On the Level

Part thug, part street fighter, Rene Martinez flattens his opponents. Can his punch save him from himself?

Soon, a Medley Police cruiser, its lights flashing and siren blaring, pulled up behind the Buick. The driver gunned the engine. The speedometer topped out at 85 miles per hour. The needle was past that mark. Martinez wasn't wearing a seat belt.

At an intersection, another car ran a stop sign and smashed into the Buick's passenger side. The sound of grinding metal and the smell of smoldering auto fluids filled the air. Rene flew through the windshield.

His crumpled, unconscious body came to rest on the pavement. Blood seeped from a huge gash on the left side of his face. Both femurs were crushed. For more than ten days, Rene was in a coma. Doctors at Jackson Memorial Hospital's Ryder Trauma Center told his mother, Ileana Vasquez, that her son had a one in 20 chance of survival.

Spanish-language TV celebrity Ana Polo and Martinez's mom watch his most recent back-yard fight.
C. Stiles
Spanish-language TV celebrity Ana Polo and Martinez's mom watch his most recent back-yard fight.
Martinez credits his daughter Aliah's birth for saving his life.
C. Stiles
Martinez credits his daughter Aliah's birth for saving his life.

"My conscience ate at me the entire time he was in a coma," Vasquez recalls. "What had I done wrong to put my son in the place he was in?"

Twenty-two years later, Vasquez sits at a table inside a Homestead country club, recounting the traumatic accident that dogged her and her son's lives. A middle-age woman with large round brown eyes and shoulder-length straight raven hair, she speaks in a soft measured voice. "I came from a strict Cuban family," she says. "I didn't want the same for my son."

In 1961, when she was 5 years old, Vasquez, her parents, and her older sister fled Fidel Castro's revolution. They settled into a brownstone in the Bronx. Her parents sent her to St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Raymond's School for Girls. She graduated at age 16, the same year she met her first husband, Rene Martinez Sr. He was ten years older than she and suave. "A mutual friend gave him my number," she says. "He called me and I agreed to go out with him." Soon after the first date, Martinez proposed and she accepted. "My parents were going through a bitter divorce," she explains. "I wanted to get out of my house. And back then, a young girl was expected to get married and start a family."

In the mid-'70s, around the time Rene Jr. was born, the couple left the Big Apple for Hialeah. From that moment, Vasquez recalls, the marriage began to unravel. "We were very much in love," she says. "But Rene's father was a very insecure man because his mother had abandoned him when he was a young child. My husband could not share my love with Rene. He took out his frustration on our son."

Rene Sr. would verbally and physically abuse the boy, she says, adding that his father almost pulled junior's arm out of its socket one time. (Rene Sr. was killed in a car accident a decade ago.) In 1978, when Rene was 5 years old, his parents divorced. A 22-year-old single mom, Vasquez worked a full-time job during the day and attended class at Miami-Dade Community College at night. Three years later, she purchased a two-bedroom house near Kinloch Park on NW Fourth Street at 47th Avenue.

Vasquez's sister joined her in Miami and the siblings opened two video rental stores in West Miami-Dade. Vasquez began to party hard, making little time for her son and often leaving him with his paternal grandmother. "My priorities were all wrong," she acknowledges. "I did not discipline him."

That mistake haunted her after Rene was nearly killed in the Medley car accident. "I fell into a depression," she says. "There is no worse feeling than a mother who is powerless to save her son."

During the four months Rene was hospitalized, Vasquez lost her house and was forced to close one of the video stores. She converted a storage room at the other shop into living quarters. "I made myself a little apartment," she explains. "That is what Rene came home to."

Eventually, they closed the other video store and moved to Coconut Grove. Rene became a thug. He skipped school. He vandalized walls with graffiti, stole cars, and fought. Oh, how he fought. "His explanation was that he wasn't going to let anyone look at him hard," Vasquez says.

In adversity, the single mom turned to God, regularly attending Sunday mass at St. John Neumann's in South Miami-Dade. There she met the Prayer Warriors, a group of elderly Catholic women who led prayer groups for the church's parishioners.

Sometimes the Prayer Warriors would gather around Rene's bed when he wasn't home and ask God for help. "One time, Rene did not come home for a week," she recalls. "I went to pray with the ladies from the church, and one of them reassured me I would see him soon. That afternoon, he was waiting for me on the front porch."

Divine intervention didn't always save the young man. When Rene was 17 years old, on Christmas Eve 1990, Vasquez received another call from Jackson Memorial's emergency room. Earlier that evening, he and three friends had attended a Little Havana party and argued with a guest. "Pretty soon we were surrounded by all his boys," he remembers. "Some of them had baseball bats."

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