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A Voice for Change: From Behind Bars to the Front Lines of Youth Justice Reform in Los Angeles

Kent Mendoza’s story saved his life. Now he is fighting to do the same for youth impacted by the LA County criminal justice system. 

In the shadows, Kent Mendoza looks out the window located in a hallways of the apartment building he grew up in. July 2023. Credit: Rodrigo Magaña | Knock LA
In the shadows, Kent Mendoza looks out the window located in a hallway of the apartment building he grew up in. July 2023. (Photo: Rodrigo Magaña | Knock LA)

Knock LA’s mission includes a commitment to ensuring traditionally marginalized and unheard voices are platformed. Recently we have begun working with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people to help bring their stories out of the shadows and into your newsfeed. If you can help financially support this essential work, please consider becoming a monthly contributor at knc.la/patreon. Even $2 a month makes a difference!


My story saved my life when I shared it with an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent in 2014. In a deportation center, I told him my story of transformation and he saw my humanity rather than my past and a number. That was nine years ago, and today, my story is helping to save others.

I was born in Mexico City and lived there with my family until I was 6 years old, when my mom decided that we were going to move north to chase the “Mexican Dream” in the United States. She paid a coyote to take me in a car through the border while she crossed the border by foot through the desert instead. We reunited in Arizona and then relocated to Los Angeles, where the reality of being poor, undocumented, and unwelcome immediately settled in.

My mom had brought us to this country to experience freedom, opportunity, and a better future. But to me, freedom in America meant feeling like an outcast — being criminalized, misunderstood, and punished for it. I was living in a country that labeled me an “illegal alien,” and criminalized me. When I was struggling in school and having encounters with law enforcement, this was a country that decided to invest in my supervision and punishment, causing me more trauma rather than looking to uplift me and support my development. 

Maria, Kent’s mother, blesses him in front of her Catholic altar, resting his safe return on her faith. July 2023. Credit: Rodrigo Magaña | Knock LA
Maria, Kent’s mother, blesses him in front of her Catholic altar, resting his safe return on her faith. July 2023. (Photo: Rodrigo Magaña | Knock LA)
Kent Mendoza in front of his mother’s altar showing his tattoos that represent his community, a place he is proud of being from. July 2023. Credit: Rodrigo Magaña | Knock LA
Kent Mendoza is in front of his mother’s altar showing his tattoos that represent his community, a place he is proud of being from. July 2023. (Photo: Rodrigo Magaña | Knock LA)

From elementary through high school, I felt lonely. I had already struggled with feeling abandoned by my father, who stayed in Mexico and wasn’t much of a presence in my life. And in school, I was mistreated by kids and teachers. I wanted to feel welcomed, like I belonged to something bigger than myself, like I had a voice — so I decided to join a gang at 14.

I was poor, misguided, hopeless, and careless, living a destructive lifestyle that resulted in my first incarceration at age 15. I was supposed to serve nine months at a probation camp, but because the camp — referred to at the time as a “gladiator school” — encouraged fighting among us teenagers, my sentence doubled to 18 months. 

At 17, I was out on probation but without any support or guidance. It was only a month before I was back in a cage. This time it was different, because although I had violated my probation terms, I was also being falsely accused of crimes I had not committed.

Thankfully, and unfortunately, I took a plea deal because I was afraid of deportation. It was unfair, but — as a teenager — if I had not taken the plea deal, I would have never been home to do the work I do to save others from an oppressive system. 

I was sent to the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), where I became a mentor and positive influence to other youth. I immersed myself in reading and committed to educating myself, which made me eligible for an early release at the age of 20. But after being incarcerated for five of my most formative years, I passed to the immigration system rather than being released to my community and family.

Once again, I felt lonely and outcast. But this time, despite the very real possibility of being deported to a country I hadn’t called home in more than a decade, I had hope. This is where my story, my voice, my courage, and my humanity changed the heart of an ICE agent who, instead of deporting me, let me go free to my family. My story saved my life. 

Kent Mendoza, and his family (niece, nephew, mother, sister) in the apartment unit he grew up in. July 2023. Credit: Rodrigo Magaña | Knock LA
Kent Mendoza, and his family (nephews, mother, sister) sit in the apartment unit he grew up in. July 2023. (Photo: Rodrigo Magaña | Knock LA)

In 2014, on my 12th day out, I wore a suit for the first time as a free person. 

I stood in front of a crowd of 500 people, sharing the same story of transformation that had saved me. I felt like a freedom fighter. It was on this day that I made a commitment to myself: I’d use my story, my trauma, my pain, to change the lives of young people stuck in the system. I now had the skills, confidence, and hope to do so.

Our carceral systems are not broken, they are working exactly how they are intended to work — taking advantage of broken people. The “Mexican Dream” of opportunity that my mom and I were chasing is impossible to reach when the American dream of locking people away and disappearing people, not problems, takes over.

But, that doesn’t have to be our future. Every day as the Associate Director of Local Policy at the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, I work with young people in Los Angeles who, like I did, use their story to call attention to the failures of our youth justice system and inspire community leaders to change it. 

Standing in the center of the Pico Union community where Kent grew up for the majority of his life. Downtown Los Angeles is seen in the background. July 2023. Credit: Rodrigo Magaña | Knock LA
Kent stands in the center of the Pico Union community where he grew up for the majority of his life. Downtown Los Angeles is seen in the background. July 2023. (Photo: Rodrigo Magaña | Knock LA)

You can learn more about Kent’s story and the Los Angeles County youth justice system in the short film he produced, “A Million Dollar Cage.” Watch it here!