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.

The sole survivors of the tidal wave are wan children who clutch at their throats, for the storm has torn away their voices. The King allows his wife to feed each child a cake decorated with the crown and heart symbols. "She gave the Latins' voices back so's they'd stay alive, but the punishment is no one listens to them," Hector explains. "The King bible says our hearts stay black from sadness till we come together and work to make the world pure again."

The final picture shows a muscular man in crisply ironed cholos and a gold-and-black plaid shirt descending a mountain. Lightning flashes from a tornado cloud that swirls behind him, and his dark hair is whipped by the wind. His face is obscured. "It's the King of Kings," Hector continues. "We don't know what he looks like, but he brings the Second Storm and sweeps us up to where we can rule the cities again. It ain't about killing whites or blacks. We ain't with that. They're allowed to help us. They can be second-in-commands. Do I think the long-ago stuff is real? I can't say. But I'll believe it 'cause the rest is the Latins' truer story than Jesus."

Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad preached the mythology of Yacub to convicts because it was a more explicit message of racial empowerment than anything he found in the Koran. Yacub was a demon who created white devils to enslave blacks for thousands of years until blacks united as a race to fight for their dignity. Muhammad's message offered earthly power as a reward for maintaining the moral high ground. And like the Second Storm in Hector's mural, it provided the semblance of a common past to men who've never before felt close enough to anyone to share a history.

But if Kingism ever brings disenfranchised Latins together, will it be able to take them anywhere? The Nation of Islam's example could be instructive. In the late Eighties, Louis Farrakhan was dismissed as a marginal influence because of his anti-Semitic remarks, his friendship with Moammar Gadhafi, the resentment many blacks still harbored over his early vitriolic rhetoric against Malcolm X. The Muslims honed their message, focusing on anti-drug campaigns, self-help, and unification across class lines.

Farrakhan's 1995 Million Man March proved how fast a leader's base can expand. The Wellington Group, a Howard University think tank, found that 43 percent of the men attending the march earned more than $50,000 per year; 18 percent earned more than $75,000. And the event won praise from real movers and shakers such as Colin Powell (who condemned Farrakhan's racist remarks while supporting the marchers) and Spike Lee.

"Men with big jobs in white shirts and ties will be paying respect to us soon, even though I never actually knew a man who wore one," Ernesto says as he and Hector try to hook a hot plate into a battered generator; the abandoned Little Havana house they hide in for now has no electricity. Sparks shoot from the socket, nicking their fingers. "I know that where we're starting from looks like not much of Miami. You're thinking what a long way we have to go. That's okay. Anyone ever walked hell knows a few miles in the real world ain't that much more to go."

The year after his brother's murder, Ernesto was cursed with bad luck. "No matter what I did, I didn't get deaded," he recalls. "And I did a lot." The Brooklyn Kings he lived with spent their nights on burglaries and the occasional drive-by. ("I can't remember the reason why we done a single one 'cause the reasons were such boring fuckshit.") Ernesto developed a drug habit that outstripped Luis's. "I freebased and smoked so much shit, I lived in the sweats," he says. He lay on the floor on a mattress, his skin hot and soaked, and his heart hammering so, he wondered why it didn't rip through his chest. "I'd feel scared this is me going dead -- then right before I pass out, it's like a door shutting on the fear. And I'd think, Good, at least I get out of this life. But I always woke up."

He first saw Isabela one morning when his shirt was drenched with beer from an all-night binge. She stood across the street from him, calm and clean, talking to her little cousin. Around her was the usual street play of cursing and dealing. "She never took her eyes off the kid, smiling, leaning her head to listen closer. She took his hand and walked off very strong, her head up. I found out the boy was scared to walk to school past some homeless, so she took him," Ernesto says. "She moved to the projects to raise six cousins when her aunt went to rehab -- a girl who takes care of people and herself, without leaning on anyone. And she was doing better than I did with my one brother."

Isabela was finishing high school while waitressing in a Brooklyn Heights restaurant. One day Ernesto saw his cronies follow her to the subway, harassing her. He ran across the street and shouted, "Leave this lady alone or I kick ass one asshole a time!" He grins. They ran. Along with her thanks, Isabela gave her champion an assessment. "You wear their colors, even though you can act better than what's on your back," she said, looking Ernesto in the eye. "Gangbangers do whatever the strongest man they see does. You're strong enough to stand up to them, but not to walk away, so tomorrow and the day after that, they'll still be hurting ladies."

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