Chapter 1: Soledad: 1968 Chapter 1 SOLEDAD
I felt like shit. I was high on heroin, pruno, reds, and whiskey.
I was three years into a ten-year stretch, which for a Mexican was more likely to be a twenty-year stretch, a life stretch, a death stretch.
I always figured I’d die in prison.
It was Cinco de Mayo 1968, in Soledad State Prison. To Mexicans, real Mexicans, Corazón Mexicans, Cinco de Mayo doesn’t mean the Mexican day of independence (it’s not); it doesn’t signify the day the Mexicans defeated the French at Puebla; it doesn’t even mean the fifth of May. Cinco de Mayo means “Get bail money ready.”
I was already inside, so no need for bail.
Mexicans had been planning a un chingón volar for weeks. Since I was running the gym next to the loading docks, I got my hands on all the contraband coming in: cigarettes, speed, heroin, even women’s underwear and makeup (if that was your thing). As long as you could pay for it, I could get it.
I ran the heroin bag, so I was well stocked. I also had hundreds of pills I collected from inmates who saved their meds and used them to pay gambling debts, traded them for contraband, or needed protection. I had a few pints of whiskey, two ounces of weed, and the batches of pruno we’d been making for weeks. A connect in the kitchen got us the raisins, oranges, sugar, and yeast to mix it with. We’d pour it into garbage bags, twist them tight, wrap them in T-shirts, and stash them in the heating vents. When it was ready, we’d strain it through tube socks.
We started early the day before and went all night. That next morning, I was settling in when the Captain’s voice came over the loudspeaker. He announced we were having an outside activity that day: a local junior college baseball team would be playing a team of inmates in an exhibition game.
Bringing a group of civilians into a California prison on Cinco de Mayo is the stupidest fucking thing on earth you could do; over half the prison was already wasted. Plus, whenever there’s an outside activity it means extra guards, extra security, extra guns, extra everything.
After the announcement about the Cinco de Mayo ball game, we were ordered out of our cells. On the Yard, I held my face to the sun for a minute to let it touch me, but when I closed my eyes, I felt queasy. The pruno wasn’t sitting right. I took a spot on the bleachers along the third base line with Ray Pacheco and Henry Quijada, two old crime partners from my juvie days. Ray was incredibly strong, a hell of an athlete. We knew each other from when we played football in the street when we were thirteen, before Ray joined the White Fence gang. Henry was a tall, thin kid from Azusa. They were both housed in Ranier, another section within the prison.
We settled in to watch the game between the junior college and a team of inmates. I took in the fact there was no fence—only ten feet of air separated us from the junior college kids. We watched the teams warm up. A big, Mickey Mantle–looking white kid was playing third base. I remember thinking that he’d be a highly prized punk inside.
He was chomping on a big wad of gum.
Ray turned to me and said, “Man, I wish I had some chicle.”
Gum was special. We couldn’t get gum in prison. We certainly couldn’t get the sugary kind the college kid was chomping on.
Ray turned into a child. “I want gum.”
Ray’d come to Soledad from Atascadero, a full lockdown mental facility. Ray had brutally murdered his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend. He didn’t just murder them—the court found there were “special circumstances.” I don’t remember the particulars, but they were bad—the-kind-you-read-about-in-the-newspaper bad, the-recoil-in-shock kind of bad. To old-school Mexicans like Ray, there was no such thing as an ex-girlfriend—once you were his, you were his forever. The crime was so vicious, the court figured no one in their right mind could have done it, so he was found “guilty but insane.” In exchange for years of electroshock therapy and medical experiments, Ray got a reduced sentence of seven years.
The treatments only made him worse.
Back in Central, sometimes I’d sneak behind Ray and make zzzzhhhhhh sounds like he was being electrocuted to fuck with him. Normally he didn’t mind, but when I did it to him that morning, it was clear he wasn’t in the mood for fucking around.
The game started. I was exhausted. I felt like shit from the wine, weed, pills, and whiskey. The sun, which for a few seconds was comforting, felt like a magnifying glass aimed at my forehead. Everyone in my area was drunk, high, uncomfortable. I could feel something simmering. I recognized it; it was the desire for violence. Aggression and fear among the inmates released pheromones. Once they’re out, they’re out, and the air at that moment was full of them.
In the second inning, Ray yelled at the third baseman, “¡Dame chicle, pinchi güero!”
The kid pretended not to hear. He just pounded his fist into his mitt and kept chomping away. Chomp. Chomp. Chomp. He was like a cow chewing cud.
“You heard me, bitch! Throw me some gum!”
The kid didn’t turn. He just stared forward, pounding his fist into his mitt and chomping his gum. Out of the corner of his mouth, he said, “We’re not supposed to talk to you guys.”
“We were told not to talk to the inmates.”
With every chomp, Ray got crazier. A switch flipped behind his eyes. He was like a great white shark with its eyes rolled back. He was grinding his teeth and clenching his jaw like he was fighting demons. He was back chewing leather strips with hundreds of volts of electricity blasting through him, back in a straitjacket he’d worn for four months.
Ray was gone.
“Fuck you, bitch. We ain’t good enough to talk to?”
“We were told not to interact with you.”
I knew it was useless, but I tried to calm Ray. I told him every kind of bullshit I could think of.
“Don’t fuck with that kid, holmes, he knows karate,” I said. And: “They got a special sniper guarding that dude.”
I should have known better. Telling a loaded killer they can’t fuck with someone is a direct invitation to fuck with them.
The third baseman was scared shitless. Every inning, he drifted farther from third base and closer to second. It got to the point where the third baseman, the shortstop, and the second baseman were standing next to each other in the middle of the infield. None of them wanted to be there. They wanted to be with their girlfriends, driving their trucks, drinking beer, listening to country music on some canal bank, anywhere other than playing baseball with a bunch of thieves and killers in a prison. Whatever worst-case scenario they might have been briefed about concerning visiting a high-security prison was going down in real time—especially for the third baseman, who was getting shit from a stone-cold killer no more than twenty feet away.
I had to piss. I was afraid to leave Ray, but I was going to piss my pants. I told Ray to come with me, but he said no, he wanted to stay with Henry. I jammed to the bathroom, doing the weird hop-skip thing you do when you have to piss but can’t fully run. Standing at the urinal, I cussed myself for how much I had to pee. It felt like I had a gallon in my bladder. I was nauseous. The crowd outside sounded eerie. The air had changed. Things were electric.
I was hurrying back to the field when I saw Ray fly out of the stands and punch the third baseman in the face. At that moment, everything exploded. The only thing I can compare it to is when the baboons went crazy on Damien in the safari adventure park in The Omen, or when every dog in a dog park gets in a fight. In an instant a thousand animals were fighting for their lives.
I’d been locked up, in and out but mostly in, since 1956. In those twelve years, I put to use everything I learned from my uncle Gilbert about being incarcerated. The first time I got taken to Eastlake Juvenile Hall, I remember saying to myself, What did Gilbert teach me?
To stick with the Mexicans, first off. Secondly, find three or four specific homies who’d always have my back. Gilbert told me I’d develop instincts I never knew I had. I’d learn to master how to go to sleep in a chaotic tier full of people screaming and running around and learn to spring awake in an instant if someone stopped even for a moment in front of my cell. He taught me if someone was looking at me for just a second too long I’d have to respond with “What the fuck do you want?” Only six years older, Gilbert was my mentor. He ran every joint he’d been in. He taught me how to deal, steal, intimidate, how to spot weakness, when it was best to terrify, and when it was right to comfort. He taught me never to bully people weaker than me, but if I had to fight, the goal was to win.
The first time I got hauled off to a police station, I was ten. By twelve, I was a regular at juvenile hall. My parents sent me to live with relatives in Texas for a while to avoid getting locked up after I kicked some kid’s ass for squirting ink on me in art class. But at that point I was incorrigible. My stay in Texas didn’t last long. Even though my aunt Margaret and my uncle Rudy Cantú’s place was deep in the sticks, miles outside of San Antonio, I still found my way to the hopping night scene in La Colonia. My aunt and uncle, who were proper, religious people, realized they couldn’t control me, so they sent me back to Los Angeles.
I wasn’t scared of being busted, I wasn’t scared of being locked up, and when a kid loses fear of consequences, that’s when society has lost them. Halfway through tenth grade, I was sent to North Hollywood High School, my fifth school in a year. I’d been kicked out of four others for fighting. I had caused excitement in the last three because, as the only Mexican, I was a novelty. Not only was I Latino, I wore yellow-and-white Sir Guy shirts with matching vests and pleated khakis. If I wore Levi’s, they were ironed with Folsom cuffs. I was sharp, I was clean. I stood out. At North Hollywood, Barbara D., a beautiful Italian girl who was the homecoming queen, loved me. I loved her back. One day, she saw me sitting on a bench in the quad and looked alarmed.
“You can’t sit there, Danny, that’s the Caballeros’ bench.” I thought, What the fuck? They got a bench? For that matter, who the fuck are the Caballeros, and why would they call themselves a Spanish name?
A big, goofy white dude and a smaller guy walked up. The big guy got puffy. He said, “Are you going to get off the Caballeros’ bench, or am I going to have to take you off?”
If he’d just said, “That’s the Caballeros’ bench,” I might have gotten up and left. But because he challenged me, I stood on the bench and kicked him in the throat.
“Take me off this bench now, bitch.”
The guy started choking. Then the little one said the magic words: “Just wait till after school, beaner.”
Big mistake. The trigger wasn’t beaner. It was the “wait till after school” part. Normal high schoolers are worried about getting in trouble, real trouble. I didn’t have that problem. I was the kind of Mexican who couldn’t wait until after school. The whole day, my rage kept growing. The final bell couldn’t come fast enough. I positioned myself outside the school gates. The throat-kick guy and five of his Caballero friends showed up with the whole school behind them, ready for the show. This was good. I was ready to introduce them to a level of violence that wasn’t even on their radar.
It was like a scene of out the movie Grease, except they were stuck in PG mode, and I was rated X. As soon as the leader opened his mouth, I grabbed him by his neck and took a chunk out of his face with my teeth. People gasped. I saw two girls cover their faces. No one in North Hollywood High School was ready for me. That Caballero certainly wasn’t.
While the guy flailed around, screaming, I jammed to Leonard’s Burger Shop across the street, jumped the counter, grabbed a cleaver, and ran back out on the street. I was going to take out the whole school if I had to. Leonard came running out of the restaurant with a cleaver of his own and took up a spot beside me. I faced off against a ring of what seemed like every kid at North Hollywood High. No one dared take a step toward me. That’s the power of crazy, that’s the power of being willing to go to a place unimaginable to your foes. But that kind of power comes with a cost—by exercising it, you reveal to the world the only place you belong is a state penitentiary.
I took what Gilbert taught me to heart. I didn’t fight to gain respect. I fought to win. I took a sick pleasure in it. I respected people who showed me respect, but if they didn’t, I wanted whoever fucked with me to wake up years in the future, when they were old and walking with a cane, to look at their faces in the mirror, see the deep, ugly scars, and remember the huge mistake they made one afternoon long ago when they messed with Danny Trejo.
When a riot goes down, everybody knows what to do: survive and go after your enemies. Mexicans jumped Blacks; whites stood back-to-back, squaring off, trying to fight a path back to their own; Blacks were swinging on whites and Mexicans. Aryans, Blacks, Mexicans, all executing hit orders that had been in the pipeline for months. I was dropping motherfuckers. I’d throw a left, bam. A right, bam. A left, right, left, right. I had no fear. There was no time for that. If fear ever creeped in, I turned it to rage immediately. It was adrenaline-fueled. If a child’s trapped under a car and his mother’s stuck in fear, the kid’s screwed; if she turns it to rage, she lifts that car.
I had car-lifting strength. Mack Truck–lifting strength.
In my periphery, I saw sissies running for safety at the edge of the Yard. I don’t mean sissy as a derogatory term, because it isn’t in the pen. We shared time with everyone and everyone had value. The homosexuals pooled money, kept their books stacked, paid for protection, looked after the homosexual guys coming in, and had all the intel. Taking care of gay inmates meant a hundred eyes had your back. Baseball players swung bats to keep inmates from killing them. Dudes threw trash cans, rocks, whatever they could grab. I remember having a rock or a chunk of concrete, but it’s a blur.
The noise was inhuman.
I was back-to-back with Ray, slugging it out with anyone who rolled up, when I saw Captain Rogers, one of the head bulls, pointing at us. He was signaling the gun tower to shoot. Ray and I took off, swerving in different directions. Like a couple of rodeo clowns, we ended up running into each other, knocking each other down.
Flat on the ground, facedown, we laced our fingers behind the backs of our heads. Ray turned into a little kid again. He was terrified.
“Danny, don’t let them hurt me.”
Captain Rogers ran up and said, “Trejo, did you get him?” I guessed he was asking if I took Ray out to stop him from running. I didn’t know how to answer, so I said, “Yeah.”
The guards pulled us to our feet and hauled us off.
Out of the over one thousand prisoners involved in the riot that day, they singled out only Henry, Ray, and me. It was alleged that I threw the rock that hit a guard named Lieutenant Gibbons in the head. Everyone saw Ray assault a free person. Henry was charged with kicking Coach Stalmeyer in the testicles and causing them to rupture. All capital crimes.
We were looking at the death penalty.
What can change in an instant? Todo.
It wasn’t totally a surprise. Whether it was juvie, camp, Tracy, YTS, Wayside, Chino, Vacaville, San Quentin, Folsom, anywhere I’d been locked up, I never expected I’d get out alive. I knew I’d be in prison until I was dead. I just didn’t know when, how, or where.
I guessed it was there. Soledad.
Most teachers I had said, “He has real potential.” Or more precisely, they’d say, “He has enormous potential if he would just change.” Even parole officers said I had incredible potential.
In the hole, I thought, What the fuck is potential?
Just when I had things going right in Soledad, everything changed. I was going to die and it was going to be the gas chamber. That it was in the hands of the state was something I couldn’t wrap my mind around. I knew I was a fighter and could go out fighting, but when they walked me to my death, how would I act?
Would I be brave?
Henry yelled from down the hall, “They’re going to top us, Danny! They’re going to kill us good!”
There’s a movie from the 1930s called Angels with Dirty Faces. James Cagney plays Rocky, a straight-up gangster who gets involved in a shoot-out with the police. When he’s surrounded, he yells, “Come and get me, coppers!”
After he’s arrested, his crew in the neighborhood says, “He’s going to spit in those coppers’ eyes!”
But when Rocky’s sentenced to death, he cries like a bitch. On the way to the electric chair he weeps and begs for mercy. The next day, his gang reads in the newspaper that he died a yellow-bellied coward.
The message to me was clear: Don’t be a bitch when you die.
Just a year later, George Jackson would write about the O Wing in Soledad: “The strongest hold out for no more than a couple of weeks… When a white con leaves here, he’s ruined for life. No black leaves Max Row walking.” But O Wing wasn’t even the max, not close, certainly not in terms of punishment and degradation. X Wing was, and X Wing was where Henry, Ray, and I were. O Wing, comparatively, was a cakewalk, and we dreamed of going there someday. I sat on the naked iron bed. I was sick, detoxing off pills and alcohol. I was freezing. On the wall across from me, someone had written Fuck God in shit.
I said, “God, if You’re there, me, Henry, and Ray will be alright. If You’re not, we’re fucked.”