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 temporary headquarters of the Miami's Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation is a big white house in Little Havana, trimmed in fragments of pink and blue paint, with crushed cornices and a buckling porch. In the house, Hector and Ernesto use flashlights after dark to find the sleeping bags they've stitched together out of sheets. As they prepare for bed, they dutifully recite their prayer to the King of Kings. Before all that, though, Ernesto has a ritual of his own. He enters a room that faces the setting sun, lifts a floorboard, and retrieves two photographs he keeps there. One is a Polaroid a teacher took of Luis, sporting a black eye, displaying his reading club certificate. The other is a senior yearbook photo of a girl with long black braids and gray eyes. "Yeah, like the Queen in Hector's picture," Ernesto murmurs. "I told him to draw her like that. But I never showed him this."

He pores over the photos of two people he'll never see again. "It's like, maybe I'll see a clue to -- I don't know," he waves the thought off with his arm. "It's just, there's this dream I have some nights. Me and Isabela and Luis are outside, someplace better than I've ever seen. We're under a tree with fancy pink roses on it. Luis is telling a joke. Isabela takes my hand, laughing. We're drinking cold water out of clean glasses, all happy. I don't know what the dream means" -- he holds the pictures close as the light fades -- "just sometimes ... I have it."

Ernesto and Hector are success stories for Tone's rehab programs, but coming to Miami with his message was their own idea. They ask advice from Tone's lieutenants, who are donating only some money to help pay the security deposit on an apartment they will move into in a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, they survive alone and use their generator and a brick back-yard barbecue for cooking. They have two battery-powered circulating fans to ruffle the steamy air.

A Dade contractor who has a former King in his family gave them their own portable toilet. They wash up at gas stations and shower at a trailer park in Little Havana. When they need money, the same man who loaned them the toilet throws lucrative construction work their way. Their favorite supermarket is La Mia because Hector adores its gigantic sign, with its painting of a bosomy female shopper in a tight pink dress. "She's a goddess," he swoons.

In addition to their monthly reports, they call their mentors every other week by cell phone but have never spoken directly with Tone, who is unaware of their activities. "He has so much to take care of in New York, and cops and enemies to deal with, and people to help," Hector says. They get advice from what Ernesto terms "community outreach and nation-building experts," men in Tone's circle who know how to plan rallies and construct rudimentary Rolodexes of community activists. Since no one's sure whether the cops listen in, their long-distance sessions sound abbreviated and cryptic. The Miami missionaries are, for the most, completely alone.

Four days each week they recruit, rising shortly after dawn and taking meticulous care with their appearance. As in most big cities, Miami police track gang members by filling out cards when they see a man throwing gang signs or flashing colors. Cops fill in the blanks after Usual occupation and Nickname with the man's cooperation. They can take detailed physical descriptions by checking off the tiny boxes under categories ranging from Facial hair ("clean-shaven, full beard, Fu Manchu, goatee, lower lip, unshaven") to Speech ("accent, rapid, slow, loud, soft, lisps, nasal, raspy, stutter, other"). Ernesto was so proud when a Miami officer checked "calm," "neat," and "cocky" under the Demeanor column that the patrolman gave him the card as a souvenir. Hector and Ernesto feel they are outstripping their disheveled pasts with freshly washed, permanent-press, mostly gold and black clothes and clean-cut good looks.

But their work is exasperating. A great look, it seems, is not enough to reach the Miami crowd. When they drive their car around to gather a dozen men who expressed interest in attending one of their ad hoc Saturday afternoon orientations, only three actually appear at their designated corners. Two had thought there was going to be free booze. The third is a forlorn, unbathed young junkie with red-rimmed eyes, who begs the guys for methadone. "I know you Kings have ways of getting it," he says.

Ernesto thinks the junkie is the best bet as a convert. "He's the only one who wants a big life change," he says. Ernesto puts his arm hesitantly around the addict's thin shoulders and promises to take him to a treatment program and attend some meetings with him. (His New York mentor, who helped Ernesto prepare, has a list of Miami programs using all sorts of methods and funding, broken down by neighborhood.)

In the past month they've never had a bigger turnout than four for the nine meetings they've put together. In Riverside Park, Ernesto and Hector can't even coax a verbal commitment out of the men they approach. In a Little Havana apartment complex, they explain to skeptics how the Kings hope to straighten out enough gangbangers to get one block to see them as heroes. The unemployed audience decides that sitting in a parking lot with paper-bagged beers is more fulfilling, though two men in their twenties approach Hector later and ask whether, if they join, they'll learn how to read. Exhausted, Hector agrees to try to teach them.

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