After being shot in front of my family – lying with my head in the lap of the mother of my children, my 15-year-old son hovering over me, yelling, "You got this, Dad," my sister hugging my crying mother, and my nine-year-old standing afar staring at the ground – a famous line from The Godfather, Part III (and often quoted on The Sopranos) played over in my head.
"Just when I thought I was out … They pull me back in!"
After serving more than eight years in prison, I thought I was "out." Even before that, I had started to prepare for a crime-free life. I paid my way through school, learned a trade, got my personal training certification. I got a job at Goodlife Fitness a week after hitting the street and started school full-time in pursuit of becoming a journalist. I joined book clubs, volunteered and made up for lost time with family. We went on rides at Wonderland, explored new parts of the city that were foreign to me after so many years in lockup and we ate family dinners. It made me feel like a real father to be able to see my children everyday as opposed to the monthly visits I got from them while in prison.
I was turning a negative into a positive, the motto of my fitness camp, which I called "Prison Pump," and I was giving back to my community. I was finally contributing something positive to the world and I was confident that I could use my skills, once used for nefarious activity, for legitimate business.
My evolution began in the summer of 2011 in Collins Bay Penitentiary in Kingston. I was sick of the same conversations in the prison yard, sick of the plans to build a bigger empire when I got out, sick of being a drug dealer.
My godson was murdered; my father became sick. There were signs everywhere that I needed to change, so I began to distance myself. I found book clubs, writing groups and public speaking. I began to excel and see a different life for myself. The volunteers who would come to teach us screenwriting, entrepreneurship and carpentry, most of them successful throughout their lives, showed me the world through a different set of eyes. "You could do it, Jose," they would say. And I also knew that I could.
When I was released on parole last spring, I named my business 25/7 Fitness because we go harder than anyone else, putting in an extra hour of work per day. At one point, with over 60 people in attendance in one class, I realized the dream I had lying in a cot in a greasy prison cell – to open a non-profit gym for youth and single mothers – was coming to fruition. The feeling of reward from these accomplishments was far greater than the most profitable drug deal I had ever made, than any Benz or house I bought, or any party I attended. Being "out" felt great.
But there has always been this force in my life that is like a black hole. Throughout my evolution it has tried to pull me back in to a gangster lifestyle. I was "in" since the age of 13. I wanted money. Money like the older guys with Cuban link chains around their neck, BMWs with rims and wads of cash. I was not even in high school and was already selling pounds of weed out of my JanSport backpack. The game came naturally to me and weed became hash, hash became mushrooms, mushrooms became cocaine. The trade got a little more dangerous so I got with a crew, and in this crew, the way to distinguish ourselves was having more women, more balls, more money and, eventually, the biggest gun. With this came fear and respect and the money came easy. Too easy. As I lay on the ground at Christie Pits Park, dark blood pumping out of bullet holes in my chest, my abdomen, my arms, the pull "in" was stronger than ever.
I dreamed about this when I was in jail, being shot, but in my dream, I died. I guess I was sort of in denial that it could never happen, but it did, and it happened in the exact same way as in my dream. As the first shot went off and missed, I knew that this was it. Bullet after bullet came out of the gun in slow motion, I could see them peek out of the barrel and then lunge slowly toward me. My only focus was on the gun. The big hole of the barrel. I recognized the gun, a Glock 27, the kind I would always carry. I prepared to die by the same gun I lived by.
How does it feel to be shot? It feels like nothing. I remember smelling the gunpowder and then the 25/7 on my T-shirt being ripped to shreds. I remember my son saving my life; I was frozen in shock absorbing copper bullets and he pulled me away and, on pure instinct, we sprinted up the Christie Pits hill faster than we ever have. Adrenalin. Then the pain kicked in, my lungs felt as though acid was being poured on them, and I used everything I learned from hot yoga to control my breathing. That day, fitness also played a role in saving my life.
I fought for survival that day. I saw my life flash before my eyes twice and as I slipped in and out of consciousness, I also knew that once this battle was won, I would be returning to prison. I had seen it happen to other shooting victims. I was angry that my family and my Prison Pump Soldiers had to witness what happened and angry at this setback. I tried so hard to do good and now I was in a blood soaked T-shirt bearing my business logo and hope for a new future, gasping for air.
I still don't know why I was attacked or who the shooter was. How could someone harbour so much hate and want me to die after I had been gone for such a long time? I wanted revenge. I wanted to say, to hell with everything I had accomplished. A part of me thought it would be easier to just go back to being a gangster.
The doctors worked miracles reconstructing my diaphragm, abdominal muscles, sewing together my intestine, colon, liver and placing chest tubes into my pierced lungs. Three drains attached to my stomach siphoned off a mustard-like infection from my body. An exit wound on my back was proof that a bullet missed my spine by half an inch. I was lucky to not have been paralyzed. I was lucky to be alive.
I was discharged from the hospital three weeks later and reassured that I would be going to an infirmary in the Toronto South Detention. I was transported with leg irons and handcuffs and every bump on the road made my abs feel like they would fall off my body. I shortly discovered that Toronto South Detention did not have an infirmary equipped for my level of injuries. The nurses looked at my wounds in horror. I would take them step by step through my dressing changes, and both guards and nurses told me that I should not be there, they were not equipped to handle my deep, open wounds. Once, two fruit flies hovered over one, a hole the size of a quarter and an inch deep. My days were spent on lock down in a cell with unfinished floors, soiled walls and a plugged-up toilet. I should have still been in a hospital, yet I was in jail with my condition deteriorating. It was only a matter of time till I got sick.
Bouts of vomiting and fever one day resulted in my being rushed to the hospital. They put me on an IV and did a CAT scan and sent me back to jail within hours.
Days later I was released. I now feel I am getting the medical care that I should be and am slowly getting back on track to the person that society, my family and I want to be. I am again "out," despite the black hole.
Maybe it sounds strange, but I'm not scared. After something like this happens I feel it is impossible not to believe in a higher power and I believe the thoughts and prayers of my family and friends saved me that day. I also feel that I really do have some sort of purpose, to tell my story, and hope that it can change at least one "Alejandro" and prevent him or her from going through what I went through in life. That is my new mission, and I will continue to walk with my head high and put my trust in this higher power that I will be protected and that no one can harm those around me.
I cannot give up. My evolution is important for everyone to see. If I give up now and get back "in," I will be destroying the hope of many who are watching, but if I stay "out" and succeed, I will be giving hope to all those who wish to finally get out of a life of crime and a lifetime of incarceration and evolve into the best person they can be. I am going to do it, bullet wounds and all.
Jose Vivar and the law
2003: Alejandro Vivar, allegedly part of the Latino Americanos Boys gang, is charged with first-degree murder for the shooting of Gary Malo, a member of the rival Christie Boys gang. One of the witnesses admits to having perjured himself on the stand and Mr. Vivar is subsequently acquitted.
2007: Toronto Police launch the Project Cheddar raid, targeting Alejandro (Cheese) Vivar, the alleged leader of the gang. In their sweep, police seize three kilograms of cocaine in a gym bag, more than 800 rounds of ammunition, ecstasy, marijuana and multiple firearms. Mr. Vivar is charged with possession of a controlled substance, intent to traffic and possession of restricted firearm. He receives a sentence of 10 years and four months, according to parole documents.
2014: In May, Mr. Vivar writes his first column for the Kingston Whig-Standard about life in federal prison. He writes a total of 20 opinion pieces for the paper, on topics from prison cuisine to thoughts on justice and reform. While incarcerated, he spends time in Bath and Collins Bay institutions.
March, 2016: Mr. Vivar is released on parole. He had previously applied for parole but his application was initially denied. The parole board worried he would slide back into gang life. In his successful application, the board commends him on distancing himself from any gang affiliations.
July 30, 2016: Mr. Vivar is shot five times while leading a workout class in Christie Pits Park.
August 19, 2016: After recovering for nearly three weeks in the hospital, Mr. Vivar is sent to Toronto South Detention Facility after his parole is suspended by Correctional Service Canada. He has since been released. His location cannot be revealed.