His Story

Del Hendrixson's life has included a struggle with gender identity, crime, prison, finding God and, finally, redemption

Del Hendrixson is not ashamed to talk about spending almost a year in federal prison for committing what he calls a "federal humanitarian crime."

The 64-year-old with a Southern drawl beams when he talks about his charity, which helps at-risk people by taking prison art and designs and turning them into commercial products. He comfortably discusses how he never imagined that what sent him to prison would be the basis of his mission in life today. (You may have seen Del's 1990 Pontiac Firebird, which is covered with prison art, around town.)

However, there is one conversation topic that makes Hendrixson nervous: The fact that he's transgendered.

Understandably, he decides to start his story with one of the easier subjects: what sent him to prison.

About 30 years ago, Hendrixson met a man who made money producing realistic-looking identification cards using a passport-photo camera. Del decided to follow in his footsteps by investing in a camera and making ID cards.

He set up that camera inside of a shop in east Dallas. One day in 1981, he was approached by a friendly, short man with a mustache and a cowboy hat.

"Tomas, I'll never forget the kid," Del said.

Tomas, an illegal immigrant, initially wanted an ID card—but then he learned that Del knew how to make birth certificates. While Del worked in his younger days at a newspaper in Hot Springs, Ark., one of his colleagues taught him how to make a birth certificate so he could get a fake ID.

Tomas begged for one. Del initially said no, but eventually caved when Tomas explained: "You have no idea how lucky you are because you were born here."

Del remembered, "He said to me, 'If you just do me one, I can go see my mom in Mexico; I can come back and register my kids in school, and I could get my driver's license.' And I thought, 'Shit. I made a birth certificate for me to get into clubs.'"

He made Tomas a birth certificate; shortly after that, he made three more for Tomas' friends.

A business was born.

"I didn't know what the hell I was doing; I was just in the birth-certificate business, for some reason," he said.

Del later took over a car-body shop in the east Dallas area. Illegal immigrants began pouring into the shop and asking for help, he said. Before he knew it, he'd made about 40 fake birth certificates.

Del said he knew what he was doing was stupid. "I didn't even think of the worst thing that could happen, like being imprisoned."

However, he didn't really care that he was doing something so stupid. He had spiraled into a deep depression after his dad died in 1980.

"I worshiped him," Del said.

About a year after his dad's death, he made up his mind that he was going to kill himself. He justified making the birth certificates, figuring he was helping people, and could continue to do so until he got up the courage to commit suicide.

"I didn't give a shit about my life," he said. "I didn't care if I lived or died or whatever.

"I ended up with the whatever."

One day in July 1982, Del went to work as usual. A man and a woman came in wearing heavy coats.

"I thought to myself, 'Wait a minute. I'm not that smart, but I'm smart enough to figure out that people don't come in, in Dallas in July, wearing long, heavy coats,'" Del said.

They were walking with their arms stiff, he said. "I'm thinking, 'Hello! They've got antennas. They're wired or something.'"

The woman asked Del for "some ID." When asked to clarify what she meant, she told him she needed a birth certificate.

Del said he told her to contact a lawyer. The woman demanded one, but Del refused, presuming she was with law enforcement. The two would come back several times and again ask for birth certificates.

On Aug. 4, 1982, Del was sitting in his office typing out a birth certificate when his "office elf" yelled that they had customers.

"It was 22 of them, with rifles, shotguns—if you name a gun, they had it," Del said about the law enforcement officers who had amassed. "Big ones."

Del yanked the birth certificate he was working on out of the typewriter and stuck it underneath, before he was thrown on the floor. "I was thinking, 'Holy shit! Something is happening, and it's bad,'" he said.

"Ten of them had guns on me. They were surrounding me like I was a rat or a possum or something."

They searched his car and found his briefcase—which contained 111 blank birth certificates.

"I don't think anybody snitched," he remembered. His best guess is that Tomas and his three friends were stopped by the cops, and all four of them handed over their birth certificates to show they were legal citizens.

The birth certificates looked identical. It turns out Del never changed the birth-certificate number from the template that he used.

"It didn't take much snitching to figure that one out," he said. "I wasn't bright."

He faced up to five years on each of 111 counts—up to 555 years in prison. However, Del was offered a deal: He could plead guilty on just one count.

He agreed, and the judge sentenced him to three years behind bars. He was given six weeks to turn himself in to the Federal Correctional Institution of Fort Worth.

On Dec. 27, 1982, Del did just that.

As he walked through a heavy, metal-framed glass door with chicken wire between the two glass plates, he heard his first buzz-clank.

"When that door closes behind you, you enter a world that is so frightening," he said.

He was taken to the receiving department, where he was photographed holding his prisoner number just below his chin.

"No. 12605-077," he said. "My number is burnt into me forever."

He had to wait for a while before they took him to his unit. Why? "They didn't know what to do with me," he said. "I didn't fit in with the men, and I didn't fit in with the women."

Del is transgendered. He was born a woman, but mentally, he's been male his whole life.

"I've never been anything but (male)," he said.

"I never associated with being gay, so I didn't consider myself to be gay. So what does that leave me? That leaves me a male brain with a female body."

Looking at Del—with his large, boxy body, and his salt-and-pepper hair cut short, as he wears a baggy black T-shirt and shorts—it's hard to picture him sitting in front of a mirror with makeup.

"I've never been able to think feminine in my life," he said. "I couldn't think feminine if I had to."

Back then, the Federal Correctional Institution of Fort Worth was a co-ed prison. It was a four-floor facility, with men on the top floors, and women on the bottom floors.

He was legally a woman, so he was housed with the women.

"I had the attitude that if I didn't mess with anybody, nobody would mess with me," he said. "That was the worst idea."

Others started picking fights with him. "I got a chair thrown at me," he said. "It hit me in the side of the head from behind. I got my glasses broken."

After five months, he said, he had to learn how to fight just to survive.

The inmates play games and tricks on each other, he said. "I didn't know any games. ... I went from being a very dumb and innocent person to having to set up everyone around me with tricks, mind tricks and lies." he said.

He used his intimidating 5-foot-10, 200-plus-pound frame to manipulate everyone within the prison walls. "It became horrible. It became the new me."

He lost his old self after about seven months, he said—and his new self wasn't good for society.

He now knew of a new way to get respect: violence.

Del spent about one year of his three-year sentence behind bars, before being released on Nov. 9, 1983.

He went to work for a man who owned a print shop.

"It tormented me to think about getting a job in printing when I just went to prison for printing," he said. However, he needed a way to make money.

The shop owner initially liked Del because he was highly skilled, but the owner soon became disrespectful, Del said. "He talked to (other employees) like they were dogs, like they were dirt. One day, he turned to me with a sneer on his face, like I'm next to get that treatment."

So Del pulled the owner into the darkroom and had a chat. "I'll slap you down in a New York minute" if you talk to me like that, Del told his boss.

He was fired. He found other income sources, but his life felt empty, he said.

"Inside, right here, I was just totally empty," he said, placing a hand over his heart. "I had nothing. I had no purpose in life. Can you imagine what it's like to have no purpose in life?"

He felt that no one saw anything in him—except his status as an ex-con. "No one wanted me," he said. "My family lived five miles away from me and never invited me for Thanksgiving or Christmas or birthdays, nothing."

He reached the end of his rope about three years after being released. "I thought that going back to prison was going to be a happy thing," he said.

He devised a plan: "I planned on going to the nearest post office and killing everyone inside." He couldn't own a gun, so he told his neighbor that someone was messing with him and that he needed protection. She offered to bring him an automatic weapon.

"I said to myself that the minute she gives me that gun, I am going to head to the post office," he said.

However, he didn't go.

"What stopped me was God spoke to me and told me not to go," he said. "I'm glad I listened, listened to a calling that's been so hard. I call it a crawling."

But listening to God and not going to the post office meant not going back to prison.

"And that meant I had to reintegrate myself back into society," he said. "I had to find a purpose and actually make an effort to survive."

That purpose came when he founded the Bajito Onda Community Development Foundation.

It's a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with a mission to give at-risk teens, young adults and disadvantaged members of society hands-on creative-entrepreneurial training.

Since he decided not to go back to prison, Del decided he'd do everything in his power to combat recidivism and stop people from going to prison in the first place. "It's worthless. It's horrible, the torture of prison. So if it can be prevented, that's what I want to do."

He wants to teach these people everything he knows about graphic design and printing. "I want to empower people who are at the bottom and help them reach the top," he said.

Del works side by side with his participants, showing them how to channel their artistic talents and create commercially acceptable graphic designs. He also teaches teamwork, project innovation and client-relationship-building.

His mission began in Dallas, and he brought Bajito Onda to Tucson on Nov. 12, 2009.

"I just fell in love with Tucson," he said. "I saw the mountains, huge mountains, beautiful saguaro forests—those are things I had only seen in postcards. The beauty here is just so amazing."

The day after he flew in, he drove around town—and saw art everywhere.

"It seemed like every artist in the world was free to express themselves here," he said. "This is actually an artistic epicenter for the exact cultural art that is the makeup of Bajito Onda."

The basis of Bajito Onda art is prison art. "Not all of it is drawn by prisoners, but a large majority of it is," he said. "Most of the art is hand-drawn, so it's done in pencil, (with) very rudimentary techniques."

While in prison, Del saw the art and talent that prisoners had to offer. Today, Bajito Onda prints prison art on everything. The organization started with clothing, but the newest canvas is temporary tattoos.

One day, a local printer recognized his car. Del drives a 1990 Pontiac Firebird, covered from top to bottom, side to side, with some of the best prison art Bajito Onda has to offer.

"He told me to call (Tattoo Manufacturing), because it seemed like a perfect match," he said.

Tucson-based Tattoo Manufacturing is the largest manufacturer of temporary tattoos in the world, according to their website (www.tattoosales.com).

"It was a natural for me. It just seemed like, yeah, temporary tattoos with our art on it," he said.

Del struggled for months to talk to someone at the company. "I kept getting disappointed because they would never call me back," he said. Finally, he decided to dial the number one last time.

A woman at the front desk answered the phone—and the licensing director, Damon Safranek, just happened to be walking through the doors. Del finally got the chance to talk to someone.

"I told him that I have a brand. It's ethnic. It's Latino," Del said.

Damon asked Del to e-mail him a few images of the artwork. Next up was an appointment

"I was so excited to go—and I couldn't find the place. I got lost, and I was late for the appointment," he said. When he arrived, he was told there was not enough time to have the meeting.

About a month later, Del got up the courage to ask for another appointment.

"I was on time this time," he said. "They allowed me an hour meeting, and we were there for three hours. They were like, 'Wow! Real art!'"

That led to a licensing agreement. The temporary tattoos were placed in vending machines and became top seller. Now, people can buy them online.

Over the years, Del said, he's found it difficult to find anyone willing to fund Bajito Onda's mission, receiving only occasional corporate or private donations. And he doesn't know how to write grants.

Since moving to Tucson, the foundation's funds have been low. "Right now, I can't help anybody and everybody," he said.

The people he helps now, he helps personally. "Our plan is to use Tattoo Manufacturing to make money to fund the foundation," he said. He hopes that the Bajito Onda brand will expand to fund bigger and better programs—and therefore help many more people.

Del boasted that he's only just begun. "Every day is just beautiful," he said. "If you're not in prison, and you're not ill, it's just a wonderful thing."