FALL RIVER — A lot of redemption stories end with their subjects building new lives far from their troubled old ones.
For Christian Berrios, the new path led back to a place he knew too well — a place where his life was lost and where, with a dose of luck and love, he found it again.
He had made his own choices, but he took a well worn trail. He was born in Puerto Rico, to a big, poor family. His mother died when he was 8, and his grandmother took him, his six brothers, and his sister to live in a Chicago neighborhood overrun with gangs and drugs. His older brothers soon fell in with the mayhem.
Their grandmother moved them to Fall River to get them away from the streets, but Berrios’s brothers just picked up where they left off, trading on their gang ties to build their own operation in Massachusetts. They forbade Berrios from following them into the trade, and for a while, he obeyed. But in high school, the pull of easy money was too strong.
“Living in the projects, you see that man going to work every morning with the lunch bag, coming home late,” recalled Berrios, now 27. “But then you see the [dealers] out there with the chains on, having a good time.”
He caught on to the game quickly. And he never seemed to get caught, narrowly escaping police raids, inflicting just enough hurt to keep rivals at bay.
But he had a girlfriend he loved, and she hated his choice of career. And he knew it was only a matter of time before he was busted, or worse.
“I was just seeing the walls closing in,” he said. His girlfriend threatened to leave him. He didn’t want to lose her, but he had nothing to show for his years in the trade, except a pair of diamond earrings. He needed to sell one more batch of crack to launch their new life.
That’s when he was arrested, at last. He was 20. He spent the night in a cell at the Fall River District Court. In that small, crowded, foul-smelling cell, Berrios tried not to panic. He put his face in his hands, and smelled his girlfriend’s lotion.
“That moment, right there, is where it all switched,” he said. “The scent of her gave me that picture of what I had been involved in all those years. It killed me.”
He lucked out, receiving three years’ probation. He got temp work but was feeling his resolve slip when an old friend told him about YouthBuild, a national nonprofit that gives high school dropouts a GED and training for good construction jobs.
Berrios knew how much he needed the structure and pride the program could give him. He went all in, showing up on time every morning, examining his bad choices.
“You come here as a rock, all jagged edges and messed up,” he said. “And they’re Picasso. They take a mallet and a chisel and they knock you around until you’re a work of art.”
For better or worse, his family’s bad reputation meant other students looked up to him. The students might dismiss others tellingthem to pull up their pants or lose the attitude, but they listened to Berrios. That is a mighty valuable asset to have. And so, when Berrios graduated, program manager Carmen Richardi kept him on — first as a graduate assistant and now, as a mentor coordinator.
In June, YouthBuild moved into new premises at the old Fall River District Court. When Richardi showed Berrios where his new desk would be, Berrios bowed his head and laughed.
His new office was the very same cell where he’d sat on that desolate night eight years ago.
On a recent Monday he stood outside it, looking up at the grimy cinder block walls and ceiling-mounted camera. He unlocked a small door in the cell’s heavy wire front, making it squeal.
“What an ugly sound,” he said.
It’s not likely Berrios will ever hear that sound again.
His brothers are still lost, but his life has traced a perfect circle — there and back again.