Ramon Quevedo lives in South Central, Los Angeles where gangs are a normal part of life and looking over your shoulder is habit. He loves Al Pacino’s Scarface, the Oakland Raiders and video games.
“One of my uncles, he got locked up when I was young, he always told me to stand up for myself, I see him as a role model, he taught me to defend myself,” he said.
At eight, Ramon was angry and liked to fight and in middle school, Ramon was ditching, tagging, and involved in illegal activities having to do with drugs and guns.
Ramon’s parents tried to help their son in various ways. His mom enrolled him in the LAPD’s Jeopardy Program for at-risk youth and sent him to a military boot camp. At boot camp, Ramon grew stronger and taller and became a more menacing version of his previous self. All of his mom’s attempts to help him failed. Then, one of Ramon’s officers told him about a scholarship program at a local Catholic High School and his parents thought he should try it.
Now, Ramon is a junior at Verbum Dei High School, an all-boys Catholic school in South Central, L.A. The school is small, the teachers know the students by name and all of the boys wear shirts, ties and dress shoes to class. “I’d rather put on my street clothes, but it’s safer when I put on my shirt and tie, when people see you in a shirt and tie with church shoes on, they don’t expect you to be gang bangin,” says Ramon about the strict dress code.
Ramon, like many of the boys at Verbum Dei, lives in the surrounding neighborhood where drug dealing and gang warfare is prevalent. The school’s administrators liken the tiny campus to a safe-haven, where the 350 students can take refuge from gang violence and focus on their education. And it’s working - one hundred percent of Verbum Dei students graduate and go on to college.
But the boys do more than study, it’s mandatory that they WORK to pay for their education. Verbum Dei has a unique curriculum which incorporates a work-study element into the school week. Students must work one, eight-hour day a week at a L.A. business.
Ramon has been working for the past three years at Loyola Marymount University. He files, sends faxes, arranges rental cars for his supervisors and conducts his business like a working professional. But, Ramon never sees his pay check, the money goes straight to Verbum Dei. When asked if this bothers him, Ramon smiles and says, “I come work to pay off my tuition; it’s going to my education, so that’s good enough.”
Although Ramon still loves Al Pacino’s Scarface character, Tony Montana - a Cuban gangster and cocaine dealer - he insists that it’s because Scarface has the courage to stand up for himself against all odds. When asked if he’s tempted to leave school life for gang life, he shrugs and says, “I’m not a liar, I’ve had thoughts that I want to be from this or that to be more interactive with my family, but they’re not going to be the ones every week giving me a paycheck, especially in this economy. I gotta hit them books!”
- written by Shereen Meraji