At age 13, Berto Aguayo was part of a ‘gang’ of the underserved areas of Chicago, something that could have marked the course of his life forever, as it happens with thousands of young Hispanics – and other minorities of color – who many times lack resources and opportunities.
The young man tells in an interview with Univision Noticias that he had “a childhood full of challenges”. His mother migrated from Zacatecas (Mexico) to the United States. She was just 15 years old when she arrived in the country in 1991, accompanied by her boyfriend and pregnant. She was carrying Berto in her belly.
“I did not learn to speak English until the fifth grade (10 years), and I remember that we lived in a two bedroom apartment with the whole family, “says the 26-year-old ‘made in Mexico’ but born in Chicago, Illinois.
“We were my three sisters, cousins, grandmother, all in a two-bedroom apartment, in addition to the challenges that the city implies: violence and few opportunities for young people to do good,” he says.
These difficulties added to a context of family violence that led his mother Rosalba Contreras -who currently works as a stylist- to separate from Berto’s biological father and her sisters. She ended up raising the children as a single mother.
However, a few years later, someone would give him an opportunity that would change his life completely.
“He saw the potential in me that I didn’t see”
At 17, Berto recognizes that was able to get out of the gangs because someone gave him an opportunity that he did not expect and it changed his life radically.
She says that Josephine Gómez (the principal of Héctor García High School) did something unexpected one day that he was punished at the address.
“My high school principal connected me (with) a job to collaborate with a Chicago-area councilor, something that it opened my eyes to inequality that existed not only in my city, but throughout the country, “he explains, adding that she saw in him” a potential that he himself could not perceive. “
This ‘light’ that she threw on him made Berto head towards a totally different fate the one who waited for him in the gangs of his neighborhood: made it to college and graduated with a BA in Political Science and Economics from the Dominican University in Chicago in 2016.
“I never imagined myself studying in a law school, much less a full scholarship,” he acknowledges.
“I opened my eyes to the inequality that exists in the United States and that I was also perpetuating (…) since then I dedicated myself to fighting inequalities and injustices and helping other young people who were in the same place where I was once, “he says.
Berto became a community organizer. Co-founded the initiative Increase The Peace (Increase La Paz, in Spanish), an organization through which he seeks to change the reality of hundreds of young people like him.
From Increase The Peace works to train young people in community organization, violence prevention and access to opportunities. Berto also participated in 2018 as a national leadership trainer with the Obama Foundation and in 2019 he ran as an independent to the City Council for District 15.
For the CEO of Increase The Peace, the differences between communities in the United States they are “abysmal.”
“The Mexican and African-American communities in the US have far fewer resources than the Anglo-Saxon communities, which reflects the inequality that I experienced, “he says.
Currently Berto he is on a scholarship at the Pritzker Law School of the prestigious Northwestern University, in Chicago, from where he takes this interview with Univision Noticias. Between classes, he assures that also “it is necessary to change the laws to make it fairer for minority communities.”
The young man – who confesses to being a fan of the Mexican team Chivas de Guadalajara – proudly tells of some of the achievements of his organization. “We have trained more than 300 young people in community organization so that they have the tools to change their neighborhood and their own life (and) we offer food pantries, “he explains.
Berto acknowledges that his mother’s love was key to forge her character and be where she is now, as she assures that “she never gave up.” ” She is probably the most influential person in my life, “he says..
He now works to give opportunities to other young people who, like him, have difficult childhoods and backgrounds. Berto understands that precisely that, the opportunities, are what made his life take the direction it did, outside the world of gangs. “The difference from (that) 13-year-old to now is the fact that someone gave me the opportunity to see beyond my block,” he closes.