In New York’s Bronx district, an extraordinary transformation is taking place among the gang communities of the city’s most deprived ghettos. A key player in this remarkable change is Hector Torres, a 42-year-old brought up in New York by Puerto Rican parents. In 1992 he experienced a life-changing event.

Despite a secure family, Torres had turned to gang life, at 15 years of age becoming the president of a Latino outfit called ‘The Bachelors’. Expelled from several schools, he managed to get his diploma and later a grant to attend college. However, having spent the entire grant on drugs, he quit college, embarking on a new venture as a drug-dealer. Soon Torres made and spent a fortune, but, unable to cope with addictions to drink and drugs,
abandoned his dealing, left the area, and trained as an electrical engineer.

One January afternoon in 1992, Torres had no option but to return to the Bronx. His brother’s daughter had been kidnapped, and it was hoped her uncle’s talent for sorting out disputes would help free the child. He did not get the chance, however, for he was shot through the chest and stomach
and taken to the Lincoln Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

Three days later Torres woke to hear doctors talking about how they had saved his life. At 2am, he woke again, to find a young Latin intern standing over his bed. “He held up my sneakers, still covered in blood, and he says: ‘This blood, it’s all come out of you. You were gushing blood all over the operating room. Those doctors didn’t save you, man. Nobody saved you. That was a miracle.’ Apparently, this intern had stayed in there with me and the machine started blipping. All of a sudden, there was a heartbeat, and that’s when they started ripping me open and fighting to save me. They were ready to put the time on the certificate.”

Several months later, Torres returned to the hospital to thank the intern, but no-one could identify him, and the staff suggested he must have been hallucinating. Torres explained: “I don’t know if it was the morphine or if something spiritual happened to me that night, but ever since then I was changed. When you get in touch with your own mortality, you start questioning a lot of things. I asked myself why it happened, what I was being shown. I started praying hard and found myself in the midst of the ‘Latin Kings’ “. He also discovered that the day he died and miraculously came back to life was 6 January – which is ‘Kings Day’, the most important day in the Latin Kings calendar.

After being shot Torres realized that he didn’t want to die in vain. “I wanted to do something for my brothers,” he said, “so I went back to the neighbourhood, working with kids in the Bronx, saying: ‘I am a former gang member, but listen, don’t be like me’ “. He soon began enlisting other ex-gang members to talk to young people all over the city, and decided to approach the leader of the infamous gang ‘The Latin Kings’. Torres believed that if they could change direction, begin to improve their community, then anyone could.

Torres approached the gang’s leader, King Tone, requesting a “spiritual conversation”. They met on a park bench, and regarded each other in silence for a long time. King Tone then told Torres: “I’ve had a vision where I was told a man would come to help me. Are you that man?”

Torres replied that he did not know but “maybe I can help you find that man.” One week later Torres arranged a radio interview in which King Tone outlined a new vision. Afterwards he received offers of free premises and support from a social action group, and the transformation began. In 1995, Professor David Brotherton, an English academic living in the US who has studied this movement, attended a meeting in a Harlem church.

He recalls: “…The meeting lasted five hours, and there must have been 700 ‘Kings’ and ‘Queens’ there. Most had probably never finished high school, but they listened to every speech, transfixed. It was clear to me that this was no longer a gang, but a political movement. It was light years ahead of anything I had seen; it oozed self-confidence, empowerment and a commitment to liberation and emancipation of the poor working-classes. Until that moment, I believed, like everyone else, that America had essentially been de-politicized. Suddenly, I realized I was wrong.”

Source: The Guardian, UK

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