Gang member at 12, student turns his life around

Brayan joined a gang when he was in middle school. But now the high-school senior is graduating with a 4.0 grade-point average, speaking out about his past and looking at a future that includes community college and a career.

By Sarah Freishtat, The Seattle Times

The first time Brayan ever held a gun, he pointed it at a woman stepping out of a gray Lexus in Everett and stole her purse — his initiation into an older cousin’s gang.

He was 12 years old at the time.

“I was losing control of my life,” said Brayan, now 17 and a 4.0 student at Scriber Lake High School in Edmonds.

As part of his senior project, Brayan recently screened for other students a documentary titled “Minor Differences,” which tracks the lives of five former juvenile inmates over 18 years, and organized discussions with two of the men afterward.

Brayan stood in front of the students and faculty and staff members — almost 200 were present — and laughed nervously at first. Then his voice deepened, and he launched into his cautionary tale, explaining why his classmates should carefully consider the choices they make.

They listened intently. Afterward they broke into small groups and spoke candidly among themselves about their own mistakes and their hopes for better futures.

“He has a real sense of what he wants,” Scriber Lake teacher Marjie Bowker said. “I think that he gets frustrated when he sees other students that are making dumb decisions, because to him, he’s already gone through that.”

Brayan is part of Bowker’s writing program, in which he and other students worked with Seattle author Ingrid Ricks to write personal essays, which they published in a book titled “We Are Absolutely Not Okay.”

Brayan wrote his story under a pen name because, like many former gang members, he doesn’t want his past to be held against him. It’s for that reason that he also asked to be identified only by his first name in this story.

Brayan plans to attend Edmonds Community College in the fall and hopes to work with prisoners one day.

Brayan said that when he arrived in this area from Mexico City, he was 10 and knew only his parents and an older cousin. His cousin had joined a gang, and Brayan wanted to follow in his footsteps.

He ran away from home when he was 12 and joined one of the gangs that was active at the time in Snohomish County.

For three years, he said, he spent his days staking out turf with his gang in a haze of pot and beer.

He lived with “sort of a feeling of desperation,” he said, a dread “that I’m going to get locked up, or someone is going to come and shoot me.”

Then the gang tried to pin a murder on his cousin, he said. Betrayed by their group, Brayan, then 15, and his cousin wanted out. He said his cousin cooperated with police on the case, and the gang dissolved.

Even so, he said, he couldn’t shake the gang mentality. He moved back home but said he was expelled from school for selling and using drugs.

He applied to Scriber Lake, a small public school students can choose to attend if they want a fresh start. He showed up to his first day of school ready to prove how tough he was to other gang members, but didn’t find any. Instead he met Bowker, he said, and straightened out his ways.

He knows he could have gone the way of one of the former gangbangers featured in “Minor Differences” who spoke to Brayan’s classmates as part of Brayan’s senior project.

Now 35, the former gang member said after the screening that he began running with a South Seattle gang when he was 13, went to prison for robbery at 16 and, after his release, returned to robbery and sold drugs, only to land back in prison

“You try to do other things as far as get a job, you try to be straight and narrow,” he said. “And when that doesn’t work … you go back to selling drugs.”