Marco Vargas was a senior in high school when he got a devastating midnight phone call. A girl he was friends with had been shot by her stepfather, who also used the gun to shoot her mother, siblings, and then himself. As Vargas sat with other visitors in the hospital, waiting to hear about his friend’s condition, a distant memory came to him — of his own father pacing the halls of their South Central Los Angeles duplex years earlier, a gun tucked into his pants. Vargas wondered if talking with his friend about the fear that he experienced as a child might have helped support her in the months before the shooting. “She and I never had those kinds of conversations,” said Vargas, whose boyish face is framed by black glasses. “I decided I wanted to do something.”
Two weeks later, the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, inspired students across the country to fight for stricter gun laws. But it was Vargas’s friend’s injury that prompted him to get involved, reminding him that gun violence was commonplace in his community, but rarely talked about.
Vargas, now 20, is the son of Guatemalan immigrants who moved to South Central Los Angeles before he was born in search of work and a more stable future. As a young boy, he lived with his parents and two older siblings in an apartment down the street from a big intersection with an auto repair shop and a fast-food restaurant. Vargas remembers going to visit the radio installation shop that his father owned. Left alone in the office, he climbed up on the desk chair and noticed a heavy black handgun on the desk. He picked it up and felt its weight in his small hands. “I thought it was a BB gun,” Vargas recalls. Then his father came back into the room. “He said, ‘Don’t ever touch that.’”
His biological father — as Vargas always calls him — had a violent streak. He drank, spent time with dangerous people in the neighborhood, and beat Vargas’s mother, who often had bruises on her arms and face. At home, he kept his handgun tucked into the front of his pants. “He used it to remind the family that he was in control,” Vargas says.
One day, when he was about 4, Vargas remembers his parents arguing loudly, his father waving his gun in the air. He and his older brother and sister hid together in the bottom bunk in their room, under a blanket with a picture of a skateboarder on it. They heard their father hit their mother hard across the face, and threaten to kill her. Soon they heard sirens outside. Someone had called the police. His father ran out the back door, between the cacti and the guava tree in the backyard, and disappeared. When the police arrived, his mother asked for a restraining order.
Without Vargas’s father in the house, his mother, who made a living cleaning houses, could no longer afford to pay rent. They moved into a one-bedroom apartment in a big building nearby, subsisting on Vargas’s mother’s earnings and food stamps. Vargas also sold chocolates and newspapers and handed out business cards for taxi companies.
Money wasn’t their only worry. Vargas says his neighborhood is scarred by gun violence: As a child he could hear gunshots, sirens, and helicopters circling overhead many nights. His mom worried that he would get hit by a stray bullet on his walk home from school. When the streetlights came on at night, he and his siblings were expected to be indoors.
Vargas says that his anger after his dad left erupted into bad behavior. The building superintendent often knocked on his mother’s door to complain about her disobedient son. In school, Vargas, who still spoke limited English, talked back to his teachers, ignored his homework, and picked on other kids. When the principal called and asked his mother to come to school to discuss her son’s behavior, Vargas’s mom missed work and lost much-needed income.
But even as Vargas lashed out in class, at least one person saw that there was a strong and thoughtful child beneath the surface ready to rise to a challenge. “He was a little bit of a troublemaker, but had a good heart,” said his fourth-grade teacher, Holly Sims. “He excelled at everything. I remember pushing him to put his best foot forward.” Sims recommended Vargas for the school’s gifted program. “The fact that she believed in me, and didn’t write me off as another bad kid, saved me,” Vargas said.
By the time Vargas’s friend was shot during his senior year, he was an honors student preparing for college. He didn’t speak about the abuse he had lived through, even with his mentors and close friends. But with other student activists mobilizing to end gun violence across the country, he started to see opportunities to raise his own voice, as well.
One day, Barbara King, then a volunteer SAT tutor with a program aimed at helping low-income students make it to college, asked Vargas if he’d be interested in giving a speech at a Moms Demand Action rally in downtown Los Angeles about how gun violence had affected his life. She didn’t know Vargas’s father had used a gun to control his family. But she knew he lived in a community where gun violence was an everyday occurrence. “He gave an incredible speech,” King said. She remembers being struck when he said his mom called gunshots “fireworks” because they rang out so frequently.
Soon, Vargas and King were attending events organized by Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action, grassroots networks of the gun violence prevention group Everytown For Gun Safety. (Everytown for Gun Safety provides grants to The Trace through its nonpolitical arm.) Many of the events took place in middle-class living rooms around Los Angeles, with people who were concerned about gun violence, but were not differently affected by it. Back home, Vargas’s friend and her siblings were continuing to recover physically and emotionally from the shooting they lived through — and Vargas felt called to bring the conversation back to his own neighborhood.
He told King about an idea he had for a summer leadership academy — a program that would train young people in South Central Los Angeles to become gun violence prevention advocates. Around then, King took a full-time job as an organizing manager for Everytown, so she was able to help. The summer after his freshman year at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, Vargas turned his vision into a summer program. The South Central Leadership Academy employed Vargas and one or two other young leaders to teach more than a dozen local student gun violence survivors to become activists. The group did team building activities, like hiking trips, and project proposals, like organizing a road race fundraiser for a high school gun violence prevention group. The program was so successful that Vargas asked for and received funding to expand it to three other cities in the summer of 2020: Nashville, Baltimore, and Atlanta. The programs included 10 paid youth positions — salaries that Vargas notes are critical for students from low-income households, whose parents are counting on them to help pay the bills during school breaks. With the onset of COVID-19, the Baltimore and Atlanta programs had to be delayed. But the South Central Los Angeles and Nashville programs have carried on remotely with impressive turnout, and he hopes the other cities will launch next summer, Vargas said.
While Vargas’s leadership program is privately funded, across the country, many summer youth programs are publicly funded, and are finding themselves at a critical juncture. As protesters call for police budgets to be redirected toward community programs, youth programs in cities like Los Angeles have found themselves with new resources. In other cities, like New York City and Baltimore, summer youth employment programs were saved this year, but remain under threat as the economy flags.
Vargas is studying marketing and social entrepreneurship in the hope that after graduating from college he can establish a national network of youth leadership academies. He wants to empower young people like himself, who have grown up surrounded by gun violence, to be the driving force behind reducing it. “Students who are survivors of gun violence don’t need courses on empathy,” Vargas said recently. “We’ve experienced the struggles ourselves. What we need is the resources to become successful leaders.”