From Barnacle to Bird
Part I: Following His Own Lead
During the first 12 years of his prison incarceration Guillermo Willie was as indistinguishable from the hardened world he lived in as is a barnacle from its rock.
No one could have guessed then, not even Guillermo himself, that inside his prisoner-hardness pulsed something softer that in time would lift him up, light as a feather, off the rock and over the prison walls to freedom. But the transformation would take nearly a lifetime.
“It was supposed to be a one-year sentence; it just stretched out to 38,” Guillermo says matter-of-factly, sitting on a log in the woods, his eyes serene, searching a spot in the air above his head where the memory seems to float.
As Guillermo speaks, he allows his words to arrive slowly, deliberately, the way an artist working in oils might mimic the movement of water with fluid but measured sweeps of a brush. As a child of loving parents in the Riverside area of Southern California, there were no red flags that said, Watch out, this kid is headed for prison.
“Prior to the time I started getting loaded, smoking pot, when I was 18, I would go to church with Mom and Dad. I would go on Sunday morning, Sunday night, Tuesday night, Thursday night. I would go to school and never dated. Mom and Dad didn’t allow that.”
“Dad came from Mexico, and he worked himself from being a janitor to retiring as a draftsman. He learned English. He learned drafting. He had these aspirations for me and for my two other brothers. His daughters were supposed to be housewives, but his sons were going to be a doctor, a lawyer, a scientist.
“They didn’t want us to be like him and work as a janitor. So we’d live in one neighborhood and when we were better off, we would move to a so-called better neighborhood. We would go from one house to another one, to another one, to another one.
“During those years I learned to make Mom and Dad happy. And what made them happy made me happy. I thought to myself, Mom and Dad are teaching what’s best for me. I never questioned, What do I want? What about Willie? What about this character inside who might need something? That was never a question.
I never wondered about anything like this until I smoked pot. “I don’t mean that pot opened my mind. I just liked it. I had this fascination with it. Here I was living this family life, and then it was the late 60s, and you’d hear about it. There were pictures in the newspaper of the officer in Berkeley smoking a marijuana cigarette on the courthouse steps. You’d hear about acid. And I started to wonder. It’s not like someone pulled me there. There was just something inside of me that made me curious.
“One day there was a guy who gave me a ride to school, and I heard him telling somebody else that another guy had come into his gas station and offered him a joint, but he didn’t take it. And I told him, Hey, the next time he offers you one, take it and give it to me. The guy said Why? Are you interested? And I said, Yes I am!”
Thus, with no more than his own curiosity to herald it, with no one to blame or congratulate but himself, and breaking his parents’ hearts, Guillermo followed his own lead, took an about-turn, and built a wall around his life.
Part II: Bricking the Walls of His Own Prison
The first walls around Sing-Sing, one of the oldest prisons in America, were originally constructed out of stones from a nearby quarry. Those stones were cut, carried and hefted sturdily into position by the very prisoners who were to be caged there. It could be argued that Guillermo Willie, beginning in the late 1960′s, began adopting beliefs and making choices that one-by-one-by-one became the impenetrable building blocks in the high walls of his own thirty-eight year incarceration.
Guillermo sums up how he became a prisoner in two words: “I jumped!” He went from a young man who minded his parents, attended church and carried an armload of books to and from school every day into a full blown, drug involved drop-out in the space of a few months.
“Once I got arrested for drugs the first time, after that I would get arrested, arrested, arrested—I don’t know, 15, 20, 30 times. And it was all drug-related or under the influence stuff. But I didn’t care. It became fun.”
It also became Guillermo’s routine. He’d get arrested, get put in county jail, get out, go back to doing the same things, sleep at other people’s houses and then get arrested again.
“If I couldn’t live anywhere else when I got out, I’d go home. Mom and Dad always accepted me. I’d stay there, but I wasn’t a very good brother to my brothers and my sisters, I wasn’t a good son to Mom and Dad—but I didn’t care. I was going to live my own life, and that’s all there was to it.”
Guillermo started smoking pot, which opened for him a world of other drugs. And as usual, he didn’t just tippy-toe into the experience—he jumped, immersing himself. “I actually shot reds (barbiturates) before I even took one as a pill.”
“I started running around with this ex-motorcycle club guy. He was older. He worked in a gas station along my walk to school. He was into drugs, and he got me totally into them. But I was game. It was me who asked him one day if he had any pot, and he said to come on by later. And I did.”
Guillermo could not see it at the time, but each of these decisions, made one-by-one so clearly and forcefully, were actually quarried bricks that he was using to build the walls between him and his own freedom. Outside observers, reasonable people, might be incredulous about such behavior, asking: How could someone do that to himself?
It is true that many people make bad choices in their young lives, but most often they learn from them and gradually change their trajectory. They will unwisely pick up some of those bad-choice bricks, but eventually one will drop on their toe or hit them in the head, and they wake up to adjust their behavior. So why didn’t Guillermo adjust? Why such determination and consistency in making bad choices? How could anyone turn a bad-enough one-year drug sentence into more than one-third of an entire century in prison?
The answer, according to Guillermo, might lie not so much in those bricks chosen, but more in themortar that he used to bind those bricks into the rock walls that became the backdrop for the tough barnacle he was becoming. And what exactly was this mortar he used to bind these bricks?—quite likely it was the beliefs Guillermo held in his mind.