Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

As a young boy, being half Mexican and White, I experienced racism at home. I didn’t have to travel far or even go outside my own family to be judged by my heritage and have my future foretold for me.

“You’re a no-good Mexican shit, just like your father!” my grandma screamed at me when I was seven. My entire life revolved around my skin tone. I could pass as White, depending on how much sun I got, but internally her words never left me. In fact, I let those words define me for much of my life.

In the small rural town I grew up in, it was a big deal when they installed a stoplight at the top of the hill. We only had dirt roads, and as kids we walked on them barefoot. We only wore shoes for school, and we all had scraped knees.

We had two small stores that people referred to with racial slurs, in reference to the people that hung out there. The question of race was always present, I just couldn’t really grasp it as a child. All I knew was that some adults were mean to you for no apparent reason, and it didn’t make much sense.

As an adult, entering the segregated prison system was just another part of the incarceration process. In prison, race doesn’t define you, but it does dictate who you eat with and who you live with.

Being sentenced to die in prison is very difficult to process, particularly the thought of being separated from your family for the rest of your life. Many people react with a simultaneous mixture of suicidal thoughts and thoughts of survival. This is not just the story of my life. There are 130,000 inmates just like me who live and breathe behind the walls of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. This is not a sad story. It is just a story — one of many here.

Most of us come from broken homes and have no idea how to process our emotions in a rational way. In prison, I was immediately enlisted to defend my race’s territory around things like drinking fountains, basketball and handball courts, showers, phones, tables, etc. This is what being in a gang in prison entails.

We all have our values, and at some point we must examine those values to see if they are in line with who we want to be as people. There’s no shame in having an evolving moral standard, it’s part of growing up. Principles change as we age and we justify segregationist values as a way to keep peace. Misguided loyalties often handcuff us in our own minds to unhealthy relationships, people, and organizations.

We are often taught growing up that quitting is bad or that we must be loyal to our friends. But at what point do we say enough is enough?

Are we obligated to destroy ourselves because another person doesn’t value him or herself? No, we are not! The word loyalty should not be used to force or obligate anyone to do things that hurt other people. That’s not loyalty, that’s an abusive friendship. And it means you need new friends. Friends lift each other up, help each other succeed in life, and support one another. They don’t tear each other down.

As we navigate life, it is only natural to develop bonds with people. And we never know where those bonds may lead or what lies in the hearts of other people. So it is not our fault if someone we chose as a friend turns out to be a bad seed. But it is our fault if we remain friends with them and they get us in trouble.

Remember, as the saying goes: “Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell who you are.”

Yes, it is difficult to cut ties with a friend, lifestyle, or old love who’s bad. But ultimately the choice must be made to have a better future. We all need to make space for positive relationships to come into our lives.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Jessie Milo

Jessie Milo is a writer, artist and poet incarcerated in California. He is a volunteer for InitiateJustice.org and an advocate for mental health.