Alfredo Gonzalez, 42, sat down in the Project Rebound office at Fresno State on a Wednesday morning. He was there to register for a two-day criminal justice class that would count for one unit toward his bachelor’s degree.
“Although I’m at (Fresno) City I’ve been part of Project Rebound since before I got out of prison,” he said. The program helps formerly incarcerated people go to college and graduate.
He’s slated to graduate from Fresno City College next semester with five associate degrees: social and behavioral sciences, sociology, American studies, arts and humanities, and business.
Gonzalez said he’ll transfer to Fresno State and then hopefully law school. But before he started this new life, he was in Salinas Valley State Prison. It's a place he thought he would never leave.
“So I said, ‘I’m going to be the best Bulldog (gang member) I could ever be, the best criminal,” Gonzalez said. “And that’s what I did for the next 15 to 18 years. I just tore up the prison system any chance or opportunity I had. Enemies, I seen you, you came within striking distance of me, I struck. That was my life.”
Gonzalez said he would have done anything for the Bulldog gang, including attempted murder or assault with a deadly weapon.
“Anything you can think of I did in prison,” the retired Bulldog gang member said.
Everything Gonzalez did in prison earned him the respect of other gang members, he said. But now he’s trying to use that for good.
“All the bad that I did for so many years, I’m trying to get the positive out of that and use that negative stuff for positive stuff now,” Gonzalez said. “All that stuff, I can’t change it. I already did it, there’s no going back. But what I can do is use that credibility that I earned and that respect to try to change the lives of the next generation and that’s what we’re doing.”
For the past few months, Gonzalez has been working with community activist Aaron Foster, whose goal is to prevent gun violence in Fresno. For the past two years, Foster has been trying to bring a gun violence prevention program, Advance Peace, to Fresno.
Earlier this year the Fresno City Council set funds aside to bring the program to the city, but Mayor Lee Brand vetoed that funding. Foster decided to create his own version of the program and works with local people, like Gonzalez, to stop shootings from happening.
Foster and Gonzalez talk to gang members -- young and old -- to keep the peace. Fresno Police Captain Mark Salazar told Valley Public Radio two months ago that the work Foster’s done has been effective in decreasing shootings.
Foster’s focus is in southwest Fresno because that’s his neighborhood, or his “hood” as he called it. Foster said he reached out to Gonzalez because he knows a different part of the city.
In the gang culture, Gonzalez said, there’s a racial divide and that’s why working together is critical.
“Like Aaron said, he can only talk to the kids in his neighborhood, the gangs he’s familiar with,” Gonzalez said. “I can do my part with the gangs I’m familiar with, the people I was part of.”
Gonzalez speaks to youth groups at Barrios Unidos monthly. He networks with families he knows so he can go into their neighborhoods to empower kids through education and civic engagement.
“We want to come in there and try to speak to these kids and say you know what, we don’t need you to commit a felony because we need you to vote when you turn 18,” Gonzalez said. “And if you can vote when you turn 18 then you can make a change. And if you can make a change you should be in college because you matter.”
It’s important this message is coming from someone like Gonzalez, he said, not only because of his reputation among other gang members but because he was able to survive.
The Selma-native became a gang member at 13. At 17, he was arrested and convicted for second-degree murder and first-degree attempted murder. It was a gang-related crime and he was serving a double life sentence.
“Once again it goes back to my past, my reputation,” he said. “They say, ‘Well if he was able to do it. Everybody respects him and he’s going to college, then why can’t I go to college? Why do I have to go to prison and learn and waste my whole youth in prison?’ Which I did. I wasted my whole life.”
But because of SB-260, a state bill passed six years ago that gives people convicted of certain crimes as minors parole hearings, Gonzalez got out in 2018.
“And that’s what basically saved me aside from the fact that I earned my GED in 2013," Gonzalez said. He also helped bring college courses and self-help programs to the prison.
So far, Gonzalez said, he’s getting through to people and has been able to stop some fights and possible shootings from happening. But more importantly, he said it’s about letting kids know that college is an option.
“If people see they listened over here, and they got this guy a job, or they got this guy into college, or 'hey this guy got his GED,' more people will get involved,” Gonzalez said. “And they’ll say, ‘Hey you know what? Let go hang out at Fresno City, let’s go to school.’ And who knows?”
Gonzalez said he realizes now how much pain he has caused other people and if he can stop other kids from committing crimes, “then I did my job," he said.