LOS ANGELES — When Agustin Lizama was 11 years old, he joined a gang. When he was 12, he was shot.
He remembers coming home from school that day and heading down to the corner store, where his brother, then 15, was hanging out with their other fellow gang members.
A car drove by and one of the occupants fired a 12-gauge shotgun at close range. “I looked down and saw half my thumb and a couple pieces were still there, but everything was pretty much hanging,” said Lizama, now 33.
A pellet had gone directly into his skinny forearm. “I started screaming so loud. Then I was in shock, numb. I couldn’t answer people’s questions. The pain was so bad I don’t think my body or brain could really take it.”
At the hospital, doctors had to remove about half of his left forearm and hand. Instead of compelling him to turn away from gun culture, the injury forced Lizama further into the gang. “At the time, my support was already the gang. So it just drove me deeper,” he said.
Lizama grew up in the northeast LA neighborhood of Glassell Park as one of seven children, all raised by their single mother. Because his mother juggled several jobs, it seemed that the only attention he got from her was a beating if he did something wrong, he said.
“That’s why I joined a gang. I was so hungry for attention, and they gave it to me,” he said.
The first thing Lizama did once he recovered from the shooting was buy a gun — a black market .22-caliber revolver for $44. “I wasn’t going to get caught slippin’ again,” he said. “It was the most empowering feeling.”
From that point on, he spent every day with the gang, running drugs and participating in drive-by shootings. Most days, he didn’t go to school.
Months after he was shot, blood spilled close to home again. Lizama, by then 13, was “cruising,” or driving around, with two fellow gang members, including a close friend, Nestor, 16.
They approached rival gang members and got out of the car, “throwing” gang hand signs at each other. When they saw one of the rival members pull a gun, they ran back to the car. As they drove off, Lizama realized that blood was dripping into the backseat. He leaned forward and saw two bullet holes in Nestor’s head.
“I was just trying to keep him alive; trying to stop the blood. His brains were coming out,” Lizama said. “I was telling him that he was my homie and I loved him and he was going to be okay and telling him to fight.”
Nestor “couldn’t talk,” Lizama recalled. “He was holding my hand and the driver’s hand. You could just tell that he didn’t want us to let him go.” They took Nestor straight to the hospital. He died two days later.
“I still have nightmares about it to this day. I wake up sweating,” Lizama said. And yet, at the time, he said he felt emotionally removed from the experience.
“When we were burying him, there was this numb feeling inside. I felt nothing,” he said. “When you want to feel the anger and revenge, the sadness always comes afterwards. You couldn’t stay angry all the time. So I just didn’t want to feel at all.”
The numbness lasted 11 more years. He was involved in dozens of drive-by shootings, and dozens of his friends and acquaintances were shot to death. He carried more than 50 different guns during those years and witnessed gunfire about four times a week, he estimated.
“I would wake up not knowing if I was going to live to the end of the day,” he said. “I didn’t care. I couldn’t see any other life out there.” In the cemetery where Nestor is buried, nine of Lizama’s other friends’ names are also on tombstones.
Lizama first went to juvenile detention when he was 16, convicted of assault with a deadly weapon. When he was there, his godmother sent the Rev. Gregory Boyle to talk to him. Boyle, a Jesuit priest, had founded Homeboy Industries, an LA nonprofit that assists former gang members and at-risk youth, four years earlier in 1992.
“He told me I mattered. I’ve never had that feeling with anyone else before, being surrounded with that kind of energy,” Lizama recalled. “He told me that I’m better than the worse thing I’ve done. And that the door was open when I was ready; that he’d be there waiting for me with open arms. He told me he loved me.”
But Lizama wasn’t ready. “I was a lost soul. The darkness was where I was comfortable,” he said.
For the next four years, he was in and out of detention for parole violations. During this time, his daughter and son were born.
When he was 24, and another parole violation put him back in jail after being out for only a few months, something finally snapped.
He used his one call to phone his two kids and their mom. His 3-year-old daughter got on the phone. “I just remember hearing that voice, ‘Daddy, where you at? You were just barely here,’” he recalled. “That’s what did it for me.”
“Something in my heart just opened up again. I balled my eyes out,” he said. “I made a promise to her right there that, ‘That’s it. I never want to put you through this no more. I promise you.’”
“I knew what it felt like to be fatherless, and it finally hit home,” he said. “I didn’t want to put them through everything I went through.”
With the next call he was allowed, he phoned Father Boyle. When he got out of jail a year later, he started job training at Homeboy Industries. He also took GED classes to get his high school diploma, writing and poetry classes, and anger management classes at the nonprofit. He started attending Criminals and Gang Members Anonymous meetings and severed ties with his gang.
In 2005, his 18-year-old brother was shot to death at a Fourth of July party. This time, instead of turning to the gang for support, Lizama turned to his family and to what he called the “community” at Homeboy Industries.
This time, he felt the pain. “When we buried him, I finally felt it. I wasn’t numb,” he said. When he spoke at his brother’s funeral service, Lizama said it “felt like I cried a river … I think I was mourning for everyone else I had lost through the years.”
Feeling his own pain and seeing that of his family’s was an eye-opening experience. “I saw how my family was really, really in despair and the pain my mom had to go through. Then it started making sense to me,” he said. “This is what gun violence does. It doesn’t just affect the person shot; it affects all the loved ones.”
Lizama’s brother left behind a daughter, only 1 at the time. “My little niece is going to grow up not ever knowing her father,” Lizama said. “The only memories she has is the pictures of him carrying her.”
Lizama is now the full time coordinator of the domestic violence services program at Homeboy Industries. At the nonprofit, he has weekly one-on-one therapy sessions and takes various classes. Recently, those classes included one on fatherhood and another on restorative justice.
His purpose in life now, he said, is to pass on to his kids the “unconditional love” Boyle gave him. “I want to show my kids that they have so much worth.” He said that by giving them “all the support they need,” he hopes they won’t turn toward a gang.
If either of his children express interest in obtaining a gun, he “would tell them that guns only lead to two places: death or prison,” he said. “I lost my brother and my arm to gun violence.”
“I would tell them guns never solve anything,” he said. “They only make things worse. They only leave deep, hard-core wounds that will sometimes take a whole lifetime to heal.”