Thursday, July 22, 2021

Danny Trejo's Journey from the Cave

The role of a lifetime: the hero's journey
    Actor, businessman, and drug counselor, Danny Trejo bares his soul in his new autobiography: Trejo, My Life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood
     If he holds back any punches, only he knows the secrets locked inside those closed fists. As he slowly exposes the events of his life, it’s hard to believe he hasn’t unleashed every jab and combination in his arsenal. Written with his friend, Donal Logue, Trejo’s book is riveting from beginning to end, truly a Los Angeles story, born on the streets of the San Fernando Valley. 
     Danny Trejo shares with readers experiences, both personal and professional, leading around a painful, explosive, subdued, yet thoughtful and edifying seventy-seven years of life. Trejo and Logue, both actors, and highly articulate, and literate, borrow, is my guess, from their years of movie-making to tell Trejo’s story. 
     A continuous voice on the 12-Step Program speaking circuit, beginning in prison, 1968, the year of his sobriety, Trejo understands his way around a lectern. I’m certain, he’s told his story so many times, his experiences in prison, drug rehabilitation, acting, family, and survival are permanently etched in his memory, there to pull from whenever needed. 
     If you’re like me and question how much writing celebrity authors who release their own books actually “write,” I’d venture to say Trejo’s voice is true to every page as if he had his fingers on the keyboard, where I’m sure Logue contributed greatly. The violence, drama, and psychological depth are so thick, sometimes I felt as though I were reading a novel, an epic myth, maybe Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces or the classic literary hero. You know the one, the hero born of royalty or divinity, who sheds his true nature, cloaks himself in the garb of the “people” and descends to slay their tormentors, reveals himself, then suffers renunciation and crucifixion, and, ultimately, salvation. 
     No, Trejo’s journey, from the streets of Pacoima, for me, follows Plato’s Allegory of a Cave, where Socrates tells the story of prisoners born and raised shackled in chains. They can see only what is in front of them, a wall where dark shadows move and sounds appear. Since they can’t turn or see each other, the prisoners’ world is the wall before them, their reality and truth, much like Trejo’s childhood, teenage, and early adult years, his first bout with marijuana at seven, heroin at twelve, armed robbery as a teenager, juvie and prison, a cruel father, absent mother, distant stepmother, parental sexual indiscretions, but it was his reality. It's all he knew.
     Those were the shadows on the walls, his truth, his only world. He admired these adults, mostly the males, and came to distrust the females, at the time, thinking them the cause of his family’s problems. Trejo’s father banned Danny’s birth mother, a married woman whose husband was away at war, from Danny’s life early in his childhood. His father remarried and Danny was raised by his stepmother, siblings, and cousins, especially his older cousin, Gilbert, his mentor and role model. Trejo always felt his father’s wrath, this handsome, troubled man who treated Danny differently than he treated the other kids. 
     In Plato’s story, Socrates asks what would happen if one prisoner escapes. The simple act of standing would cause great pain, as he’s been in one position his entire life. When he finally turns, every muscle in his upper body will ache. Once he sees what is behind him, the freed prisoner will realize that the world behind him created the world on the wall, a world of illusion, causing a  cataclysmic revolution in his thinking. 
     Trejo had been locked up in nearly every major institution in California, from Tracy to San Quintin, where he gained a reputation through his boxing skills, personal connections, criminal-integrity, and status as the anointed nephew of the notorious Gilbert Trejo, who “ran every joint he’d been in.” 
Keeping a promise to a power stronger than himself
     Trejo says about his days as a convict, “My resume was beyond question…I was the Mexican you feared.” 
     He started building his resume early. When a larger white, high school student at North Hollywood High challenged him to a fight with the words, "Just wait until after school, beaner," Trejo's rage built throughout the day. He couldn't wait. When it came time for the fight, to everyone's shock, Trejo grabbed the kid by the head and bit off a piece his face. In hindsight, he says, "That's the power of crazy, that's the power of being willing to go to a place unimaginable to your foes."
     To survive prison (or the cave), he tells us, “There are two kinds of people....: predator and prey. You wake up and choose which one you’re going to be every day.” 
     For Trejo, in 1968, after a riot in Soledad, where a visiting college baseball team had come to play a team of inmates, fighting broke out and caused serious injuries. Trejo writes, “I found myself in solitary facing capital charges.” 
     He always believed he’d die in prison, but not by a legally sanctioned state execution. Alone, in his cell, waiting to be condemned, he said to God, "If you're there, Me, Henry, and Ray will be alright," then, the ultimate promise, “God, if you allow me to die with dignity, I will say Your name every day and do everything I can to help my fellow man.” 
      The first miracle, the baseball team and witnesses failed to appear to testify. Trejo and his friends couldn’t be charged. “In that cell,” Trejo says, “God killed the old me, made a new Danny Trejo, and [God] said, “Now let’s see what you do with him.” 
      like the prisoner in Plato's story, Danny's shackles had come off, and he fought his addiction to heroin. He cleaned-up, claimed sobriety, and became chairman of the inmates' 12-step program. He made other convicts who were under his protection attend the meetings. Watching many of them kick their addictions was another miracle. 
      After Socrates’ prisoner is freed, he turns and begins his painful ascent out of the cave. As he works his way towards the exit, the freed prisoner sees a large fire and in front a bridge or walkway where figures move back and forth carrying various objects, all reflected on the wall of the cave, creating the shadows the remaining prisoners believe are real. At this instant, the escaped prisoner understands his shadowy world had been an illusion. 
     Following a light, the prisoner makes his way out of the cave, towards the sunlight and the world outside, a long, painful trek, which Trejo finally makes, freeing himself, literally, from prison, a place where he believed he would die. Finally, he reaches the world outside and steps into the sunlight, liberating himself from his the cave, just like Socrates’ prisoner, but his journey has barely begun. 
     The sun is blinding. The escaped prisoner can’t “see,” and if he looks directly at the sun, he might go blind. His eyes must adjust. In fact, since he’s been locked in the dark cave all his life, he is able to better understand the night skies, but eventually, in daylight, objects become clear, a new world opens to him. In his own way, Trejo observes the dark, the beauty but also the ugliness, and his own limitations. He has a lot to learn. 
     He continues his sobriety and attends twelve-step meetings religiously. He has turned his life over to God, but as he told us earlier, it isn’t the Christian God of his childhood but a God whose “...power is greater than myself.” 
     Once his eyes adjust to the sunlight, like Socrates’ escaped prisoner, Trejo begins to understand his and his family’s suffering was caused by substance abuse, negative conditioning, and, as his adult son, Gilbert (named after Trejo’s uncle) later points out, a “toxic masculine” environment. 
     Unsure of the term, Trejo called Donal Logue to ask what the phrase means. Logue answers, “…there is a kind of misguided masculinity and fucks up [men’s] relationships.” 
     As in Plato’s Allegory, the sunlight isn’t "enlightenment", but it allows those under its brilliant illumination to "see" clearly and work towards enlightenment, Trejo's journey, even after four tumultuous marriages, bouts of infidelity, 77 movies with the world's biggest stars, De Niro, Pacino, Liotta, Banderas, Roberts, the addiction of his own children, opening businesses, and helping set thousands of lost souls on the right path is a hard one. The journey into the sunlight isn’t always bright and cheery, it’s painful, as learning is painful. He brings the same energy, enthusiasm, and intensity to his movie career that he brought to every endeavor in his life.
     Education, true learning, isn’t fun, whether navigating prison, a marriage, or a movie set. It takes work, and it hurts, especially exposing as false what you once believed to have been true, or an illusion. Can the escaped prisoner relax once he discovers the sunlight and sees clearly? Socrates says no. 
     For total understanding, the freed prisoner must take all he or she has learned and return to the cave to help liberate the prisoners inside, something like the "amends" portion of the Twelve-Step program. It isn't easy to return to the past and apologize to those we know we wronged.
     For prisoners locked away their entire lives in a cave, understanding doesn't come easy. To hear there is another world outside the cave is madness, and the one delivering the message is mad, or a traitor and should be eliminated. 
Into the Sunlight

     When Trejo promised God he would help his fellow man, he was, in essence, saying he was willing to return to the cave, his mission in life. Yet, each time he returns into the darkness, he is in danger of once again becoming a prisoner.
     Trejo says, “To this day, I still work for Western Pacific Med Corp,” the organization whose founder, Dr. Dorr, started the first methadone treatment centers in Los Angeles. 
     Danny Trejo has been a counselor, a recruiter, and a supporter since the 1970s when he first took a full-time job with the organization. He helped open many of Dr. Dorr's clinics throughout Los Angeles. Each time, he counsels an addict, or addresses an audience, he steps back into the cave, sometimes all the way down to the wall where prisoners are still shackled believing the shadows in front of them are real. 
     Trejo knows he can convince no one who doesn’t want to be convinced there is light outside the cave, but he believes god gave him his celebrity status for a purpose. “The more I show up in films, the more people are curious about the story of my of life. I hope people see through my story that it’s possible to make a decision and live a better life, and to change. I had the window of opportunity in 1968. I asked God for help and He told me to stay clean and to help other people.” 
     The point of Socrates' tale of the cave isn't to create heroes. It's to educate warriors who had been away fighting wars and how to integrate into Greek society once they return home, and take on leadership roles. The  metaphor of the cave is an example of the learning process. 
     In Danny Trejo's case, he seems to have learned the lesson well, shedding the old and adopting the new and teaching others to do the same. But, as with all learning, it is a lifelong process. His is a book that begs to be read, a true story of emancipation and triumph in a community whose members are still shackled by society's prejudices.

Daniel Cano

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