By Ivan Mejia
LOS ANGELES -- After being in and out of juvenile detention facilities, Daniel Mora decided to change course and today spends his time persuading members of street gangs to go back to school at the same time that he is getting ready to study for a master's degree at Harvard.
Mora grew up in surroundings plagued with violence, telling Efe: "Since I was 12, I never thought I'd live more than 20 years."
"From the violence I saw every day in my communities I'd then have to go to vigils at funeral homes for my dead pals, I'd see their parents crying...meanwhile other friends ended up in jail," said Mora, a 23-year-old Oakland native now attending the University of California, Berkeley.
Between the ages of 12 and 17, Mora served six separate stretches in Oakland's juvenile detention facility.
His life was turned around by the agent handling his case at juvenile hall, who told him she would keep trying to get him a second chance if he would follow the advice of a counselor of at-risk youths.
"The problem in my life is that I never had an example to follow until I listened to a counselor (Emilio Mena of the Youth Alive program) who had lived the life of the barrio like me," he said.
"He was like a big brother for me and told me: I'm going to speak clearly - you have to admit your mistakes and I want you to tell me what you want in the future," he recalled.
Mora told the counselor that he needed work to help his mother and he wanted to get a driver's license, write rap lyrics and keep on studying.
The son of immigrants from Guadalajara, Mora is the only one of five brothers who has gone to college.
"Right now I'm filling out an application to study for a master's degree in education at Harvard, because I see my future as an educator," he said.
Mora has recorded six hip-hop discs and spends a good deal of time in the communities as a volunteer for the Youth Alive and Homeboy Goes to Harvard organizations, as well as singing and then talking with the youths to convince them to stay in school or, in the case of those who have already dropped out, to go back.
"I tell those kids that there are beautiful things in youth gangs like that family feeling, support, pride, art - but we have to change the way we put all that into action," he said.
"Because if we use all that to hate others, that's not good," he said, at the same time suggesting that instead of scribbling up walls with graffiti, it would be better to use that artistic talent to paint murals for the community.
For his efforts towards convincing youths to give up gang violence, in 2008 UC Berkeley presented him with the chancellor's award for public service.
"Right now I'm in a hip-hop group called Brwn-Bflo, we're all from Berkeley, where we sing what we think about political and social problems," he said.
"Public officials, school directors, prison wardens, they all write us to come do that work, even in other states, to sing and bring young people our message of hope," he said. EFE