By Nona Tepper
By the time Angalia Bianca entered Oak Park and River Forest High School, she had been doing drugs since she was 9. The gifted student, bored in class and always getting in trouble with her family, was told by teachers that she was too smart for her own good. After a few years, Bianca dropped out and moved on to a life of drugs, gangs and prison time.
"I lived this life for 36 years and, moving on, I just went deeper and deeper into hell," she said.
Now of Forest Park, Bianca is a data specialist and violence interrupter for Cure Violence, previously known as CeaseFire, an anti-violence program at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) that was the subject of the 2011 documentary, The Interrupters. Bianca, along with writer Linda Beckstrom, recently released a book about her life titled, In Deep: How I Survived Gangs, Heroin, and Prison to Become a Chicago Violence Interrupter, which details her time in Oak Park and Forest Park — where she now organizes an annual Christmas gift drive for homeless children. Last year, she raised $900 for presents that she hand-wrapped and delivered to those living in shelters.
"When I was about 20 years old, and I was already pretty deep into my destruction mode by 20, people would say like, 'Get your life together. What are you going to do when you get old?'" Bianca recalled. "I was always like, 'Oh I don't have to worry, I'm going to write a book."
Growing up in the Little Italy neighborhood in Chicago, Bianca said her mother left in the middle of the night when she was just 5. The child of a strict Sicilian family, she said her parents were cheating on each other and, per Sicilian tradition, the mother must leave her household when leaving the relationship. Bianca remembers waking up in the middle of the night and seeing her mother with a suitcase.
"She told me she was going out to buy milk for my breakfast and for my cereal," Bianca said. "I somehow knew she wasn't coming back."
Her grandmother raised her. Bianca would sit on the radiator and look out the window of her grandmother's home, waiting for her mom to return. Her family felt bad and spoiled her as a distraction.
"By mid-high school, when I was dropping out, I was already hitchhiking across the country and sometimes by myself. I was fearless," she said. "I look back and I laugh because I could picture me hitchhiking through the mountains with my backpack, and my little jean skirt on, and my jean jacket from school, and my saddle shoes. Sometimes I'd get out of school from Oak Park and I'd [think], 'I feel like going to California' and I just wouldn't even go home. I would just start hitchhiking."
Bianca landed in Tucson, where a roommate introduced her to heroin. After a few years, she returned to the West Side of Chicago, addicted but without a reliable connection to buy the drug. "I got tired of drinking codeine cough syrup, so I was like, 'I'm going to find some real heroin,'" she said. "I just went to Humboldt Park and made a connection and started copping from them."
She joined the Latin Kings gang and started dealing with them, looking up to the leaders as role models. Bianca scammed airlines for free tickets and cash, robbed tricks, stole from department stores and more. She bounced in and out of prison, where she earned her GED and about 80 college credit hours.
By this time, almost all of her family members had given up on her, either taking care of or adopting out her five children, and then cutting ties. Only her Aunt Louise would write to her in prison, sending her pictures of her children and motivational messages about getting clean. One day, her aunt called Lincoln Correctional Center in southern Illinois and told a prison counselor that her father had died. Bianca broke down. A prison counselor took her hand and said, "You should take comfort that your father died peacefully with his loved ones around him."
The counselor's words echoed in her mind. "I knew in that moment I was going to die from either a drug overdose or a bullet and be left in some alley on the West Side of Chicago." Even if she were identified and her family notified, she didn't believe her family would bury her properly or notify her children, since they had already cut ties. She began to pray.
"Usually my prayers were, 'God, please let the dope man be there,' or 'God, please don't let me get busted for stealing' or 'God, please let the judge give me an I-bond and release me. So I didn't really think God had anything for me, and I had a lot of nerve to even ask for help. So I made a deal with God in my cell with tears in my eyes, and I said, 'God, if you will take the taste of the streets and the heroin from my mouth, I will, until my last dying breath, I will help people."
Bianca has now been sober for nine years.
When she first got out of prison, she stayed at the nonprofit A Safe Haven and worked at a gourmet salad shop. During her commute, she would occasionally get off the bus on the city's West Side and, in an effort to keep her word to God, started talking to the groups of young men she saw hanging out on the corners.
"I'd be kind of joking but not joking, saying, 'When you go to prison, and trust me you will, let me tell you how that looks the first night when you think you're having fun and the cell door slams on you and you're not getting out for a while," she said. "Let me tell you the ugly side up front. That way you won't be shocked."
An official from Cure Violence noticed Bianca and was shocked that an older white woman was connecting so well with the young men. He offered her a job as a violence interrupter, which meant stopping shootings in advance by intervening in dangerous situations and building relationships. She was stationed in the far north Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago — then-nicknamed "The Jungle" — and her new colleagues made bets about how long she would last.
"A lot of the areas we work in are African American and Latino, so to look at me you wouldn't think I'd have credibility," she explained.
But after a month, every kid on Howard Street was asking about Bianca.
She was promoted within the organization but is currently engaged in a federal suit against Cure Violence, alleging that UIC and program heads did not take her claims of sexual assault by a senior Cure Violence administrator seriously.
She has reunited with her children and family, an affiliate of the United Nations named her a "Goodwill Ambassador," and she's one math class away from finishing her college degree. Bianca would like to eventually earn her master's in psychology from UIC and dreams of actress Sandra Bullock playing her in a movie based on the new book about her life. She lives in her grandma's old home in Forest Park.
"A lot of people would say, 'Oh yeah, I regret my whole past life, I wish I could do it over,' but I don't say that and the reason is because all that pain that I caused myself has given me the experience to save youth today," she said. "So now I'm able to help humanity because I lived that life and recovered from it."