Omaha Police Department gang intervention specialist Alberto “Beto” Gonzales grew up in a South Omaha “monster barrio” as an outsider fresh from the Texas-Mexican border.
Working out of the South Omaha Precinct and South Omaha Boys & Girls Club, he knows first-hand the suffering that propels at-risk kids to join gangs. He grew up in a dysfunctional home with an alcoholic father. By 13 he was a gang-banger who was abusing and selling drugs. He was illiterate and a runaway. For a decade he conned and intimidated people. “The beast” inside ran roughshod over anyone, even family. He ruined relationships with his rage, and his drug and alcohol use.
“A lot of people got hurt behind me being that hurt kid that felt hopeless,” he says.
Charged with assault and battery with intent to commit murder, he faced 30 years in prison. Shown leniency, he used that second chance to heal and transform. He got sober, learned to read, and found the power of forgiveness and love, dedicating himself to helping others.
He credits the late Sister Joyce Englert of the Chicano Awareness Center (now Latino Center of the Midlands) with setting him straight.
“She took me literally by the hand and coached me. There were days where I just didn’t feel like I could do it and I tossed up a storm with her. But she never gave up on me.”
At her urging he became a counselor.
Gonzales, who’s spoken about gangs to federal lawmakers and law enforcement officials, is the subject of My Little Corner of the Sky, a book by Theresa Barron-McKeagney, University of Nebraska at Omaha associate dean in the College of Public Affairs and Community Service.
His message to those dealing with people in crisis is “Patience—you can’t give up on them. You have to have that energy, that willingness to sacrifice to work with them.” He says he’s living proof “no matter what challenges you have, you can make it. All you gotta do is find what your purpose is in life and go for it.”
This former menace to society never could have imagined working for OPD. “They took a risk in hiring me because of all the baggage I carried. They’re watching me. I’m under the microscope. But all the officers make me feel welcome. It’s a good fit.”
His street cred enables him to go where OPD can’t.
“If they do walk into some of the places I walk in it’s a shut down—nobody’s talking.” He has people’s trust, including prisoners and ex-cons.
“They feel safe opening up to me. They know I’m there for them. I’m not going to give up on them. Whatever it is, we try to work it out. You can’t measure this,” he says of relationships that, once established, have the power to last forever.
“I’ve been in a lot of these men’s and women’s lives for years,” he says.
“Sometimes I don’t see them for four or five years, but they know they can always come back.”
Intervention and prevention is his passion, and he claims he can spot a troubled child or adult in an instant.
“If we don’t get to a kid in time, if he doesn’t find a mentor, if he doesn’t get into some kind of sport activity, if his mom and dad don’t do some kind of healing…that’s a lost child.”
Gonzales often tells his own story at school assemblies. It’s still cathartic at age 57.
“Every time I share, I can feel that pain in my heart. It’s still there. There’s no getting rid of it. It’s a part of who you are, the fabric of your soul.”
Not everyone’s cut out for this kind of work. The burn-out rate is high, as is the relapse and recidivism rate. Not everyone wants recovery.
Happily married with kids, he has a sense of serenity never before experienced.
“I wish everybody had that,” he says.
His latest challenge is a member of a neighboring three-generation gang family he’s counseled.
“I asked him, ‘Why do you hate me, man?’ He just shrugged his shoulders. ‘How many times did you feel like killing me?’ He finally looked me in the eye and said, ‘Every time I see you, I want to kill you.’ ‘What keeps you from killing me?’ ‘Because my nephews love you, my auntie loves you, my uncle loves you, so I’m just going to leave you alone.’ He’s 14 years old. He’s just another Beto.”
Gonzales holds out hope.
“Anybody can change, anybody. I don’t care what condition you’re in, as long as you want to find that peace in yourself.”
Gonzales is a firm believer in second chances.
After all, he says, “Somebody gave me one.”
Search My Own Little Corner of the Sky to learn more.