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Green beyond the concrete

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NOVEMBER 16, 2023

The Crescent Lawn at UC Berkeley was a stark change from the graffitied concrete of my roots in Los Angeles. To me, a kid shaped by street survival, it was like stepping into a painting from another world.

Watching my carefree peers laugh was alien to my ingrained vigilance. I felt the contrast of my path still deeply etched in my soul.

In Los Angeles, life lessons were brutal. Gang life wasn’t a choice — it was my existence. By 9 years old, I knew the politics of the streets; by 14, I’d seen enough violence to last a lifetime. 

Friends faded into memories, victims of gunfire or addiction. The streets didn’t just surround me; they devoured me, their lessons hard and unyielding.

But it was a homie’s words from jail that sparked a change: He spoke of dreams beyond these streets, urging me to seize a life beyond gang labels and pursue knowledge and a future.

So I transformed from a statistic to a scholar. Topping the principal’s honor roll and graduating in the top 10 of my high school class, I shed the labels of my past. Each accolade marked a step away from the streets — it was a surreal journey to UC Berkeley.

But to say UC Berkeley was a collision of worlds is an understatement. 

My teachers always told me that college is the place where you decide what you want your future to be. Keen to reinvent myself, I signed up for as many social events as possible to bridge the gap between my past and the students I was meeting. But the divide was severe. 

My cautious nature — a relic of the past — made forging connections harrowing. My peers saw a survivor; an anomaly. I may as well have been a Martian. I saw some of their untouched lives and came to resent their innocence.

This disconnect served to fill a cycle of isolating self-loathing. I resented the privilege of my peers and their ignorance to not just my reality, but any opposing worldview.

The efforts of friends and strangers to understand had proven futile, thrusting me further into isolation. In some of the darkest moments of my life, the memory of my mother’s tears — the one symbol of hope I had left — kept me from sinking into nothingness.

But it was during those moments that I realized something: This pilgrimage from the ghetto to Berkeley, marked by survival and transformation, had been far more than a physical move. It was a metamorphosis of identity, an unyielding struggle to reconcile my past with a future I thought I wouldn’t be alive to imagine. 

Within the heart of this brave new world, every conversation, every laugh, was a step in a dance I was still mastering. It was a dance of reinvention, balancing the echoes of a hardened past with the promise of an enlightened future. 

And yet, even with all this in mind, I thought ending it all was a far better alternative. 

That epiphany struck me: the faces, the tears, the whimpers and the weight of everything. I realized the futility of my anguish. 

I had left life as a gang member to honor the fallen and to prove I was more than a stereotype. But the judgment and cold indifference from others had brought me to my knees. How could I ever succeed if I couldn’t distinguish the skeptics from those who understood that I could be redeemed?

My rage and my frustration became the forge for my rebirth.

I turned to weightlifting, channeling my turmoil into the clang of iron and sweat. It wasn’t just about building muscle or smashing old personal records either — it was about reconstructing my soul, lift by lift. 

I juggled internships in finance and advertising, diving into the chaos of tight deadlines and prickly clientele to forge resilience. I then returned to UC Berkeley with a determination to right my path. I sought to mend my relationships, especially with that one person who never stopped believing in me. Most crucially, I embraced therapy, unraveling layers of trauma and rebuilding the fragments of my psyche.

This journey, however, wasn’t without its casualties. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a second to acknowledge the growing pains. 

To friends confused by my pain, to those who tried but couldn’t fathom my world — I’m sorry. I let my past cloud my judgment, unfairly casting you as villains. My pain was mine to bear, not yours to shoulder. Know that you were the unsung heroes in my story.

And this column — this new chapter at UC Berkeley — is dedicated to my family and friends. Your faith and love were my beacons through the darkest nights. You are just as much the unsung heroes of my journey, deserving of all the love and admiration in the world. So I vow to honor that faith and to continue evolving, no matter the hurdles ahead.

As I stand on the cusp of my third year, I reflect on my evolution from gang loyalty to academic pursuit. This isn’t just my redemption — it’s a testament to the unyielding power of transformation. 

The road ahead is uncharted, but I walk it not as a creature of the shadows but as an architect of my destiny.

And finally, to those who’ve walked a similar path, remember: You are the dawn breaking chains and the beacon for the lost. As you navigate your journey, consider the power of community support. Organizations such as Homeboy Industries and Urban Peace Institute embody this spirit. They stand as pillars, offering hope and change. In extending a hand to them, you amplify the collective strength we share in transforming lives.

To those of you reading this: We are more than our past. We are the architects of our future and the beacons in the darkness. And as long as you believe in that, you’ll forever be more than mere labels or whispered fears.

Contact Ivan Acevedo at 


NOVEMBER 16, 2023