A leading American daily newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, keeps track of the number of shootings in Chicago. At the time of writing the number of persons shot in Chicago, which has less than a third of the population of London, is well over 600. However, there is one person in particular who is doing all they can to ‘Interrupt’ the statistic that makes the infamous seven murders on February 14, 1929, which became known as the ‘St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, pale into insignificance.
It is my honour, delight and pleasure to welcome to the NCS hotseat someone; whose inspirational journey I have been following since my own release from prison in 2017, “a former Chicago gang member”, who has spent 12 years in prison, and who in October 2018 saw the release of their book ‘In Deep: How I Survived Gangs, Heroin And Prison To Become A Chicago Violence Interrupter’.
Welcome, Angalia Bianca.
I’m aware you prefer Bianca, so welcome Bianca and thank you for agreeing to talk to us at NCS.
As a child, I was always called either Ang or Angela. I never knew the correct spelling to my first name until I graduated 8th grade and saw it on my diploma. No one has ever been able to correctly pronounce my first name the way it is spelled. My legal birth name is Angalia Bianco but throughout my criminal career people began calling me Bianca. That’s the name that just stuck and in fact the only name that anyone has ever known me by for the past 30 years.
Thank you NCS for having me!
Bianca, one thing I’ve taken from following your journey is that you are definitely one tough cookie. In your book, ‘In Deep’, your grandma also comes across as a fearless lady. My first question is:
How much of an influence was your grandma in your life, growing up and as to who you are now?
My paternal grandma (Mary) was a huge influence in my life. I learned my survival skills from her. My strength, outgoing personality, and giving heart came from my grandma. As the saying goes, I know how to work a room just like my grandma did. Only I use to be working it for a different reason than her.
I used all those skills in a negative hustling way in my past life. Now, I have transferred my hustling skills into positive negotiation skills for the greater good of the community.
Grandma raised me and my baby sister Crickie (Christina).
My grandma knew how to make ends meet and how to survive; After all she was an old school Sicilian and lived through the depression and WWII. We lived in Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood and back in the early 1960’s it was a very different place than it is today. Everyone knew and loved my grandma. She had a heart of gold and loved to talk. She was so entertaining in the way she told her stories. I always listened to every word and watched her every move. I loved her more than anyone in the world.
I loved watching grandma talk loud and very animated. She would speak in English and quickly change to Sicilian; in fact she knew how to speak a couple different dialects of Italian. Back in those days there were a lot of ‘connected guys’ who grew up in that neighborhood. My grandma knew them all and always baked Italian pastries for them and their families. They were just regular guys to her who loved her and her Italian cookies.
We eventually moved to Oak Park, Illinois. I was my Grandma’s favorite out of all of her grandchildren.
In the end, because of me, she died with a broken heart. In 2004 I was in the State Penitentiary when she passed away at the age of 89. The last words she ever spoke were on her deathbed to her son, my Uncle Joey. My grandmother with her soft weakened voice said ‘Joey please take care of my Angela’ She died shortly after she said that sentence.
I hadn’t seen my grandma for over 16 years. Till this day I live with a lot of guilt because I wasn’t there for her. I’d like to think she’s looking down from heaven and can finally rest knowing that HER Angela is okay.
Your father was also quite the character through your life. Does much of the character you possess come from him, and if so in what way(s)?
I adored my father. (Pete Bianco)
I was his first child and the most spoiled. He influenced my love of music and art. My father was a smooth operator and that skill definitely served me well in my criminal career.
I remember when I was about four-years-old, the first time he played a song for me. On a small portable record player he played a 45 rpm record of ‘Go away little Girl’ sung by Bobby Vee. My Daddy sang the song to me and taught me all the words so I could sing along too. It was one of the sweetest loving memories I have together with my father. Growing up I knew all the words to every Sinatra song. Daddy loved to play music loud and till this day so do I.
He was an amazing artist. It was a hobby for him. He drew portraits with pencil, and made all type of things out of wood.
He was hardly home so we didn’t see him a lot. But he would stop by our apartment once or twice a week usually to give Grandma Money to take care of us. My father provided well for us.
I always wanted to make my father proud of me.
As the years went by and the more of a juvenile delinquent I became he tried so hard to keep me out of trouble. He always bonded me out of jail, used any connection he had and would pay off whoever he had to in order to get me out of trouble. In the meantime, the lessons I was learning was that everyone had a price and you could buy your way out of anything.
This was before the Federal undercover investigation called ‘Operation Greylord’ that sent many Cook County judges and lawyers to prison.
As I moved into young adulthood my father continued trying to help me get on track but I kept slipping further and further away and at some point my family knew there was nothing more they could do. I finally quit coming home. For years my family didn’t even know if I was dead or alive.
I know if my father were alive today I would have finally made him proud of me.
What do you think a young Bianca would make of who you are now, plus with where you are in life now what advice would you give your nine-year-old self?
A young Bianca would not ever believe this is who she would eventually become.
There would be no advice that I could give my younger self that my family didn’t try to give me over and over. I was too hard headed and was never going to listen to anyone. I was too independent even at the young age of nine. At the age of 13 and 14, I was already hitchhiking across the country by myself. I too was fearless like my grandma.
The only thing I could say to my younger self is “You’re going to go through a lot of shit by your own bad choices, you’re going to come close to dying multiple times, you’re going to get shot with a 9mm and you will do many years behind the walls of a penitentiary. You are going to lose everyone you love and everything you ever had but in the end you will survive and what you go through will make you the person you’re going to become. You will eventuallymake amends with your family and children and become successful”
‘In Deep’ was published in October 2018, then in 2019 you won a Book of the Year award from the Chicago Writers Association. Were you surprised at how well your book was received, and do you have another book planned?
I always knew that my story would help a lot of people. Since the age of 21-years-old I had been saying one day I’m going to write a book. I never really knew how but somehow I knew I would. I said that my entire life.
After my memoir was published people would reach out to me all the time through social media telling me how it inspired them or helped one of their family members or even young people telling me they have decided to change their life and my story gave them strength to know that they too can do this.
Last fall when I was told my Memoir was a finalist for the Book of the year award I was shocked. Especially since it was up against a book called ‘The Torture Machine’ by a famous author who has had many best-selling books. I thought for sure that book would win. When they announced that my Memoir won the ‘2019 Book of the Year Traditional Nonfiction by Chicago Writers Association it was somewhat surreal. I just couldn’t believeit was really happening.
I am currently working on another book.
I mentioned in the intro that I’ve been following your inspiring journey since my own release from prison. One of my highlights of your journey so far was you receiving the Honorarya Resolution Award for Bravery presented to you by the Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emmanuel, in July 2016. You must’ve been so proud; do you remember much of the day?
Yes of course I remember it perfectly. I have a photographic memory and shockingly enough after all of the years of abuse that I have done to my body and mind I can still see the images of my memories clearly.
I was very nervous on that morning getting ready to go to Chicago’s City Hall to be honored in front of the city council. Alderman James Cappleman of Chicago’s 46th Ward initiated the accommodation. When the Mayor heard of the story of me running into gang gunfire to save the life of a 15-year-old shooting victim he said that it was so heroic that they wanted me to come down in person to be honored.
My first child Sean and his three children, my grandchildren came with me. As the Resolution was read out loud, tears fell from my face not because I was being honored but because I could finally see the pride in my child’s eyes. The same child I had abandoned many years before. My son put his arm around me and I knew he was proud of me.
Well, that was one of my highlights from your journey. So, other than the Honorary Resolution Award, what have been some of your personal highlights?
I decided to go back to college after taking many college classes while inside prison. One of my colleagues LeVon Stone Sr. was very instrumental in encouraging me to go back to college. He would not give up on me.
I went back in 2017 and will graduate in May 2020 with my Bachelor of Arts Degree in Inner City Studies from Northeastern Illinois University. Next year I will continue going to college to pursue my Masters degree.
But my most cherished accomplishments come from knowing that I saved a life, stopped a shooting, helped someone or when a child hugs me, smiles and says “I love you Bianca” There is no greater feeling. That right there is what means the most to me.
You are clearly very busy with little spare time, however, when you do have time for you, how do you switch off?
I don’t look at it like switching off. I really don’t switch off. Of course if I’m home I watch TV. I still paint on canvas but if a call comes in and somebody needs my help I drop everything I’m doing to see if there’s any possible way that I can help someone in need.
I always joke with people and say if my phone number ever got changed the world would explode. I get calls from everywhere. It’s like everyone knows my number and I’m okay with that.
I think that maybe somebody wrote on a bathroom wall somewhere….”If you need help call Bianca” instead of “For a good time call………..
For my final question Bianca, I’d like to know what hopes/aspirations you have for the future?
Last year I started the process of getting a not-for-profit license. I plan to start an organization geared to helping at-risk youth and their families. If we don’t help the families who are struggling then we are sending the youth right back into the fire. I want to provide wrap around services and assist adolescents who may be coming out of the juvenile detention centers or while they are in the juvenile detention centers. My organization would help get them get mentorship and treat some of the root causes that may have caused them to be in that situation in the first place.
Within the next 3 to 5 years I plan to buy a 3 flat apartment building somewhere on the west side of Chicago. I would live in one apartment and rent out the other two. My plan is to live in a community that is struggling so I could become very much involved as a resident and lead by example.
My dream would be if my life story could become a movie or even a television series because not only would it be riveting but I think a lot of people would relate to it. Not to mention my Memoir is really just the tip of the iceberg. I have enough real life stories to provide any producer with at least 10 years of material for a series.