Mayans M.C. star Richard Cabral on prison reform, his real life informed role as Coco, exclusive

Mayans cast image
Cabral as Johnny “Coco” Cruz from Season 2, Episode 6 of Mayans M.C. Pic credit: Prashant Gupta/FX

Mayans M.C. fans know Richard Cabral as Johnny “Coco” Cruz. In a short period of time on the visceral FX series, the ace military veteran sharpshooter has killed his dysfunctional mother and reconnected with his wayward daughter Leticia. The wild child left to her own devices, and worse, pimped out by her grandmother for money.

In real life, Cabral is a bit of a miracle who should have been a statistic in the American prison system.

Cabral was a legacy gang member from East L.A., the gang capital of the world.  He had an epiphany of sorts and the good luck to have influential mentors and support from the right folks who saw something in him. It saved his life.

One particular mentor is Nō Studios Founder, John Ridley, the filmmaker who cast Cabral in American Crime. Ridley became a father figure to the Cabral, who was arrested at age 13 and then spent a little more than five years in the prison system.

This month, Cabral is appearing with Ridley at the coming Social Justice Summit, where he will be on a panel talking about criminal justice reform, a subject he knows a great deal about.

Appearing in Milwaukee, Cabral is heading to a city dealing with extreme racial inequality. It’s a place rife with disadvantages for non-white populations in the areas of the economy, housing, and incarceration.

Academy Award-winner and Nō Studios founder, John Ridley, and sister, Lisa Caesar, grew up in this town and they lived it all first hand. As their sphere of influence in their respective careers grew, the two were able to create Nō Studios, a hub for the creative arts in Milwaukee, designed to provide a social space dedicated to the creation, curation, and presentation of art.

Cabral is part of the Nō Studios Social Justice Summit (SJS), Art Activated. This two-day event (November 15-16) in Milwaukee aims to unite local activists, a variety of actors and artists, and national activists. That includes Cabral, Freida Pinto, Uganda-based Children of Peace, Jane Ekayu, activist, poet and professor Peggy Rozga, and others, to discuss criminal justice reform, human trafficking, fair housing, and art as a form of protest and repair.

John and Lisa aim to create systemic change through art.  Their efforts also match with other reform activists like CNN on-air personality Van Jones (Reform Alliance), Mark Renick (Systemic Change of Idaho, IMSI and St. Vincent de Paul Idaho’s Reentry Services), and others who are all making newsworthy and impactful changes in legislation regarding social justice, sentencing, and probation laws across the country.

Another plus for Cabral was getting his education and learning the mechanics of storytelling. But Cabral was derailed by bad judgment, once again. At age 20, he was arrested for violent assault with a weapon. He was 25 by the time he got out of prison.

Enter Homeboy Industries Father Greg Boyle, one of the human pillars who lifted up Cabral to succeed despite the grievous mistakes he had made.

Cabral, at 35 years old today, bears the tattoos that reflect his personal journey in his life.

By all accounts, he should have been ground up by the system, yet he made it. Now, he is an award-nominated actor (ABC’s American Crime) and a regular cast member on a high profile hit series.

We spoke to Richard Cabral today ahead of the Mayans M.C. finale this coming Tuesday, November 5, about how his art is informed by his life experiences.

Monsters and Critics: For fans of yours who maybe have just discovered you on Mayans M.C. and your character Johnny “Coco” Cruz, can you just walk us through who saved you? How did you not become a statistic?

Richard Cabral: I think, ultimately is that I saved myself. And through the grace of God, it was just that I was able to read the messages, but it was a challenge, right?

It was definitely so easy to get caught up like the majority. But I think it was my listening to my inner voice and seeing the signals, the messages and able to follow that. Was it horrific? Yeah. But I think that’s the only way that I could explain the journey that I took and where I’m at today.

M&C: It’s hard for kids to break out of gang life and to be the runner from the family that gets away from it. Can you paint a picture for us?

Richard Cabral: My family has been involved in gangs since the 1970s. I come from Los Angeles, which is the gang capital of the world. Los Angeles is where gangs started like, the real organizations and what would be ultimately glamorized.

And as one of my first mentors, Father Greg [Boyle] calls it… there was a decade of death in the 90s and Los Angeles where it was at. So that’s where I came from. That’s the grooming, that’s the spirit. So I’m in deep as it could get. Like it was a norm. It was ingrained. And when it happened, when I took that switch… It wasn’t something uncommon.  It was just really natural in a more organic way to become a gang member. So that’s my history of it.

M&C: How did John Ridley know to call you for this Social Justice Summit?

Richard Cabral: I think that John just for… I mean, first of all, John was, again, I think there are people in your life that — yes it was me — but then there’s also people [who influence you] in your life, right?

That just becomes this profound messenger and I’ll take it back a little bit too, because yes it WAS me, but there were great people in my life that really transformed it. That made me do those quantum spiritual leaps. The first person was Father Greg Boyle, from Homeboy Industries, and down the line, it would definitely be John [Ridley].

That was my first TV show and he is this man that is everything that you would want in an older sibling. And a father that I’d never had. But also an artist and just a great mind like that.

He found me through the process of [casting] an actor and obviously he had seen that I was able to bring this character to life in a way that others weren’t. So that’s how the relationship started and it through that beginning. Then we would find out more about each other. But that was really the understanding and the beginning of the relationship between John and myself.

M&C: On the schedule for this summit, human trafficking will be discussed, and that was part of the plot of the Tohil episode of Mayans M.C. in a big way this season…

Richard Cabral: Right.

M&C: I know you’re not going to be speaking to that subject, but were you proud that writers Kurt Sutter and Elgin James touched upon something that’s actually a very real thing…

Richard Cabral: I think it is, that’s the overall goal, right. That we could do entertainment, that we could do these shows, but also talk about true things that are happening in this life. Right? And it’s a way to open up that discussion.

I think that’s always the vision and the work that they did that and they were able to deliver that message. It was a powerful thing because it is heavy, and sometimes we don’t want to talk about it. The majority of people would rather look the other way.

That’s the sad part of our society, they’d rather look the other way so they don’t have to deal with it. But what an honor to be able to bring the story of this magnitude in to people to still talk about it and to again open that conversation so we could help heal. Ultimately, like not just open it, we want to open it so we could help heal these problems that are happening in our society.

M&C: That really made Mayans M.C. head and shoulders above the average drama because you meld real issues with teleplay. Interestingly, I feel like your on-screen daughter, Leticia… her character is almost mirroring some things in your own personal history.

Richard Cabral: For sure. And when Emily Tosta first got that part, she didn’t come from the circumstance and from the hood like I did. She was born in the Dominican Republic.

When I knew she was going to get that part, I made it a thing to have her really understand my personal life. Because that was a story that we’re telling. I remember a vivid memory… when I took her down to skid row to Los Angeles and that was the first time that she had went down there and I was with her and she was just silent. Right? She had never seen that.

My aunt used to have to find my uncle on skid row in the 80s and early 90s. Skid row is just a common theme that I grew up with as a native of Los Angeles, and that is the bottom of the barrel. That is the gutter of the gutter, right there.

But if we are not willing to go down that path and then we’re not being truthful to our character. That was one of the experiences that really shaped her and [got her] to really understanding like, “wow, this is not just make-believe. This is not just entertainment.”

There was a lot of pre-conversation that went into the building of our on-screen relationship and I think that there’s a lot that organically happened. And it was a blessing that I was able to create that with her before we stepped on set.

M&C: Your Nō Studios Social Justice panel will be on prison reform? I am familiar with the REFORM Alliance and the huge work that St. Vincent de Paul in Idaho does with reentry services. Talk about what you’re going to bring to this panel.

Richard Cabral: Well it’s a great panel. First of all, there are men and women that are in the fight of prison reform. And what I bring to the table is just a man of experience.

I don’t know what it is to be a correction officer. I don’t know what it is to be a helper or people who volunteer. But I know what it is to grow up in the system. And that’s the true account, right? Because a lot of times we step on these panels and we step on these conversations and you talk about things, but there’s no one there that actually experienced it.

That is going to be the thing that’s going to push it to another level that I could just be able to talk about my experience.  I could be able to talk about what it is to be born into generational trauma. I could talk about what it is to be a child of 13 years old and being incarcerated and spending the rest of my adolescent and early adulthood incarcerated.

I could talk about what it is to be on a prison yard and from having post-traumatic stress from prison and seeing violence and men getting stabbed.

So that’s what I bring to the table. And it’s a huge thing because it’s that, right? A lot of these policies I want to get changed in our society, you never have people that have actually underwent to speak on the behalf of what really happens. So it’s an essential part that I’m on that.

M&C: What was your survival skill? How did you stay alive through all that, you’re not a big guy…

Richard Cabral: No, I’m not. And you know what, survival is not just physical, but it’s also a mental and spirit. So I was groomed to be incarcerated. There’s no and, if, or buts about it.

At 13 years old, I would be incarcerated for my first time and every year I would be incarcerated. So by the time I was 16 years old, that’s three, four years of the psyche, of a pre convict, of an inmate. So you are born with survival skills. You know how to talk, where to talk, who ally with, who not to.

It is that you are constantly playing chess and it’s not a game. You, at 13 years old, violence is being done. You don’t have a choice but to pick up and I did. I did because that’s the only way that I was able to survive all them years in prison.  And to not be a pushover too.

I had to be a warrior. It’s a warrior society. It’s not passive. You must be a warrior in order to survive with warriors. So when time came for violence to be done and I had a conduct violence or defend myself, then violence was done because that was the only way I was to survive in a warrior society.

M&C: How many years in total were you incarcerated? 

Richard Cabral: Maybe like five for sure. Five to six.

M&C: You have children now… but when they hear stories, how much do you share with them?

Richard Cabral: Four. I got four. I share everything, especially with my oldest, who is going to be 17 next month already. My oldest Adrian … I was incarcerated for the first five years of his life. So that really just put me on the next level, right?

What happens in our society, if Adrian was incarcerated or a drug addict or a gang member at this moment, we would have seen that. Okay, I get it. Like his mom was a drug addict. His mom abandoned him and me, as his father, was in prison for the first five years of his life.

So everything was set for that boy to fail. But I made sure that I did everything in my power and ask God to take care of my boy. And he did. So I showed him, and what was my biggest teaching was to show him everything that I needed as a child that I didn’t get. Like Father Greg of Homeboy Industries said that there is no hopeful child that becomes a gang member.

I’ve lived with thousands of people that came from this [neglect]. And mostly every single person including all my friends from my gang, their mothers were alcoholics or their dads abandoned them or… It was just chaos upon chaos.

So that is what I didn’t want to give my children and I believe through that is why that trajectory would not happen… Why I broke the generational trauma.

M&C:  What do you want fans to know about you and your platform here and your involvement in John Ridley’s Social Justice Summit. What do you want them to be aware of?

Richard Cabral:  Yes… I think that to be engaged in this world for me, for [my character] Coco, for me, Richard, is that it comes from a place … it’s personal.

Why Coco is what Coco is, right? Why Coco resonates with people is because it comes from a real place. So if you like that, or if you feel that, then know of what that real place [actually] is. That’s what I’m going to be talking about. That’s what prison reform is to me. And it’s all meshed together. So why just be one part of it?  Why not be part of all of it and have a thorough understanding of where these true characters and this true spirit comes from.

Mayans M.C. airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX. 

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