On the first day of his release, after 31 years in prison, Luis “Suave” Gonzalez was determined to give back to the community.
“It’s a blessing for me to be here as the first thing I do when I got out. It’s important that the Latino community knows that these [Esperanza’s] resources exist.” Gonzalez said. “So this day is not about me, I’m just a voice for others.”
Still carsick, full of emotions, and shocked with the technological advancements of the past three decades, he met with leadership at Esperanza College and spoke to students at Esperanza Academy Charter School to advocate for education.
“In 1995 I wrote a wish list in which I stated that if I ever got out, the first thing I’d do is apologize to the community I did wrong and give back,” Gonzalez said.
Esperanza College Academic Dean, Reverend Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, offered him forgiveness and Esperanza’s platform to become an agent of change for Hispanic communities in Hunting Park and beyond.
“In the name of God and our community, know that you are forgiven. You are a new man, you have a new life, you have a new opportunity,” Conde-Frazier said.
Gonzalez spoke with leadership from Esperanza College about opportunities to bring certified education programs for prisoners, and offered a new, partially inmate-funded scholarship in the name of Maria Hinojosa, host of NPR Latino USA and his lifetime mentor.
As a teenager, Gonzalez did not know how to write his own name, and was told he had a learning disability. “Don’t let anybody tell your story, when they told me that I believed it,” he said regretfully.
Once sentenced to a lifetime in prison at the age of 16, Gonzalez lost all hope of ever coming out. He spent his first years in prison getting into trouble, stealing and sabotaging other inmate’s releases, until 1993 when one prison meeting changed his life.
Broadcaster Maria Hinojosa had been invited to speak at Graterford Prison. Gonzalez stood up to talk to her and asked “what can I do?,” Hinojosa said, “be the voice for the voiceless.”
“Ignorance put me in prison, education got me out”
Since then, Gonzalez was inspired to learn to read and earned his GED. He then earned a bachelor’s degree from Villanova – an endeavor that took 16 years. He established himself as a leader while in Graterford, working as president of LACEO, a Latino organization in the prison that over the last decade has given away 52 scholarships funded by inmates from their own wages, which start at 19 cents per hour.
Gonzalez encouraged Esperanza Academy students to fulfill their potential and invest in their education.
“Ignorance put me in prison, education got me out,” Gonzalez said. “You’re the next leaders of our community. You are not too young to make a difference.”
Esperanza was proud to host Gonzalez, an agent of change and transformation for our Hispanic communities, and look forward to expanding our education and youth-driven programs with the help and voice of “Suave.” Watch his TedTalk here.