By Karlha Velasquez
His tattoos are evidence of his history. The marks left behind from a messy life have been erased from his face and his current job, but not from his mind. When he was 11 years old, Alberto Castillo González, or Beto as he is known in Omaha, started to feel what he believed was the “freedom” of being a gang member.
Beto remembers that life clearly as well as the reformation process that led him to become one of the most respected members of the Latino community and the first gang specialist in the Omaha Police Department. He says he’s perfectly aware of the nature of this world, which is one “no one is going to come and try and tell me what it’s all about.”
Beto was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1957. When he was four, his parents, from Mexico, moved to a low-income housing project in Omaha. In his marked Spanglish, the former gang member told his story to El Perico in an interview about a tribute given to him by OPD and nonprofit Boys and Girls Club on social media.
Of medium height and stocky build, displaying masculinity typical of his roots, Beto is today one of the most respected Latino figures in the community. He’s the example given to young people who want to be “free” from the “stranglehold” at home.
To get to this point, Beto went through many transitions that marked his life. The Omaha he knew, he says, was violent, full of gangs, drugs, and crimes, and he entered this world at an early age.
He was asked to join a gang when he was 11 years old, but not before experiencing racism and bigotry at school when he was just 7 years old. By that time, around 1963 or 1964, the U.S. had recently created policies to expand the domain of English as an official language. The spirit of America for Americans was in full swing, and his teacher made it very clear.
“I remember I was at school, and there were things that I did not understand in English. I only spoke Spanish, so I asked the teacher — in Spanish — what this or that meant. She looked at me annoyed and said: ‘This is not Mexico. It’s the United States, so only English is spoken here.’ Many made fun of me, and that’s when my frustration was born. It marked me, and I decided to leave school forever,” he said.
Back then, Beto attended the Boys and Girls Club’s activities, but he didn’t go to school. That was until he met some young people who invited him to be part of a gang, where he did not feel discriminated against — and they were interested in Beto teaching them some cuss words in Spanish.
Drugs and the fantasy of feeling loved alienated him from his family. Although for him, his mother was a saint, and his father an inquisitor who years later he knew how to forgive. “My dad was a mariachi, and he worked as much as my mom at home. When you’re young, you know what hurts your parents, but that is the path we sometimes take as young people,” he said.
When he was 22 years old, and with a hardcore “love” for drugs and feeling high, Beto tried to finish high school, and during that process, he met a nun named Joe at the Chicano Center, who helped him find a less stormy path. He had thought about committing suicide, killing someone or being killed. “I later joined the Methodists. Thanks to that, I have been able to understand my process and what affected me,” he said.
As time passed, in February 2003, he started working at the Boys and Girls Club, and in 2014 at the Omaha Police Department. At both jobs, he felt his purpose was to help young people who are going through situations similar to what he went through. He gives talks about the path he has taken in life.
Beto blames current violent movies and songs for the aggressive attitude of society and blames music and culture imported from bigger cities. “The new culture that came from California, Texas, or New York. Everybody wanted to have money and guns and create a culture of violence,” he said.
“If it weren’t for this opportunity, I would have continued out on the streets selling weapons and drugs. But you must know that someone who does not know another world or any other means of survival can easily go back to what he was before,” he emphasized.
He said that without everything he passed in his life he isn’t the person he is now. Beto is happy with his wife and all of his family, and now in his 60s, he’s found a passion that, he says, no one is going to take away from him: his Harley-Davidson motorcycle.