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Stories about kids, guns and how to stop the violence. Precious Lives, created by 371 Productions, is a 2-year, 100-part weekly radio series about gun violence and young people in the Milwaukee area. The series applies a public health lens to each story to help listeners understand the full scope of the problem: who are the victims and the shooters; how are the weapons obtained; and what can we change about the environment that contributes to violence in Milwaukee?

#058 Precious Lives: When The Streets Feel Safer Than Home

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Emily Forman
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Jose Vasquez often shares his story with youth near Orchard St. & 22nd St. He survived a gang related shooting there when he was 17.

A student with a 4.0 grade average does not seem like a student in danger. But we’ve heard countless times ­ about how where you live determines risk.

Many of the teens who attend the United Community Center ­on Milwaukee’s south side live amidst pockets of gang activity.

Former gang member, Jose Vasquez teaches them how to help themselves and others by sharing his life experiences.

Jose Vasquez's Story

Vasquez spent almost a third of his life in a gang, from age 12 until he was incarcerated at 22. At age 17, he was shot by a member of a rival gang. Even then, he stayed in the gang and watched friends die.

"I’ve had countless friends that have died just by one shot," he says. "I had a friend, he was shot. I stayed with him until the ambulance came and he later died. I had such a tolerance for the violence and a tolerance for crime that I was shut down...it didn’t effect me emotionally, it didn’t affect me mentally."

From a very young age, Vasquez felt safer on the streets than at home.

"My mother liked to go out and party. She’d been gone for days and stuff like that and, she had bought me this new outfit and I went to go spend the night by her friend’s brother’s house and I woke up to him trying to molest me," he says. "I ran, I ran to the other room and I cried and you know I fell asleep ended up peeing my pants and when my mom comes to get me I want to tell her so bad what just happened but she’s so mad at me that I just peed in my new clothes... that like it was nothing."

Vasquez started hanging around guys in his neighborhood who he thought were showing him love. "If I was hungry, they would feed me. If I needed clothes, they would give me clothes. If I needed something, they'd be there."

The streets felt safe, he says, because he was learning how to protect himself - with violence.

However, Vasquez's street family couldn't protect him from six bullet wounds or ten years in prison.

It was then that he started asking about his Mexican culture. "I had an identity crisis, because for so many years I’m on the street and I’m this person. I was a scared, vulnerable, violent, aggressive."

Vasquez says, "Once I got out, I  started to put [that] life behind me, started attending a church, started going to community events, I started going to volunteer to share my testimony, share my life story. Then little by little...my past has just faded."

Sharing Vasquez's Past to Help Others

On a Wednesday after school, Vasquez shares his story and gives advice to a group of high school students. Over half the students have a family member or friend in a gang.

15-year-old Alondra Cortez is one of the them. She has a 17-year-old cousin who has been in a gang for about 3-4 years and has been in and out of jail.

She tells Vasquez, "I don't really understand the point of him not wanting him to do, what I feel like, a normal teenager does - like go to school come home do homework, sleep, eat and on the weekends meet up with your friends."

"I don't see that with him," she says. "He doesn't go to school he doesn't do work, he doesn't have a job... What is he, honestly, going to do with his life?"

Vasquez takes his time to answer Cortez's answer. It's a common one among her peers at the UCC ask: How can you help a family member in a gang?

"I think you need to present an opportunity for them to get off their chest what they need to talk about," he says. "You know? And I think that in that situation, where they're looking for that influence and, maybe they don't have that at home or maybe they do have a good home dynamic, they just want something different in life. You need to find out where they're at in their life."

Cortez tries to apply Vasquez's advice. She phoned her cousin in jail and told him to come over to her house when he gets out. "Because I know he doesn't have that love in his house," she says, "and I just wanted him to have one day with me and do what a normal teenager does."

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