Danny Trejo: The Formerly Incarcerated Need Support, Not Oversight

By Sameer Rao Mar 15, 2018

Mexican-American actor Danny Trejo ("Machete") went from surviving incarceration at San Quentin State Prison to becoming one of the most recognizable Latinx stars in Hollywood. He spoke about his incarceration and transition to action movie superstardom in an interview on NPR‘s "Fresh Air" yesterday (March 14). 

Trejo, who served time for robbery and drug offenses, told "Fresh Air" that San Quentin guards put him in solitary confinement after his involvement in a 1968 uprising. 

"I went to the hole and expected to go to the gas chamber," he recounted. "And by the grace of God, I can remember saying, ‘God, if you’re there, if you let me die with some dignity, I will say Your name every day, and I will do whatever I can to help my fellow man.’ And really, I thought it was just going to be a couple of years. Then they were going to kill me. But, it wasn’t [that]. It’s like He fooled me and gave me the rest of my life."

Trejo became a youth substance abuse counselor after leaving San Quentin and entering a 12-step program to combat his own issues with heroin dependency. He revisits this part of his past and explores the stories of incarcerated people of color in "Survivors Guide to Prison," a new documentary that he produced alongside Jesse Williams ("Grey’s Anatomy") and other actors. He said that people returning from incarceration need emotional support more than the punitive oversight that most receive: 

I think that’s the main thing coming out of a prison is, like, if you’re by yourself, then you’re still alone. And it’s like, I had a great support system, which was a 12-step program. And the people that I was around knew about rage. They knew that the bottom line to an argument’s a murder [in prison]. So I was just real choosy about the people I associated with. I honestly believe that if you come out of prison, you need a support group and not a parole officer.

Trejo entered the movie industry after actor and writer Edward Bunker ("The Longest Yard"), who Trejo knew from San Quentin, got him a role as an incarcerated man in "Runaway Train." That launched Trejo’s prolific career. Trejo told the show’s hosts that he embraces the fact that many of his roles feature hardened characters.

I can remember the first time I got interviewed, this young lady, probably fresh out of interview school…she was Latina, so immediately she says, ‘Danny, don’t you feel you’re being stereotyped?’ And I say, ‘What are you talking about?’ She say, ‘Well, you know, you always play the mean Chicano dude with tattoos.’ And I thought about it. I say, ‘I am the mean Chicano dude with tattoos! Somebody finally got it right! [Laughs] They’re not using Marky Wahlberg to be a mean Chicano dude.

Listen to the full segment below: