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One of the first things you might notice about Manny Ortega is that he has a lot of tattoos. He got his first right out of elementary school. It said “Eastside,” and it brought him a lot of trouble.
That tattoo got him in a gang-related fight that awarded him his first jail time: a week or a day at the Youth Authority Center — the details are lost in the fog of memory. It wouldn’t be his last time behind bars.
Today, though, many of Ortega’s tattoos are monuments to a person who no longer exists. Since joining the San Jose Black Berets 12 years ago, he has given up running with gangs and living the “street life.” Instead, he has dedicated his life to service to the community — through his work with the Black Berets and as a peer support worker with the Santa Clara County Reentry Services.
“I’m only 12 years old to this world, this new life,” Ortega said. “I’m learning like a 12-year-old. Every year, I learned something new about myself that I did not know that I had.”
“I’ve accomplished a lot of trust within my own community. Because I’m a person of my word,” Ortega said.
Ortega grew up in the neighborhood locals call Sal Si Puede, Spanish for “get out if you can,” at the corner of 33rd Street and San Antonio Street in San Jose. He joined the street gangs because everyone he knew — everyone who was a part of him — grew up in that neighborhood and being in the gangs felt “comfortable.”
“It was kind of like a no-brainer,” Ortega said. “It was in our neighborhood. It was a big gang. There were a lot of people, and instead of getting beat up by them, we just joined them.”
But Ortega doesn’t live the gang life anymore. Far from it. He’s been clean and sober for 12 years, and he helps others in his community now.
After spending a few decades oscillating in and out of prison, he realized when the police searched his house, holding his family at gunpoint while they tore things apart looking for drugs and guns, that something had to change.
“I looked at [my family] all facedown, and I thought, ‘This is crazy,’” Ortega said. “In my head, I apologized for putting my family through this.”
Ortega joined the San Jose Black Berets shortly after that incident, determined to put an end to his run-ins with the police and to give back to his community.
The Black Berets began in 1958 as a political movement to stand up to police brutality and other discrimination against Chicano and Indigenous people in San Jose. They even served as security for Cesar Chavez at one point.
The current generation of the Black Berets, of which Ortega is a part, is less politically radical and much more connected to its Indigenous roots.
Members don’t consume drugs and alcohol. They hold ceremonies, do security for events and hold fundraisers year-round for their annual Youth Warriors Circle, a camp in Aptos that is free for families who participate. Youth who attend go to workshops, make crafts and go to sweat lodges to connect more deeply with Native American culture.
One of the goals of the Black Berets is to educate youth about their Indigenous heritage, to give them something greater than themselves and to keep them out of the gangs, according to Naiche Dominguez, who is an elder among the current Black Beret generation with Ortega.
According to Dominguez, the Black Berets had to regain the trust of the community to prove that the group had diverted from its radical origins to the family-oriented, community-minded organization it is now.
“It was hard for the community to accept us back, but we never gave up,” Dominguez said. “We kept on going to the community to show them we’re not like the old ones. We’re not militant, we’re family-oriented. We worry about our youth.”
Ortega’s story is similar to that of the Black Berets: He changed his ways so he could help his community.
“When he came out of prison, he went through a lot, and I think when he saw the Black Berets and what we stood for, that caught his eye and changed him,” Dominguez said. “And look where he’s at now.”
Dominguez first met Ortega during a meeting at the Mexican American Community Services (MACSA) Center when an uncle brought Ortega to see about becoming a member of the Black Berets.
“He’s been with me ever since,” Dominguez said.
Ortega, who identifies himself as Western Apache, said he wouldn’t be who he is today if it weren’t for the Black Berets. It is so much a part of him, he has made it a family affair. His 12-year-old granddaughter is a member, and so is his wife, Felipa Pineda.
Pineda and Ortega met five years ago while the Black Berets were doing security at a Mochica New Year event where Pineda was dancing and Ortega was working. She joined the Black Berets, and she and Ortega began a relationship shortly thereafter. They have been married four years.
Pineda said that Ortega has always looked to see how he can help people because he’s been in their position before and he wants them to succeed rather than fail.
“It’s important that we help these people who are reentering society from prison get their community service hours,” Ortega said before a Black Beret meeting. “We don’t want them to get bounced back through the system because of a few hours they have to do, so we help them.”
To do this, the Black Berets have community labor hours that provide assistance to complete basic home care projects — like painting walls or repairing fences — to anyone within the community who can provide the material to complete said project.
Those labor hours can be used by students who need to complete community service hours to graduate or by people who have been compelled to community service hours by the courts.
“It’s a great resource not only for the people who want their lives changed, but also for the youth who want to see a difference. And for us, being the leaders that we are, they can see that within the movement,” said Ortega, who bought machines to print T-shirts the organization sells all year to raise funds for its Youth Warriors Circle.
The Youth Warriors Circle has been open to girls and LGBTQIA youth in recent years, a departure from the tradition of inviting only boys to the camp.
Jose Morales, 16, is a Black Beret who will be coming to the Youth Warriors Circle for the second time this year. When Morales first went to the Warrior Circle, he was one of several LGBTQIA, or two-spirited, youth who were in attendance, and Ortega made him feel welcome by asking him to tell him his pronouns.
“Those little questions mean so much to me because that showed that he was aware and he would do anything in his power to keep me safe because this is a welcoming community,” Morales said.
Morales, whose godmother is Pineda, said that Ortega is still helping him today by giving him little lectures on the ways of life or helping him to make traditional Native art, which Morales calls medicine, that he can bring with him into uncertain times and ceremonies.
Considering Ortega’s past, which he freely shares at the Youth Warriors Circle, Morales said Ortega is a success story because he had turned his life around.
“That’s why I will always see a warrior in him. Because it’s hard now in society to change like that,” Morales said.
Many Black Berets agree that Ortega is a protector, a voice for people who cannot speak for themselves.
When Pineda’s daughter, who was in a wheelchair at the time, was killed in a hit-and-run while she was crossing the intersection of Curtner Avenue and Monterey Road in San Jose, it was Ortega who spoke on Pineda’s behalf to the San Jose City Council about the need for more safety measures in that intersection.
He and two other Black Berets members asked the Council to install more cameras so hit-and-run drivers might be caught.
“I just want to see [the pilot program] pass to give people a chance to have closure for their daughter or son or mother,” Ortega said to the City Council, speaking behind a black face mask with a red hand printed across the mouth.
Ortega is always the one to call in a conflict, Pineda said. “He knows how to talk to people who are irate or just off the wall,” she said. “He can calm them down and come up with a solution and 99.9% of the time, the conflict dissipates.”
Pineda said that Ortega’s dedication is his greatest strength.
Whether it is his exercise routine — he and Pineda get up at 3:15 a.m. Monday through Friday to work out at the gym — or his work as a Black Beret and at the Santa Clara County Reentry Services office, Ortega gives of himself freely.
This April, Ortega was awarded a Peer to Mentor Award in recognition of his guidance and commitment to changing lives from the County of Santa Clara Reentry Resource Center at the center’s 10th anniversary celebration.
“He was shocked to receive the award,” Pineda said, but it was well-deserved. “He’s been there for 10 years, and he really does a lot of work for everybody. He goes above and beyond what he is supposed to do.”