Personal Voices: My Ultimate Fight
It was cold outside, but not enough for snow. Christmas cards were Scotch-taped to the door, lights line the roof, and a fire burned in the fireplace. We were at my Nana Joni's, where our family always spends Christmas.
Someone had dropped off a bag of gifts from Angel Tree, an organization that delivers gifts for family members of prison inmates. I stared at the packages, one for me, one for my brother, Nick. I wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t not anxious to open them or even to know what's inside. I was just grateful to receive something from my dad. Inside my package I found a hooded pullover sweater with matching sweat pants, and a football. For a moment, I was so happy and excited. Then, everything slowed down. I remembered that he is away.
My dad was sentenced to prison when I was 5 years old. Nick and I grew up without a father. We are still growing up without a father, and when we are all grown up it will have been without a father. I was raised mostly by my grandmother and Nick by our mom.
Growing up, I didn't feel different from everyone else. A lot of my friends had parents who were in prison or out of the picture. That was just life. We didn't know it was supposed to be any other way.
My dad first went in to prison around 1988. In 1999, more than ten years later, I was one of 1.5 million children age 17 or younger who had a parent in prison. Like me, over 300,000 of them were Hispanic, according to the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice statistics. In fact, almost one third of all federal prisoners are Hispanic, and they represent the fastest growing group of people imprisoned.
With these statistics, I wonder how other kids today are living what I lived, or worse.
We only knew our dad through long drives, phone conversations through sound-proof glass, and the few lines at the end of his letters to our mom ("How are the boys? Tell them I love them"). And occasionally, he would call us collect. We had to pay to talk to our dad.
When I was 10, he was released. I knew he was my dad, but I had only just met him. It took time for me to warm up to him. He didn't really seem like my dad and didn't have the authority to make me obey him. I didn't know if I could trust him.
Eventually, being around him - building models, watching movies, playing ball - felt more comfortable. Having a father was something I grew to like.
I also saw how other people treated him. All the neighborhood vatos idolized him. He was smart, quick, funny, good-looking, strong, down. He was always ready to fight if anyone chose to disrespect him and he almost always won. He had a certain power over people: He would talk and they would listen.
But he had a temper. And it got him into trouble. Police officers knew him by face and name.
I watched all of this, and got lured into it. But I wasn't stupid, I knew what was going on. I knew why my dad didn't leave the house to go to work in the morning, yet had lots of money. I knew why in just a few months he had new cars, and why everyone looked up to him. They all respected Nick and me, too, because we were his boys. That felt good. I thought my dad was the baddest man walking. But underneath my admiration I was still a hurt, mad little boy.
To feel even closer to him, Nick and I would imitate him. We were easily able to pick up a drink and light up a cigarette. We weren't restricted by bedtime or curfews. It's not that we didn't have any rules or discipline: Our father was strict when it came to lying, cheating or crossing him. And we obeyed him on that.
Nick and I knew that all this was "bad" but at the same time it was just life, our dad's life, our life. We really just wanted to be with him. Over time I started to forgive him for the past. I realized that's what it was and where it was - in the past.
Until it became the present. Within two years he got sent back to prison. He got 12 years.
I couldn't put my tears into it again because if I did I would die. Why did he mess up? Weren't we - his family, his wife and his boys - enough? I couldn't let this break me. I had to be strong, be a man, for him, myself, my mom and Nick.
I dealt with my father's absence by trying to be something like a dad to my brother. There is a certain something between brothers - a language, a dialect that no one else can speak or decipher. A pact, an understanding, an oath that no one else can touch. My whole life I've tried to look out for Nick, to get him out of trouble, to keep his secrets. I'd kill, die, lie for him, I'd bleed for him and breathe for him. But I couldn't be a real dad for him.
Over time I grew more and more angry at my father. I was mad that he wasn't there, that he would make my mom cry when he would call, that my brother missed him and idolized him so much more than I did, or more than I thought I did. Looking back, I know I missed him, too, but I had to board it all up inside. I didn't understand anything about his situation and how it was affecting me. I didn't know how to be confused and angry and sad all at once, so I chose anger all of the time.
Early on I did well in school - good grades, lots of friends - but my temper was ugly and very short. The smallest things would make me split and the anger inside would gain control.
The alcohol came when I was about 11. One night I drank until I couldn't walk, talk or see straight. Drugs came right after that, and in no time the use and amount escalated. First came marijuana and cigarettes, then cocaine and prescription pills. With no surprise I started to come into conflict with the law. At 12, I was arrested for carrying a weapon in middle school and suspended for 60 days. In high school I was arrested for possession of narcotics twice and once for illegal consumption of alcohol.
At school I got into arguments with teachers. I stopped studying. I got suspended for fighting. Being in trouble became normal: the handcuffs, court hearings, probation, community service, weekly drug tests, counseling, outpatient rehabilitation. Even after I'd get out of court and rehab, I'd do it all again.
Being "bad" took work, and I was working overtime. So was Nick. We were pissed and didn't care about anything. We would listen to music describing that gangster and thug lifestyle with pride. The lyrics would glorify it. We would see other people, even kids our age, trying to live the life the music was depicting. We would laugh because our father actually lived this life. We knew it firsthand.
And though we didn't acknowledge it then, we missed our dad. I can't say if his absence alone was the reason we rebelled, but it sure as hell helped.
Our mom didn't have the hand to put us in check like our father would have, or like I think he would have. I wanted to know what it felt like to get hit by my dad. A whipping, a beating or a spanking would have been at least some sort of physical contact or interaction with him. But there wasn't any.
I was 15, strutting out in the streets with no conscience, no rules, no boundaries, alcohol thinning my blood, nicotine filling my lungs, drugs in and on my body. I was doing what I wanted, and it felt powerful, liberating, natural. The crooked stares and toxic slurs from people who didn't know me and didn't care to. We'd invite each other to fight and with instinct and reflex we'd both accept.
He sat in a blue SUV filled with guys the same color as me. He told me that he held a gun, and with confidence said he'd end my life. Half terrified, half fearless, I told him I was ready to die.
Was he bluffing? I breathed in and put my faith in God. The guy got out of the car. One step, then two, and there it was, his fist to my jaw. I felt no pain. A moment of calm, then time sped up, moved in color. Cause. Effect. I forced my fist into his face. Quick. Fast. Blows back and forth. Then it was over. His crew pulled us apart, and we all took in what just went down.
I still didn't know if he was bluffing or not, but who cares, we knew each other now. We stood across from each other with our problem solved. I learned that he was 22. They gave me props when they found out my age, laughed and told me there was no bad blood. When you fight someone, you learn things about him. That physicality, that intensity brings a strange connection, forms a type of relationship. We parted ways.
That night was not the first or last time I got an invitation to a fight. But the fact that one man could have ended my life so easily scared me. If that had happened, most of my time alive would have been spent drugged, drunk, high, away from my family, away from my brother. That guy's fist knocked some sense into me. It made me realize how selfishly I was living my life by not thinking about the people I was hurting - my brother, my mom, my grandmother, my cousins, the people who really loved me, and the people I loved.
But it still took time to clean up my life. I stayed out on the streets and still got into trouble for about a year. But I was constantly reminded of that night, and slowly I started sobering up.
Now, I've stopped the drugs, the fights and all the things that were tearing me apart and taking me away from my family. I am still cleaning up and trying to stay focused on why I am where I am today - in school, clean, working, understanding, and accepting my father and myself.
But the transformed Anthony is still new, and he's not unbreakable. I still feel like at any point I could end up back in the streets. But if I did, maybe the next guy with a gun wouldn't be bluffing, wouldn't use his fists but use a weapon instead.
So I still fight. But in a different way. I fight to stay sober, to stay in school, to not resent my dad and to not let his reality become mine. I fight for myself so that the family that I have can stay a family.