“I was gonna become what the system, what the circumstances made me become. You get me? I didn’t want to be a gang member…I didn’t want to be a drug addict. I didn’t want to live in fear. I didn’t want to be caged like an animal. I don’t think nobody really wants that.”


I was born in East Los Angeles in the early ’80s. That was during the crack epidemic, where drugs really ravaged the inner city of Los Angeles. With that came drug addicts, psychotic behavior, and violence. My family had been involved in gangs since the 1970s, so this was the only world I knew. I was an only child, from a broken home. My dad split when I was two years old. That was my intro to the world. I guess you could say it kind of screwed me up from the beginning.

My mom was a single mother. She was always there, but she was broken. My whole childhood, there were different men coming in and out of my life. I think a lot of what I was searching for stems from my mother…I was really searching for her love throughout my life. As a child, I was just being kicked to the curb, year after year, time after time, not receiving that love I needed from my mother.

Ultimately, there came a time when I was ten or eleven years old when I just thought, “You know what? All right. I get it. If I’m not gonna be loved, and this is not a happy home, then I’m gonna search for love somewhere else.”


I connected with other children who were going through the same thing as me, who became my friends. It was then that I started forming my identity. I was watching MTV and looking around at the community I was in; it was nothing but gangsters. All my young friends and relatives were going the gang route. So I naturally thought, “That’s what I’m gonna become. You know what? I’m not gonna be kicked to the curb no more. I’m gonna try this.”

My cousins from my mom’s side lived a couple cities down from Los Angeles. They were in private Catholic school. They tried to reach out to me, but it was already too late. When you’re ten or eleven years old, it’s a great thing for someone to reach out to you, but in the end you still have to go back to your home. I’d been exposed to things that most people are not exposed to. So unless you were really there to walk with me, unless you were really there to take my hand and take me out of the darkness, then you couldn’t do anything to save me.


I wanted somebody to save me, but there was nobody to save me. That’s what it all came down to. There was nobody to give me an option. There was nobody to say something like, “Hey, Rich. What’s going on in school?” “Oh, hey, Rich. Why do you have scratches on your face?”

When my mom’s boyfriend beat me, there was nobody to do a thorough investigation.


Or when I started getting high, there was nobody to reach out and say, “Why are you getting high? Why is this child who seems like he could have a bright future tearing his life apart?”

Not all kids in the ghetto get into gangs. But they get into other things. They might get into tagging on the walls. They might get into whatever else allows them to act out their trauma. To become a gang member, all it takes is a choice. I was willing to be my loyal to my friends. That was it–I made the choice.


I wanted to belong with my best friend Chris and my other friend Brian. I wanted to be loyal to them, and I thought that they were going to be loyal to me too. As things started happening on the street, more violence and fights, I felt that our loyalty was real. It was real because if something happened to me in front of those guys, they would do something.

But as you engage more as a gang member, the situation gets worse. So, from fights we moved on to beatings, and then jumpings, and then eventually it was all-out shootings. And then you just get lost in this loyalty, in this desire to belong.

There were a few times when it hit me. I was 14 years old and I went to juvenile hall and then jail. I was thinking, “Oh, shit. This shit is real. Like, I’m not going home.” But there was also a sense of, “You know what, at least I’m a part of something.”

Another time, I saw my friend almost die in front of me. That became real. I think I was 15 years old when they beat him. He was bleeding from his mouth. I’m like, “Damn, my friend could die right here in front of me.”


A few years later, I was out drinking with some people, and I happened to have a gun on me. We got into an incident and ended up fighting. I brought out the gun…and then I just shot. It was just some machismo BS. But then I was sentenced for attempted murder. My paperwork said, “35 years to a life sentence for Richard Cabral.” I thought, “Oh, this really became real.”

If it wasn’t for prison, I don’t think I would be here today. It was a time for reflection about my life. I was sitting in that cell, and my mind had never been quiet before that.

My relationship with God really started to build up at that time. When I was fighting that life sentence, I asked God to help me, and I believe that he did. I realized that prison is where people die. You know, people go there, but don’t get out.

I remember seeing my first stabbing in prison. Seeing that trauma in front of my eyes… it’s something that you can’t talk about. You just have to experience it. You think that you’re a badass, but then you go into a prison yard, and there are a thousand people that are way badder than you, who have been doing this for 15-20 years more than you.

Prison was the turning point for me. I met some of the most amazing men in prison, and then I’d hear that they had been down for 20-25 years already. I just knew that if God gave me a second chance, I didn’t want to mess it up.


I made a plea deal which reduced my jail time to 27 months. At age 25, I was lucky enough to be released from prison. I had a son who was five at the time, and I needed to support him. I couldn’t get a job anywhere in Los Angeles. I mean, I had two felonies on my record, I had tattoos… there was nobody who would give me work.

In Los Angeles, if you’re from a real gang neighborhood, you know somebody who’s involved with Homeboy Industries. Sure enough, I did. I had a couple friends who were already working at Homeboy, so I ended up going there. That’s where I met Father Greg.


People say, “I want to look out for you. I want to love you. I want to help you.” But they judge you. Society continuously judges you. But with Father Greg, there was no judgment. He just accepted me for who I was. I think for me, a lot of the work I had to do, had to do with myself. People can come into your life, but if you’re not prepared to open up, then it doesn’t matter who comes in. I had given up on the world. I had given up on letting people help because no one had helped me. With Father Greg, I was able to open up. It was a key moment because I realized, “Hey, if this man can help me, maybe someone else can help me too.”


I started working in downtown Los Angeles, in the bakery of Homeboy Industries. One day, Christopher Chulack from the TV show Southland came in. He wanted to cast real guys from the street to be in the show, so a couple of us agreed to go to Warner Brothers Studios to audition. There were like ten of us, and they said, “just read the lines,” so we did.


I ended up being one of three guys who got the part. That moment was the seed that made me say, “Wow, maybe this could be something.” From there, I took acting classes, continued to be cast in shows, and…the rest is history. Now I am father and have a successful acting career.

I look at my children now, and I don’t want them to suffer the same way I did. I think that’s what it all comes down to. I’m doing my best to not have them come close to anything that I experienced. I’m very open with them about what happened to me, because I think it’s important that I’m not ashamed. A lot of times we try to push these things down, and forget them like they never happened, but I use my past to my advantage now. I use it as a power.

Sometimes society or your family wants to knock you down. They don’t do it on purpose. It’s just that sometimes they don’t know any better. I’d say, don’t give up. If there are men and women who have gone through the same things you’re going through, then why can’t you do it? I think it’s all about opening yourself up to what the world can offer you.