From Loser to Distinguished Lawyer

By Dianne Frazee-Walker

All odds were against “Frankie” Guzman growing up without a father in the heart of a California neighborhood known for gang activity and crack cocaine rings. His father abandoned the family when Guzman was only three-years old.  Guzman was raised by a mother who commuted to the affluent community of Malibu, cleaning houses to support her family. By the time Guzman was an adolescent his father was incarcerated in a federal prison for attempting to cross the Mexican border with a large amount of cash.  Frank Guzman, Jr. / Image courtesy vcstar.com

Guzman’s brother “Freddie” was arrested when he was 17 for shooting a gang rival at a party. He was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 17 years to life in prison.

Guzman was enthralled by his brother and wanted to be with him even if it meant joining him in prison.

With no immediate male role model Guzman was on a downhill slope and going down fast.  His high school GPA went down to 0.8 and he was expelled from school for a fight in the boy’s restroom.

But Guzman’s troubles did not end there.   

Two weeks after being suspended from school, Guzman’s wish to be just like his big brother Freddie came true when he was arrested at 15. He and his friend stole a car and robbed a liquor store at gun point. Guzman was sentenced to 15 years at the California Youth Authority.

During incarceration Guzman had plenty of time to earn his GED -- twice. He made valuable use of his time attending every class he possibly could while confined behind bars.

Just when Guzman was beginning to be inspired by education, events in the outside world crumbled his new found motivation for success.

 Guzman’s uncle, the only male role model he had left that was not behind bars, passed away after a long addiction to drugs and alcohol and his best friend was killed in a gang fight.

Despite unfortunate circumstances, Guzman maintained a good standing at California Youth Authority and was released early. However, returning to his old stomping grounds was not the best idea for Guzman.  It didn’t take long for him to revert to his old habits of drinking and hanging out with gangs. He was sentenced to another year at CYA for violating his parole.

Upon Guzman’s release when he was 19, he had an eye-opener.

Tired of dead-end jobs, he was still influenced by his deceased uncle’s words, "Work with your brain, not your body, because your brain will never give out on you."

It was those words that motivated Guzman to enroll
in Oxnard Community College and it was there that he set eyes on a Latino man wearing a suit. He was the dean of Oxnard College. Guzman vowed to himself that he would someday be in a position to wear a suit, too. He acted on his declaration by devoting most of his time to his studies and his leadership position with student government.

Just when Guzman’s life was headed in a more positive direction, his life took another turn and he found himself back in jail. His past surfaced again when he was falsely identified as an accomplice with a friend in a store robbery. Even though Guzman was exonerated and released a few months later, he lost his membership with student government and fell behind in his classes.        

Guzman was discouraged and ashamed of himself for failing again. He descended into depression and was arrested for a DUI. He was sentenced to CYA for a third time. By this time Guzman was 23 and resigned to the life he believed he was destined. 

But this stretch in jail was different. Guzman discovered his true purpose as an advocate for the underdog. His unearthing was uncovered when he responded to a fellow inmate suffering in the hole. His self-respect was restored when he got the inmate out of the hole by threatening to report the guards to administration.

Six months later when Guzman was released from incarceration, he decided to leave Oxnard for good. Guzman applied to Berkley College.

Guzman was accepted and maintained a 3.2 GPA, quite an improvement over his 0.8 when he was in Junior High. He purchased his first suit when he became an advocate for lowering student tuition. The internship was with Greenlining Institute and required Guzman to wear a suit to his meetings with prominent education officials.

Guzman demonstrated his perseverance again when he applied for law school. He was accepted by UCLA. While earning his law degree Guzman acquired more leadership roles when he served as president of the La Raza Law Students Association and Pacific regional director of the National Latino Law Students Association. With each accomplishment Guzman obtained more self-confidence and more suits.

UCLA law Professor Sharon Dolovich helped Guzman establish a student legal team to counsel his older brother, still incarcerated at age 43.

His graduation was the best day of his life with 50 of his family and friends from his old neighborhood sitting in the front row.

The last hurdle Guzman jumped through was waiting to be approved by the Bar Association with his criminal background still lurking in his past. Guzman admitted to his criminal record, but submitted 19 letters of recommendation. He had to wait 14 months to find out if he passed the Bar and the moral character investigation.   

As soon as Guzman was issued his law degree he didn’t waste any time winning a case for a young girl who was not receiving special education services she was entitled to.   

Today, 32-year old Francis “Frankie” Guzman is a proud recipient of a prestigious Soros Justice Fellowship to advocate for juvenile justice. He catches the attention of incarcerated juvenile offenders, when he shares his story of opposition to achievement.