and black boys that they have a prison cell waiting for them when they turn 18.
“That’s violence,” he said. “I don’t call it anything else but what it is, violence on the soul.”
Encouraged and supported by a teacher, he went back to high school and graduated on time. He then continued on to college.
“After all I’ve been through, I wanted to get the highest degree you can earn,” he said.
In 2005, he earned a doctorate in Comparative Ethnic Studies from UC Berkeley.
Ivan Picazo, a kinesiology major, said the conference helped to motivate him to work hard to defeat stereotypes faced by young men of color.
“We’re not supposed to make it,” he said. “We’re either supposed to die or go to prison. (Education) is a way to beat that.”
Picazo said college events like the Men of Color Conference are usually out of his comfort zone, but he is glad he attended.
Yamileth Gonzalez, a nursing major, said she was interested in becoming more involved in human rights issues for people of color.
“This school is a very diverse community,” she said. “I think we should also strive to be part of that voice that is changing how society looks for both men and women of color.”
Gladys Castillo, 36, a child development major, said the conference motivated her to continue her education.
“Sometimes I get so scared about college,” she said. “I (wonder if) I am going to be able to do it.”
Castillo said her peers often doubt her when she says she wants to be a preschool teacher because she is an English learner and Latina.
“I doubt myself a lot,” she said. “Every day I ask myself if I have what it takes to succeed.”
A mother of two who attends school full-time, Castillo said she works hard every day to study and do well in her classes.
SWC President Dr. Kindred Murillo said family experiences inspired her advocacy of students of color. Her husband’s uncle who journeyed from Mexico to the United States shaped her perspective of the Latino community, she said. As a Latino who enlisted in the military to fight in World War I, he faced structural racism. Despite the challenges he faced, she said, he carried on and became a graduate of Harvard University.
“We can no longer allow barriers to keep students of color from being successful,” said Murillo. “You are here because you are determined to succeed.”