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Out of the gang and into fatherhood
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By Joshua Pilkington

Former gang member shares his tale of fatherhood

“She saved my life. I mean I know I wouldn’t be here, if she hadn’t come along and turned my life around.”

That is how Raul Canales, 34, Denver, describes everyday of his life since the birth of his daughter a little over eight years ago. Once a member of this prominent Colorado and Denver gang Sureños, Canales (who requested his real name not be used for this story), felt a desire to do more with his life and his new responsibility.

“I took a look at where I was and what I was doing and thought ‘I can’t keep this up, man,’” Canales said. “I knew I couldn’t be a dad and be banging. And I really wanted to be a dad.”

In the end his desire to be a father, educator and mentor to his daughter won out for Canales, but leaving Sureños wasn’t like leaving a job or a team, there were consequences.

“My life was threatened a couple of times,” Canales said. “I was beaten down at least a dozen times, one was heavy.”

The “heavy” beating that Canales took came on the night of his daughter’s first birthday. He was hit from behind by what he thought was either a canteen-like steel bottle or a lamp. The blow knocked him out immediately.

“I remember coming to and seeing at least four people, could have been eight, I’m not sure because my vision was still blurry from being knocked out,” he said. “But all of them were pounding on me. One of my closest friends, really like a brother to me for 10 years, had a bat.”

Canales still describes the encounter with a lot of emotion. He could hear his 1-year-old crying and watched his closest friend almost end or severely damage his life with a baseball bat.

“I rolled onto my left side to avoid the blow,” he said. “He hit my shoulder instead of my chin, which probably would have killed me or broken my face.”

What saved Canales that night were the blue and red lights flashing outside his home at that very moment.

“They scattered,” Canales said of his assailants. “I wish I could say it was my girlfriend (and mother of Canales’ daughter) who called them, but she scattered with them.”

It was Canales’ neighbors who had alerted the authorities. His daughter had been screaming for over an hour and that along with the celebratory atmosphere turned violent was enough for them to call the authorities.

“I had no one except my daughter,” Canales recalled. “When I tell people about my situation back then they ask me ‘why didn’t you move out? Why didn’t you move in with your folks or someone else?’ The gang life had been my whole life since I was 12. I didn’t know anyone else. My parents weren’t going to be able to help me. I would have put them in more danger by moving in with them. My girlfriend was a Sureño and she didn’t want out like I did and all my friends had just beaten me down, again. I didn’t have many options.”

Even without options, Canales fled his house in North Denver and slept in the warehouse of his employer – who granted him the space free of charge until he could find better footing somewhere else. The problem was he had to leave his daughter.

“That was hard for me,” he said. “She was the reason I wanted out and now I was putting distance between us.”

Canales prevailed, however. Less than nine months after his near-death experience, he had a one-bedroom apartment and his daughter.

“My ex was picked up for drug charges a little after our girl turned 2,” he said. “I had to learn to be a single dad quick.”

With immeasurable help from his parents, Canales was able to raise his daughter on his own. Recently remarried and with his own tattoo parlor, he said raising his daughter has been the greatest experience of his life.

“Like I said, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her,” he said. “We’re not a perfect family, but we love each other. So perfect enough, I guess.”





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