Angel Rodriguez Jr. decorated a Christmas tree this year, the one standing in the lobby of a brick building in Bloomfield — a way station for inmates returning to the community.
The Hartford native can't remember the last time he was home for Christmas. Now 35, he's squandered a third of his life in prison, busted for a number of offenses, several involving drugs and guns. A former Los Solidos gang member, he went by the street moniker "Chaos."
"I was ruthless," he said.
Chaos was a drug-dealing, dope-smoking, jaw-busting, gun-toting, self-described knucklehead who embraced the thug lifestyle. He dropped out of Bulkeley High his freshman year,found his way to the streets and got on a path to the prisons.
Rodriguez was proud of the rep he was building as a bad ass. Weeks after his son was born in 2001, Rodriguez was sentenced to 10 years in prison for gun possession by a convicted felon. That was the point where Rodriguez said he changed.
"When that gavel came down and the judge sentenced me to 10 years, I said that was it, my life of crime is over," said Rodriguez, a stocky man wearing a red baseball uniform, his hair pulled back into a bun. "I looked back and thought about my newborn son who I really didn't spend any time with because I was out there smoking [angel] dust and popping ecstasy pills."
Tonight, Rodriguez will be one of 50 dads at South Congregational Church in Hartford reconnecting with their children for the holidays. The Hartford Fatherhood Initiative, run by the Capitol Region Conference of Churches, tutors dads absent from the home on how to become better fathers and establish a healthier rapport with their child's mother.
Rodriguez represents how challenging such a mission can be. "We teach them not to try and catch up," said Rev. F. Lydell Brown III, who runs the program, "but to take off from where they are, just be the best father you can be now."
Rodriguez is willing and seems genuine in wanting to make his role as dad a meaningful one. Growing up the youngest of four children in the Charter Oak Terrace project, he said he never really connected with his own dad. The rapport he didn't establish with his father he found on the streets.
Rodriguez's incorrigible past makes him an unsympathetic figure. Some might argue that guys like Rodriguez, who fathered two other children the same year his son was born, are incapable of redemption. The reality is he'll be released in four months from the Drapelick Center adult work-release program in Bloomfield — and he's still a young man.
In recent years he has immersed himself in drug counseling, conflict resolution, self-help and parenting programs. Rodriguez is working as a landscaper and wants to start his own cleaning company when he's out.
"He's very committed," said Sean Ball, who runs the Drapelick Center. "He's motivated by a supportive family and wanting to do well for his children. When we have clients like that, their success rate is usually higher."
Daisire Escobar, 23, is Angel III's mother. Before Rodriguez can ever think about getting back with her, she says, he needs to establish a relationship with his son, now 6."I see a real big improvement," Escobar said Friday. "I already see that he has become a better person. He has learned to be patient and to deal with any situation when it comes to his son. I'm hoping [Angel III] learns from his father's mistakes and that the life his father lived in the past is not the right life to live."
Rodriguez says that will be his message to his children, and he particularly wants to make sure his namesake doesn't follow in his footsteps.
"Always stand on your own two feet and make your own decisions," the father said. "I didn't have nobody in my life that really cared, the way I care about my son now. It gives me a lot of purpose."
"Chaos" now wants a little tranquillity.
And to represent himself with a new tag — dad.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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