Gina Castañeda2021.DeviPridePhotography1
Gina Castañeda

(pronouns: she/her/hers)


When you hear my story, do not think of me as a victim or a survivor. I am a champion!

 

I do not remember most of my childhood. I just know I wanted to be loved. By age 11, my mom and I were on the streets of Watsonville. We would go through dumpsters behind restaurants to find food.

 

A family friend who was in a gang helped us find a place to live. Life finally started to feel normal, but I quickly learned that nothing is free; almost everything comes with a price. As a witness to gang life, I saw people find a certain stability, security, loyalty, and a sense of family that they so deeply craved. But I could also see the violence, drugs, addiction, incarceration, isolation, and all the pain and the trauma that come with gang involvement.

 

I attended school not for education, but for the free meals and a warm place to be during the day. As a natural athlete, I also loved the access to sports, where I was first mentored by people who cared about me and my future. Throughout my childhood, I prayed in an ongoing conversation with God. With support from my mentors, I made my way out and found my calling. I have served my whole adult life as a peer educator, health educator, mediator, counselor, intervention specialist, mentor, probation officer, coach, board member, and volunteer. 

 

In 2008, I founded the Aztecas Soccer Program for Latino juvenile probationers, bringing together opposing gang members and turning them into teammates on and off the field. I’ve received numerous awards for my work, including Probation Officer of the Year in the county, the California Assembly, and the prestigious Jefferson Award. My story was featured in an ESPN mini-documentary, “The Save.” 

 

I see the kids I serve and work with as my own, and I always tell them, “Reach for the stars. Look at me—anything is possible.”