In 1979, at age 7, Alex Sanchez and his younger brother left El Salvador. They didn't want to immigrate to the United States, but they had no choice. Five years earlier, their parents had made the journey north. The young brothers had spent most of their lives believing that their neighbors, who acted as temporary caretakers, were family.
"It was a hard transition to come into the United States to meet these new people," Mr. Sanchez explains. "We'd been calling someone else Mom and Dad in El Salvador."
And once the family was reunited in Los Angeles, the children's situation got even more difficult. Sanchez's parents fought. "We started getting beat for things like not calling our dad 'Dad,' " he says. His father often left the family, and his mother sank deeply into religion.
At school, Sanchez was ridiculed for not speaking English, and the other Spanish-speaking Latino kids derided his Salvadoran slang. "There was really nothing to help us to integrate into society," he says, describing what experts call "downward assimilation," integrating culturally but not into the mainstream culture. "It was difficult for us to understand what was happening. We just knew that we hated this country, that we hated our parents. We hated everybody and everything around us. There was no American dream. And in some ways, it became an American nightmare."
The family moved to South Central L.A., then Koreatown. Finally, at a new school, Sanchez found a group of other immigrant children whose experiences mirrored his own – including being humiliated and bullied. Among his new clique, Sanchez found the sense of love and belonging that had eluded him since moving to the States.
"Instead of responding individually to harassment, they responded with unity," he says. "And eventually, this became known as the Mara Salvatrucha, MS-13."
Today, the US government recognizes the high-profile gang as a transnational criminal organization. According to the FBI, which has a task force dedicated to battling the gang, the organization operates in more than 42 states and boasts between 6,000 and 10,000 members.
At first, Sanchez says, the gang felt like home. At age 11, he got his first tattoo. By 15, he'd been shot. His adolescence was spent bouncing in and out of juvenile detention, and by 20, Sanchez had served three separate jail terms for various offenses. "For us, going to prison was a rite of passage," he recalls today. "You got recognized by the gang; you were someone to be reckoned with."
By 1994, after his third prison sentence, the gangster glamour of doing time started to tarnish. Sanchez was 21 and realized he wanted to turn his life around. After another arrest, he signed voluntary deportation papers, weary from the intensity of gang life. Perhaps deportation, Sanchez imagined, could serve as a vacation of sorts.
He was wrong.
"I was excited, because growing up [in Los Angeles] people used to talk about all these places in El Salvador," Sanchez recalls. "I couldn't get into the conversation. I didn't even know where I lived – people would ask me where I was from, and I would say, I don't know, by a lake?"
But upon arriving, Sanchez was surprised to see the tall letters "MS" splashed in graffiti across city streets. He realized that living in El Salvador, like living in Los Angeles, meant dodging bullets. His tattoos and gang affiliation meant he was a marked man.
With help from a smuggler, Sanchez returned to the US in 1995 illegally after deportation. He applied for political asylum on the grounds that he'd be killed by former rival gang members if deported to El Salvador. In 2002, the application was granted.
Since then, the father of three has become an internationally known peacemaker and gang interventionist. He helped found Homies Unidos, a nonprofit, 12 years ago. Sanchez helps recruit youth from the street, and brings them into the fold, trying to end the cycle of violence by providing resources.
Still today, Sanchez says, immigrant kids can feel alienated and discriminated against. "People believe that there's no more racism in the United States," he says. "But there is. I don't believe in the American dream. If you're an immigrant, you're less likely to have your rights respected, and you're more likely to be abused by corporations who live off sweat labor."