The moment when a father holds his first child can be instantly transformative.  Something deep and otherworldly happens despite this being one of the most common experiences.  A prayer blossoms with the child’s every breath, an unknown but somehow familiar song echoes in the chambers of the heart, a connection is forever threaded.

I was twenty years old when I first held my oldest boy, named Ramiro, who was underweight, bald-headed, like an old man, with an extended belly.  A mixture of emotions erupted inside me.  Barely a year or so before his birth, I had extricated myself from a Los Angeles street gang, from being in and out of jails, and from being a drug addict.  Ramiro’s birth promised a new beginning, something decent.  I dedicated myself to staying away from heroin and violence to be the father this boy needed.  He saved my life.

But, unfortunately, I was still immature, raging, addictive.  I drank for twenty years after I let go of the drugs.  Over the years I ended up marrying three times, living with a couple of girlfriends, and having three other children.  I had a hard time with jobs, career, and, most importantly, with relationships.

Fast forward to when Ramiro was 21.  At that age, after being in a Chicago street gang since 15, fathering three children with three different women, and two previous violent felonies, Ramiro was arrested and later convicted for three counts of attempted murder.

There were many reasons for this, many failures, but my own were paramount.  I had let down my wonderful boy who sparked new life in me when he was born.  Over time I sobered up—now for eighteen years—and have a wonderful companion.  I have healed relationships with all my children (and four grandkids, now all teenagers).  All of their births were miraculous and special.

Last summer my oldest boy was released from prison.  Two days before this Father’s Day, Ramiro turns 36.  He’s working three jobs, taking part in a transitional parolees’ housing program, and is helping turn young people away from gangs and prison.

Father’s Day 2011 is the first one I’ve celebrated with my son out of a cellblock in fifteen years.  We’ve now awakened to the father-son love we’ve always had, but didn’t always show.  I’m proud of Ramiro and his gifts.  He has chosen to be better than his worse acts.  If I’ve done any good, it’s to have helped him learn to save himself.

Luis J. Rodriguez’s best-selling memoir, “Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.” has been re-released this June by Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster after almost twenty years in print. His latest book, “It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing,” is due in October 2011.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the writer's name. It is Luis J. Rodriguez.

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