Murder, drugs, death, loss and jail.
Terms the average person might associate with gangs. And with the epidemic levels of gang violence infecting communities nationwide, that maybe understandable.
When Samuel Rangel discusses gangs, however, words like "acceptance," "alienation" and "validation" fall from his mouth like almonds from a tree -- each a chapter of his life experience.
Still, the most important words in Rangel's lexicon are probably "intervention" and "hope."
"The earlier you can spot and identify a problem, the higher probability you have of fixing that problem," says Rangel, a former Merced gang member. "When we educate the community about the gang, we're usually talking about the color, the different type of gangs in Merced. But we never focus on the individual and how can we help him."
Such is the approach proposed by Rangel in his new book, "The Theory of Personality Within the Gang System." The book, which is 111 pages long and took Rangel more than two years to write, discusses the ways parents and teachers can help steer young people away from the gang lifestyle. "The goal of the book is hopefully to answer the question of 'why?' Why do kids join gangs, on a personal level, on a deeper level," Rangel explained.
As opposed to chronicling the types of gangs that exist in Merced and the crimes they commit, however, Rangel proposes viewing gang members through a prism of understanding, in order to comprehend some of the reasons why young people join gangs in the first place.
Rangel says although he doesn't condone the violent and criminal acts committed by gangs, members aren't monsters -- but human beings who may have gone through traumatic or horrific events in their lives.
While Rangel, who self-published the book, doesn't claim to possess any magic potion to solve the gang problem, he provides tips to help reach kids at an early age.
"I'm not asking society to feel sorry for these kids because I do believe there is an age of accountability, where a kid becomes accountable for his own actions. But I also believe there's an age of accessibility," Rangel said. "We can really focus on saving these kids at a very young age, and a little bit of acceptance can go a long way."
In his book, Rangel explains reasons why young people join gangs. While many young people join to achieve a sense of belonging and acceptance, he suggests that others may join to deal with underlying issues from distressing or traumatic events, such as divorce, death, relocation, abuse and an emotional sense of loss.
"Family is just one of the many ways to define the gang unit," Rangel writes. "Over the years, I have often heard them described as 'low-lives, degenerates, thugs and terrorists.' However, if you were to ask an at-risk youth or a gang member to define the gang unit, family would overwhelmingly be included in its meaning."
While Rangel researched his book extensively, citing a list of case studies and statistics, much of his information he learned firsthand as a homegrown Merced gangbanger. By age 12, he was drinking beer and smoking marijuana with friends. At age 15 he was a full-fledged gang member, dealing drugs and being involved in a vortex of criminal activities. At age 18 he'd fathered his first child out of wedlock and had been in and out of jail.
After Rangel reached his early 20s, he was homeless and addicted to drugs, living in McNamara Park in Merced.
The turning point in his life came after seeing a picture of two of his sons in the Sun-Star -- with their legal guardian. "I remember falling to the ground in anguish, feeling many conflicting emotions," Rangel wrote. "I was sad because I had missed so much of their lives, I was angry because there was another man in the picture where I should have been and I was happy because my boys looked very good and healthy."
Later that same day, members of a gang assaulted Rangel, hitting him in the head with a brick before tossing him into a Dumpster.
Waking up inside it, he prayed to God: "If you get me out of this place, I will live right and dedicate my life to helping people just like me."
Rangel said he crawled out of the Dumpster and afterwards began going to church. With help from a mentor and support from his family, by the age of 27 he'd left drugs and the gang lifestyle behind him.
Since then, Rangel has worked as a counselor. He has steered several young men away from gang life.
Although he's been on the right track for several years, life still poses its challenges.
The organization Rangel directed, New Hope Merced, a nonprofit faith-based organization that worked to rehabilitate gang members, recently ceased operations, because of a lack of grant funds.
In addition, Rangel was recently laid off his county job as a alcohol and drug counselor. He's unemployed, but remains upbeat, sending out resumes every day and going to job interviews. "I'm totally fine with being laid off, and I understand when cuts are necessary." Rangel said. "But if you're going to cut them, you need to have something to replace them. I don't think we've have a very good plan to replenish services with alternatives."
Rev. Roger Minassian, founder of Hope Now for Youth in Fresno, an organization that finds jobs for former gang members, called the book a "worthwhile analysis" on the factors that cause young people to turn towards gangs. "I would recommend this book to anyone interested in working with at-risk youth," Minassian said. "Sam's got a real heart for these kids."
Regardless of how many people read his book, Rangel says he'll continue to work towards showing young people a path out of gang life. "There's other ways to achieve respect, honor and popularity other than going out and committing crimes," Rangel says.
He should know. He took his own path to save his own life.
Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.