"You don't know what that means to me, that's unbelievable," Trejo tells ET ahead of the non-profit's 50-year anniversary celebration on Friday. "I got clean in 1968. I got out of the penitentiary in 1969. In 1970 they started the first rehab here in the valley…They had to close that so they started CRI-Help."
Since 1971, CRI-Help has helped more than 45,000 people overcome drug and alcohol dependency. The Machete star has worked with them every step of the way. In and out of jail during the '60s, the Chicano actor served time in San Quentin State Prison for a number of drug offenses and armed robberies until he turned his life around.
"Working the 12 steps, prayer and meditation, being with a god that I understand, and service," Trejo says of what saved him. "Every morning when I wake up I say my prayers, 'Dear Heavenly Father, let me help people today.' And that's what I do."
"I honestly believe that the good lord let our restaurants stay open because we never stopped giving food to the homeless, we never stopped feeding the nurses and doctors," he notes of his Los Angeles establishments Trejo's Tacos and Trejo's Cantina, among others. "Two of my friends found out that these two nurses were living in their cars 'cause they didn't want to go home. They couldn't go home, so they rented them a hotel here…That's the kind of people I love around me, people that can't wait to help."
Trejo will be presented the Vanguard Award by his son, Gilbert Trejo, who is seven years sober after a heroin addiction. Gilbert also went through the CRI-Help program, as did Trejo's daughter Danielle, who is going on eight years sober. The movie star credits CRI-Help for saving their lives.
"I almost lost him," he recalls, thanking his assistant Mario Castillo for helping his son realize he had a problem. "He went to a crack house with a bodyguard and the bodyguard didn't want to go in. 'Wait, wait, let's …' He goes, 'Man, screw you.' Mario ran in, grabbed my kid and yanked him out and then said, 'You're going to rehab.'
After attending a rehab program in Lake Arrowhead, Gilbert "stayed and he got clean." Danielle also was encouraged by her mother and another CRI-Help member to get treatment.
Over the years, fans have heard Trejo's stories of being in and out of prison, battling drug addiction and his meteoric rise to fame in Hollywood. During CRI-Help's 50th anniversary drive-in event, attendees will watch his story when they screen the documentary Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo.
The 2019 Brett Harvey documentary just scratches the surface of Trejo's life. It also inspired him to dig deeper into his tumultuous past and write his first memoir, Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood. Co-written by Donal Logue and set to be released July 6, Trejo calls the book "an avenue to freedom" with never-before-heard stories about his abusive home.
"All I can say is that the book was just an avenue to freedom, complete freedom, because we're only as sick as our secrets, that's it. All I did was, I just let go of lot of secrets that I had never discussed with anybody, my mom, my dad, that kind of stuff," he shares. "I always just centered on me, 'This is what I did.' But I didn't discuss it. It's funny because my kids' mom, Maeve, after she started reading it she says, 'Well Danny, what about your mom?' I said, 'What about her?'"
"She said, 'Well, you know.' I said, 'That's none of my business, that's her business,'" he says, elaborating. "She said, 'Why do you think you've been married four times and haven't been able to have a relationship with a woman?' I thought about it and I said, 'Wow.' Distrust, a lot of stuff came out in that book."
It's taken a lot of time and reflection for Trejo to get to where he's at. Admitting that for a long time he "was at war with God," now he couldn't be more grateful for the life he lives. And even when times get tough, he knows giving back is the only way to lift his spirits.
"When I started getting into, 'Woe is me. Poor me, look at my life.' I can go down Skid Row and just start passing out socks or passing out dollar bills or anything," he says. "You can always make yourself feel better, and you have to. When god sees fit to give you a good day, be sure you let him have his own way. Every morning I wake up, for me it's a good day. I'm 76 years old. May 16th I'll be 77, wow!"
Trejo also credits his amazing support system, friends and family for making life extra sweet, as does his work with CRI-Help.
"It's such a reward to see somebody recover... You were at the beginning of somebody's life, they're starting all over," he notes. "Whether they made it or not, it wasn't any of our business. Our business was that that day they wanted to do this and we'd move them anywhere they wanted to go…I was there from the beginning and I was blessed to have people around me that had been through CRI-Help and people around me that knew it worked."
"Right now, I know very few families that addiction hasn't touched, and especially through this pandemic," he expresses. "So many people were taking antidepressants or taking different kinds of pills, so we've had a whole influx of pill addicts. Because for a lot of people this was stressful."
He hopes the program will continue to help others in need, just like they helped him and his family. While recovery is not easy, he knows that many addicts have potential and a better life ahead. When asked what he would tell his younger self at his lowest point, he laughs and replies, "Get off this train!"
"I'm telling you, just get off this train because there's no end to it," he says. "I almost went to the gas chamber in 1968. So that was the end, that was the wake up. Because everybody, always said to me, 'You have a lot of potential.' My teachers, my parole agents, everyone. When I was waiting for the gas chamber, I thought, 'What happened to all that potential? Wait a minute.' I wanted to blame it [on others] and no, the blame is right here, I did it."
The road remains clear and steady for Trejo as he continues to give back to his community and work on exciting projects. He's hoping to spend time with his children on his 77th birthday and have a big family reunion in June, all while finding new things to keep himself busy.
"I just keep doing whatever is in front of me," Trejo, who says he doesn't have a bucket list, relays. "I think life is just a journey and it's not where you start, it's where you end. I've just been having such an amazing life ever since I got out of prison."