Conversations with Literary Ex-Cons: Gustavo Alvarez

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Gustavo “Goose” Alvarez and I were in prison at the same time during the 1990s, though our stories are remarkably differently. His first conviction was the natural result of the gang life he’d been leading for most of his teenage years—born to hard-working Mexican parents in a tough part of LA, carjacking and shootings by fifteen. I was in a Catholic high school at that age, later messing around with hashish overseas while teaching English after college. I am white and from the suburbs. Growing up a Hispanic male in West LA, Goose has seen America’s fault lines like I never could: the country’s gang life and racial lines, the Rodney King riots in ‘92, California’s juvenile halls and county jails, federal prison, the southern border. He has seen America’s underbelly.

I wanted to hear his thoughts on all of this, especially at this fraught moment. I first heard of him through his book Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars, which I loved from the title on. Ramyun, in Korean, was a big part of my prison experience, too, just as it is apparently for inmates here in the States. The food has a funny and outsized role in locked-down life, and ramen helped save Goose’s skin during the Chino riots of 2008.

Shortly after that melee, Goose’s childhood friend Clifton Collins Jr. visited him. Cliff is an interesting actor who you’ve no doubt seen in a movie or two, including in Capote as the ever-disturbing Perry Smith. Sitting there in the visitation yard, the smell of burned dorms in the air, Goose told Cliff he wanted to do a book together, a cookbook/tribute to the ingenuity and survival skills of inmates. They got some wild contributions to the ensemble project, stories and recipes, including from Slash of Guns N’ Roses, Taryn Manning, who played Pennsatucky on Orange is the New Black, and Samuel L. Jackson, who writes about hunger in the book’s forward.

Goose says that cooking is about memories. From his exile in Tijuana, he had time again to talk and reflect, and we dug in. 

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The Rumpus: You spent about thirteen years total in prison, is that right, Goose?

Gustavo Alvarez: It ends up being thirteen years and a few months. Thirteen years, two terms, two chunks of my life. First term was when I was a kid, in high school. They gave me ten years for attempted one eighty-seven, assault with a firearm. Ended up doing six out of that. Got out, changed my way of thinking, so to speak, got married, had kids. Nine years clean, bro. But I was always strapped. I had it in me because I have a family and I’m an ex-member, so I’m always taking care of my family. Anyway, when I have birthday parties, I can’t tell my relatives not to come to their niece’s birthday party, and they happen to be wanted by the feds or whoever, made dudes or whatnot. They [the authorities] come knocking on my door, asking me questions, pressuring me. They found my piece and took me in, ex-con with a firearm. I’m not telling nothing. They give me this deal, they’re like, “You’re gonna face twenty-five to life on the three strikes,” you know, in California. I knew a guy on the tier, for a pizza they gave him twenty-five to life, bro, a slice of pizza that he stole from a shop. That was his third felony. I was not gonna roll the dice with the justice system. Dude couldn’t beat it with a slice of pizza, I’ll take the six years, give it to me.

Rumpus: We know that the plea bargain system gives prosecutors too much power. They say, what, ninety-something percent of cases go to plea, don’t they?

Alvarez: They’re all in on it. You’re numbers. You gotta fill these cells, gotta fill these cages.

Rumpus: Can you tell me about the riot that was the inspiration for Prison Ramen?

Alvarez: The Chino riot was in 2008. When I got to Chino on my second stint, I was just wearing down my time. They hired me as a clerk, because I had typing skills. I learned that in my first term. I was coming back from the office, and you felt the tension. I go, whoa, whoa. By the time I get back to the dorm, the riot kicked off. Every dorm in unison, just boom, boom, one after the other. And by the time it got to ours, it was in flames. You can actually see video of this on YouTube. Out of the barracks, all of the Black prisoners were jumping out of the windows because they were getting hurt by the Hispanic prisoners. And they all kind of huddled up in between the barracks, watching their building burn down, and the Hispanic guys on the opposite end of the yard. Then a few of the Black guys turned around and started looking at our building, and said, “Hey, there are some homies in there. Go in there and kill them, man!”

I was left trapped with about four other guys in our cubicle area, where I had pictures of my kids and stuff. I’m trying to rip the pictures off the wall because we’re gonna fly out the window; we’re out of here. But I couldn’t get these pictures off in time, so I got a towel, wrapped it around my neck, put a jacket on, grabbed a battery pack, and sat on my bunk. Everyone’s like, “What the heck. Let’s go.” I was like, “I need these pictures. This is all I got. I ain’t going nowhere.” Some homies saw me and said, “Well then we’re staying with you, too.” They put their gear on and we just waited. And the door was just bending. It was the emergency exit for the COs and they’d broken it to the point where it bent in and they were gonna come in and get us. Out of nowhere, this older Black gentleman, ex- or older Crip, he gets up. Never talked to us before, grouchy, kept to himself, you know. We never bothered him. He had no reason to help us, but he gets up and talks these guys down for an hour and forty-five minutes. “You ain’t coming in here,” he said. “I’m such and such a Crip. I’m your daddy’s…” He calmed the storm. I sat there going, He’s not gonna stop them. These dudes are coming to get us. But he stopped them.

He stood there until they just gave up. He went in his locker and gave them a Snickers bar, some old chips, whatever he had, not much. I’m watching this, watching him as he’s talking to these kids who are eighteen, nineteen years old. I was in my late thirties already, early forties, and it just hit me, bro. I go, “Hey, grab all the ramens, get all the tunas from everybody’s locker,” and we made this huge spread for them. My guys were like, “Yo, man, what the hell is wrong with you?” I said, “Just do it,” and they did, because they had to; they were listening to me. We made all these guys a spread and I said to the old Crip, his name was Phil, “Hey, Big Phil, I appreciate that. Lemme feed them.” And he was like, “Ah, yeah, thank you.” And we just started feeding these guys, the Black kids, all the little Crips. They were hesitant at first, and Phil the OG goes, “Man, take this food. You guys haven’t eaten since six o’clock.” We made them pitchers of coffee. National Guard surrounding the prison waiting for things to calm down. I sat there, talking to the older dude Phil and some of these younger dudes, and I just started mentoring to them. One minute I’m gonna slice their throat, in the back of my head, now I’m over here telling them, “Man, you’ve been following the same lie I did. It ain’t about Black or brown. We’re human.”

Rumpus: Why do think Big Phil did that? He’s standing up for you Mexican guys.

Alvarez: His action caused a reaction with the younger Black guys in the dorm. Once he started talking to them, bringing them down, a couple of other guys came and helped and they took the other tail end of the storm. His example showed, immediately. One person made it happen. He didn’t have to do that. Since I was one of the older guys there, too, I needed to do something as well, to return the favor.

Rumpus: And that was the birth of the idea for the book, right, a celebration of breaking spread together?

Alvarez: After the National Guard came in and beat us up, took us out, then returned us to Chino, those of us who weren’t involved in the riot. We were just trapped in it. Cliff, my co-author, immediately came to visit me. He’s like, “Bro, what happened? What about the riot?” I’m like, “Never mind that. I got a book idea.” He just sat there looking at me like… But I pitched him Prison Ramen, and he goes, “You know, that’s not a bad idea.” [As Goose remembers it, Cliff was filming The Experiment with Adrien Brody at that time, a movie about prison, power, and violence.]

Rumpus: You said you were always strapped, that this was just the way you were. Were you already, even then at sixteen, used to having a gun on you?

Alvarez: You see, fifteen, sixteen years old, when I initially joined that gang, there were violent guys coming to our high school area to catch us slipping and kill us. They killed a lot of my friends. We would do the same. Everywhere I went I had a 380, a .25. I always had something. There was this Latin gang war, but also with the Black gangs.

Rumpus: This was after Rodney King?

Alvarez: We were at our peak then. That’s when I went to county jail, in ‘92. I got to see the masses come in. I got to witness it and be part of the first riots that lit up LA County jail like wildfire. That was frustration that had been building up for a long time. If we had phones in the early ‘90s to record all of the beatings… Everybody from my neighborhood was in there. Everyone was getting arrested.

Rumpus: You’ve seen a lot more of the nation’s racial fault lines than I have. You were saying that in prison it’s just unavoidable, you gotta be with your kind, you’ve got to color up. The fate of the country is hanging on this. America’s fatal sin, our original sin. Seeing all that you have, how do you view the racial state of things in the US?

Alvarez: Right now, at this moment, it’s gonna get worse than in the ‘90s. That’s my opinion, based on what I’ve heard from the street and what I’ve seen online. These young cats, mugging Mexican vendors and videotaping it so they can get likes on Instagram. It’s these young guys who don’t know better. We’re supposed to be schooling them, molding them. That’s where the problem lies.

Rumpus: I noticed before when I asked you what gang you were in and you didn’t say. I respect that you have your reasons for not saying.

Alvarez: It’s kind of a habit. The best way to say it is a West LA gang member. Where we lived was Inglewood, which belonged to the actual enemies of my gang. I was living in the hornet’s nest. So that’s why I had to carry a gun every day. I hardly got to see my parents because they were always working, trying to provide for us. We lived in an urban project area. So who were my mentors? Older guys on the street. I’m learning from the neighborhood. The first institution I went to when I was fifteen, for attempted murder. I shot somebody. But then we were doing carjackings, trying to steal a Porsche from this Arabian guy up on Sunset, because I was into that. When you read The Pawn [an autobiographical novel Goose has written], you’ll read all the stories about it. We survived on that, doing carjacks at fifteen years old.

Rumpus: During the Chino riot, when you guys made the spread and shared it in peace, and you were out on the yard talking, mentoring a little bit, and you said you tried to tell those young Crips that they believed the same lie you had bought into. What is that lie?

Alvarez: I’ll describe it to you how I shared it with an actual kid I mentored in prison when I was part of a group called SEEK, seeking to educate kids. I tried to do that; I tried to help. [Actor Danny Trejo writes in Prison Ramen, “Everything good that has ever happened to me has happened as a direct result of helping someone else.”] I said that the lie that we’re all following is the same bullshit pride. That brown pride, that Black pride, that white pride, that foolish pride. It’s a lie, from the devil, I tell you, straight out, and we’re all following it. We’re killing each other for nothing.

Rumpus: You think a lot of that is racial pride?

Alvarez: Definitely, of course it is. It all starts with that.

Rumpus: You know, I never quite felt that, white pride, and that’s probably because I’ve never been a minority except when I was in prison myself overseas.

Alvarez: A crash course. I can imagine in your case it was worse. Come on, man, I wouldn’t make it in no Korea, I’d go nuts!

Rumpus: It was the best education.

Alvarez: You need that manure. That’s the manure of your life. If you don’t have that…

Rumpus: Take me back to the lie.

Alvarez: It’s the eye of the devil. You’re taught and bred to hate and I didn’t understand why. My best friend was Tyrone, a Black kid. What do you mean I’m not supposed to like him? I didn’t get it. Then a tragedy occurred to my younger sister from a Black guy and it just ignited my racism, which made me despise them. I hated all of them. Ignorant, I didn’t know no better. Until, one guy saved my life, in the county jail on my first term, saved my life. Kevin. He got two hundred and something years for murder. He was eighteen. I was eighteen. I was waiting for transportation to pick me up and take me to my prison because I’d already been sentenced. He’d already been sentenced. In LA County jail, there was a point where they mixed everybody together, celled us up together on purpose so we might eliminate each other. At that moment he was my cellie in a four-man cell and there was tension because there were riots going on. He had a knife. I had a knife.

Rumpus: For context, this was in ‘92, during the Rodney King riots, right?

Alvarez: Yes. I had a straight blade. We leaned them up against the inside of our jaw or lips, like that, and I had one ready. I had one in my cell under the pillow. Kev and I started playing cards at night against the other cellies. We started talking and we bonded. That same night that we played cards, they opened up the cell rack at four in the morning for breakfast. I said, “I’m good. I’ve got commissary, Kev, I’ll see you later,” and he went to breakfast. And I dozed off like a dummy. All of a sudden I feel somebody tug my feet through the bars and when I look up I see Kev run out and then I get up and two Black guys come into my cell and start pouncing on me, so I reached for my knife which was under my pillow and I start swinging it until it lodged on something and they ran out of the cell. I closed it and locked myself in there so I wouldn’t get hurt, flushed the shank down the toilet. Later on, after the whole thing was over, I found out there was a riot at the chow hall between the Blacks and the Mexicans. I assume Kev ran back, woke me up, gave me that two seconds to get up, because these guys could have run in my cell and choked me to death, bro.

Rumpus: You think Kev was trying to wake you up?

Alvarez: That’s my assumption and I’m sticking to it. I never saw Kev again. That’s what I meant by just that one bond overnight. You get to know somebody and you realize, we’re the same, we’re the same people. We’re human!

Rumpus: What’s unfortunate is what you described earlier, how sometimes those external factors are so strong that they force people to do terrible things. It forces them to compromise their true selves.

Alvarez: Yes, and for the sake of what? Survival.

Rumpus: That’s what I fear about these racial tensions. Even if you have a lot of decent, tolerant, universalist-type people, the whole thing can get ruined by just a few people who are still back in that medieval mindset. They can turn everyone else. You saw it here; the white backlash against a Black president has been crazy to watch.

Alvarez: They didn’t even want to put his picture up in the White House, bro.

Rumpus: I mean America has always had an ugly side, like anywhere. Really ugly now with the white nationalism, the racism, the immigration policies.

Alvarez: Yeah, man. It’s just been under the rug. I knew actual Klan members in prison. I used to converse with them and they would bluntly tell you their plan and it’s coming and unfolding just how they said it.

Rumpus: So, from a young age you were out there using your weapons.

Alvarez: I was, bro. At a very young age I had a fascination. I was into ROTC in high school. I wanted to go to the military. I wanted to go to the Marine Corps. The recruiter said, “You don’t want to go the Air Force?” I said, “No, infantry is what I want.”

Rumpus: There are these dudes off the streets who served in WWII, Vietnam, Korean War, someone like yourself, someone who is comfortable with firearms, comfortable with taking a life maybe. My grandfather, a better man than me, was a war hero, a captain lost behind enemy lines in Germany, taking out Nazi machine gun nests, won a Bronze Star. He told me a story I’ll never forget, and it was his way I think of giving me a chance, saying that there was still hope for me even though it was shameful that I’d been to prison. He said that when they were training in Tennessee or Kentucky before heading out to face the Nazis, the Army brought in a bunch of ex-cons. He said he had to help train these guys and some of them were shit, but some of them made really good soldiers and were excellent marksmen. They ended up using their energy in a different way. Is that kind of what you were thinking to do?

Alvarez: The recruiter went into court to try to speak for me. The judge was like, “Wait a minute, I served in the Marine Corps. Let’s check this guy out.” He gets my paperwork out and he goes, “Mr. Alvarez, you know I considered sending you to the Marine Corps to teach you a lesson,” and I’m thinking, Hell yeah, hell yeah. “Okay,” he says, “let’s find out if you have your papers in order, if you have your high school diploma.” I said, “Oh yeah, I just need a few credits. I’m gonna go to summer school and get those.” “You mean to tell me you don’t have a high school diploma?” judge says. “You don’t have the decency to get yourself a high school diploma on time, then we can’t trust you in the military. We’re gonna sentence you to the California correctional system.”

Rumpus: He could have sent you to the military instead of prison.

Alvarez: He could have, and this circles around to a conversation I’ve had with kids about never disrespecting your teachers, because I was short two credits because of my English class, because I wanted to impress a chick, acted out. Teacher looked at me like, “What’s wrong with you? You’re one of my best students. What are you doing? Get out of my class.” I thought, no problem, I’ll just make it up over the summer. That disrespectful attitude toward that teacher cost me.

Rumpus: Did you ever come across any writing programs or good educational programs while you were inside?

Alvarez: Friends sent me those Save the Cat books, for screenwriting, but I didn’t really get into it. A celebrity friend of mine kept telling me, “You’re an artist, you’re an author.” I said, “No, I’m not. I just tell stories.” I just draw from my well. But I tell you what, bro, if I hadn’t learned to type, and taken advantage of the trades during my first term, I don’t think I would have written this book or anything.

Rumpus: You mentioned typing in our first conversation.

Alvarez: My skill was typing, so every time I went to a new facility I would get a clerk job, which was a high-paying job, and I was able to keep improving my keyboard skills.

Rumpus: Tell me about your novel The Pawn.

Alvarez: It’s been out since January. It’s fiction. I have to write it as fiction. There are people I don’t want to get in trouble, especially me. The Pawn has a very blunt, to-the-point, scary message. It brings out the hard truth. It’s about a kid growing up in the ‘90s and he gets sentenced to a lot of time in prison at a young age. He gets manipulated by the Mexican mafia, doing hits for them and being used and abused. What happens is the kid gains this force, this mighty power.

Rumpus: And he kills his mentor. People might be asking you if that’s straight autobiography! Then you can say what novelists like to say, “How dare you for thinking it’s real.” Who published that?

Alvarez: I self-published it through Amazon’s KDP. I have my own personal reasons for doing that.

Rumpus: So many different ways to get stories out there now. Did you read much when you were away?

Alvarez: First term I was a young kid, still an active gang member, so I didn’t read as much. I was busy causing ruckus on the yard, stabbing people, causing mayhem. As I matured and started to get right, I picked up books. Then I wanted to fix myself, but it’s frowned upon to go to therapy so I started reading self-help books. When I returned to prison in my late thirties, the books that I wanted, you couldn’t get them, and content that you wanted you couldn’t order anymore. They just kept giving you new regulations after new regulations. They don’t want you to get educated or get buff. They take away your weights. They just want you to be a sardine.

Rumpus: In your dedication of Prison Ramen you called yourself the thief of your parents’ dreams.

Alvarez: I learned how to be a fireman in jail. My mom was proud of me, but then that didn’t work out. I pretty much stole all of her dreams for me, what she hoped I would be.

Rumpus: But she’s still alive, you said. You’re out and you’re free and you’re doing cool projects.

Alvarez: I just draw from my well.

Rumpus: You’ve got so much material.

Alvarez: Trying to break into Hollywood from TJ [Tijuana] during quarantine. I get humbled everyday. Ramen is still in my cupboard. I just want to do my day, take care of my little kids, and fish. [Goose walks with his computer to his window, shows me the placid beach outside his apartment.] It’s in the cut, the beaches of TJ, American people, usually old retired people. It’s secure.

Rumpus: Keep it simple. Thinking back on that poetic line, your dedication. Your parents must be glad now though, no? Things could have turned out much worse.

Alvarez: Most of my friends who I grew up with, they’re dead. One of them is serving life. Yeah, she’s very happy. She saw the mother of one of them in church a while ago. My mom was sad. She wanted to see me, but I’m here, and her friend said, “It’s okay, at least you still get to hug him.” Humbled my mom. She doesn’t stress as much anymore about it. She’s in LA. I’m the only one in my family still in Mexico. All of them are US citizens. And I’m not the only one. There are hundreds of guys like me here, hundreds, bro. The only thing we know is the US. You talked about prejudice. Remember you said in Korea you felt like a minority. Imagine being a stranger in a strange land and not speaking the language like them. Immediately it’s like, “Oh, he’s a pocho, He’s a chicano.” They think you’re better than them, and it’s not the case. I’m struggling, too. It’s just that I know English.

Rumpus: But your Spanish must still be pretty good, no?

Alvarez: I’m sharpening it up a bit, man. I’m not gonna lie. It was worse. People were like, “What?” It’s getting better.

Rumpus: In prison you must have used both, right?

Alvarez: The Spanglish in prison is mostly slang. If it’s a good conversation it’s usually on the phone with your mom or with an older gentleman.

Rumpus: Can you come back to the US? What’s your status now?

Alvarez: In 1992 I had a green card, go figure. Then in ‘97 when I finished my first sentence, they said I had to go see an immigration judge. I didn’t know what a green card was. I had lived in the US all my life. They tell me, “It’s gonna be eighteen months. You can stay here and fight it, but you get no bail and no attorney. Or you can sign this paper right here and we can deport you to TJ in two hours.” I just finished doing six years and I could be free in two hours. So I gave up my green card for freedom. After that I went back to LA. I paid taxes, got my driver’s license, got a job, got married, then nine years later, my second felony conviction. When all that time was done, in 2011, I get deported. This is where it gets kind of weird.

I go to San Bernardino ICE. Customs guy said, “I’m just going to dump you. If they take you in front of a judge they’re going to give you ten years,” for the reentry I made after the first term. So they drove me to the border, took me to the office, fingerprinted me. “We’re gonna fast-pass you out of here.” I was thankful. They deport me. But I needed to be with my kids in LA. I’m a stranger in a strange land. I know that sounds harsh. I’m Mexican. But I feel like a stranger. My kids need me. So I go to Ciudad Juarez and I cross illegally. Sometimes you think with this [hand on his heart], instead of this [pointing to his head]. Yeah, bro, the whole journey just to cross that border, it was like a movie. The whole cliche. Mud, the river, walking knee-high in the Rio Grande, getting chased by dogs. Me and this other guy running across this opening that only had a border control truck and a fence. I buried myself underneath this trailer park, but they caught us. That’s when the fun begins. They beat me up, hit me in the back of the head with a shotgun. They put zip ties on the other guy because he was being difficult. I just gave up when they dragged me out. There was nothing I could do.

Rumpus: Wild stories, Goose. Do your kids know about your experiences, do they ever ask you about them?

Alvarez: My two daughters are over eighteen years old. My son is fifteen. They read Prison Ramen. They ask questions and I share with them now. I broke it down for them. I’m an open book, literally.

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Photograph of Gustavo Alvarez courtesy of Gustavo Alvarez.

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Cullen Thomas is the author of Brother One Cell, a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book and recommended reading by Lonely Planet. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, GQ, Foreign Policy, USA Today, and the Daily Beast. He teaches writing and literature at New York University. More from this author →