On August 23, 1969, 26-year-old Danny Trejo walked into a Greyhound bus depot in downtown San Francisco after being released from prison, where he had spent four and a half years for attempting to sell four ounces of fake heroin (sugar) to an undercover cop. “I went through the doors of the bus station and saw this beautiful German shepherd sitting there with his master with no leash on,” Trejo recalls, “and I yelled, ‘A dog!’ and the German shepherd turned, looked at me, and just came up to me like he was my dog. It was almost like he knew I hadn’t seen a dog in a long time … It was a perfect homecoming.
As a free man, Trejo wanted to atone for a misguided life of crime and dedicated himself to helping other people and animals. Now 77 years old, Trejo is a loving family man and a cherished community member who has performed in about 400 ﬁlms, owns a chain of successful restaurants, and recently founded a record label. He says, “Everything good that has happened to me, has happened as a direct result of helping someone else. That’s the way it’s meant to be. God has put some of the most beautiful people and beautiful animals in my life.” With seven rescue dogs at home, one of Trejo’s favorite things to do when he gets back from a long day at work is to throw himself on the ﬂoor and call his pups over for a “lick-o-fest.” The imposing man with a hard, scarred face turns into a soft-spoken, mushy sop around dogs. He is a passionate and out-spoken advocate for animal welfare, as he is for prison reform and substance abuse recovery. In the past, Trejo has protested pet stores that sell dogs from puppy mills, and in a strangely hilarious and poignant PSA he played a tough, scruﬀy mutt that likens life in an overcrowded rescue to a prison sentence. “We domesticated dogs, they’re our responsibility,” Trejo says. “I don’t even like people that don’t like dogs. I don’t understand them.”
It’s always been that way for Trejo. Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, just north of Los Angeles, he and his cousin would ﬁnd stray dogs around the neighborhood and try to put them in good homes. He says, “A lot of times we’d see the guys trying to raise pit bulls to ﬁght, and I’d say, ‘Shut up, bitch, give me that dog.’” Trejo was only a pre-teen, but no one messed with him because everyone knew his uncle Gilbert, a former Golden Gloves boxer who sold drugs and robbed local convenience stores. Trejo idolized his uncle, so he didn’t shy away when Gilbert gave him his first hit of marijuana at age eight, and his ﬁrst dose of heroin at age 12.
Since Trejo saw Gilbert’s way of life as “kind of heroic,” it wasn’t long before he was using a sawed-off shotgun and a hand grenade to knock over liquor stores, and constantly consuming drugs and alcohol to numb himself. “People think I had a rough life,” Trejo says. “The only reason for the rough life is that I made it rough.” Soon Trejo became a regular in California’s youth authority system, and at 18 years old he went to prison for the ﬁrst time after getting into a ﬁght with two sailors and stabbing one of them with a broken beer bottle.
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A few years later, after selling bunk “heroin” to a cop, Trejo ended up in the notoriously violent San Quentin State Prison. Behind bars, Trejo saw a lot of pain and death, and built up his badass reputation through boxing, again following in the footsteps of Gilbert, and became a three-time lightweight and welterweight champion. Trejo says, “In prison, there’s two types of people: predator and prey. Every morning you have to decide what you’re going to be.”
In May 1968, during a prison riot, Trejo allegedly threw a rock at a prison guard and as a result, spent a year in solitary conﬁnement in Soledad State Prison, waiting for his time in the gas chamber. As Trejo contemplated the end of his young life, he stayed sane by acting out scenes from The Wizard of Oz and asked God to let him die with dignity, pleading, “If you do, I will say your name every day and I’ll do whatever I can for my fellow man.” Fortunately for Trejo, no one testiﬁed against him, and soon he was released from custody, vowing to change his ways.
Trejo moved back to the San Fernando Valley, got a job at an auto wrecker, and attended his first meetings with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA). He started doing chores for neighbors and family friends, drove other addicts to meetings, and before long, became a drug counselor and sponsor. When Uncle Gilbert tried to coax him back into a life of crime, Trejo refused; a few months later Gilbert went to prison, and not long after he overdosed and died.
Trejo stayed true to his deal with God and helped as many people as he could, and he had been clean and sober for almost two decades when he got a call from a young actor who he was sponsoring, who was working on the set of a film called Runaway Train (1985) and couldn’t handle the fact that his fellow actors were heavily using cocaine. When Trejo drove down to the movie set, he saw dozens of men dressed in prison blues, and he landed a part in the ﬁlm after meeting the ﬁlm’s co-writer, Eddie Bunker, a former convict who was incarcerated with Trejo.
Bunker became a close friend and mentor who helped Trejo navigate Hollywood and earn small supporting roles in several ﬁlms. Trejo says, “For the ﬁrst ﬁve years of my career, I was ‘Inmate Number One,’ ‘Bad Guy,’ ‘Chicano Dude,’ ‘Tattoo Guy,’ ‘Killer’ … I never had a name. The ﬁrst role I had with a name was ‘See Veer’ in Penitentiary III (1987), and then the next one was ‘Art Sanella’ in Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987) with Charles Bronson, who reminded me so much of my uncle Gilbert … somebody that could turn you to stone with a look.”
While Trejo never thought he’d return to San Quentin, he went back to film Blood In, Blood Out (1993) before he starred as a menacing, completely silent lead villain in Desperado (1995), a ﬁlm by Robert Rodriguez, who turned out to be Trejo’s second cousin. The biggest break of Trejo’s early career came when he landed a role in Heat (1995), acting alongside Oscar winners Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Jon Voight — playing a character named “Gilbert Trejo.”
After Heat came out, Trejo started getting bigger and better roles, though he continued to be typecast as a mean, killer Mexican, until Rodriguez cast him in Spy Kids (2001) and showed a softer, more nurturing side of Trejo. Little did Trejo know that his role as “Uncle Machete” would become one of the most important of his career. For years, Rodriguez had toyed with the idea of directing a ﬁlm that riﬀed on the blaxploitation films popularized in the ’70s and followed the gruesome revenge story of a former Mexican federale named Machete. Rodriguez knew Trejo was the only man for the part, and when he debuted a teaser trailer for the “Mexploitation” ﬁlm before the double-feature horror ﬁlm Grindhouse (2007) that he collaborated on with director Quentin Tarantino, the audience response was so overwhelmingly positive that Machete Kills (2013) went into production, with Trejo in the lead role for the ﬁrst time in his acting career.
Not long before his debut as “Machete,” Trejo starred in a low-budget action ﬁlm that spun off into a trilogy, Bad Ass (2012), and that’s where he met producer and future business partner Ash Shah, who advised Trejo to open a restaurant. Trejo jokingly said he’d call it “Trejo’s Tacos,” and two movies later, on the set of Bad Asses on the Bayou (2015), Shah brought him a fully vetted business plan, and in March 2016 they opened their ﬁrst restaurant. Trejo says, “It’s been awesome, I love it. It’s like serving people in your living room.” He eats there all the time, and when dogs come to the restaurant, Trejo walks into the kitchen, grabs some carne asada, washes it to get all the spice out, and feeds it to the pups.
Trejo now has seven taco cantinas, as well as one coffee and donut shop, but his entrepreneurial ambitions are not yet tapped out. In the summer of 2019, he founded Trejo’s Music, a record label that aims to shine a light on talented emerging artists, and more recently he’s released two books: A Trejo’s Taco’s cookbook and a 288-page memoir, Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood.
He spent his adolescence as a flawed menace to society, but eventually Danny Trejo revealed a warm and accepting soul that belies his intimidating exterior. He very easily could have continued to follow in the footsteps of his uncle Gilbert, and likely would’ve met a similar fate, but instead he focused on improving the lives of others, teaching them that no matter how dire their situation, no matter what mistakes they’ve made, they can change for the better — but only if they’re willing to be selﬂess, give back, and work hard for the future they want. Trejo continues to inspire those around him in the same ways that dogs inspire him.
“Every day I just see dogs get along with each other,” Trejo says. “All they want is love, and I think that’s all anybody wants. I think the relationship between people and their animals — their dogs especially — are probably the best relationships that you can have.” He pauses for a second, laughs and smirks as the cracks and scars on his face crease, and says jokingly, “Look, put your wife or your husband and your dog in the trunk of a car, and leave them there for an hour. When you open that trunk, you see who’s happy to see you. That dog will jump up and kiss you, and your wife or husband will scream, ‘You bitch! I’m suing everything!’ You understand? Dogs don’t hold resentment.”
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