Gerardo López was only 14 years old when he joined the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang in Los Angeles in the 90s. Today, he is a gang interventionalist in Denver, Colorado where he speaks to at-risk youth who are going down the same dark path he did when he was a teenager. He wants each of them to learn from his mistakes and know that gang life isn’t the answer.

In the short documentary Clever, which screens at the New York Latino Film Festival, filmmaker Alan Domínguez tells López’s inspirational story and follows him as he mentors kids about making smart decisions for their future. The film also explores López’s life as a civil rights advocate, a role he says played a part in his reincarceration years after he left MS-13.

Currently, López is the director of the Denver branch of Homies Unidos, a nationally-recognized nonprofit organization that “works to end violence and promote peace in communities through gang prevention and intervention.”

López, who chose the nickname Clever when he was recruited by MS-13, remained a member of the gang until he was 21. It was then when he started distancing himself from the group and volunteering with Homies Unidos in L.A. He brought the organization to Denver in 2015.

“The ultimate goal is to help these kids succeed and stay out of the jail system and be a productive person in society,” López said. “Sometimes they just need someone to direct them in the right way. When they see that I am able to relate to them, they tend to pay more attention.”

Courtesy of New York Latino Film Festival

When Domínguez learned about López’s work with teenagers and the fact that he had been wrongly caught up in the judicial system years later, he was immediately intrigued by the idea of making a film on López’s experiences.

“He never glorified any part of his past, which I thought was a very responsible choice,” Domínguez said. “He was open about his life, but some of the subjects were sensitive. I think it must’ve been helpful for him to do that.”

For Domínguez, one of the overarching themes that he hopes comes across to audiences is for them to think about what it means to be a “prisoner of your past.”

Courtesy of Loco Lane Filmworks

“Gerardo made a lot of bad decisions when he was a kid,” Domínguez said. “He really wanted to get his life together, but sometimes our past haunts us. That’s definitely the most important thing I want young people to take from the film.”

Now with his past far behind him, López looks forward to continuing to give back to his community and instilling a fighting spirit in those young individuals who might feel they are caught up in a cycle they cannot escape.

“There is always a light at the end of the tunnel,” López said. “I want these kids to feel like they can speak out and get the help they need. Joining a gang should never be the solution.”

Clever screens during the New York Latino Film Festival’s Short Documentary Program on October 12 at 6 p.m. at the Julia De Burgos Performance and Arts Center (1680 Lexington Avenue) and on October 13 at 4 p.m. at Cinépolis Chelsea (260 W. 23rd Street).