This week on The Trip podcast, deportee Gera Gámez on surviving L.A. gangland violence, jail and deportation, and adjusting to his new reality in Tijuana.
I got a WhatsApp voice message in Tijuana from a journalist named Jesús Aguilar. He’s one of a special breed of police-scanner-hawks, independent reporters of the people, who zoom from crime scene to crime scene, take pictures of the carnage, tell what they can about what happened, and post it on their social channels. Every Mexican city seems to have a handful of these—in Tijuana it’s people like Jesús and Margarito 4-4, and they can have huge followings, partly for the lurid fascination, partly for the sense that this is the most honest reporting people can get on dishonest system. In this message he left me, Jesús is telling me that he’s heading out to check some human remains that were reported to police, that he’s not sure how much meat is on the bones, but he’ll report what he finds to his Facebook page.
Jesús’ world, that side of Tijuana, I think is an important one too, a side that is connected to this week’s guest Gera Gámez. That’s because, for all the positive energy and positive people and incredible food in this town on the rebound, it’s still a place of border intrigue and smuggling routes and deportees and flashes of violence and it’s not even Tijuana’s fault. There’s just enormous pressure on Tijuana, especially in this shaky moment between U.S. administrations. So many vulnerable people wind up here, creating a teeming ecosystem for prey and predators alike. It’s a city, but it’s also a waiting room, a holding cell. And here standing out among the lost souls, there are also many people who have come to help.
For whatever his sins in the past, this week’s guest ended up being one of the helpers. Gera Gámez had a deeply tough life story, from crossborder abandonment as a child to gangland violence in LA that left him paralyzed, to adjusting to the reality of life in a wheelchair in a city he didn’t not know, with no feasible way of returning to the United States. And yet he wound up helping himself by helping others, working with one of the organizations I admire most, Al Otro Lado (The other side), a fierce legal aid group working on both sides of the border.
As you might know if you follow us on social media, Gera died unexpectedly in 2020, not long after recording this episode. It was a shock, but here’s what makes his life’s last chapter so special: he was doing work that lives on. The fight for the border, for dignity and rights for all migrants, is as pitched as ever. Please help Al Otro Lado if you can. And for now, join me and Gera, drinking Clamato of all things, at the Hotel Ticuán in Tijuana, talking about his incredible life story.
Nathan Thornburgh: Where were you born?
Gera Gámez: I was born here in Mexico, in Nayarit.
Nathan: Where is that from Tijuana?
Gámez. It’s two states down. There’s Sonora, Sinaloa, then Nayarit. On the bus, it’s about 28 hours from here to there.
Thornburgh: How did you end up in the States?
Gámez: Well, my mother picked my sister and I up from Nayarit when I was nine. My sister was 10. Yes. She moved to California back around 1980. My grandparents told me that I was 45 days old when she left.
Thornburgh: So you were a young infant, and she went up north to work.
Gámez: Yes. She moved to Los Angeles. I didn’t know my mother. I didn’t see her for all my infant years.
Thornburgh: It was your grandparents raising you and your sister.
Gámez: Correct. I saw my grandparents as my parents. My mother showed up one day, but I didn’t know she was my mother back then. She said, “I’m your mom,” and I said, “Hell no,” and I ran towards my grandfather and grabbed his leg, and I told him that there was a lady telling me that she was my mom. It was hard to accept it. It was hard to even call her ‘mom’ at the beginning of my journey with her. I did cry. I’m not going to lie. My mom tells me that I cried the whole way to Tijuana. Went to sleep crying, woke up crying.
Thornburgh: That’s 28 hours, even just to Tijuana, just crying on the bus. I get that. You were being taken away from everything you knew, and the people who raised you.
Gámez: Yeah, it did hurt. It hurt a lot deep inside. I didn’t accept it. Readjusting my life was tough.
Thornburgh: It’s not just leaving all the people, but you’re leaving small-town Nayarit, a rural area.
Gámez: We moved to West L.A. Then we moved to South Central L.A. South-Central, back in the early ’90s, it was chaos. I was a little kid. It was war. It was war between gangs, and I was a little kid. My mom said it was too dangerous. We moved, I would say close to the mid-’90s, to West L.A., and then from there I lived my life a couple of blocks away from Dodger Stadium.
Thornburgh: How did you survive that? Being dropped in the middle of gang war, South Central L.A. as a kid? I assume you didn’t speak English when you came to the States.
Gámez: Correct. I didn’t know English, even enough to defend myself. As a little kid I was bullied. I used to fight all the time. I didn’t understand what they were saying, and I would answer with a Spanish bad word and take off on them. It was tough.
If you’re going to do something, regret it before you do it.
Thornburgh: Why did your mother want to take you to the U.S.?
Gámez: She said the reason she took me was for a better life, so I wouldn’t be a burden on my grandparents. That’s what she told me when I was a little kid.
Thornburgh: It’s amazing to me, sometimes. People need to rethink what a better life means sometimes. A lot of people from north to south, south to north, where white Americans always have this idea that people are coming up from Mexico because life is just so bitching in the States. But life is hard in a lot of places in the States also. Mexico is its own kind of tough, but I couldn’t imagine a tougher situation than early ’90s South Central Los Angeles. Define better life, right?
Gámez: Yeah, and especially during the Rodney King riots. It was crazy. We used to live on 41st and Figueroa, four main boulevards from where the rioting happened.
Thornburgh: Where it all just lit on fire.
Gámez: That’s when everything just cracked down. It was crazy around that area, people broke into stores, laundromats, you name it. I wanted to go and enjoy the scene, but my mom didn’t let me because I was a little kid, and it was too dangerous to be there. It was all over the news. She just kept us in the house.
Thornburgh: She locked you in. That feeling of being vulnerable and being under attack and not knowing how to defend yourself, was that ultimately what drove you to kind of hook up with gangs, or did that come later in your life?
Gámez: Truthfully, yes, that did drive me to associate with a gang. Speaking for myself. I can’t speak for other people, but speaking for myself, that was pushing me because I couldn’t accept my mother and what she had done. I kept asking her why she picked up my sister and I late, when she had brought my other brothers with her initially.
Thornburgh: Your other brothers had been living with her the whole time?
Gámez: Yes, My older brother and my older sister. What a difference it would have made. How come she didn’t bring us too?
Thornburgh: Did she ever give you an answer that satisfied you?
Gámez: Then, the answer I got is that she was not ready financially. That’s when I was being hard on her. I was naïve. I didn’t find that explanation reasonable at that moment. Now that I’m grown, looking at the whole picture, I know that I was in the wrong. I admit that I did a lot of damage, being hard on her. I was holding that grudge for a good minute, until one day, just out of the blue—I was in high school—I started falling off the wagon. That’s when I started going off track, not going to school anymore. Being out there on the street.
Thornburgh: You went not for self-defense, but for family. It was to replace the family that you were disconnected with?
Gámez: Yes, correct. At that moment I was crashing a lot with my older brothers, because they were older. I was just a little, short kid that they could punk. I ended up looking for another family, and the gang became my family and my home boys became my brothers. Once I got in, that was it. I can’t look back and say, “Oh, I take back what happened to me. I take back what they did. I take back what I did.” You can’t take it back. If you’re going to do something, regret it before you do it. That’s it. I’ve got to face reality here, in jail, or wherever.
The bullet missed my heart by a couple of centimeters.
Thornburgh: Do you regret your time in the gang? It’s a big part of your life, right?
Gámez: I don’t regret it, because when I was in it, I was having fun. When I was doing all this little mumbo jumbo, I was blasé, but now when I see myself in a situation where I’m in jail, in a situation where I’m in a wheelchair, that’s when I feel regret. But what’s done is done. I ended up losing. They shot me when I was young, because I wanted to be out there in the street. I wanted to be a knucklehead.
Thornburgh: Tell me about when you got shot. What happened?
Gámez: One night I had drunk so much, and I thought it was still too early to stop the party. I was trying to ask my mom for the car, and she didn’t want to lend it to me because I was drunk, so she asked my brother to take me. Next thing you know, they recognized me. They pulled the strap and they shot me.
Thornburgh: He took you to a place you shouldn’t have been?
Gámez: I don’t blame my brother at all.
Thornburgh: You asked him to take you out?
Gámez: It was my fault. I won’t say it’s good it happened to me, but at the same time, if that bullet had hit him I would have had a guilty conscience—if he were in a wheelchair chair because of me, I don’t think I would have slept well. I’m not saying I’m thankful because it happened to me, but that I keep in mind that it was my fault. Life goes on. I can’t look back, and I can’t blame anyone but myself.
Thornburgh: So you don’t look at the people who shot you and say that’s a special kind of evil? It was just all part of this system you were all in?
Gámez: When you play in the mud, you can expect to get dirty. Don’t expect when you play in the mud stay clean. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you get out of some crazy thing, and think Whoa, I did that. I’m out and I’m free, you know? If you see yourself on the other side of the coin and think like them, you know, that happened because I was playing in the mud.
Thornburgh: How old were you?
Gámez: I was 22 years old when I got shot.
Thornburgh: And you were and are paralyzed from the waist down?
Gámez: Further up than from the waist down. I got shot on the left side, where the heart is. It missed my heart by a couple of centimeters, according to what the doctor told me, looking at the X-ray. And then it busted one of my lungs and it went straight to the spine, and ever since, I’ve been in a chair. That’s when my whole world changed. From looking at the world standing up and looking down, I now had to look up. The first year was hard, I’m not going to lie. The first year of being in a wheelchair is one of the roughest ones out there.