Giving Up the Gang
Story and photos by Mark Stayton
View Additional Multimedia
Padilla moved from Mexico to a poor neighborhood in Yakima, where he grew up taking care of his two younger brothers as his mother worked full time. His brothers joined a neighborhood gang that offered the teens a chance to party and earn respect from fellow members, and girls. At first, Padilla primarily sold marijuana to the crew, but was eventually "courted in;" getting beat up by his friends for membership. He sprayed graffiti and stole guns and amps to prove himself.
After a beer-run car crash killed three of his friends and an innocent driver, Padilla quit the gang lifestyle and enrolled in Wyoming Technical Institute in 1996 to become a mechanic. Soon, however, he found himself slipping back into drug dealing and partying. As federal agents closed in on him for moving drugs and weapons, his brother began receiving death threats from a rival gang in Yakima. He returned to an empty home; his family had moved to Bellingham to escape the violence.
In 2002, Padilla went to federal prison in Arizona for five years on charges of drug dealing. While he was locked up, his daughter Isabela was stricken with cancer and his son Emilio got appendicitis. Although both recovered, Padilla says he regretted not being there for his children, and realized he could be a positive leader in his community.
"My mentality when I first got in there was, 'I'm gonna retaliate, you know, on all these snitches,'" Padilla says. "But at the end I was like, 'I can make a change. I can make a difference. I can work with these kids and my cousins and my family.'"
In 2007, Padilla entered into a custody battle for his children with his ex-wife. Her accusations of assault and abuse that initially put him on probation were later proven false by the court. With the help of three public defenders and Child Protective Services (CPS), he won the case and earned full custody. Through the legal proceedings of the case, Padilla learned the ins and outs of CPS laws and began a support group in Bellingham that gives legal advice to fathers in custody battles, the first of its kind in Whatcom County.
In January, Padilla joined a gang-prevention initiative that works with Bellingham Police detectives. Once a month, he attends "safety dinners," where police and community members help find alternatives to gang life for teens and their families. Padilla says the program, aimed at migrant communities where gang violence has recently taken place, has made people more aware of the threat, and established a working relationship with police.
Currently, Padilla is working on his associate degree in process technology at Whatcom Community College. He's now taking care of his kids, volunteering for the Whatcom Family & Community Network and plans to marry his fiancée Monica Curtiss in June. Even now, however, Padilla says he cannot bring himself to wear red, the color of a rival gang in Yakima.
"I have a hard time wearing it, even though I'm not doing gang activity," he says. "It got indented in me so bad that...I just don't like it. But I don't mind my woman wearing it. I don't mind my kids wearing red shirts and all that. It's just, you know, I don't wear it."