Hollywood's Danny Trejo, who has been in more... (Francisco Kjolseth / The Salt Lake Tribune )

Because he didn't have a high-school diploma, Dan "Danny" Trejo Jr. couldn't get the job he wanted -- even in a prison dry-cleaning shop.

The character actor said he remembers growing up believing he was "slower" than other kids because he spoke Spanish at home, and thinking Latinos couldn't amount to much, other than being robbers and drug dealers.

Trejo, 65, said some people have been trained to think they can't succeed or achieve greatness outside of their barrios.

"You need to retrain your brain to think you can do anything," he told an audience of about 50 youth offenders and staffers at Decker Lake Youth Center on Monday. "I'd rather shoot for the moon and miss than shoot for the gutter and make it."

Trejo spoke at the residential rehabilitation center as one of three stops in the Salt Lake City area during his latest visit to the Beehive State to film a movie. He also dropped by to talk to groups at the Odyssey House, a substance abuse treatment center in Salt Lake City, and the Boys & Girls Clubs in Midvale.

Trejo is wrapping up "Vengeance," produced by Salt Lake City-based, Latino-owned ITN Management and filmed solely in Utah. Trejo plays "Jack," a retired cop who heads for the streets to find who murdered his wife and daughter.

The cast, which includes rap artists Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson and Baby Bash, is filming in Park City later this

week during the Sundance Film Festival. The movie is slated to be released in the fall.

Trejo, known for playing the tough guy in movies for about 25 years, told the 30 students at Decker Lake there are two things they can do to immediately and drastically change their lives: Stop drinking alcohol and using drugs.

Trejo said he remembers his father being drunk most of the time. He said he first tried "grass" at age 8; heroin at age 12; and robbing people at age 14. He spent his teen years in and out of juvenile detention centers.

"Thugs are broke. Gangbangers go to jail." he said. "People who are clean and sober do good things for people and seem to have good lives."

While in prison in the 1960s, Trejo said, he decided he wanted to change and quit using drugs and drinking alcohol on Aug. 23, 1968 -- 41 years ago. He left prison a year later and never returned.

After his 50-minute talk, Trejo signed pieces of paper for the boys and took photos with them. Some of the students said they expected Trejo to be a hard-core gangbanger, so they were surprised he was a good, funny guy with a lot of positive advice.

An 18-year-old serving time for selling methamphetamines and possessing loaded firearms said Trejo made him think about changing and realizing "no matter what situation you're in, you can make it out of it....The life I live is not the life I always have to live."

A 17-year-old serving time for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon agreed. He hopes to earn his high school diploma, stay out of trouble, help his mom and be a better example for his younger brother. "We can really change and be something in the future," he said.


More info

Dan "Danny" Trejo, Jr.

Age: 65

Born: Los Angeles

Movies include: "Blood in Blood Out" (1993), "Desperado" (1995), "From Dusk till Dawn" (1996), "Spy Kids" (2001), "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" (2003)

On the Web:

"Champion" (2005), a documentary on Trejo's life, www.championmovie.com

"Vengeance" (to be released in the fall), www.itnflix.com

» What » The Ultimate Sundance 2010 Party, hosted by Danny Trejo and special guest 50 Cent

» When » Thursday and Friday

» Where » 625 Main St., Park City

» Tickets» $200

For information or reservations, call Dustin at 801-414-0245 or e-mail vip@downstairspc.com.