Raul Ramos is the author of the best-selling autobiography, Ese to Master Jefe. Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, Raul grew up in harsh poverty. Lacking structure, guidance, and searching for purpose, he fell victim to street gang life at an early age. After years as a hardcore gang member, he set out to make a lasting change and turn his life around. He joined the United States Navy and has served for 24 years. Despite his humble beginnings and past, he has earned the highest of the enlisted ranks, E9 Master Chief.
Raul is living proof that you can change your life for the better. His story shows us that no matter where you’re from, success can be born out of struggle, and hardship can fuel you. His remarkable story demonstrates how important it is to fight for your goals and advocate for yourself. Before interviewing Raul, I read his book and was absolutely blown away by his story. If you’re in need of inspiration, check it out on BookBaby Bookshop. Raul overcame seemingly insurmountable odds, and it’s a privilege to learn his story. Without any further ado, please enjoy our interview.
Joe: Raul, thank you for taking the time to be here. I first want to congratulate you on your book’s success! It’s been a hit and I’m so glad to see people are loving your story as much as I did.
Raul: Thank you Joe, I really appreciate it and thank you for having me.
Joe: Of course. I just want to start with this question. I’m sure you’re aware how interesting and inspiring your story is – but what made you want to put it all into words and write this book?
Raul: Thanks for the question, Joe. A few things led to that. The first thing is – on my second tour while on active duty in the military, I was invited to speak to at-risk youth in a city program. I remember standing in front of those youths and all of their eyes were zoomed in. They were all hitting in the wrong directions but as they heard me talk and they knew that I was once in their shoes. But to hear their reactions – the “oh wows” and “I want to turn my life around” as well, that was the first factor. And then when my Navy family heard about my story, they told me that I needed to write my life story to where I’m at today. They told me that I could change lives, and that’s what sparked it all.
Joe: Awesome and when was this that you got the inspiration to start writing?
Raul: I spoke to the at risk youths in either 2003 or 2004.
Joe: Okay, so it’s been in your head for a while, and it takes a long time to create the final product. So when you first saw your book, it had to be so fulfilling. To have your book in your hand, it has to be such a special feeling.
Raul: It was amazing. I’ll never forget that day my first batch of books came in that box. I couldn’t believe it. I was blown away for sure.
Joe: Now that we’re talking about the book, I wanted to get into some specific parts. Early on you discuss your childhood and growing up in such poverty. This really stuck out to me. I remember you talking about what it was like going to school in clothes that didn’t fit, and the bullying you dealt with. How do you feel when you look back on those early days now as an adult?
Raul: So initially I remember the feeling of just being looked at by other kids as “the poor kid”. They’d be saying “look at his clothes .. look at his shoes .. look at those highwater pants”. I remember that feeling and I remember the anger that built within me at such a young age. I remember being sent home even one day because I had Vaseline in my hair. All the other kids had gel and could style their hair with real products, but we couldn’t afford gel. So I put Vaseline in my hair. It was scorching hot that day and it was dripping down my face and the teacher literally sent me home for that. But I remember feeling very angry and very embarrassed. And I didn’t want to go to school. But now that I look back at it, I wish that I had someone who would look me in the eye and tell me, “be grateful for what you have”. There are a lot of people in this world who are way worse off than you are. And I wish that someone told me to be grateful. Now, as an adult, I’m so grateful for everything I have, and I also instill that in my kids and everyone that I mentor. It’s so important to be grateful because there are a lot of people in this world who just don’t have the necessities that they need to live a normal life.
Joe: I think as a kid it’s so hard to put things like that into perspective. You know, your mindset is so narrow at times when you’re young. And also, kids are tough! Kids could be absolutely brutal. Kids aren’t easy.
Raul: Yeah for sure kids aren’t nice. They’re not easy. And at that age, you just want to be cool and be a part of the cool crowd.
Joe: Speaking of that, being a part of the cool crowd and fitting in.. I believe it was in chapter 4 that you mention you felt like when you were young, gangs could give you what you were missing. Can you dive into that and share what you felt?
Raul: Yes Joe I think I felt the void when my father left. My father left when I was 5 years old, and I talk about how that all went down in the book. But I felt the void and I felt distanced from my mother and my sister. I felt like I didn’t have a family. I felt like I didn’t have friends. I didn’t feel protected. I didn’t feel like I had anything in life. And I found that right outside my door when I started seeing the gang members in the city. And they brought me right in with open arms. I started to feel safe. I started to feel that family and brotherhood that I was missing. It felt good and that’s all I knew.
Joe: I feel like sense of community is the one thing that all people look for the most. Nobody wants to be alone, and isolation is so hard to deal with. Community is very important and just putting it into perspective is important. When you’re vulnerable and you have none, it’s tough. One thing that stands out about your book is that you make it very clear that there is nothing to aspire for with gang life. There is nothing lofty about it, but what happened was a product of where you were from, and where you were raised, and your circumstances. And you do a really good job of putting it all into perspective. It’s so interesting thinking about how you just needed that community and that’s what brought you in. And it’s so inspiring to see where you are today after all of that. It’s an incredible story.
Raul: You hit the nail on the head with everything you just said. I appreciate that, thank you.
Joe: Looking at your book, you mention that only the strong survive, and even the strong die. But here you are today. Can you talk a little bit about how you made it out alive? Do you consider yourself one of the lucky ones?
Raul: I definitely consider myself one of the lucky ones. There are only a few of us; especially out of South Central Los Angeles and the immediate neighborhood around it. One of the things I feel got me through that was faith – faith in a higher power, faith in God – it’s something that my mother always instilled in me as a young boy. That’s one thing that made me really listen to her. Most things went in one year and out the other but that’s one thing that really stuck with me. Have faith and pray to God and when you find yourself in trouble, have faith. I always did that. I had conversations with God, and I feel like God watched over me through my times in the streets. There were many times where I’m being shot at, or being chased, just so many dark moments. I feel like God was there for me. And I could easily not be here.
Joe: One thing I noticed is there was a certain point where something clicked, and your life changed. In the book, you discuss having kids and how it changed your life. I want to just go to the moment where everything clicked, and you decided to change everything. Can you talk about that?
Raul: Yes Joe I often think of that. I stand on my balcony, and I think of that moment. I’m blessed to have a great view where I could sit back and think about this. The first thing that sparked in my mind to change was my daughter. So my daughter was born in 1996 and I was still an active gang member at the time. She was born three months early. She was 2lbs 6oz and could literally fit in my hand when she was born. She was a miracle baby she wasn’t supposed to make it. But by the grace of God she pulled through and she made it. She’s a fighter and my miracle, I tell her that all the time. But she made it through thanks to the doctors and medical staff who made that happen. But at that time I said, “man what am I doing?” I need to do something for this little girl. I need to provide for her the right way, and in a positive way … I need to give her what I didn’t have. And a life in the streets isn’t going to do it for her. If I continued what I was doing, I was either going to die or go to jail for the rest of my life. So that was the initial spark. And then, one day I was hanging out in the hood in Southcentral LA, and I thought about how there were a lot of my friends from the hood who were going to jail and dying. Some were paralyzed, some were strung out on drugs. And I realized that I’m blessed to be alive, and I need to change. So at that time I had to want to change.
Joe: And then what drew you to the military to take that step?
Raul: So I remember seeing a commercial on TV of a soldier. He was actually a Marine. He looked pretty cool. He had a nice uniform and a gun. I was thought it looked pretty interesting and cool and so I just walked right to the recruiting station. I didn’t talk to anyone about it, didn’t know anything about it. Just walked right there.
Joe: Do you still remember the initial people who you ran into there?
Raul: Oh yes I still do! I still remember the Marine recruiter. He saw me and my gang tattoos. He was respectful but basically was like, yeah it’s not going to happen. And then when they sent me over to the Navy recruiter. I’ll never forget the man who sat down with me, listened to my story, and gave me the opportunity.
Joe: It’s interesting I remember reading in your book about how you sent to the Navy office by the Marine recruiter. What is it about the Navy that made him sent you there. Are they just less strict regarding certain policies? What was it about the Navy?
Raul: My understanding is that at that time in 1998, the Marines were having a lot of issues with gang members joining the Marines, gaining the training, and then going back to the streets and using that training in a negative way. The Marines were a lot more strict with who they were recruiting, especially gang members. At the time the Navy wasn’t as strict with who they were recruiting, thank goodness. Of course I got a waiver. So I needed permission from higher authority to join.
Joe: I love how in your book you have the picture of the waiver – and you mention that it’s the paper that saved your life. It’s these little things that change everything. So what were some of the most challenging aspects about your early time in the Navy?
Raul: When I first joined, the transition was very hard. Going from a hardcore gang member to a military mindset was very challenging. Getting out of the “boy in the hood” mindset was a challenge. But I’m also here to tell you that I joined with an advantage. Those things instilled in us in the streets, and lessons on leadership, structure, all of those things could be transformed into a positive in the military that helped me succeed in my first few years in the Navy.
Joe: What were some important lessons that you learned through the Navy that you had never learned before that made a big difference for you?
Raul: I wouldn’t say that there were lessons, but I did live by three simple rules that helped me succeed – be on time, listen to your orders, show up in the right uniform. I lived by those three rules, and it was like half the battle in the Navy.
Joe: And you obviously have succeeded. You’ve had such a successful career and one of my favorite parts of your book is when everything comes full circle, and you get access to the Chief’s Mess. You mention that the Chief’s Mess gave you that sense of purpose, family, camaraderie, duty, responsibility, and brother and sisterhood that you’d been seeking. First can you share what the chief’s mess is? And also you talk about how you felt at this moment of your career?
Raul: Yes Joe so the Chief’s Mess consists of Navy Chiefs – Chiefs, Senior Chiefs, and Master Chiefs. And the Chief’s Mess is known as the “backbone of the Navy”. We are those who made it from E1 up to E7. We are full of tradition. We’re proud. We’re recognized by our anchors that we wear on our uniforms. It’s just one of the best things that happened to me when I was accepted into the Chief’s Mess. The Chief’s Mess has so much to offer and makes such an impact on our Navy. It’s amazing. The networking within the Navy – we have the answers to everything. But not just the Navy. But in life in general. If there’s a question that someone has within the Chief’s Mess and they don’t have the answer, someone in the Chief’s Mess will have the answer. We’re known to make things happen. It was a very proud moment when I made Chief for the first time in 2008. It was such a special feeling and I’m super proud to this day. Making it to the top enlisted rank of Master Chief, I was on cloud nine. To be able to make a positive impact at that high level within the Chief’s Mess, I was so blessed and grateful.
Joe: It has to be so fulfilling that you worked for so long and made it. I felt it too and it wasn’t even my life. Before we move on to something else, I want to bring up another topic from your book. One thing that stands out to me in your story is the importance of mentorship. I couldn’t agree more. I know firsthand just how important it is to get strong and influential mentors in life. Would you be able to discuss how mentors have made a difference in your life?
Raul: I believe that everyone in life should have a mentor. Success doesn’t come easy. Sometimes we need that push and that help and that motivation to succeed. Thank goodness I had a great mentor and I still have mentors to this day which I’m so grateful for. One thing that helped me succeed in the Navy is a mentor I had. He was a Navy Chief at the time, and he’s now a retired Master Chief. I discuss it in my book, and I’ll never forget him. But it’s so important to have a mentor. That mentor can guide you in your life – both professionally and personally. And we all need that. I’m so grateful to have that first mentor. I wanted to be like him. He took care of his people. He took care of the mission. He was never about himself. He was about everyone else. I wanted to be like that and become a mentor myself.
Joe: Do you know if he got a copy of your book? I wonder if he’s read it.
Raul: Oh yeah he’s read it! He sent me a text message a couple of weeks ago. It was good to hear from him.
Joe: It’s so good to see that you’ve become a mentor yourself. Even if they’ve never met you in person, there are definitely thousands of kids out there who feel that way about you. And it has to be such a great accomplishment because its something that will last for kids lives and lives beyond them. It’s really great work that you’ve done. Your life really has come full circle.
Raul: Thanks, Joe. I appreciate that. It’s a great feeling when I get that phone call from that junior sailor or even senior sailor who thank me for the guidance. It’s definitely a good feeling.
Joe: Was there anything that was difficult about writing the book?
Raul: I would say that it was writing the dark moments in my book. I kept it real and there are some dark moments in there. When writing about those dark moments, I actually felt like I relived them. But I also felt like it was a form of therapy as well because it helped me get it off my chest. So that was difficult. With that, I won’t forget that when my book was first released, my son and nephew wanted me to read it aloud. I remember reading it. It was chapter three, and it was hard to get through it. It had to pause at times, and I’m not afraid to say that. Then I handed it over to my sister and she took over. So writing those dark moments was definitely difficult.
Joe: But it’s important that you did share those moments because you’re not trying to hide anything.
Raul: Exactly. 100%
Joe: You know some people watching this may be interested in writing something themselves. Is there anything you’d like to share with other writers trying to tell their story?
Raul: I would say just get to writing! Just start! Don’t worry about the grammar. Don’t worry about mistakes. Just write away. Write until you can’t write anymore, and then you could go back. But don’t be afraid to get it out there. Of course, there’s so much more than that but that’s the initial step.
Joe: What has the early reaction been like for your book? Have you been hearing from readers?
Raul: I’m so blessed to hear the reactions I’ve been hearing. One thing I get a lot is people telling me it’s hard to put the book down! I also hear how people cry during certain chapters, or how they can relate to others, and that I could change lives with this book. I’ve been blown away by all the reactions. I love it. And that’s what I wanted. I wanted to get my message out there to inspire, motivate, and possibly change lives.
Joe: I definitely think you did that. It’s been great to see the reaction to your book and all of the success. Mission accomplished. I want to know if you are working on any projects? Anything you’d like to share with your readers and followers?
Raul: I’m not currently working on any other projects. But the editor of my book and I have talked about doing another book down the line. We have some ideas but since I just retired I’m still figuring stuff out and I’m going to take this year off and hit the ground running next year. But I did want to say this. BookBaby, oh my gosh. BookBaby definitely made this dream happen. I’ll never forget reading all of the great things about the company on a blog and that’s what made me go with BookBaby. I’m so happy I made that decision because they made that my dream come true. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. I love what you all say – you help writers become authors. Because I’m like, me? An author? I’m no author! But I am and I have this book and you all made that happen. I’ll never forget when I got my first book. The quality, everything was amazing. It’s been amazing from day one. So thank you, Joe. Thank you, BookBaby. You guys are doing great work and I appreciate you. I highly recommend you and your staff to anyone who wants to get a book published.
Joe: I really appreciate it and that’s what we love to hear. Just seeing projects come full circle.. and guess what you are an author! You could put it on resume! Your book is changing lives so thank you for your kind words and for doing this project. I think your book is so meaningful and it is going to continue to make an impact as time goes on. I recommend it to everybody. From every walk of life, you could learn a lot about yourself from reading Raul’s story. To end, I want to ask one question. Is there something you wish you could tell your past self?
Raul: Well, there are several things. But if there were one thing, I would say – there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Joe: And there definitely is. I’m so happy for you and your success and again you can buy Raul’s book on Bookshop or anywhere you could buy books. You can also follow Raul on a bunch of different social platforms if you want to plug them.
Joe: Give him a follow and stay up to date with his work, his life, and give his book a read. Raul, thank you so much for your time I really appreciate it and thank you for sharing your story.
Raul: Thank you Joe. I really appreciate it and thank you BookBaby, much love.