Turning it around

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TUCSON, Ariz. – There are many pathways to travel down the road of life, some of them even marked by signposts indicating the nature of the journey – warnings like Trouble Ahead or Dead End. Ron Arvizu didn’t bother to read the signs, or if he did, he figured they didn’t apply to him. As a result, he spent 16 years of his life drunk, drugged and frequently behind bars.

“I was raised in institutions since I first got into trouble for burglary and shoplifting and got sent to a school for boys. That was in 1961. I was 12 and a half and about to spend over three years incarcerated until I turned 16. From that point until I turned my life around and headed in a different direction, it was all about binging with booze and smacked out on cocaine, all of which led to more criminal activity and a revolving door that had me going in and out of jail,” said the 61-year-old Indio-Mexicano.

“I learned how to be a mean kid, violent with a quick temper. I was angry when I arrived at the Arizona State Industrial School for Boys and got even angrier during my stay there. When I came home to Tucson, I did whatever the gang wanted to do – burglarize a store, steal a car, break into a residence. Drinking and drugs came more into play and I got real heavy into dealing to support my habit. I was strung out real bad, smoking four or five 7-gram eight-balls a night.”

That lifestyle ultimately lead to an adult prison term for conspiracy to possess and distribute both cocaine and marijuana.

When he was released on parole, a friend suggested a creative way to meet women – style their hair. “That was cool,” he said. “You didn’t have to do real work, the women were there, the parole officer was happy and so was I.”

One hang up here however: felons couldn’t get a license because of their criminal record. “While I was still in school, an instructor challenged me to find a way around the felon thing. I printed up a thousand business cards reading ‘Outlaw Haircutting’ and wrote an amendment to the law that essentially said the licensing board should be given individual discretion to issue, withhold, or deny a license. We changed the law without even hiring an attorney when I became the first convict in the state to receive a cosmetology license. In the process, doors were opened for others coming along behind me, people who also wanted to turn their life around.”

The old ways were still strong however and Arvizu made repeat visits to correctional facilities in both the 1980s and early 1990s. In 1992, arrested again for selling drugs, pre-trial services recommended he be sent back to prison as a career criminal noting the probability that he would never change. The judge viewed the situation differently and ordered he be sent to Circle Tree Ranch, a 50 acre residential teaching and therapeutic community for substance abusers. “It was great here,” he said. “This wasn’t a prison with barbed wire fences all around. I was happier than a hummingbird in a field of flowers.”

After some initial negativity and a reluctance to take part in the learning programs, a change started from within. “I started looking at behavior patterns and didn’t like what I was seeing in myself. I began to open up, honestly, and began to develop emotions and a conscience for the first time. It was like being born again to human feelings that others take for granted.”

Psychological motivators for change are many and varied with different individuals responding (or not) to various issues. Arivizu has been married and divorced four times and has two children, a son who refused to talk to his father and a daughter he didn’t see for 17 years. “If the kids had come to me when they were younger, barefoot and in need of shoes, they would have remained barefoot and I’d have spent the money to feed my addiction,” he admitted. But times, and people, change and he began to cultivate a ‘Let’s start from today forward’ attitude

“I don’t know tacos from tortillas but I do know that good things start happening when you change how you conduct your life,” he said. Arvizu located a sweat lodge and discovered the miracle of prayer. “Spirits started communicating with me and I liked the feeling of what was happening, a transformation. What I also found out was that when you pray to spirits in the native way for healing and they hear you and heal you, they expect something in return.”

Today, long after taking a detour away from his destructive lifestyle and walking a straight and narrow path, he pours water for others at the sweat lodge where younger participants refer to him as ‘uncle.’

“Everything I’ve done in my life, including all those visits to prison and reform school, wasn’t a total waste because I can now teach and help others based on my experiences I relate in sweat lodge circles. Others can leave with a sense of belonging, tradition and spirituality and start turning their own lives around. That makes it worthwhile.”

A taker before and a giver now, Arvizu has learned the Circle Tree lessons well. “I keep what I have by giving it away,” he recited. “I’m not a healer, but I am an elder and our job in life, those of us who have made enough mistakes along the way, our job is to counsel others not to repeat those mistakes. It’s up to us to show them the difference between bad and good and how much better it feels to be on the right side of the line.”