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 thin little boy stands silently, a battered paper bag pressed to his chest, as his father rants in counterpoint to Ernesto's careful questions. The child's huge brown eyes fasten on a female visitor in the room. He walks over to her as the drama rages on and whispers, "You want to help me with my reading? I brung my books, but I need help with words." He holds up the sack. Inside are some cardboard-cover Golden Books: The Little Engine That Could, Poky Little Puppy, The Gingerbread Man. The child and the woman sit in the window seat as Ernesto makes calls and the father weeps. The boy moves his finger along the tale of the Gingerbread Man's escape. "I run! I run! Please don't let me melt!" he whispers.

By nightfall, with the help of a New York social activist and ally of the Kings, Ernesto has talked to an out-of-state family that is already raising one child of a gangbanger who vanished from the earth. They will take another. The husband, who never gangbanged, lost his favorite cousin in gang warfare and views child-rearing as a moral mission. Ernesto and Hector buy a Greyhound bus ticket for the boy, who will stay with his elderly, ill grandmother until the departure date. "Who's gonna hold the ticket for him till Monday?" Hector inquires, surveying the wrecked father doubtfully. The little boy holds out his paper bag to accept it. "You won't lose it?" Hector asks.

"No. I'm real careful," the child replies. He takes his father's hand and briefly leans his forehead against it.

Ernesto comes to the beach at sunset, though the Monday gathering isn't scheduled until after dark. He loves the moment when Ocean Drive's neon signs first etch icy blue words into the milky, tropical sky. Hector is using the car to fetch five guys who'd said they wanted to come but have no car and would find the bus daunting. "If we get five, that's breaking our record," he says. When Hector arrives, all five youths are with him, sober and in tidy clothes. The addict who approached Ernesto about methadone appears under his own steam. While Ernesto is still reveling in the attendance surprise, four additional men -- two Nicaraguans, a Salvadoran, and a Puerto Rican -- to whom he'd preached at a construction site climb the stairs to the promenade. "Amor del rey," Ernesto greets them. The men regard him for a moment.

"We heard what you Latin Kings did for the boy," one finally replies. "So we're here to give some respect. And listen."

A cool ocean breeze sweeps the beach where the men gather to form a circle on the sand. As Ernesto recites the Latin Kings' prayer, he drinks in the Technicolor lights of a city whose glorious or terrible future he's determined to begin.

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