He said he was always on time for class and never had issues doing his school work. But, almost immediately upon his arrival in 2007 at a local high school, he was expelled.
Having been involved in gangs at a young age, shot in the stomach due to gang violence, and with quite the rap sheet, Santa Clarita resident Ramses Mayorga, now 30 years old, said his past, at one point, no matter how much he cleaned up, wouldn’t let him get ahead.
“They kicked me out for nothing,” Mayorga said of the school. “And when I say nothing, they kicked me out for nothing.”
Mayorga’s story is complicated with its ups and downs, twists and turns, and it includes falling in with local Santa Clarita gangs when he was 13, suffering from a .22-caliber bullet wound in the stomach about a year later that put him on a walker and then a cane for over a month, a 14-year prison stint after being charged at 16 years old as an adult in an attempted murder/robberies case, a mother who committed suicide, a brother who overdosed on drugs, and a daughter, who among other positive influences in his life, was reason enough to escape the gang life so he might help others stay away from gangs and drugs.
While in prison, Mayorga received two degrees — one in business and one in social behavioral sciences. He said that, at a young age, he wanted to either become a lawyer (because he wanted to defend people) or a psychologist (because he wanted to help people with mental issues like those his mom battled). He said he’s currently kind of doing both by starting a nonprofit in the Santa Clarita Valley where he’s working with kids battling gangs and drugs.
But before he got involved with helping kids, Mayorga dealt with his own demons. His trouble began, he said, when he saw older kids picking on younger kids.
Originally from Atwater Village in Los Angeles, Mayorga came to Canyon Country when he was just a child.
“I came up here because my mom went to prison when I was about 5 years old,” Mayorga said. “I was put in the custody of my grandmother and my aunt, and my aunt lived out here.”
Mayorga would move again soon after that. His grandmother took him to Ecuador to live for about two years, but he’d return to Canyon Country and get involved in sports — almost every sport, including soccer, baseball and football. Asked when the trouble began, he said it wasn’t necessarily one thing or another, rather something that bothered him in general.
“I’m not a fan of bullies,” Mayorga said. “I hate bullies. I hate people that prey on people just because they’re weaker or they don’t look the part of being cool. Even when I was living in the gang life, I didn’t act like that. I wouldn’t do things to people that had nothing to do with the gang life.”
During one particular incident when Mayorga was in middle school while living in Azusa, he witnessed two seventh-graders picking on a sixth-grader.
“They took his backpack and were, like, putting a monkey in the middle,” Mayorga continued. “He was on the verge of tears. And so, I was like, ‘Eh, man, stop, leave him alone.’ And they’re like, ‘Why are you sticking up for him?’ ‘Because you guys are being punks. Do that to my backpack.’ Then I took the backpack from one of them and I was in the process of giving it to the kid, and then the administration thought that I was one of those kids that was doing it, and I was just trying to give him his backpack back. And the kid even said, ‘No, he was helping me.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re probably just saying that because you don’t want him to retaliate.’”
Mayorga became very angry, yelling and cursing at the principal. He’d eventually leave Azusa and move with his aunt back to the SCV.
But while at La Mesa Junior High in Santa Clarita, Mayorga said he had similar issues. He was getting into fights, some with gang members.
“I always felt the need to speak up,” he said. “Especially if they would say something to one of my friends.”
One reason he joined a gang, Mayorga said, was because his mom was addicted to heroin.
“The whole purpose of joining wasn’t because I really wanted to be a gang member,” Mayorga said. “I was just confused. My mom and everybody preached not to be a part of this life, to continue to play sports, to continue to do good in school. However, my mom would take me around a bunch of gang members that she associated with.”
He said he watched his mom get drugs, saw her around gangs, and watched her destroying herself.
“On my 13th birthday,” Mayorga continued, “she asked me what I wanted. I asked her to go to rehab. She was like, ‘No, what do you really want?’ I said, ‘I’m serious.’”
And while his mom would eventually check herself into a treatment center, Mayorga said she’d go on drug binges. He said it made him mad and he wanted to show her that if she didn’t care about herself, he would show her he wouldn’t care about himself.
“Mainly, my decision was based off me wanting to show her, ‘OK, well, if you’re going to destroy your life, I could do the same thing to me,’” he said. “I was hoping she would see, like, ‘Oh, shoot, my son — I’m exposing my son to this stuff, and I shouldn’t be doing it. I need to clean up so he has a better life.’”
But that didn’t happen and Mayorga got deeper into gang life. It was his involvement in gangs that resulted in his getting shot. At 6 a.m. on a June day in 2006 in front of an apartment complex on Jakes Way in Santa Clarita, Mayorga and his girlfriend were waiting for a friend to go to the beach. Someone in the area approached Mayorga and asked where he was from. Upon hearing Mayorga’s answer, the individual, who Mayorga believed to be a rival gang member, left and returned with others. And with a gun.
“When they came running across the street,” Mayorga said, “I thought they were just going to jump me, so I turned around and was like, ‘Alright, whatever.’ I basically welcomed it. And then they pulled out the gun. As soon as I seen the gun, I just went and pushed my girlfriend out the way, and they shot me.”
They shot Mayorga at close range. To this day, he still has fatty tissue in the wound area. And while he has a full range of motion, he’s limited in some ways, he said.
“But I’ve been jumped, beaten with bats and things of that nature,” he added. “I have the scars, the tattoos. I was fully engaged in that life.”
But that life has been hard to shake off, he said. While a junior in high school, still recovering from being shot, Mayorga said he felt his past was what essentially got him expelled. He’d been arguing with a teacher about being late to class, which escalated, turned into a trip to the principal’s office and a meeting with a sheriff’s deputy.
He said they mistook his contact lens case for drug paraphernalia, one thing led to another, and gradually he was out. Mayorga suspects the school knew, based on his past, that he was trouble, and they just wanted him out.
Mayorga accepted his fate and would finish high school a year early. He’d graduate through Opportunities for Learning in Valencia. Then his girlfriend got pregnant and he was resolute in severing ties with gangs. He’d even thought about enlisting in the U.S. Marines, as his dad had served in the Corps. His dad was becoming more of a role model and someone he’d more regularly seek guidance from at the time.
“So, I was distancing myself,” he said. “But I made the mistake of going to hang out one day with these people and thinking that everything was OK.”
Mayorga said he was arrested on suspicion of two attempted murders and seven armed robberies.
“However,” he added, “the charges were dropped for the attempted murders. Now, as far as the robberies go, those I legitimately was not involved in. I was there for one of them. I was arrested with the co-defendants because I was with him — we were together in the car at the time. And there was a gun in the car. And so, when they arrested all of us, I was the only juvenile. Everybody else was an adult. They were 23, 22, 19 and 19, I believe.”
Mayorga said those he was with blamed him for the robberies, but that all the evidence was in their houses, nothing ever recovered in his place of residence. These would-be friends, he added, thought that because he was a juvenile, the law would be more lenient on him than on them.
In the end, Mayorga was charged as an adult, and he was incarcerated for 14 years, which began at Sylmar Juvenile Hall, and then continued at the California Youth Authority facility in Norwalk, California Institution for Men in Chino, California State Prison in Corcoran, Kern Valley State Prison in Delano and Calipatria State Prison in Imperial County.
While inside, he got his two degrees. That’s not to say he didn’t have his troubles. He said he was involved in assaults on prison staff, riots and assaults on other inmates. During his incarceration, his mother committed suicide and his younger brother found her when it was too late to do anything about it. Last May, that same brother died from a fentanyl overdose.
Determined to wipe his slate clean, Mayorga came out of prison — about a year ago — and got to work. He became a youth advocate for the Bresee Foundation, which is a nonprofit community center that offers after-school programs, family services and gang prevention outreach to low-income youth, adults and families in central Los Angeles.
Mayorga said Bresee was his saving grace, with staff members showing him he could make a difference. However, Mayorga wants to helps kids in the Santa Clarita Valley and is currently in the process of creating his own nonprofit in the SCV called Not Another Statistic Youth Enrichment Services.
“Honestly, there are hardly any resources out here for people getting into gangs,” he said. “These gangs out here are destroying kids’ lives … We live in a very calm, peaceful place, but violence has risen.”
Mayorga added that gangs are preying on area youth, and he wants to help these kids from folding against the pressure.
He recently contacted a Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station detective who arrested him on several occasions when he was living the gang life, and he asked if this detective could help him identify youth in the area going down similarly destructive paths.
Detective Mark Barretto, who’s been with the SCV Sheriff’s Station for 23 years and a gang detective since 2008, said he still remembers Mayorga.
“I don’t forget gang members’ names when I deal with them,” Barretto said in a phone interview with The Signal. “He told me a little bit about how he was young and made bad choices, running with the gangs, and how he did things he shouldn’t have done, how going to prison helped rehabilitate him and make him understand and recognize his mistakes in the past, and how he wanted to somehow try to be a better contributor to society and try to help be a solution for gangs instead of problem with gangs.”
Barretto said he was more than happy to help Mayorga. He added that, in his experience, he’s seen more criminals go back to crime than become rehabilitated, so he was ultimately pleased to hear from Mayorga and learn about his plan to help troubled youth.
“That encourages me,” Barretto said. “I will say I have a responsibility to protect the community and do everything I can as a detective to make sure that those who are dangerous to the public get off the street and stay locked up, incarcerated or away from the public until they’re rehabilitated. I’m also in the business of looking at people’s lives and allowing them to make changes, and encouraging them to make changes.”
Barretto got Mayorga in touch with the station’s crime prevention unit and others who could help.
One individual connecting Mayorga with troubled gang members is L.A. County Sheriff’s Department juvenile intervention specialist Robby Robinson at the SCV Sheriff’s Station. Robinson told The Signal that he deals with many kids in gangs on a regular basis, including one particular 11-year-old boy recently who’s consistently having trouble and who Robinson is struggling to reach. Mayorga helped.
“Ramses and I chatted,” Robinson said, “and I brought to his attention my issue. He was willing, at any cost, to come meet with me, to go to court with me because (this kid’s) mother only speaks Spanish and (Mayorga) speaks Spanish, and he said that he was a former gang member, so he understood the life.”
Mayorga went to court with Robinson and the 11-year-old, and he’s been talking with the kid about his own gang experiences, troubles and tragedies.
“His dedication,” Robinson said, “and undying willingness to help me was very crucial.”
Robinson added that Mayorga calls him once a week to check on the 11-year-old and his family.
Mayorga has recently filed the paperwork for his nonprofit and is awaiting approval to get going. While he still works with Bresee, once he gets Not Another Statistic Youth Enrichment Services up and running, he’ll eventually commit to that full time.
And while the former gang member’s troubled past has haunted him and hurt him in his life, it’s now the tool he’s using to help others.
Barretto told Mayorga in his recent conversation with him that he’s very happy for him and glad for what he’s doing.
“I don’t know what his changes have been,” the detective said. “I can only trust that he’s being honest with me. But if that’s certainly the situation, then power to him, and I hope he can be a liaison to other people who are joining gangs and maybe help deter younger kids from making choices that he made as a kid. I’m all for that.”