At age 7, Danny Trejo made his first drug deal. At 12, he was using heroin. In tenth grade, he stabbed a boy in the face with a broken wine bottle. He was kicked out of at least five high schools before entering the California penal system. He spent most of the 1960s in some of the state’s most notorious prisons, including Folsom, Soledad, and San Quentin.
Then Trejo got sober, got out of jail, and appeared in hundreds of movies and TV shows, including “Spy Kids”, “Machete” and “Breaking Bad”. He also became an entrepreneur, with a series of successful restaurants. How Trejo transformed his life is the subject of his new memoir, written with fellow actor Donal Logue, “Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood”.
“Trejo” was well received, Publishers Weekly calling it “mighty and expertly crafted”, and Kirkus Reviews calling it “a raw and deeply captivating salvation story.” Currently on a virtual book tour, Trejo has survived everything from child abuse to cancer to a prison encounter with Charles Manson.
For Trejo, 77, revisiting the dark chapters of his life has been an emotional experience. “These memories are very, very painful,” Trejo told NBC News. “Thinking and talking about some of them brought tears to my eyes, but purging them and seeing them on paper was truly redemptive.”
Trejo was born into a Mexican-American family who he says is defined by their “toxic masculinity” and “destructive machismo”. Several of his uncles, nephews and cousins have spent time behind bars. “That was what it meant to be a Trejo man,” he wrote. “What it was like to live up to the Trejo name.”
From cell block to Hollywood field
For Trejo, the turning point came in 1968, when he was in solitary confinement in Soledad and facing the death penalty. “I made a deal with God. I asked him to let me die with dignity, ”Trejo said. “Then I promised to always say his name and help my fellow inmates. He didn’t even use the term “my neighbor,” Trejo recalls, because he assumed he would spend the rest of his life behind bars.
At this point Trejo wrote, “In that cell, God killed the old me, made a new Danny Trejo, and said, ‘Now let’s see what you do with him.’ “
In a twist of fate, the charges against Trejo were dropped and he was released from prison. Newly sober, he began working as a recovery counselor and rebuilding his life. However, it was not easy. Trejo was so used to prison that life inside seemed more normal to him than the life of a free man. “Each type of confinement was my home. “
In 1985, while looking for an acquaintance who needed help staying sober, Trejo visited the set of the movie “Runaway Train”. There he was spotted by a director and given him a role in the film. It was the start of Trejo’s new career, which often involved playing “Inmate 1” on television and in movies.
Over time, Trejo has become one of the most recognizable character actors in the world, in films like “Desperado”, “Heat” and “Blood In, Blood Out”. In this latest film, a crime drama, Trejo returned to San Quentin as an actor – and actually filmed scenes inside his old cell.
Trejo said that at some point in his career he questioned whether he was hired for his acting skills or because of his convict background. But he realized that he had always acted, especially in prison, when he had taken on various characters in order to survive.
“At the time, I was the Mexican you didn’t want to fuck with,” he writes in the book. He was also the same person who performed scenes from “The Wizard of Oz” and sang “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” in isolation so as not to go crazy.
“Everyone made a movie with Danny Trejo. He’s like the new Kevin Bacon, ”said actress Patricia Rae, who appeared with Trejo in the movie“ North by El Norte ”. She described him as “humble, very committed to the causes and very humanitarian”.
“He (Trejo) is down to earth,” Rae said. “When you talk to him, he’s not a dropper, unlike a lot of people in the business. And as an actor, he’s super available and present. “
In 2015, Trejo branched out into the entertainment industry and opened Trejo’s Tacos and Trejo’s Coffee and Donuts in Los Angeles.
Trejo co-author Logue has been friends with Trejo for 30 years. “Although Danny has told his story on several occasions, I think we were able to go a lot further with this book,” said Logue. “He faced the specter of trauma from his childhood and discovered things he had compartmentalized and put away.”
In his memoir, Trejo confronts the cycle of addiction and violence that has engulfed his family for generations. The day Trejo met President Barack Obama in 2013, Trejo’s son was homeless and drugged.
“What interests me is the Danny dichotomy,” Logue said. “He can be that tough guy in the movies, he can act terrifying. But he also has a great spiritual serenity and he always helps people. ”
To this day, Trejo still works as a recovery counselor and has made headlines for real acts of heroism and philanthropy, such as giving food to frontline workers and families in Eastern LA. during the pandemic. Last year, the City of Los Angeles honored him for his community service by declaring January 31 “Danny Trejo Day”.
Trejo hopes people see his life as proof that there is always room for change. “I have been so blessed. I made a deal with God and honestly held my end of the deal. I say her name every day and try to help people, whether they are homeless or coming out of prison, and that’s how I live my life.
To pursue NBC Latino at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.