Updated: Jun 27, 2022
Release Date: July 6, 2021 Genre: Memoir Publisher: Atria Books Most of you know who Danny Trejo is. Even if you say you don’t, the instant you see his face, the feeling of recognition dawns on you. The man is prolific. He currently has 406 acting credits on IMDB. He’s known for playing tough guys, although the twilight years of his career have seen him branching out to play a more rounded set of characters, although almost always with a tough exterior. That tough exterior is there for a reason- Danny Trejo is a convicted felon. He was once seconds away from murdering an inmate before someone else got to him first. He once got a call from the head of the Mexican mafia warning him that a certain film was going to be trouble, ending in the deaths of eight people. He once did a favour for Kiefer Sutherland by threatening Sutherland’s stalker into leaving him alone. You get the idea. But Trejo is also a man who turned his life around entirely and now lives to enact as much good as he can while he’s still on Earth. The juxtaposition of his past and present selves are fully evident in anything Trejo does, including here, in his long-anticipated memoir.
"I was a bad man on the hardest prison yards, but the most terrifying thing I ever had to face was my own emotions. I'd been taught to harden my soul against all those feelings, and I'd been afraid if I opened that door, it might never close. But now the door was open, and it was painful and scary and uplifting and right."
Full disclosure: I have wanted Danny Trejo to write a memoir since I was a teenager and first heard his story. I am an absolute sucker for people who become successful from nothing (Educated, Born a Crime, The Glass Castle, etc.), and I am even more of a sucker for people who turn their life around to help others. Danny Trejo has also been in some of my favourite projects ever (Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, Rick and Morty, B-99, Predators, Machete) and has been involved in many movies from my childhood nostalgia brain (Spy Kids, Anaconda, Con-Air, etc.). Not to mention, I have perused co-writer and fellow author Donal Logue’s writings on Facebook from time to time; where he shares short stories he's written about his life including -I realized as I finished this- his collaborator's note for this book, and I think he is a wonderful writer. I’m hoping the success of this book allows him to write his own. So, there was virtually no way I wasn't going to enjoy this. Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the free copy in exchange for an honest review! I will say that I enjoyed the book so much; I immediately pre-ordered a signed copy after finishing. Danny Trejo had an intense childhood and adolescence. Starting a life of drug dealing and drug-taking before hitting the double digits, the poverty and way of life he had been brought up in dragged him into a life of gangbanging and crime at a very early age. He was in prison multiple times before the age of 25 and developed a reputation for being quite a fighter. He became a boxing champion in prison, got hypnotized by Charles Manson (!!!), and was generally quite a "bad guy." He also treated women extremely poorly and robbed people because he didn't consider them to really be people. He was not swell. But then he found religion, got clean, got out of prison, and devoted himself to getting others clean.
"On that day, a warm day on Santa Monica Boulevard, all those years came back- good memories, bad memories. I didn't have many people left who I could kick it about that time in our lives. The homeless man with a broken arm had been a big-time dude in Soledad. He was political, got respect, and now he was living on the streets. I wondered how he'd broken his arm, what had happened all those years since the mid-60's when I'd last seen him; I wondered if he needed help. I wish he hadn't walked away. I wished we could have had a cup of coffee and cut it up. I wish I could have given him a hug."
The amount of help Trejo has given to others in need throughout his life greatly outweighs the negative he did in his formative years, but what really sets him apart is how he uses those experiences to inform his ability to do good in the now. He uses his acting career as a platform to affect change. One thing he did that I was not aware of until this book is to help change the prison laws to release people on parole who committed felonies in jail before the age of 23, resulting in several hundred inmates who otherwise would still be in jail for crimes they committed in their youth being released. He also negotiated between Mexican mafia heads and film crews to stop violence from erupting on set, which is both a crazy and unique position for a person to be in.
"My film career is simply a vessel that helps me amplify a message to help a wider audience. Don't get me wrong, I love movies. Reenacting movies kept me sane in Folsom and Soledad. Movies teach us valuable life lessons. They teach us if we reach deep enough inside ourselves, we can overcome whatever problems we're dealing with, regardless of the odds. But the most important thing to me about my life in the film world is that it helps me carry the message of God to as many people as possible. If people are interested in me because of the films, my hope is that they will dig a little deeper into who I am and what I'm about in a way that helps spread the message of recovery. If you think I walk as I talk, you might be more curious as to what I did to turn my life around."
Danny ends up becoming an actor by essentially a freak coincidence of right time, right place while trying to help a kid get clean. He shows up on a set to find him and runs into his old jail buddy Eddie Bunker, frequent author and occasional actor, who gets him working on the movie as Eric Robert's boxing trainer. The director sees Danny's face, decides he wants him to box Roberts in the film (“Contrast!” he screams delightfully in Trejo’s face), and boom, he's an actor. Nowadays, he's been killed in more movies than any other actor (to help show that crime doesn't pay) and has one of the highest IMDB credit counts ever.
"An interviewer once asked me if I liked working on bad movies. He wasn't trying to be rude, but I didn't love the question. I don't believe there's such a thing as a bad movie. I see every movie and TV role as an opportunity for me to support Maeve, my kids, and the people who depend on me. If my involvement helps a movie get made, it creates jobs for crews that have families of their own to support. How can that be bad? And a bad day on a movie will always be a million times better than your best day in prison."
Honestly, this book was one of my favourite memoirs of all time. The combination of Danny's life story and Donal Logue's lyrical and introspective prose helped really make this book powerful. Danny has also pivoted into business by starting the Trejo’s Tacos restaurant chain and producing music from up-and-coming Mexican artists. The last few chapters had me surprisingly emotional and close to tears as Danny helps his son and daughter with crippling drug addiction. He can help hundreds of random people get sober but can't do anything for his children. It's a horrifying prospect. As the book closes, COVID has just set in, and Danny is headed through his old neighbourhood, feeding families that need relief, the day before his 76th birthday. He sees the places he grew up and the stores he's robbed and the houses he lived in, and how his life is so different now. It's a truly wonderful ending.
“The scene was so real, it was uncomfortable. Tears poured out of me like a dam had broken. I thought of all those times I'd looked at death, at a lifetime of imprisonment while waiting in Soledad to see if they were going to charge us with a capital crime. I thought of the deaths of my birth mother, my father, my uncle, my mother. I thought of the women I'd treated badly, the relationships I'd destroyed through ambivalence and selfishness, the fear for my children. All the times I never cried when I should have finally caught up with me. A certain set of rules helped me survive the first chunk of my life, the rules my uncle taught me. Another set of rules kept me going all those years after I got out of the hole. I stayed clean and sober by helping others get clean and sober. But there was a part of me I had never dealt with or accepted that I had to confront."
Please read this book. It's a great look into the prison system, drug addiction, the mindset of addicts and gang members, as well as an uplifting story about a man with a desire to do better. I'm going to end it with the quote that actually brought a tear to my eye, an extreme rarity for non-fiction.
"My kids are healthy, I'm healthy, and my dogs are healthy. We're all happy. I think, tomorrow I'll be 76 and I still have so much living to do, but in that moment, I'm content to let the world spin and enjoy being at home with my doggies. I ask God one last question: I say, "God, how am I doing?” God replies, 'Great, Danny. You're almost out of hell. Keep it up.' I smile to myself and thank Him for my life."