From a young age, Geronimo Garcia wore a uniform to school: high socks, shorts and a white T-shirt.
It wasn’t a school requirement. Rather, it was an older brother requirement.
“They used to dress me up like a little gangster,” Geronimo says. “To me I always thought that was cool, but you know, as I think of it now, I don’t think that was cool when I was young. Come on, looking at a little kid dressed up in gangster?”
Since then, his clothing has determined who he hung out with at school.
“In seventh grade, I got in a fight with this southerner, because I was a northerner at the time,” Geronimo recalls.
“And I had red shoes, all red shoes, and he told me to take them off and I said no. And I guess he said he was going to stab me. And I said you ain’t going to pull out shit, because I’ve already got one right here, and took it out and stabbed him and started fighting him to the ground.”
He’ll turn 18 this fall. He’s still wearing the uniform – minus the socks – but not to class. He dropped out of a school for expelled students this past May.“School was nothing to me; I wasn’t learning nothing in school,” Geronimo says. “So I did most of it all in the streets. The street is school to me.”
Today, Geronimo’s caught in a tug of war. His experiences with the San Joaquin Valley’s entrenched poverty, violence and gangs pull him towards a life of hustling on the streets. His mentors try to steer him toward a degree, job skills and a better life.
“I’ve got to change my life,” Geronimo says. “I’ve got to do something about it because if I keep following, I’m going to end up dead or in prison.”
This summer, one of his brothers, Jose, was shot and killed, probably due to gang violence. He was 23.
“And look where it took my brother’s steps at,” he adds. “He ended up dead, and I don’t want to go there.”
Geronimo’s story is raw and chilling. But it’s the reality for many kids in the Valley, says Scott Braden, the principal at Charter Alternatives Academy, the last school Geronimo attended.
“It’s gangs that’s big in the Central Valley, and it’s drugs that’s big in the Central Valley, and it’s dysfunctional families, big in the Central Valley,” Braden says. “And it’s poverty.”
“When you have those types of things,” he says, “that’s a recipe for disaster.”
Geronimo’s different, though, because he’s resilient, says Manny Castro, a gang intervention specialist with Youth for Christ in Tulare County, who now does similar work with the Visalia School District. He’s been a mentor and father figure to Geronimo for a couple years.
Castro says Geronimo wants a different life but, “because of circumstances, because of environment, because of some cultural hooks, it’s really difficult to break those chains, you know?”
Those ties begin in Patterson Tract, the unincorporated community near Visalia where Geronimo lives with his family. His parents are Mexican immigrants. He’s one of 14 kids.
His street doesn’t have sidewalks or streetlights. His house has broken windows, he says, from drive-by shootings. The first time I visited, his family was in the backyard, cooking carne asada. It would’ve been Jose’s 24th birthday.
In more reflective moments, Geronimo admits his life has been shaped by the violent environment he’s grown up in.
“If my family was not into gangs or drugs or anything like that, I don’t know where I would be at,” he says. “I can’t picture that.”
“My mind’s just full of ghetto,” he says.
About 10 miles from Patterson Tract is Charter Alternatives. When we visited the school this summer, the campus was quiet and peaceful.
But most of Geronimo’s memories of school were hazy.
“Marijuana was around me since I was a little kid,” he says. “I bought it in school; I sold it in school; I got caught with it in school; I smoked it at school.”
And it clouded his performance in school, Braden says.
“I saw in that three-year period of time just the incredible drug use, and he became volatile, severely depressed,” he recalls. “You just saw the life being sucked out of him.”
Braden says Geronimo should have been at the expulsion school for one semester. The goal is to re-enroll students in a comprehensive school from which they can graduate. But Geronimo was there, on and off, for three years.
“You know, Geromino didn’t even really think that he’d live very long,” Braden says. “That’s just his mindset.”
When Geronimo looks back on those years, he remembers violence. He stood by the benches where he used to hang out with his buddies.
“Two are in prison for a shooting at the mall, others are either dead or still in jail,” he says.
He pointed out where he got in a fight with a Deputy Sheriff: “It happened right here, next to the cafeteria,” he says. “We were over here at first fighting and we ended up on the ground over here.”
He was suspended for five days, and never returned to school after that.
Geronimo’s mentor, Manny Castro, repeatedly tells him that education is the path out of poverty, and off the streets.
“He’s got to get to a point where he understands that he can do things better,” Castro says. “There is another way of living rather than drugs, rather than gangs, rather than lack of education.”
But Castro says leaving that lifestyle behind is a process – one that doesn’t happen overnight.
And Geronimo is, at best, half-way there. Now that he’s not in school, he spends more time on the streets, selling drugs
“It’s really hard to get out of a life like this,” Geronimo says. “But I haven’t got out of it yet. I’m still doing the life.”
Castro asks Geronimo to rate his desire to return to school, on a scale of one to 10. He says he’s a 5, in the middle. His outlook for the future falls on both sides of that spectrum.
One afternoon, Geronimo envisions a dark fate. In five years, I ask him, does he see himself with a high school degree?
GARCIA: “I don’t think I’m going to get my high school degree.”
PLEVIN: “Or GED or anything?”
GARCIA: “I don’t think so.”
PLEVIN: “Do you see yourself holding a steady job?”
PLEVIN: “Or have a family or anything?”
GARCIA: “I see pure black. I don’t see anything.”
On a better day, though, Geronimo says he’ll need a high school degree to get a legitimate job, and a college degree to earn the job he wants – in law enforcement. Inspired by the TV show ‘Border Wars,’ Geronimo says he wants to join the Arizona Border Patrol.
“You’re just out there walking in the desert looking for somebody,” he says. “You have your gun on your side.”
And that’s why Castro says he won’t give up on Geronimo.
“You see the fact that he wants something better for himself,” Castro says. “And we talk about that; we talk about it vocally.”
At this point, Geronimo has a rope in his hands. It could drag him deeper into a life on the streets. Or it could be the lifeline that Castro has cast out to him.
This story was produced in partnership with Capital Public Radio's The View From Here multimedia documentary series. 'Class Dismissed' airs Sept. 20.