Cutting ties with the MS-13 gang proved to be harder for Gerardo Lopez than leaving his home town of Los Angeles. The documentary Clever explores Lopez's post-gang life in Colorado, showing his work with the community-support organization Homies Unidos and looking at challenges he has navigated in a corrupt criminal-justice system.
The short documentary, from Denver director Alan Domínguez and Academy Award-winning Colorado-based executive producer Daniel Junge, plays this Sunday at 2 p.m., at Su Teatro, as part of the annual XicanIndie Film Fest. In advance of the screening, Lopez spoke with Westword about his experiences with law enforcement and how he continues to work with kids growing up in situations similar to his own.
Westword: At the beginning of the film, you talk about how when you were growing up, friends and people around you often changed their names to English names — like from Miguel to Michael. Later on, you explain the process of changing your name to Clever once you joined MS-13. Can you talk about the significance of a name in the realm of gang culture?
Gerardo Lopez: I referenced that at the beginning, but you know, there were a lot of Spanish names, too. It's not necessarily the change to an English-language name. But I think a lot of it has to do with an identity thing — being someone else or becoming the person that they now are. They put that mask on and identify with it. If your name happens to be something you feel like you have to live up to — like, let's say, Boxer or Fighter or something like that — you have to get in a lot of fights.
I had a friend, his name was Laughy. It seemed like there was pressure for him to crack a joke or something. Smiley, she was always laughing; Giggles, she was supposed to be laughing all the time, too. Flaco, you just have to be himself because flaco means skinny. Shorty was just shorty. So a lot of times it was just an identity that you had. But if your name was Killer, it didn't mean you had to be a killer. I had a friend who everyone called Killer, but it was because he killed the ball in baseball.
For me, I chose my own name: Clever. I had the pressure of being smart, but it seemed that a lot of times in my youth, when I got caught up in criminal activities, I would end up in jail. People would ask me, why is your name Clever if you get locked up all the time? But, yeah, it can be an identity thing or just a name you grew up with in the ’hood.
After you were actively working to remove yourself from gang life and had begun Homies Unidos, a program to help others with similar experiences, you were part of a case brought against the LAPD because of the Rampart CRASH scandal. The LAPD essentially retaliated against you and had you falsely incarcerated in Colorado, long after you were removed from your connections to MS-13. You studied criminal justice, but the system also shaped so much of your life path in a negative way. How did you keep going and working within a system that you knew was corrupt?
I think it was just human instinct. I went into survival mode, and I wanted to live and be free. A lot of it had to do with me wanting to come out and see my kids and be able to raise my kids. I also saw so much injustice, so many people getting locked up for life for stuff that they didn't want to do. I wanted to somehow fight for them as well when I was fighting my own case and trying to bring awareness to a broken justice system.
Honestly, I knew there was corruption, but I didn't fully understand corruption at the highest levels. I was not 100 percent aware of it, and I thought that Captain America was going to come and say, "Hey, this guy has to be freed!" [Laughs.] I remember at one point my attorney told me — after practicing law for twenty years — [my case] was the most corruption they had seen in any case. It took multiple events of misconduct by the agents and the prosecution that in the end, they finally had to say I was allowed to go to trial.
These agents finally had to get on the witness stand. One time, my own attorney didn't put the agents on the witness stand for cross-examination, and I asked, why didn't you cross-examine them? This was a part in the case that was big — it was going to be dismissed. My attorney said they already got caught for perjury and they would get fired. I was like, dude, you're my attorney. [These officers] committed a crime, and you're supposed to be defending me.
Like I said in the film, I broke down many times, and a lot of it had to do with just having to get back up. It was like a fight in Rocky — I grew up watching Hollywood movies that had some kind of a happy ending or someone triumphing at the end. I always remember Rocky movies, when he would get knocked down so many times but came back to win. As cheesy and corny as that might sound, it was just about gathering victorious things that I saw, little snippets of it throughout my whole life.
It's hard to watch a system that often works like a gang itself be responsible for harming so many people and communities and wonder why it isn't on trial.
It's like when the Rampart CRASH scandal happened in L.A. and these officers finally were recorded on video; same with the Rodney King beating. People who didn't live in the neighborhood were shocked by what was happening, but for us, it was just another day in the office. It just so happened that the police got caught on film one night.
You've been speaking about your experience for a long time. Are there any new challenges kids are facing that you didn't encounter yourself as a person who grew up in gang culture in the ’90s?
Really, it's a vicious cycle with the same players. There are prison industries that use these inner city-kids as breeds to fill their prison beds. There is still poverty in the neighborhood; that hasn't changed. There is still a lot of struggle and healing that needs to be done, a lot of oppression and discrimination. This is just something that is happening over and over and over, so before we fix the problem, we have to get to the bottom of it. There needs to be more investment in our poor neighborhoods and work to get these kids better schooling and different things to help them deal with gangs.
Add to that ICE and immigration issues. Families are being separated and deported. We have to remember that when parents get deported, what happens to the kids? If there's no structure at home or no love or understanding at home, or even if the mom just has to work two or three jobs — these kids go out into the streets and hang out with other people who are having the same experience. If they don't have proper guidance, they're going to make bad decisions and end up growing up in the justice system.
The ICE stuff can also cause a lot of anxiety, which leads to stress and trauma for these kids. When you're at home and you don't know if ICE is going to come knocking on the door to take your parents away, how do you deal with that?
Have you personally seen any positive changes with law enforcement's relationship to the communities you work with in the last few years?
I've met a lot of good law enforcement officers. It's the bad ones who put everyone in a bad light. But I work with a lot of officers as they go through probation trainings. I work with SRO (school resource officers) on how to deal with kids. I try to give them my side and show them how I deal with kids. Once you talk to these officers, you see a whole different side of them as well. There are a lot of them who care about the kids. But sometimes they might be responding to a call, and it might be a stressful situation. And law enforcement, they go through trauma and anxiety as well. But they have to understand that no matter what they are going through, they can't go and take it out on the community. So not only do these kids need healing, sometimes these officers need healing as well. They have to take the right safety measures to cope with situations in a nonviolent way.
Clever screens Sunday, April 2, at 2 p.m., as part of the the XicanIndie Film Fest. Tickets can be purchased online via Su Teatro or by calling 303-296-0219. The XicanIndie Film Festival runs from March 30 to April 2 at Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center, 721 Santa Fe Drive.
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