Cesar Allende used to like selling drugs. “Selling them [drugs] can be just as addictive as doing them,” he said. “For me it was the whole action, the process, that was the attraction, not so much the money. It’s what I woke up for in the morning.”
Threats from gang members to stop selling in their “territory” didn’t stop Allende. Getting arrested and theatened with doing time in prison didn’t stop him.
What finally started Allende on the path to becoming part of the solution rather than the problem was a chance encounter at a gas station.
“I guess I was being a little loud with the cashier there because this woman next to me said, ‘You shouldn’t let your anger get a hold over you.’ We talked for a bit and she gave me her card. I didn’t take her advice at first, but I did keep her card.”
The woman turned out to be Reverend Patrice Smith, a well-known anti-violence activist and a former candidate for mayor. In recent years, Smith has befriended numerous youths seeking to break free from the violence and lawlessness so prevalent on the streets of Hartford.
Allende ran into Smith several more times at the same gas station. Each time, their conversations got longer, one lasting about three hours, said Allende.
“I’d always told myself that I’d only sell drugs until I graduated and got a good job,” Allende said. “But I was starting to realize that it wasn’t going to be so easy.”
“I asked Reverend Smith what she’d do if she was in a simialr situation,” Allende remembers. “She said she would flush all the drugs down the toilet. So that’s what I did, about a thousand dollars worth.”
They also discussed faith. “I always knew God was real,” said Allende. “And I knew God was watching me and that I would suffer for the things I’d done. But I also knew there was God’s grace.”
That was a year ago. At that time, Allende said his grade point average (GPA) was not high enough to qualify for graduation. “I really had to struggle to get my grades up, “ he said. In the end, he was successful and last month he graduated from the University of Hartford with a degree in psychology.
Allende said he wants to go on and get a master’s degree in child psychology. “I want to help the kids who are like the kids I grew up with. Kids who don’t see any way out. ..how can we change the future if kids are growing up in the same cycle of violence and hopelessness?”
Allende experienced that cycle first hand, living on Martin Street in Hartford’s North End for much of his childhood. “It seemed like you could hear gunshots every night...I used to get chased home from school,” he remembers.
Although he lived in the North End, Allende attended Saint Augustine’s Catholic School in the city’s South End, primarily because his father, now a retired police officer, attended private school. He then attended Sports and Medical Sciences Academy and made the school football team.
“I knew a lot of people at school, that’s how I got introduced to drugs...there was peer pressure on me to sell drugs. People would be asking me for stuff,” said Allende. He started small, selling marijuana and cocaine in the Putnam Heights area. But soon Allende was making hundreds of dollar a day. He stopped playing football. He bought a car. At first, his drug-selling activities didn’t affect his schoolwork. He was accepted into the University of Hartford and made the Dean’s List his first semester. “I thought I could run with all of it,” said Allende.
During his freshman year, Allende had his first serious run-in with the law. While visiting a friend at the University of Connecticut, he was pulled over by campus police on a suspicion of drunk driving. Drugs and a scale were found in Allende’s car. “The judge threatened to sentence me to one year in prison to show me that if I kept going down the path I was on, this was where I’d end up,” said Allende.
But the wake-up call didn’t work. “I just became more careful, “ said Allende. “Like I’d hide my marijuana in containers where a dog couldn’t smell the stuff from the outside.”
Around this time, Allende and his partner also had a run-in with the Latin Kings. According to Allende, members of the gang told him and his partner that if they wanted to sell “white stuff” (i.e. crack or cocaine) they’d have to go through the gang. But they ignored the warning and at one point were surrounded by 13 gang members. “I had a gun, but what’s one guy against 13? I would have died that night...eventually we talked it over with the oldest guy in their group and they let us go. But it could have ended much differently. And we never sold on that street corner again.”
But trouble kept following Allende. He began to hang around with a loose group of 20 to 30 other teens. “We used to go to different places but it seemed like every place we went there was some kind of problem between one of us and someone else. Not a problem with me but with one of the kids I was with,” he said. “It got so bad I couldn’t even go places with my other without there being a problem with someone.”
Allende said he tried to just “disappear” for a while and not associate with his old group of friends, but he continued to sell drugs. “I was going down and down instead of growing,” he said.
It was around this time that he ran into Rev. Smith at the gas station. Now he’s a college graduate looking to help kids from backgrounds similar to his. “I used to have the mentality that one kid couldn’t make a difference. I don’t have that attitude anymore,” he said.