This story will be published in a local Dalton, GA magazine:
Leonardo Lechuga: Spreading the “Word in the Hood” and Doing Good
Former gang member Leonardo “Nalo” Lechuga grew up fast and hard on the streets of Aurora, Illinois. His first clash with the law occurred when he was 13 years old, resulting in a 30-day lock-up for burglary. From there, Nalo acquired a long rap sheet with a variety of offenses before landing in prison for shooting a police officer in 1996 – just as his father had done 22 years earlier. These days, though, he’s proud to weigh in on the right side of the law. A retired paralegal, Nalo is a competitive fighter who owns North Georgia Hayastan Mixed Martial Arts Academy in Dalton and speaks to at-risk youth through his non-profit organization, Word in the Hood.
“I’ve always been a fighter,” Nalo confessed. “That’s how I fell in love with Mixed Martial Arts. Now I fight without anger, without emotion, and without anyone calling the law when we’re done. This gym is my second home, my fountain of youth. Without it I’d be some fat 48-year-old somewhere doing nothing.”
Local boxing Coach Greg Barmore says Nalo isn’t the kind of guy who would ever be satisfied “doing nothing.” “I’ve known Nalo for a number of years,” Barmore said. “I look at his background and the situations he has been in and marvel at his success. He took his past – a past that could have broken him – and used it for good. He goes into places to reach the people society often deems unreachable and he shows them that their pasts do not define them.”
“Word in the Hood is the avenue in which I reach out to kids and share my story of coming from a life of destruction to success, of being someone nobody ever had any idea I’d ever be,” Nalo shared. “I’m a business owner, a land, and homeowner. I drive a new car, have a beautiful wife and children, and I’m legitimate.”
“The premise of my story is this: I was lied to as a kid. I was told ‘this hood belongs to us and we have to take care of it together.’ They – my gang – told me they were my family and that they loved me. I believed it. I did everything to fit in from shooting people to pushing drugs.” His goal with Word in the Hood is to expose the lies to kids and to offer them a head start at success.
“If I knew everything I know now back then I would have succeeded a long time ago,” Nalo said. “I want every kid growing up on the streets like I did to have a real chance. The lies haven’t changed, it’s just different people telling them the lies. When the police go into the neighborhoods and talk to these kids, the kids don’t listen. They can’t relate to the police. When the ministers and the social workers with the degrees go into the hood, the kids can’t relate to them either. They look at these outsiders as people who were born with silver spoons in their mouths. They think, ‘You don’t know what it’s like to be this poor, to live in this neighborhood.’ But I know what it’s like. I’ve walked in their shoes and I tell them nobody can hold them back.”
Nalo said generations of males in his family before him were gang members. Growing up, it never occurred to him that he could be anything else.
“When I got busted for burglary at 13 I was with one of the major guys in the gang,” Nalo recounted. “The police tried to get me to tell on him, but I didn’t. I did my 30 days and when I came home I had all the more power, and the respect, because I didn’t rat. I ended up being one of the toughest kids in the neighborhood. I was in and out of the justice system for not going to school. Then I got expelled from public school and had to go to an alternative school full of kids from an opposing gang, so every day that I went to school I got in a fight.”
At 18 Nalo went to prison for the first time after his “best friend” tossed a pistol at his feet when their car was pulled over. “They thought it was mine and my buddy refused to accept blame,” Nalo said. “I had drugs on me so I got charged with an aggravated felony. We bonded out but by this time the gang violence on the outside had escalated. A kid had been kidnapped, dragged into a backyard, and shot 15 times. He survived and blamed me because I lived down the street from him. Later he admitted he didn’t know who had done it to him.”
Less than 60 days from the time he was released, Nalo found himself back behind bars. This time for fighting a police officer at a party.
“I did a few months,” he said, “but I had to fight for my freedom and that’s when I taught myself to be a paralegal. My attorney told me I was good at understanding the law and said if I were to get out, he’d give me a job.” The attorney kept his word and Nalo worked at his law firm for about a year. However, during this time Nalo was still heavily involved with his gang. Things went south for him after he shot Aurora Police Officer Joe Groom in the hand during a car chase. Nalo was sentenced to 45 years in prison but was able to get that sentence reduced on appeal.
“I did 10 years and never went back,” he said. “A light switch came on during my last stint. I grew up and I realized I had been lied to. All the gangs are the same. It doesn’t matter what gang or what city they come from, it’s all about lies. I’m proof of that. Everybody I grew up with that was in my gang have either gone straight or are in jail. Or, they’re dead.”
Nalo said he writes to family and friends in prison sometimes. He tells them he cares about them, that he loves them, but he can’t bring himself to ask them how they’re doing.
“I already know how they’re doing,” he said. “They’re miserable. They will die in prison – some of them for things they did before the age of 18 – because they bought into the lies we were told.”
Nalo has spoken at various schools in Whitfield and Murray Counties, at Boys and Girls Clubs, and at youth centers. He has spoken at Catoosa County Schools, in Chattanooga, TN, and at numerous other places in the south. Earlier this year he was invited to speak at a community event called “Safe Neighborhoods for All” by the Aurora Police Department back in Illinois.
“It was the first time I’d stepped foot in that police station since I was arrested for attempted murder nearly a quarter-century ago,” Nalo shared. “After my lecture, I chatted with the officers and joked about hiding from them in a cemetery years earlier.”
Aurora Police spokesman Dan Ferrelli said the department is happy Nalo is using his energies for the good of the community and wishes him well.
David Gann, former teacher & football coach at Ringgold High School and former assistant football coach for the University of Tennessee called Nalo an excellent motivator with the capacity to reach many with his story. “I was fortunate enough to get to know Mr. Lechuga during the time I coached his two sons in high school football,” Gann said. “He spent countless hours with many of my football players, one-on-one, mentoring them about life and good decision making. He is passionate about helping people succeed and he has a gift for being able to motivate others through his words. Seeing the attention he was able to obtain from my players through conversation inspired me to have him speak to the team as a group on numerous occasions. He’s a leader in the community who demonstrates outstanding character and I’m proud to call him my friend.”
Nalo is the husband of Lupe Lechuga, whom he has been married to for 22 years. Together they have six children – none of which have ever been involved in organized crime. For this family, the cycle has been broken.
“I just want to shine a light on the lies,” Nalo stressed. “In every city, in every state, kids are being lied to. What’s important is that they hear the truth and see that there’s a better way.”
To learn more about Word in the Hood, visit Facebook or YouTube, or log onto www.wordinthehood.com. North Georgia Hayastan Mixed Martial Arts Academy is located at 2104 E. Morris Street in Dalton.