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(Credit: Jason McELweenie)

Film

From jail inmate to Hollywood icon: The remarkable life story of Danny Trejo

Danny Trejo is among the most beloved acting icons in popular culture, known for his fantastic work in projects such as Desperado and Heat, among many others. Alongside major film projects, Trejo has also landed parts in highly acclaimed series like Breaking Bad while establishing himself as a top talent in the industry.

Although he is a big name in the world of cinema today, Trejo’s journey started in a completely different way. He grew up in an environment where crime and drugs were omnipresent which led to his involvement in those areas since his childhood. In fact, he started doing drugs when he was just eight years old whens a family member who introduced him to marijuana.

While recalling his childhood in an interview, Trejo said: “My uncle turned me on to grass when I was eight years old. And it’s funny, when I say that to like a normal citizen they’re kind of appalled. But I say that to a convict, they say ‘OK, we know.'” However, Trejo viewed his uncle as a necessary guiding figure in his life.

As a child, he was abused by his father but his uncle taught him how to navigate the unforgiving labyrinths of his socioeconomic reality. According to Trejo, his uncle taught him how to work as a dealer and trained the young boy to intimidate opponents and analyse tense situations in life-and-death situations.

For Trejo, these were all crucial life skills in that environment but his uncle was also responsible for getting the young boy hooked on weed, heroin as well as cocaine. When Trejo overdosed on heroin for the first time as a child, it was also his uncle’s fault. In those early years, Trejo was caught in the vicious cycle of drugs, crime and the horrors of the system.

Given that he participated in drug deals since the age of seven, Trejo wasn’t an unfamiliar face in the records and was first arrested when he was just ten. He was incarcerated in a juvenile facility in 1956 which is why the actor later described himself as being “state raised” by juvenile penitentiaries and youth authority camps.

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Throughout the ’60s, Trejo was a regular inhabitant of the California prison system and was involved in various incidents. Having stayed in “San Quentin, Folsom, Soledad, Vacaville, Susanville, Sierra,” Trejo was very familiar with the difficulties of the prison industrial complex. At San Quentin, he worked as a debt collector and even become a boxing champion in multiple divisions.

His prison stints led to strange experiences and he even met Charles Manson, who once hypnotised him while talking about heroin. Trejo struggled with a crippling addiction to heroin but he managed to escape by finding faith in God during solitary confinement and also being a participant in a 12-step-program.

During his recovery, Trejo also put in the effort to build a better life and earned his high-school diploma in prison. After he was released, Trejo took on various jobs in construction, gardening and sales while also serving as a substance abuse counsellor in order to prevent other kids from making the same mistakes he did.

Interestingly, his position as a counsellor helped him secure his very first job when a teenager called him for help regarding cocaine abuse on the set of the 1985 film Runaway Train. Edward Bunker recognised Trejo since they had served time together and Trejo ended up getting the part of an extra which led to further film projects.

Although many have pointed out that Trejo was typecast as a prisoner in subsequent projects, he claimed: “I [did not] know I was being stereotyped. I just knew I was working.” Due to his increasing public presence, some of the people who sought his assistance for their own drug issues took him more seriously which Trejo described as a huge advantage.

While doing important work as a counsellor, Trejo kept landing bigger projects and eventually went on to star in well-received films such as Michael Mann’s Heat and Con Air. To this day, his most iconic performance is his portrayal of a deadly former Federale in the wildly popular Machete film series.

In recent years, he has appeared on various projects including The Book of Boba Fett series. At one point, Trejo revealed that his only ambition was to become a boxing champion at San Quentin but he has continued to reach new heights by walking on the path of self-improvement. “Everything good that’s ever happened to me has happened as a direct result of helping someone else,” Trejo reflected. “Everything.”

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