Richard Cabral at the New York Encounter 2017 (Photo: Brenda Abdelmesih)

Richard Cabral: "Everything comes down to presence"

He works for film and TV, he was in a gang and ended up in jail. The Californian actor talks about the turning point in his life and he compares it with the provocations in "Reawakening Our humanity".
José Medina

His gang was called "Varrio 213". Mexican parents. He spent his childhood in Montebello, a small town in L.A. county. Prison doors opened for him for the first time when he was 13, for stealing a wallet. He would go back there, for more serious matters, and would stay there for a long time, until he got out definitively ten years ago. Today, Richard Cabral, thirty-five-years-old, works for film and TV. He starred, so to speak, in Ridley Scott's The Counselor alongside Brad Pitt and Javier Bardem. He is among the protagonists of successful television series such as American Crime and Lethal Weapon. His story is a story of social redemption. When he talks about it, you can see that something very special has happened within him, which, paradoxically, makes him grateful for the drama and suffering he had to go through. His friends from the New York Encounter, at which he spoke 2017, gave him Julián Carrón's book, "Reawakening Our Humanity". He read it and agreed to talk about it in this interview.

What came to your mind when you were told to quarantine because of the Coronavirus?
When I heard about the quarantine I was not intimidated; I welcomed the lockdown on many levels. I am not going lie to you and be like, this is the worst. No, it is really not. I have been isolated before. I have been confined all through my youth, from the time I was 13 to the time I left prison 12 years ago. This situation is not like my darkest hours in prison, where it was violent every day, where I was shivering cold with a little blanket at night or so hot during the day that the walls were sweating. I have seen that and I know that life is beautiful. I know it in my heart. I know that life is beautiful. Because of my experience, I am truly living now. I welcome this time of isolation to rethink my situation in life and once again find more about who I really am. I am blessed. I can honestly say that being here, talking to you, I feel blessed even considering what is happening in our society right now.

What did you understand in prison that turned helpful now?
One of the scariest memories I have of that time was when I saw my first stabbing on a prison yard; two men stabbing another man in the neck. That moment was key. In that moment, I understood that my life was led by fear; fear of not being loved, of being hurt; fear of repeating the same mistakes my father made. I did not have a father growing up and my son was five years old when I got out of prison. I was convinced that I was going to repeat the generational trauma of my father. I did not want to, but everything was pointing that way. In the isolation of my prison cell, in that cold and dark place I understood that what I thought I was, was not who I was truly. I understood what I am, that I am given by God, I believe that. In my lowest moment I began to erase the illusion I was living in. I stop lying to myself. Not lying to yourself is truly loving yourself. So when you truly love yourself, I believe that God will show you blessings. I believe that when you are willing to let go of your ideas, beautiful things will appear into your life that would have never come otherwise. That experience is what catapulted me into where I am today.

Is that not too much? Should we just try to avoid traumatic events and move on?
No, it can be a good thing if you have an understanding of what is at stake, which the majority of people do not have. I agree with Carrón that “there is no other place where the meaning of life can be played out except through the circumstances in which we find ourselves.” If you understand what is at stake, what is happening, and welcome it, it will change your day to day existence. If you understand where the trauma comes from, if you understand where the fear comes from, then you could understand what you need to truly tap into your greater self. I do not want a mediocre life. Life is a gift. I want to go through life seeing the greatest blessing that I could receive.

But traumatic events are painful, they are wrapped into human suffering...
Yes, traumatic events come with a lot of pain, a lot of suffering, but this is primal. Suffering is primal. If it was not for the woman's suffering, there would never be the birth of a child, right? Suffering is natural but we tend to forget because we live in a place of comfort. I am not advocating for suffering. I am not saying that it is okay for people to suffer. But I believe that through suffering, and I speak from personal experience, reveals life for what it really is. I can take you through my own suffering, the suffering of being in prison. In that physical suffering I was able to see life for what it really is. I believe that if you can see the positive of suffering, then you are able to take a quantum leap.

How did you get there? What strategy did you use?
People often ask me for recommendations on how to work with gang members. They ask me how to approach the work they do with them. I tell them that if they want to work with people in the ‘Varrio’ and low income communities, they cannot just come and be there for a minute. If you truly want to help, you have to be willing to hold their hand and not let go. I agree with Carrón that everything comes down to ‘presence’. People come into these communities thinking that what gang members need is instructions on how to get a job or external things. Those things are not bad. They just do not respond to the trauma they have lived. I think people do not understand the trauma gang members had lived through. If you have not had a personal experience of trauma, you do not understand what they need. If you want to help people, you need to identify with their trauma. So, I write with that intention. I try to communicate my journey by telling my story. I am trying to provide insight regarding the evolution of trauma that gang members go through their lives.

Who was that presence for you?
I did not know what love was in my upbringing. Many of the thousands of gang members I have talked to never had experienced it either. It was not till I met Fr. Greg Boyle that I truly understood what ‘presence’ was. He did not say I love you just to say I love you. He loved without expecting anything in return. People talk a lot about love. They throw this word love, this godly word out but they do not understand it. I think in society, especially in America, we talk a lot but words are not experienced. Two years after having been released from jail, I was arrested for gang association because my best friend, a former gang member, was helping me to move. When I got out of jail I was worried I had lost my job and Fr. Greg’s respect. He gave me a chance when nobody even looked my way, when nobody else cared if I lived or died in the gutter. After two months in jail, I went to his office to tell him what happened and to tell him I was sorry. He got up, folded me in his arms and said, “I love you, my son. I believe in you. A book should not be judged by its first chapter. Some people just cannot see that. Do not worry about them. Worry about you and your family. Write the next chapter of your life. Then tell your story.” Most people do not love as Fr. Greg does. That is the reality. Most people do not know what it is to be present. Most people do not know what it is to truly be there for somebody and want nothing in return. What I got from Homeboy Industries and Fr. Greg is why I am who I am today. It is not because I know how to say words, it is because I am intact on my spirit. I am connected to my spirit. Meeting him was the first time I truly understood what it is to have a loving vigor in a physical sense; and that is what I try to give to my children. I struggle with many things, but my heart is set, my heart is wanting to be there for people and to say what I mean. I live in abundance because of that presence. As Carrón says, people want to be around “a presence that transforms your outlook on the challenges that must be faced”, whether you are a priest, a gang member, or a movie star. People want to be around good people. And I say a gang member, because I am not sorry to be one.

What do you mean?
I believe everything I did in my life brought me where I am today. If I was not a gang member, I would not be where I am at today. If I was not in prison, I would not be where I am at today. I am not ashamed of my past, especially being a gang member; it is still in me; it is not something I came up with. If I was born in gang culture, there is something in me that God has given me that I must honor. There is beauty in the Mexican gang member culture. It certainly got warped in bad things. However, there is honor in putting your life on the line for a friend. I am not justifying what I did or the choices I made. I do not believe that it is okay to hurt innocent people. Yet, giving your life for another man and another man giving his life for you is an honorable thing. In the isolation of my cell I began to understand what being a gang member truly was. I understood the truth of it. I understood that I was manipulated to hurt other men that were poor, just like me, people that I went to school with, just because they chose to be in another gang. Now I make different choices. I also honor life.

What struck you about Carrón's book?

I received the book as a blessing. Carrón lays down a path to understand what is happening in our society at this moment. I think we are living through a pivotal moment and most people do not have the tools to understand what is happening. It is a big moment. I want to understand what is happening to me now. I want to understand how we got here, how we emotionally got here. I want to understand. How did this happen? Why did this happen? It is not even the Coronavirus no more. It was not even about the virus. It is about something that is in people that make them act like that. Only if you understand what is happening in you now, you can move further along, push forward into what God truly wants for your life. I believe Carrón’s book is a huge leap in trying to understand how we got here.

What reactions do you see around you?
I was struck that a priest thousands of miles away sees the same thing I see as I talk to people here in Los Angeles. We are going through the same experience across the globe. I see people acting based on fear. I think people are lost. They do not know how we got here. In order to fully understand, you must grap what is happening in you first.

What saves you from fear?
It is God. It is truly God. I did not understand it then. I still do not understand it, but I believe that I have experienced everything that I experienced for Him. I do not know His face. I may not even have the right name. But I honestly feel that my life is maneuvered by Him in a spiritual way. How did the birth of my child come to be? Physically I saw it. But how does nothing come off to something? I honestly feel in my heart that it is God, His energy that makes everything happen right now. So, I have to give my life back to Him.

Read also - Anne Snyder: "We are in a big delivery room"

What do you envision is going to happen after the Coronavirus? Will we be better afterward because of the lockdown?
Situations like the one we are living through amplify everything. Whatever is in you, beauty or sorrow, pain or happiness, is amplified. Moments of isolation amplify what is in you. You cannot run away. Your problems are here to stay. Your problems are never external; they are internal. We will personally be better off if we embrace the current challenge. Only if we embrace it! You have to deal with the situation at hand. Most people have been running away from themselves all their life because it is very hard to truly look at oneself.