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.

"She said all these ideas I never had, and she says them like she's hard to break as iron. And all I could think was, She's real pretty," Ernesto recalls.

He blurted out, "Can I walk you to your stop?" She smiled. It became his new custom. They chatted to and from her subway stop about her classes and her college scholarship; he told her about Luis. After a few weeks he asked her for a date. Latin Queens on his block kept lists of items they wanted their boyfriends to buy -- TV sets, gold watches set with rubies -- each time they had sex. He knew Isabela was different from that, but he was stunned when she refused to date him because he was in a gang. He vowed to forget her, then watched her as she navigated the mean streets without him. "At night I tried to think of every bad thing -- like she's stuck up but has no money so who the fuck she think she is? -- to make myself hate her," he recalls. But her image fought stubbornly for the ground it had won.

His admiration for Isabela was not cool or dispassionate. It was annoying, disturbing, striking at the core of his personality with the nature of a challenge. She has a future, Ernesto's night thoughts ran; he had only a past. He had swagger; she had spirit. He was with a gang; she was self-reliant and self-possessed. "With no gun in her hands. She had so much," he says wistfully. "Sometimes I think she has all."

For the first time he wanted the pattern of his life broken. "She wasn't like this gang girl I been with before, where I knew what to do for every situation," he says. "There's the money situation. The 'I want to get laid' situation. The 'make me look good for my homeys.' I talked with Isabela different. No guy made her think what she didn't believe."

They resumed their conversations, though it irritated him that she didn't seem to notice he'd been absent a month. Ernesto sat with her in a park near an office complex one evening and watched men outfitted in suits and wedding rings plunging through the crowds "like safe ships with somewhere to go," he muses. "I had no pictures to think about their lives with. No one I ever knew was married. There were a couple of times when I was next to her I wanted to say, 'This is forever.' I don't know what that means, neither."

Suddenly Isabela announced she was leaving the next month for a college upstate. To Ernesto it sounded as far away as another planet. "I don't know why, but I said, 'You think you're escaping, but no one's gonna respect you,'" he says wearily. "Told her I'd been with a girl 100 times better than her and would be again. I was real mean till she stood up. She said, 'You win. I saw you as a gangster who might become a good man. You don't want me to see that, and now I don't. All I wonder is, what'd you win, Ernesto?'" She walked away for good as he sat there on the bench, longing to call her name.

Ernesto was mired in his drinking and drug cycle again when he met Hector, who'd joined the Latin Kings the year before. Hector said he kicked his heroin habit thanks to one of King Tone's "righteous talking circles," which are similar to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, complete with Kings acting as sponsors. (Hector had no one else; his parents were killed during a home invasion by rival drug dealers.)

At Ernesto's first circle meeting, Hector agreed to be the King who talked him through withdrawal, the shakes, the night sweats. When he was well enough, Ernesto (who says he'd never read a book or magazine in his life) plowed stolidly through Tone's doctrine. "There's parts I only sort of understand," he concedes, "like how we'll show Latins their lost gifts, lost voices. I never had a gift like art or singing. But Isabela was right -- I know how to stand gangsters down and make 'em listen." He shifts uneasily. "I was so sick of me, maybe I wanted anything, long as it was a change. The stuff about feeling love for lost brothers -- I don't feel it. But my King brothers say if I do it with my actions, my heart will come later."

He is a man who has lived most of his life dead cold and now studies empathy like a hard lesson. Neither Hector nor Ernesto can imagine the infinite small steps to get from where they are to a career, a safe home, or a happy marriage. What they can do is memorize and learn a regimen their bibles say is necessary to mold other men with little to lose into comrades for a lofty cause they don't fully understand. Both swear they will never abandon Kingism's recruitment mission in Miami. They have stumbled onto an addiction that, for those who've witnessed the worst humans can do, is as potent and perilous as drugs or alcohol: the role of Eternal Rescuer.

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