David Luis with his multiple peculiarities is the first one to win a Pulitzer Prize «Audio Reporting» for Suave. His podcast summarizes decades of history. He is the first formerly incarcerated, the first Juvenile lifer, the first Puerto Rican from Philly, and the first to win with an urban personal prison story.
David Luis “Suave” González returns to Esperanza and, this time contrasts with another similar visit a few years ago when, on his first day out of prison, he gave a talk to Esperanza Academy students. Suave is now the winner of a Pulitzer Prize for the podcast that tells his story; he shared this experience with Impacto and gave a little insight into his plans.
BEATING THE ODDS AND ILLITERACY
Labeled as mentally retarded at an early age, “Suave” González survived on the streets of Philadelphia in the early 1980s. As a teenager, he was involved in a street fight, and a 13-year-old boy was killed. He did not report the person responsible, ignoring that he would be charged with the crime and would spend 31 years of his life in prison.
Suave opted for a better life while in seclusion, learning to read and write while in solitary confinement. «I wrote five books and started painting and imagining a world outside of that cell.» His new skills opened a window of opportunities and possibilities, from getting involved in political issues to raising money in prison for college scholarships for young people. Although he decided to influence the prison environment, he does not forget that in prison he grew up as an adult man.
A DIFFERENT WORLD THAT IS STILL THE SAME
Suave always believed that he would return home, even when there was no possibility of a review of his case, and he did everything possible to achieve that goal; but it was a Supreme Court ruling that made it a reality. Now he regrets that they have reversed it, and that other young people who are sentenced to life imprisonment as minors will not have the same fate.
Back on the streets of Philadelphia, he confronted the loss of family members, including his mother, and the lack of contacts. It was a world full of challenges, and he was scared. However, he had the support of people in the community who guided him through the challenges of simple tasks like riding the bus for the first time in 30 years.
Suave still found racism, discrimination, lack of opportunities for young people, and few resources or recognition for their advocates. “I came back to a community that still reflects the year 1986.”
A PLATFORM FOR A FREE MIND
In 1993, interested in these issues, Suave was a radio listener of the journalist María Hinojosa. In exchange for cigarettes, a fellow prisoner read her book to him until Suave had almost memorized it.
Suave found a way to meet her; and he confesses that, although he also considered choosing Puerto Rican Ángel Ortíz —who was the first Latino councilman in Philadelphia— to give a talk in prison, he chose María. When they met in person, Suave agreed to become María’s source inside the prison; they developed a mentoring relationship and then an atypical friendship, which would lead to a partnership, and the Pulitzer Prize’s shared success – a prize earned along with the journalist and two other women.
For this visionary, it was essential to free the mind from the limitations of the prison, keep a record of them, and not focus on negative and suicidal thoughts. Decades ago, without knowing exactly what the recordings of the calls between María and himself would become, what would later become a podcast was born. They both knew that “one day they could share their conversations with the world.”
His freedom included the purpose of creating a platform for his own story. Upon leaving prison, he had the opportunity to work at a local internet radio station, where he learned a little about everything, but the owner refused to pay him for his work, on the grounds that Suave had collaborated with his political rival. It was a blow to Suave, who was facing the disadvantages of someone with a criminal record; however, he did not stop educating himself, and he has been sharing his knowledge with a community unaware of the laws that protect them against discrimination.
Suave is all about what goes on in the community, especially with the youth, because if they grow up without the proper resources, they could very likely end up where he was.
THE PULITZER AWARD, A CATAPULT
The podcast tells stories in a unique way, and perhaps its success is also related to the fact that Suave is not a trained journalist and can say certain things that a “professional journalist” would self-censor. Being himself and pointing out what is wrong from the inside and from his own experience, triggers strong reactions; but his space is open for conversations based on inclusion.
“I’m celebrating, I’m happy, I’m honored. But there’s a lot of work to be done. So, for me, this is just another day.” He believes the prize mainly recognizes what he represents, and that is why he shares it with the entire community to which he feels he belongs.
The effort and alliance with María is part of the need to redefine journalism. And, although “In the eyes of many people, this is not real journalism;” Suave doesn’t want the story behind the prize to be forgotten, the one that still makes him «a lifer on parole.»
Suave is a producer and host for Futuro Media, and now he goes beyond the podcast format by visualizing his story and other stories on screen. “We are talking to a couple of well-known entities to bring the podcast into visuals. And it’s just the beginning.”
MORE EDUCATION AND LESS INCARCERATION
The idea of “education over-incarceration” has been key for Suave, which is why, beyond the motto “yes, it can be possible,” he is an example of “yes, it is already possible.”
The now-producer of podcasts in collaboration with Apple launches an open call, mainly to young creatives from the Latino neighborhood, to join his next projects, where he wants to continue telling impactful stories like his, in the field of social justice, and the criminal justice system.
For Suave, his mentors have been key, but he especially considers Roger Zepernick – a well-known community activist in Philadelphia – as one of the main ones responsible for his achievements. He also believes that teachers need more support as individuals who understand the problems of the community to which they belong, and who fight for access to fair compensation, tools, and technology to foster a creative and fun environment that children, parents, and youth want to be a part of. Therefore, he considers it is important to select officials connected to the community and willing to invest in schools that prepare young people for a better life, instead of preparing them to go to prison. For him, Esperanza should be the model. “I love Esperanza; everything is love, everyone is respectful. This is how school should be.»
At the end of the meeting, this full-figured man – with a calm step and a graceful and humble appearance – toured Esperanza’s facilities, leaving his profound message and truth resonating: A testimony of how faith translates into will, strength, purpose, achievement, and public recognition, for the common welfare.