I grew up in the 80’s in ENY Brooklyn… and I was really into Hip Hop Culture… in a time where graffiti and break dancing was outlawed. I was considered a hoodlum by default because of where I lived. Statistically the odds were against me, I was being raised by my grandmother Gloria Delrio (Mama)… my mom and my dad divorced when I was young and I was used to being in the streets living the life of someone at least 5 years older than me. Although I did have a strong work ethic, I had no vision for my life, no aspirations other than being “successful” but with no clear path to get me there. My high school guidance counselor Mr. Smith told me that I would not live to see 21 and school started to feel like a waste of time when the only thing adults kept telling me was to take city exams for sanitation or transit so that I can have a job with benefits that did not require an education. I will also say more than half my friends in high school
Culturally, I was lost… a far cry from the Urban Jibaro you know today. I was raised in an area where Black culture was dominant and I for a long time I suffered an identity crisis. I was a Puerto Rican who looked Caucasian and acted Black… during a time when that was NOT common. I had no concept of my cultural heritage.
On December 20th, 1986, I was walking in the South Ozone Park area of Queens with Rafael “Apache” Gonzalez when we were attacked by a group of white men. We were attacked because we were Latino, that was pretty evident because the racial slurs they used as they tried to kill us. I can still hear them calling us “spics” whenever I relive the moments that could have easily become my last. This attack was labeled by the media as the “other” Howard Beach incident. The word other stood for Latino…and the original Howard Beach Incident happened too close to where we were attacked…almost at the same time and by another group that had the same contempt for anyone who was not one of them.
It became a media circus… Rafael and I was represented by Reverend Al Sharpton early on and eventually we were visited by members of the National Congress of Puerto Rican Rights and it was then I met Richie Perez, former member of Young Lords Party. He saw injustice in our situation and offered . Although Reverend Al was very visible in the Black community, our story was not reaching the Latino community. We were invisible and our case was going no where fast. Richie and the lawyers of the congress, working pro bono took control of our case. Richie quickly networked and rallied Latino community members behind our quest for justice… before you knew it I was on TV (Visiones w/ David Diaz), was interviewed for every major newspaper including the NY Times and Ek Diario de La Prensa. I watched him closely as he talked to people, how he was able to build coalitions and build community around a cause. This was impressive to me for several reasons, the very first being that I did not have any (positive) male role models in my life and outside of my family. Aside from that, I did not clearly identify my family culture as “Puerto Rican Culture” something that people actually celebrated and promoted in the community. It was then that I was exposed to other community leaders like Panama, Gerardo Rivera, Pablo Guzman, Olguie Toro and Denise Oliver.
“Mentors are like maps when your lost, instructions before a task, a flashlight in the dark… with their time and a little heart, they lead you to a place in which you can build a path out of the darkness and into a bright future.”
– George “Urban Jibaro” Torres / Fuerza Latina Keynote, Albany NY -2008
My conversations with Richie revolved around topics concerning building community, infrastructure, human behavior and lots of analogies of struggles of other oppressed people. Richie was a proud Puerto Rican but really believed in coalition of any group of people that were oppressed in any way. As a Puerto Rican he saw it as a duty to especially help Latinos that did not have citizenship and could not have the impact on a political level that we could even though we were in many ways considered second class citizens. At the time, I did not see this as mentorship… I was simply helping the congress in appreciation for all they did trying to get justice in our case and secretly loving the concept of helping people. What I saw in Richie inspired me, 10 years, 2 kids and a divorce later to go to college in order to be the self determined Boricua Richie told me I could be. That opened doors to new opportunities, new mentors and a whole new life… right up to the moment I started righting this post.
Although in many ways I wish I could erase the horrible memories of what happened the night of my attack, I have to be thankful for having the opportunity to have met Richie Perez and share moments that would reshape my future. It was his outlook on life and justice that made me have the voice I have today. It was his example that made me proud to be Boricua and part of a community that will inspire the next generation of self determined leaders.
You have that same power… right now there are young people that need you to invest a little time to help them learn lessons in life, challenge their existing beliefs and see that there are people outside of their family that have been there, done that and have achieved success.
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If not us, who? If not now, when? Volunteer Now.
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This post is dedicated to one of my greatest mentors, the late Richie Perez, que en paz descanse.
Gracias…George Torres The Urban Jibaro
Cultivando Cultura since 1997… Social Media | Branding | Event Management Follow me on Twitter… @UrbanJibaro