Actor Danny Trejo is an intimidating on-screen presence. In films like Machete, From Dusk Till Dawn, Desperado, and Heat, and TV shows like The Flash, the sinewy, scarred, tattooed actor has played all manner of toughs—performances no doubt informed by an abusive childhood, heroin addiction, and younger years spent in some of the US’s most notorious prisons. Off-screen, however, Trejo is another person altogether: a positive, humble man who gives back to the community by helping those in recovery.
Trejo charts his unconventional rise to stardom in his new book, Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood (Atria Books, 2021), cowritten with actor and friend Donal Logue (The Tao of Steve, Sons of Anarchy, Grounded for Life). The pair discussed the book, their relationship, Trejo’s life, and their admiration for libraries during a lively conversation on the opening day of the 2021 ALA Annual Conference and Exhibition Virtual.
When asked why he decided to write the book, Trejo said he wants his story to help others process past trauma.
“I really want kids in juvenile hall, youth authority, and prisons to understand that all the secrets that they got—from their parents, their neighbors—those things don’t matter,” he said. “They make us who we are, but we can get over that; we can get past that.”
Trejo credits writing the book with helping him confront and eventually heal from demons that grew from an abusive childhood.
“Especially when it came to [writing about] my mother, when I finally got that down and I looked at it, it was almost like I’d finally seen the bogeyman,” he said. “Only God can forgive, but I had to say, ‘Wait a minute. That’s the bogeyman that I’ve been afraid of all my life, and it ain’t nothing.'”
Logue said that Trejo’s honesty about his struggles sets his book apart from other autobiographies.
“You have to write about it,” Logue said. “God knows I’ve seen a lot of people with fascinating life stories, but their books just didn’t go that extra step to dig down into those layers that let people grow.”
Trejo credits his years spent in California prisons for armed robbery and other charges in the 1960s and 1970s with helping him to turn his life around.
“Prison is hopeless,” he said. “You can die at any minute.” But while serving time in solitary confinement, Trejo said he had an epiphany and asked God to let him die with dignity, thinking that he’d never survive his sentence. When he was eventually released back into the general population, Trejo decided to get sober and help others.
“God’s answer was, ‘Help others,’” he said. “And I know that every time I help someone, God smiles.”
Trejo’s dedication to helping people after his release from prison serendipitously led him into acting. He shared how he was working in a recovery center and received a call late one night in the mid-1980s from a youth who was relapsing. Trejo said that he went to the kid’s address to help, only to discover it was in a rundown warehouse district in Los Angeles. But instead of finding the kid, Trejo instead found himself on the set of the 1985 film Runaway Train, which was shooting in the area. A champion boxer in prison, Trejo was hired that night to teach actors on the film how to box, and a new career was born—one that has been a trailblazer for Latinx performers. Trejo said that his role in 2010’s Machete is a highlight. “[I was] the first Chicano/Mexican superhero,” he said with pride.
Libraries were an important part of Trejo’s life growing up, he said, noting that he was always excited to go to Los Angeles Public Library’s Central branch as a kid. He said that he was devastated by the fire that destroyed the library in 1986. “The library is kind of like a church,” he said. “There’s so much information. [The Central Library fire] was an abomination against humanity.”
Logue and Trejo finished their talk with praise for librarians.
“You’re doing God’s work,” Logue said. “I know that you know this. You’re providing hope for people and kids. You’re providing safe spaces.”
“You’re the keepers of the castle,” Trejo said.