Once and Future Kings

Not so long ago the infamous Latin Kings ruled Miami's gangland streets. Now their missionaries are bringing a new message.

Ernesto and Hector tote black Bic pens and yellow legal pads in their car trunk so they can file monthly reports to New York about potential inductees and their hangouts. When Hector was stuck in a Greyhound bus station en route to Miami, he was forced to send a message on white paper. "Forgive my letter not made of King colors," he was obliged by Latin Kings etiquette to write after the salutation, "but yellow paper was not avalabbel."

The two young Kings carry the new teachings in a bible they wrote by hand with guidance from their New York mentors, on gold paper bound in black-foil wrapping paper covers. The chapter titled "The Knowledge" begins this way: "You feel in your heart 'whats my stinking life worth?' You got no girl who dont play you for your money to truely love you. You dont know who your dad is or he hates you if you do. You know theres a bullet for you only question is when it hits. And we say, brother, your sad secret heart is rite cos nothing is so hard to find as love. Heres what the new Nation gives you to keep strong your heart even in death -- amor del rey. 10 yrs from now we'll be a force even the USA prez must rekon with much less the cops. If you are dead for justice by then, kids in gold and black will ponte to your foto and say -- cos of this man, this King I am treeted with respect by the rich, live in grace and am loved even tho my skin is brown." Their bible also contains job applications, to be distributed in Miami, for positions in the new, improved nation. (Requirements listed for "Enforcer of Democrasy" include "knowledge of semi-automatic weapons, shanks and 45 wpm typing.")

To be recognized as a gang by other Latin King city chapters, Miami's Latin Kings recruiters must enlist fourteen men who, as Ernesto puts it, "are willing to die for peace and Latin majesty." Fourteen is Kingism's magic number, symbolizing the power of Christ, the disciples, and another mysterious King of Kings, whose coming is predicted in the Latin Kings' bible. His traits seem to mirror those of Malcolm X: a keen, self-taught intellect, courage, and a charisma so commanding that white power brokers will feel inferior and alarmed.

Ernesto describes a Latin Kings prayer meeting to the terrified quarter-popping teens: "We kneel in a circle and ask the force of the King of Kings -- it's a power like ESP for Latins -- to protect us and give us answers to gang and society-type problems. We talk over stuff from our life, like getting a brother off drugs or not knowing how to read. We teach about women, how to know a real queen who'll love you good."

Hormonal curiosity momentarily bumps fear off the boys' faces. "You assholes probably spend every dime the same day you rob it," Ernesto sneers. "That's why you sitting in this shit. We have a secret reason for saving our money together." At this Hector holds out a photo framed in yellow cardboard. "This is the church we'll build, where, if you do something brave, we do a ceremony your queens can watch. We'll have teachers there for peewees too scared of gangs to go to schools."

The boys lean forward to examine the picture of a cavernous room draped in saffron silk and featuring a shiny black piano, all overlooking a pool shaded by flowering trees twined with ivy. It is Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago music room, clipped from People magazine. Sometimes Ernesto and Hector use Jon Secada's living room cut from the Spanish-language magazine AHola! The pictures in the pitch may vary but the dream is always the same. "What I'm saying is, you got no future five minutes before I came," Ernesto continues as one boy gingerly touches the photograph. "Join us. Maybe you got something."

Ernesto Mora ("It's one of my real names that got no APBs on it," he says, brandishing five sets of fake IDs bearing different names) was four years old and asleep on a cot just a few feet from the closet where police in a Connecticut city found his mother shot through the head. His father was charged with the shooting but skipped bail, never to be seen again. Ernesto and his kid brother Luis were tossed from relatives to people who just needed things done: laundry for a dozen washed and hung, methamphetamine trotted off to a corner drop. Ernesto's caretakers pinned his name to his shirt so even the stupidest drug courier could find him.

Soon the little boys became escape artists. They would map out flight paths two minutes after they stepped through anyone's door, then spent nights straining to detect telltale sounds. Children whimpering in nearby rooms, certain phrases shouted in disputes over drugs, silence after a heart-stopping scream -- they climbed out windows, slid off roofs, and ran through streets, even in winter. When snow soaked their sneakers, they hobbled across ice, holding each other up like crippled old men till they found a 24-hour liquor store or phone booth. "You can sleep in a booth curled up one at a time," Ernesto remembers. "Get so cold, your bones don't forget. But that ain't so hard. The hardest, scaredest, coldest fucking feeling is trapped with no getaway."

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