Robert Guzman is a 54-year-old Native American who found a new life as an artist and amateur counselor in prison.
His bloodline includes Ute, Blackfoot, and Mexican. He arrived at San Quentin in 2019. Throughout his 21 years of incarceration, Guzman honed skills he developed as a young boy working with leather, beads, paints, and woodcarvings — talents he learned first from family, and then different members of his community.
“As a little kid, my grandma taught me how to sew. After that, I saw other people doing bead and leatherwork. It called to my heart,” Guzman said. “I was about 10 or 11 years when I started woodcarving, and my dad taught me how to use hammers and chisels to carve wood figurines such as bears and birds.
“My dad was the greatest inspiration to me for beadwork. He taught me leather crafting, and how to make necklaces and bracelets from jade and sapphire. We would buy the stones rough (meaning, stones we had to polish and shape) before we set them on a belt or necklace.”
After his parents’ divorce, the effects of their separation made Robert see the world differently. He said he faced many hardships growing up and being hurt as a child left him feeling empty and alone. “It’s like food. You need food to survive. Beading was like nourishment to me. It was my time for prayer and ceremony.”
Robert realized he needed to change when, as he reflected on his past, the devastating pain he caused his victims deeply affected him.
“In the process of acknowledging my shame, I broke down from the guilt and overwhelming sadness I felt. That’s when I understood I needed to change and seek help. Today when I build something I’m thinking about my past and present. Those who I offended, how I offended them, and the better choices I could have made. I understand today what I should not do and how not to act,” said Robert.
“It’s about accountability and accepting responsibility for my crimes and my actions. I’m proud to say that I’m now able to give back to society through my beadwork and art teachings with a better understanding of myself.”
Today Guzman’s spirituality guides him and is reflected in the warm responses he receives from the men he encounters in San Quentin.
“It’s funny because I don’t look for people to counsel but people come to me seeking advice. They feel like they can trust me with their story. They tell me I understand them and that I am always smiling. They say I see the best in people. I credit it all to my Creator,” said Guzman.
Self-help programs throughout his incarceration have helped Guzman to make better choices in life.
“I took a vow of nonviolence in 2006, which to this day I have been able to continue. Although I’ve been challenged a lot, today I’m able to talk with people. I’m able to ask them questions like ‘what are they going through’ or ‘why they are hurting.’ I’m able to ask myself ‘what can I do to help myself through my life journey and my walk with the Creator.’ And in that, I’ve learned to be a blessing, not a burden.”
Altruism plays a major role in Guzman’s life.
“Through my beadwork, I am able to do giveaways to people who are on a positive path or on their way home from prison. Just to be told ‘thank you for being a friend’ and blessing them with something nice and a prayer satisfies me. My paintings are of a Phoenix, of one who rises from the ashes and is reborn — to protect, bless, and watch over people. I use the four-direction colors of my people so that they will always be protected. It’s not a hobby, it’s a way of life,” he concluded.