"My family had been involved in gangs since the 1970s," Cabral told ET. "In this society you have to belong to something I feel, and all we have in the neighborhood is a gang. My father figures were all gang members."
Cabral's real life mirrors the character he plays -- raised by a single mom, in a gang by 13, addicted to crack at 15 and locked up by 20.
"I ended up getting five years, and it was an attempted murder," Cabral said. "I got caught up in it and I believe that if I didn't change my life at that moment, or at least strive for something, that I could have just ended up dead on the streets."
Cabral turned to Homeboy Industries to help change his life around. The social services organization takes high-risk former gang members and gives them training, jobs and hope. It was there that he was discovered for a role on Southland in 2009.
"They were looking for authentic guys from the street," Cabral said. "They invited us to Warner Bros. Studios. It was like 10 of us that went and they were like, 'Just read the lines.' And we read the lines and three of us booked it and I was one of the guys. That was like the spark. Like, 'Wow! I could do this?'"
Other gigs quickly followed. Cabral has been featured in NBC's Chicago Fire, HBO's Luck and Bruno Mars' "Grenade" music video.
While he's looking at a bright future that doesn't mean that Cabral is forgetting his past.