‘A car drove up next to us. The cocaine made me bold. I gestured our gang sign. They immediately shot me 5 times.’: Paraplegic, ex-gang member urges ‘choose your friends wisely, don’t let them choose you’

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“I live in one of the most violent cities in America. It is where the infamous house of Al Capone still resides today. It is where John Dillinger took his last breath. Violence is at the core of this city and the streets are more threatening than ever before. But the glamorization of villains like the John Gotti and the Billy the Kid makes many want to be just like them.

Studies have proven that the glamorization of violence in movies, music, and video games can make individuals more prone to violence. Everything that enters our minds affects our thinking, emotions, decisions, actions, habit, and character. The amount of violence in Chicago is frightening. I learned this firsthand.

Being part of a gang is not about fun and parties. At its heart, it is full of violence, death, destruction, and tragedy. It is an endless cycle of retaliation and gangs are becoming bolder and more organized than ever before. They ruin lives, break apart families, and use manipulation and deception tactics to recruit our youth.

But gangs do not sit you down and inform you of the pros and cons. They do not tell you what the most probable consequences will be. It is nothing but a three-way street for those who stay long enough in the lifestyle of death, prison, and hospitals. Being scarred physically, emotionally, and psychologically.

I grew up on the south side of Chicago, surrounded by gangs and party crews all trying to fit in. I have several cousins from all over the city that are affiliated with different gangs. When I officially joined at the age of 15, it was an easy transition. I had already failed at many things and let so many people down. The friendships, acceptance, sense of self-worth, and identity that gangs offer was appealing to me at the time.

Little boys stand on front porch of home in Chicago in soccer uniforms
Courtesy Jose Solorzano

Even though it was dysfunctional and distorted, I remember always feeling accepted. We would give each other half hugs, handshakes, and say amor, the Spanish word for love, when saying goodbye to one another. We often threw around words like family, brotherhood, love, and loyalty. But when it comes down to it, there is no true love and loyalty in gangs. It is all fake and no one really cares about you. It is easy to see why I and so many others alike begin to do down the wrong path.

When I was in third grade, my school sent a letter to my home indicating that I was a ‘gifted child’ and that I should consider going to a special school. I remember telling my mother that I didn’t want to go to a school filled with nerds. Now, I try to tell as many people as possible that nerds are the new cool. That one day all of the bullies will be begging them for jobs.

When I transferred to private school, the friends I made there started me on my long journey of trying almost every drug out there. Eventually, I was kicked out of high school for selling drugs and sent to another school where my friends were in a gang. Someone once told me, ‘Show me your friends and I will tell you the future.’ Who you surround yourself with has the greatest impact on your life. You are who and what you are by what you have allowed into your mind. The majority of people who get hurt or end up in prison have gotten into these situations because of their friend group. Choose your friends and do not let them choose you.

Man who did drugs and ended up joining gang sits on couch beside grandmother
Courtesy Jose Solorzano

By the age of 17, I was living a reckless lifestyle. Cocaine had become my drug of choice and I was selling drugs on the side to support my expensive habit. It seemed like all I was living for at the time. On January 3rd, 1998, I was driving around late at night in one of the worst neighborhoods of Chicago. I picked up one of my friends Frank on our block, high on cocaine.

Teen who was addicted to cocaine stands cutting birthday cake with family around him
Courtesy Jose Solorzano

We stopped in the middle of our street after a car drove up next to us, claiming to be from our gang. At the time, our gang was so large that it occupied most of the Chicagoland area. We were advised not to represent ourselves to people unless we were sure of who they were, but the cocaine made me bold and stupid. When I gestured to represent our gang, they immediately began shooting from two feet away. I was shot five times.

My friend was sure I was dead. I was drenched in blood and no longer breathing. When the paramedics arrived, I was pronounced dead on arrival. The first call they made was to the hospital to get the body bag ready. Then they called my aunt to inform her that I was clinically dead for at least six minutes.

When I was in the hospital, however, my heart began to beat on its own. Experts say that after two minutes without oxygen, the brain cells start to die, after three minutes serious brain damage begins, and any damage to the brain is irreversible. Even when I came back, they were sure I would not be able to survive. But they continued to pump blood into my body to compensate for the large amounts I had lost. My mother asked for my clothes and shoes, but my aunt told her that they were too drenched with blood to save. Blood was pouring out of my shoes.

Once they got me stable enough at the hospital, they transferred me to another one with a rotating bed to help the blood better circulate throughout my body. By the time my family could see me, my head was the size of a basketball. I still have a big scar on the top of my head from where they had to drain all of the blood and fluid that had gone to my brain. When they discovered that one of the bullets had gone through the top of my spinal cord, they transferred me to a third hospital that specialized in spinal injuries. During my stay, my weight dropped from 180 pounds to about 80-something pounds.

It was there that I was told that I was C1, C2 complete quadriplegic. I would be paralyzed for the rest of my life. I would be unable to move anything from the neck down, unable to breathe on my own, and would never be able to live independently. I would need the help of others for the rest of my life.

Man who was shot 5 times sits in wheel chair in home while his father stands behind him
Courtesy Jose Solorzano

I have now been paralyzed for 21 years. I do not remember what it feels like to be able to move. To walk. I don’t even remember what it feels like to take a deep breath. Breathing without thinking is now a foreign concept to me. Being able to go to sleep without thinking about how you are going to breathe is even more amazing to me. I can only sleep with somebody monitoring my breathing and heart rate, which always drops when I am in bed. It has caused my heart to stop and I’ve been resuscitated twice. I only have seven more lives left.

It is God and my family that have been there for me. Because we all need a purpose, we can sometimes settle for a twisted form of purpose: power. I loved the rush and adrenaline I felt from being on the streets. I was really sick and had reached a point in my life where I felt completely lost. I cared about satisfying my own desires, even at the expense of others.

Once, I was placed in a juvenile detention center. I was shoved into a very narrow room, surrounded by walls of brick, with a skinny mattress on the floor. The door was completely covered except for a tiny little window. My faith at that point was completely gone. I was numb and coldhearted. I was lost and out of control. Not once did I think about my family and what I was doing to them. I didn’t think about myself and what I was becoming. I didn’t even think about God. I was in too deep.

I have had countless surgeries and I am not naïve to the difficulties of my circumstances. But above all, I am truly blessed and have great joy and peace despite my condition. I am grateful for everything that I have gone through because it has made me into the person I am today. I am glad that I am not in the same state that I was in and on the same path that I was headed. Even though I am imprisoned by my own body, I am much freer now. I have changed the way that I think. It is all because of what I now know and who I now know.

Man with trach from being shot 5 times sits in wheelchair outside home beside sister and her kids
Courtesy Jose Solorzano

Being in a gang was false freedom. I was bound, a slave to so many things. But now I have seen growth in so many areas of my life. There is a famous Scripture that says that your inward parts, heart and mind, can be renewed every day. I believe that if you change your mind, you can change your life.

I am now a speaker for the Reclaim Our Kids Foundation dedicated to helping our youth form nurturing relationships and make informed, responsible decisions. I work in churches, schools, and juvenile detention centers giving anti-gang and anti-bullying presentations among many other things. I also work to give hope to people dealing with spinal injuries. I let them know that they do not just have to survive, but they can thrive. My life has a real purpose now. All I have is my voice and I will continue to use it to make this world a better place.

After being paralyzed for 21 years, my insurance company has decided that my nurses are not medically necessary. According to my nurses, doctors, and nursing agency, I will not live much longer if this happens. If my appeal is not successful, I am set to lose my nurses at the end of February. I have a twenty-one-year-old ramp that does not work anymore and finding transportation to accommodate my wheelchair has proven to be expensive and limits my speaking engagements. Regardless, I have some crazy faith that it is all going to work out. If it does not, I will continue to help and serve others until the day that I die.”

Man in wheel chair from being shot five times sits outside home beside family members
Courtesy Jose Solorzano

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jose Solorzano of Hickory Hills, Illinois. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

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