Photo by Duurt Delger on Unsplash

Do you believe the myth that all humans have a preordained destiny? That there’s a plan with every single life-altering decision a person will make? Those decisions determine whether that person is righteous or a “malandrin,” as we say in Spanish. A scoundrel. Someone who lives their life on the wrong side of the law.

The problem is, you never know what side you’ll end up on.

Growing up in a Catholic family, I was constantly told, “God is our spiritual father, who gave us life and has planned our lives, so we must live a righteous life.” But this felt like a catch-22, because I knew the world was not necessarily full of good and nice people. And since I couldn’t know what my future would hold, how would I know if my destiny would be full of misfortune and pain? If a life is prewritten, should we follow the rules of society or try to make ourselves happy?

As a child I tried to imagine what kind of life was designed for me, but the only images I saw were of me serving a lifetime of solitude. In my mind, that could only mean one thing: prison. Looking around at my environment, it was not hard to believe that would be my path in life. So I accepted my fate and realized I would be living with a fast expiration date. I knew my life would end sometime in my early 20s.

I set out to overcome the greatest obstacle in my life at that point: poverty. In my neighborhood, I learned the art of the dope game: fast money with huge risks. Best of all, there was no age requirement for employment.

When I learned the trade for the first time as a teenager, I quickly found that I was actually good at something that made me money and gave me power. I was still certain that my prewritten life path would in a prison cell for life. But I was OK with that outcome. Living a fast life with that knowledge made each special moment I experienced that much sweeter and more fulfilling. With money in my pocket, age didn’t matter. I lived my life to its fullest.

Then came a day when I was standing at a crossroad. I saw a glimpse of an alternate route, tempting me like that juicy apple on the tree of life that Eve ate. In my gut I knew it would lead to heartbreak, but there is always that small corner of your mind that wants a new, different life.

For me, that other life was joining the Coast Guard. I figured I would enlist for as long as it would take to earn a full ride to college. So I jumped in with gusto, head first, high hopes and all. I was three weeks away from turning 18, having graduated high school early before the end of the first quarter of my senior year.

I filled out all the recruitment registration forms and the only thing left was my face-to-face interview with the recruiting officer. When I arrived, the Coast Guard Officer informed me that my juvenile record could be overlooked and sealed if I enlisted. If I exhibited great behavior and showed seriousness about the Coast Guard, I would have a career path.

Then came that gut wrenching moment I knew from the beginning would curtail this alternative road — the big “but” moment. The only problem, the officer informed me, was my temporary resident status, which would remain until I was 18 years old, which was the last week of June. I was told that I had to file residency paperwork myself as an adult. It would take a week or two to receive all my new resident documentation, and then I would be able to enlist in the Coast Guard.

I barely made it to my 18th birthday before catching my first adult felony case for a high speed chase with police, attempted assault on officers with a vehicle, and possession of firearms and narcotics. I knew at at that point that I would never get to see where that alternate life path could take me.

Catching the felony case was no coincidence. It was life telling me to stay in my lane. But the heartbreak still has not dampened my spirits or discouraged me from dreaming about a new way of life, even here on Death Row.

I will always move forward with one eye on my dream and the other on the road. Today, I spend my days sitting on California’s Death Row, where I arrived on July 17, 2001.

For the record, my mind, body and heart have never been broken by my 18 years in solitary confinement.

 
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.

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Juan Villa Ramirez

Juan Villa Ramirez is a writer incarcerated on Death Row in San Quentin, California. He is the father of two daughters and a grandfather of five.