Jumped into a gang at 9 years old, these Long Beach men now help others find healing

Miguel Lugo gave a tour last week of the trauma that kept him trapped for so long.

He pointed at an apartment building off Cedar Avenue where crack used to be sold. He walked by Washington Middle School where a childhood assault helped solidify the trajectory of his life.

On this day, a street vendor outside the school clutched his paring knives a little closer when a group of teenagers walked past him.

Other neighborhood vendors had been robbed recently, and the man selling fruit by the quart now looked suspiciously at the group of youth, some with school supplies in hand, just crossing the street.

If they tried anything, he’d defend himself, the man said.

Standing nearby, Lugo interrupted, shaking his head. More violence wasn’t the answer: “We can solve all our differences with civil discourse,” he said.

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Lugo, a 42-year-old Long Beach native who grew up in the Washington neighborhood, just north of Downtown, didn’t always see things that way.

Thirty-three years earlier, Lugo’s life had been transformed by an act of violence at the same intersection where he now stood.

At 9 years old, Lugo was beaten outside Washington Middle School by a group of other kids. The “jumping-in” marked Lugo’s initiation into the Longos, one of the city’s most notorious gangs.

Lugo’s childhood friend, who was just five years older and went through a similar initiation at the age of 9, oversaw the beating.

Lugo says he wanted to run away from the blows back then, but a yearning to be accepted persuaded him to take the punches. Lugo believed that after the pain subsided he would emerge surrounded by a brotherhood.

“It was never about a gang,” Lugo said. “It was about the friends I had.”

At the time, he thought joining the gang made him 100 new allies, but no one told him it also made him 1,000 new enemies and set him on a path that Lugo feared would end with him dying in prison.

Time to step up

During some of the darkest days in that prison, however, Lugo found a place of rebirth. A spiritual awakening left him with a newfound mission of healing, one he’s trying to bring home to Long Beach through a group called Restore INK—short for Restore Identity Narrative and Kinship.

Modeled on successful gang rehabilitation programs like Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, Lugo and his partners want Restore INK to give gang members and former prisoners a chance to get jobs and therapy. Lugo says kids now growing up in the same neighborhood he did deserve a chance to escape trauma and thrive instead.

“For me, being out of prison for six years now, I feel like this is the time for Long Beach to step up to the next level of healing—because Long Beach needs to heal all as a city,” Lugo says. “That’s the reason why we got so many shootings and so much pain because there’s so much pain in the city.”

After his gang initiation, Lugo says his life was defined by that pain and violence. He watched people die in shootings, including his own brother.

Through his youth, Lugo bounced in and out of juvenile hall, and eventually, “It all came spiraling down,” he says.

At 18, he was caught up in the wake of a shooting in Downtown.

As authorities tell it, one of Lugo’s fellow Longos confronted a group of three men near First Street and Elm Avenue—accusing them of being part of a rival gang. They denied this, but the shooter pulled out a weapon and fired, wounding two of them.

Lugo says he happened to be visiting a friend after work in a nearby apartment when the shots rang out. Because of his ties to the Longos and because he matched the shooter’s description, he was charged in the crime.

Lugo maintained his innocence but was convicted in 1998 and sentenced to 20 years to life in prison despite the fact that one of the witnesses who originally identified him as the shooter later said it was someone else.

A baptism of freedom

In 2014, Lugo appealed his case, claiming his lawyers failed to adequately challenge the credibility of the witness who changed his story about seeing Lugo.

The court accepted his appeal, and six months later, Lugo walked out of Centinela State Prison in Imperial County.

“I was able to touch the ocean again—that’s the first thing I did,” Lugo says. “I dove in the ocean and said, ‘I have a new life.’”

Part of that new life was a physical transformation. Lugo wanted to remove all of the gang-affiliated tattoos from his body.

To do this, he went to Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries—the world’s largest gang rehabilitation and re-entry program.

While there trying to get a tattoo removal appointment, Lugo saw a man he recognized working behind a desk. There was Jose Osuna, the teenager who’d overseen Lugo’s initiation beating outside Washington Middle School.

Lugo says he couldn’t believe it. Osuna, once a “hardcore gang member” was now a suit-wearing executive at Homeboy Industries. Lugo had to talk to him.

Jose Osuna stands in his neighborhood that he grew up in. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

“I’m sitting in my office and this big tall dude with this long ponytail opens the door and he calls me by my gang name,” Osuna says. He was convinced there was about to be a reckoning with his past.

When Osuna realized who’d just walked through his door, he assumed Lugo wanted to kill him for not writing him in prison. Instead, Lugo asked for a favor.

“I go, OK he’s not going to kill me, he’s going to extort me,” Osuna says.

Instead, Lugo asked for help removing the gang tattoo scrawled across his chest, ink that he’d once been proud to wear.

“He started telling me about the change in his life—when he changed in prison—so I ended up getting him in the tattoo removal,” Osuna says. “That’s when our friendship started, because we were homeboys before—we were never friends—that’s the day our friendship started.”

But there was more to Homeboy Industries, Osuna explained, telling Lugo they offered programs that could help him heal from the trauma he experienced. This got him hooked.

“And I was lucky, because the same guy who jumped me into the gang was working at Homeboy Industries, and told me that if I wanted a different life, this is where I can come and find it,” Lugo says.

Osuna’s life had followed a similar trajectory of tragedy and imprisonment.

His son was shot to death in 2007, just down the street from Washington Middle School, and Osuna spent more than a decade in prison before finding his way to Homeboy Industries.

Now, the two childhood friends attended therapy sessions together with Homeboy Industries’ founder, Father Greg Boyle. Through those meetings, Lugo says, he was finally able to see a future outside of shootings, drugs and death.

“I vaguely remember that day when he came in,” Boyle says. “Jose really advocated to bring him on, and subsequently we did.”

Boyle described Lugo as a man with a large stature, but he never saw him impose his immense size on anyone. He called him gentle.

Boyle ended up hiring Lugo as head of Homeboy Industries security, which gave him a sense of purpose and a way back into mainstream society.

He started taking what he’d learned to other former inmates.

“I watched him become a wisdom figure to the younger guys,” Boyle says.

Miguel Lugo (far left) walks with Homeboy Industries founder Father Greg Boyle (far right) in 2017. Courtesy photo Miguel Lugo.

Lugo talked to them about getting jobs, going to school, even about just opening a bank account or signing up for a driver’s license test—mundane parts of life they’d been left out of.

“I talk to the homies and I tell them, ‘You know what a 401k is, bro?’ And we just talk about the simple things we take for granted,” Lugo says.

Restoring Long Beach

Very quickly, though, Lugo and Osuna began to realize that Long Beach—their hometown where kids are still living through the same gang-related trauma they did—lacked a program similar to Homeboy Industries.

It pained them that the Washington neighborhood was still disproportionately plagued by violence. Shootings happen frequently. And, as Lugo puts it, meth bags have replaced the cocaine bricks from the ‘80s.

The two recognized the effectiveness of Homeboy Industries’ style of incorporating former gang members into the workplace. Lugo says he believed in it because it saved him, and he was as stubborn as they come.

“Long Beach, for being such a rich city and for us not to have a program like this is kind of pathetic. We have to leave the city and go somewhere else so we can get the help,” Lugo says.

In response, the two started developing their support community, Restore INK. The group is dedicated to helping the formerly incarcerated and those living through the traumas of gang life.

Therapy is a big part of what Lugo and Osuna have set out to do. Through conversation and counseling, former gang members can wash away their pain and their assumed identity, Lugo says, because those who are hurt, tend to hurt others in return.

“Restore INK is about healing,” Lugo says. “It’s about taking the mask off and giving them a place where they can take the mask off.”

In February 2019, Lugo and Osuna teamed up with Rev. Kyle Blake from Gathering Lutheran Church in Central Long Beach to host bible studies out of his living room for members of rival Long Beach gangs. The three men would host about 10 to 15 gang members at a time once a week to share meals and talk.

Lugo wanted to show these men—who often viewed each other as enemies—that they are not very different. It’s difficult to kill someone when you know them, he says.

There’s one man’s breakthrough he’ll never forget:

“We were sitting there—me, Kyle and Jose—eating, and he goes, ‘Man, we’re just people that were misguided by the misguided,’” Lugo recalls. “If we don’t do something about it, that’s the same thing that’s going to continue to happen.”

Their message had sunk in, Lugo says, and “it just sounded so beautiful.”

The tools needed by former inmates and gang members are simple, Lugo says. Just finding them a stable job or a place they feel safe to open up are key. In practice though, it’s difficult to find the funding and volunteers who want to put in the work to help them.

“It sounds so simple, but it becomes so hard, because who wants to tutor a guy with a tattoo on his face that says ‘fuck you’?” Lugo says.

The pandemic, too, has complicated the plans for Restore INK, putting a stop to their in-person therapy sessions. For now, Osuna says the group keeps in touch with incarcerated people by writing letters to them. They also connect with the families of people in prison to assist any way they can.

“We find folks through street walks, word of mouth and through other organizations that we work with and work for,” Osuna said in an email.

Eventually, when the organization is beyond its infancy and they have the needed funding, Lugo hopes Restore INK can offer tattoo removal so members can strip away the physical markings of gang affiliation that Homeboy Industries helped him shed.

These days, the only tattoos still on Lugo’s body tell a story about his roots and his journey to find peace behind bars.

In 2007, while serving time, Lugo was approached by a native spiritual leader who asked him if he wanted to attend a sweat lodge.

Lugo is a member of the Yaqui Tribe, of the turtle and deer nation, a native group with tribes located near San Diego and over the border in Mexico. He knew what sweat lodges were, but figured it would be hard to convince the warden to let him go. Somehow, Lugo was granted permission, and he regularly began attending sessions.

Lugo says every trip to the sweat lodge was another step forward in the healing process that’s culminated in bringing his mission home to Long Beach.

At Washington Middle School last week, just after his conversation with the fruit vendor, Lugo lifted his shirt to show off his remaining tattoos.

A Native American inspired journey is inked across Lugo’s entire back. On the bottom left, there’s a man with a turtle shell, which represents Lugo’s turtle-nation heritage. At the top left, near his shoulder, an owl swoops down. It’s Lugo’s spirit animal that guided him through his journey to find inner peace that shapes how he sees himself today—as a guide for other inmates looking for a way out.

Miguel Lugo, 42, had all of his gang-related tattoos removed but left his back piece, which he said depicts his journey from a life a crime to a life of service. Thursday, March 18, 2021. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

“Restore INK is about restoring people back to what God intended them to be, and God didn’t intend for me to be a drug dealer or a corner gangster or any of the stuff that happens out there,” Lugo said. “They’re surviving. I’m tired of my people surviving. I want them to start living life and enjoying life.”

Editor’s note: Jose Osuna is a member of the Long Beach Post’s Community Editorial Board, which writes editorials and opinion pieces. They do not have any control over news stories like this one. In addition, this story was corrected to show Lugo was released from Centinela State Prison.

Community Engagement Editor Stephanie Rivera contributed to this story.

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Sebastian Echeverry is the North Long Beach reporter through the Report for America program. Philanthropic organizations pledged to cover the local donor portion of his grant-funded position with the Long Beach Post. If you want to support Sebastian's work, you can donate to his Report for America position at lbpost.com/support.
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