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.

But what occurs in Lummus Park, along the north bank of the Miami River, blasts their mildly hopeful mood to smithereens. Ernesto is tracing the trajectory of Tone's philosophical development -- from that of self-interested gangbanger to peacemaker and civic leader -- to six young men bearing the tattoos of defunct gangs. Only one of them is drunk, which seems a nice change until he steps forward, unzips his pants, and urinates on the full length of Ernesto's freshly laundered black trousers. It happens so fast there's a motionless moment when everyone wonders whether it's a hallucination. Once it's clear that Ernesto is soaking, the onlookers are compelled to some reaction. Too scared to laugh, too keyed up to stay quiet, they begin howling. They throw back their heads and, wide-eyed, yelp like coyotes.

Ernesto reaches in his pocket. There's a flash as he sends his brass knuckles crashing into the side of the drunk's head. The man falls screaming to the ground. Hector hustles Ernesto to the car. The smell is so awful they stop at a gas station and buy an entire 36-count carton of pine-shaped car air fresheners. "Was that motherfucker half horse to piss a stink this bad?" Ernesto bellows as he slaps the little green trees all over the dash and rearview mirror. "I hate this stinking motherfucking city that stinks as much as this motherfucker's piss! Why didn't you let me kill that puta?" he demands, transferring his rage to Hector. The frazzled men scream at each other as the car screeches around corners. (The deodorant trees bob merrily against the windows, ceiling, and armrests, exuding scent. The car now smells like a forest primeval -- that some guy has peed in.) The shouting match continues up the steps and into their house as Ernesto shoves Hector, rummaging in their ice chest for lunch, out of his way.

That tears it. Hector hurls a mango at his friend. The orange fleshy pulp splatters across the wall. "Are you crazy? Wasting our fucking food!" Ernesto yells. He grabs Hector by the shirt, but just as they're about to pummel each other, the anger evaporates. They clap each other briefly on the shoulder. "Sorry, man. You did exactly what was right," Ernesto mumbles.

Hector cleans up the pulverized mango. They depend on each other as much as lifeboat survivors would. Hatred is a luxury they can't afford. Their sixth week in Miami ends on such a depressing note that they forgo their reports to New York.

A knock on the door the following Friday at noon changes everything. Ernesto and Hector exchange a puzzled look. They have scheduled yet another Latin Kings orientation, this one on a Monday night near the beach behind the Delano Hotel. A wannabe could be dropping by to ask for a ride, but it would be the first time that had happened. Hector puts his hand to his shoulder holster as Ernesto opens the door.

A man of about 30 with a desperate, almost crazed expression stands there with a young boy at his side, maybe six years old. "You're looking for men," he gasps. "I was once one of you here in Miami." He shoots out his arm to reveal the crowned-heart tattoo. "And I need your help." He scoots the boy inside.

Hector stands slightly behind the man, very watchful, hand still on his gun butt. Ernesto's eyes never leave the man's face. "I don't expect you to get me out of my trouble," the man says. He rakes a hand through his sweat-slick hair, trying to cobble together a dignified mien for his plea. "I'm a dead man for what I done. There been no Latin Kings here for years worth shit. I been working for other gangs. I stole from a gangster supposed to go to prison. And his PD copped a plea. He's not gonna take money or sorry from me. This is my son. I want him out of Miami. I want him with people who ain't down with no gang to raise him. You say you're the Kings what helps everyone. Prove it. Help the boy of a dead man."

For a second, Ernesto looks helplessly at his cell phone. "I need to know more," he says cautiously. "Your name. The name of the guy who'll drop you."

The man hesitates, then steps forward and whispers in Ernesto's ear. Recognition flits across Ernesto's face. "I know the name since I got here," he says grimly. "You were a damn fool to steal from him."

"Jesus Christ! Motherfuck! I fucking know that!" the man explodes. "I also knows you guys ain't got shit to show for the time you been here. My boy has nothing to do with this. You want your name to get respect around, this'll do it -- that you helped the son of a dead man get a home. Even the gangster what drops me will respect that. He respects gangsters what looks out for their families."

Ernesto nods, agreeing but unsure. The man twists the front of his black shirt, almost sobbing: "You want Miami to know the Kings take care of their own, then do some shit instead of standing there in fucking stone. Who gives a shit about praying to amor del rey if you can't help a dead man's son? You want the hero word around? You gotta know one fucking family that ain't with no gang that'll take my son. There's lots of families that do this just so's little kids won't be in gangs or group homes."

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