ROCHESTER — Richard Santana walked onto the stage of the Rochester Museum & Science Center dressed in a long, black trench coat and baggy but well-pressed jeans, sporting a bandanna and sunglasses.
Depicting his alter ego "Mr. Chocolate," Santana spoke in a thick Chicano accent and explained to the audience of more than 400 people how the course of his life changed when one person finally believed in him during his teen years.
Instead of remaining in a gang that would have led him either to jail or a cemetery, Santana said he chose education and earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Fresno State University and a master’s degree in human development and psychology and risk prevention from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.
He applauded all the adults who work with youths at the "Got Dreams Award" ceremony May 6 for their support of children in the community. The awards were presented by the Monroe County Health Department’s ACCESS program, which provides services to children and teens with emotional and behavioral issues.
"Someone like you saved my life," added Santana, who founded Homeboy Goes to Harvard Productions. "Someone like you put aside (his or her) own prejudices and biases and got to know me on the inside. And for the very first time, I started to believe I was worth something."
Elizabeth Meeker of Monroe County ACCESS said the third-annual award ceremony showcases youths who are working toward their goals despite mental-health challenges. It also honors the adults and organizations that are helping them attain those goals. Sixteen youths and 16 adults were recognized during the ceremony.
"If I can do it, you better be sure your children can do it too," Santana noted. "Sometimes, it’s not about changing. Sometimes, it’s just about redirecting. … I beg you. Help me save a life."
Santana also talked about a 1989 survey about stereotypes, which showed that Latinos were considered lazy, ignorant and lacking in English-language skills. Holding on to such ugly stereotypes can lead to the dehumanization of an entire group of people, he said.
"If you say something over and over again, you start to believe it," he said. "Perceptions exist so much that people begin to internalize them. … My way of stopping this is to continue to grow (as a community), progress and provide these events for our youth. Because you better believe that each and every one of you has potential."
He urged the youths to stay in school, stay away from drugs and violence, and lean on resources and support from the adults in the audience. He asked teachers, parents and social workers stand up for a round of applause.
As Santana spoke of the pivotal change that had transformed his life’s path, he began to shed Mr. Chocolate’s gang-style clothes, which reinforce the kinds of stereotypes about which he had spoken. He shared his story of growing up without a mother or father and being raised in the foster-care system. He spoke proudly of his 18 years of sobriety and graduating from high school and going to college. And he discussed the importance of having a mentor who helped him walk away from the violent life of gangs, which until then had provided the only sense of belonging for him.
As he ended his presentation, he stood before the audience in a shirt, tie and dress slacks. But Santana said that no matter where life takes him, he is proud that he came from the barrios, because that is "my culture till I die," he noted.
Kiara Britt, a member of the Monroe County ACCESS’ youth council, said the group chose to bring in Santana for the ceremony because of his inspirational story. Since Rochester also experiences problems with gangs, the youth council thought he would offer a good perspective for youths in the community to think about, she added.
Britt said that the ACCESS program and, specifically, one of its counselors have made a difference in her life, so she could relate to Santana’s message of hope.
"The streets are not the place to be," said Britt, 18. "Stay in school. Get an education."