JC at Riverside Park

Leaving the Latin Kings and Making a New Life: JC’s Story

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When I saw Little Havana resident JC working at a Little Havana park the other day, I was thrilled. The devoted family man seemed right at home in his job assisting kids and families at the park’s recreation facilities.

JC grew up in East Little Havana. He shared part of his life story with me at a local restaurant, where I interviewed him about seven years ago.

As a kid, he’d sit outside and listen to home games at the nearby Orange Bowl, now the site of Marlins Park.

JC: “When the crowd cheered I knew we scored, and when I heard the collective moan I knew someone scored against us.”

As JC grew up, he fell into a life with a different kind of game and a different kind of score: gang life. He was a member of the Latin Kings, one of the most legendary gangs active in Little Havana from the 1970s through the 1990s.

Early Years in East Little Havana

His father, an alcoholic, often arrived home drunk and beat his mother … when he did return home. JC became accustomed to the violence and to endless moves from one apartment to another, including four different apartments on a single block. His Cuban mother did her best to give him guidance and support, sometimes with the help of her sister.

One of JC’s first childhood homes was The Barlington Hotel, a hub for Cubans who’d arrived in the ’60s. He felt a sense of community among the men wearing guayaberas and T-shirts. He doesn’t remember anyone wearing shorts or tank tops back then.

JC: “The rooms were tiny, with small sinks. Down on the first floor was a cantina that served cooked food. My aunt used to wash clothes for the old Cuban men out of that little sink and would charge one dollar to wash and iron. My mother helped out too.”

During his early childhood years, JC stayed out of trouble for the most part, thanks to the help of a watchful community. He remembers breaking a window on his way to Jose Marti Park — a playful dare.

JC: “But on the way back, all the old folks that saw me break it were waiting for me and they would break my ass all the way home! And they would have my mother’s name, my mother’s phone, so there was a sense of community, where we took care of all.”

The 1980s: A Turning Point

Little Havana was changing, however, as was the rest of Miami. One of the biggest racial uprisings in the U.S. erupted in 1980 in the black neighborhoods of Liberty City and Overtown; Overtown sits on the border of Little Havana. JC remembers the bridges between Little Havana and Overtown rising up so as to prevent the violence from spilling over into Little Havana.

[NOTE: See this documentary on Arthur McDuffie Riots]

Racial tensions remained high, says JC. In an attempt to integrate schools, children in Overtown were bussed to some Little Havana schools and some Little Havana children were bussed to schools in Overtown. Children and youth outside their home communities sometimes felt like they were in danger zones.

JC, who attended Booker T. Washington Junior High School in Overtown, remembers getting into a fight nearly every day.

JC: “I had to fight my way to the bus. If not, I would be left behind by the school bus, and I would have to run all the way to the bridge so I would not be beat up by the black kids.”

1980 was also the year of the Mariel Boatlift, which brought thousands of newcomers from Cuba, some of whom were released from Cuban jails, prisons and mental institutions. Meanwhile, Little Havana homes and apartment buildings were already packed with Immigrants and refugees from Central America fleeing the violence in their home countries. Miami, and specifically Little Havana, did not have enough housing or support systems in place to accommodate these new residents.

The New Wave ’80s were years depicted by TV shows like Miami Vice, which peeked behind the facade of gleaming cars, sexy women and beaches at sunset to reveal a world of cocaine, guns, violence … and gangs. Some gangs had even existed in the late 1970s, but in the 1980s they flourished.

Entering the Gang

In 1985, JC’s mother died.

JC: “It was me against the world.”

His aunt, who was in her 70s and who’d never had children, now had the task of raising 15-year-old JC in a neighborhood that was increasingly dangerous.

JC joined the Latin Kings the same year.

“You had to defend yourself! That was one reason I joined a gang in 85. Looking at in hindsight, some kids lack the discipline at home, and they go to gangs and they find it. It fills a hole, the attention you’re not getting at home … You might get your ass kicked during it, but it’s tough love I guess, and some kids like that, need it, unfortunately. For me, it was a sense of belonging. If I got into a fight, I supposedly had another 30 to 40 kids who had my back.”

JC says the Latin Kings gang was born in Chicago in the 1950s. According to the Florida Department of Corrections, it is the oldest Latino street gang in Chicago. The gang grew in response to major African-American gangs like The Blackstone Rangers and The Black Disciples.

The Latin Kings gang was brought down to Miami by “Chino” from Chicago, says JC, and was run by a man nicknamed Power. Its territory extended from Jose Marti Park to 17th Avenue, from NW 3rd Street to the Roads. “Junior Gangs” underneath the Latin Kings had their own sub-territories: The 2nd Street Boys from NW. Side-by-Side. 2nd Street.

By 19, JC was already married with two sons, but the gang gave him a sense of financial and physical security. The security was an illusion, however, because at 19 he was also charged with strong-arm robbery and aggravated assault. Although he was found not guilty by the courts, he served 18 months in jail while awaiting trial.

The Two Police Officers Who Changed His Life

JC’s journey down a path of crime was interrupted by Sergeant Joseph (Joe) Rimondi, now with the Florida Attorney General’s Office, and the late Detective David Ortiz.

JC: “Sergeant Rimondi used to sit outside my house and lock me up if he had to lock me up, and pick me out of the park and tell me I had to go home. I would tell him, ‘Oh no, I’m just on my way to get milk for the baby,’ and he would tell me, ‘All right, get in the car, I’m driving you.'”

The two officers persisted in reaching out to JC. One of the most emotional moments in his life, he says, took place during Thanksgiving week when he was working at Central Cash & Carry.

JC: “I received a call at work, my then-wife calls me, and she says ‘You know, I have the Sergeant and a couple of detectives here at the house.’ Immediately I start thinking, what did I do, did I get caught up for something?’ And she goes, ‘They brought us Thanksgiving dinner.’ And I broke down on the phone, and to me, it let me know that, maybe I was fighting against the wrong people all the time. I owe them my life. I’m here because of the time that they took.”

Both officers gave him a sense of dignity and never looked down on him, building enough trust that JC decided to walk away from the gang and its criminal activities. For the next five years he took classes to further his education and worked at local businesses.

Then, he received a surprise phone call from Sergeant Rimondi. Rimondi wanted JC to lead a new program called The Non-Violence Program, which had first been developed in Sweden and had attracted the attention of Miami’s then Chief of Police, Donald Warshaw. Through the program, JC became a motivational speaker, reaching out to kids at schools and after-school programs and teaching them alternatives to violence. He was interviewed on TV stations and traveled to different cities across Florida and even to Sweden, as part of the project. Each year he spoke to many thousands of youth in the state of Florida.

When Rimondi headed Miami’s Police Athletic League (PAL), he hired JC as his program coordinator and supervisor of staff for PAL’s Youth Athletic Aide staff. Currently, JC works for the City of Miami’s Parks and Recreation department.

Around him, the neighborhood has changed in many ways, too. The gangs are pretty much gone. Residents and small business owners have been organizing themselves into local associations, rolling up their sleeves to pick up trash, plant trees, tutor kids, teach skills.

JC volunteering

A Man Changes, A Neighborhood Changes

East Little Havana’s Riverside Park, once a major drug distribution point and the site where a three-year-old child was killed in a gang shooting, is now filled with local children and youth enjoying all its amenities. It hosts softball, basketball and soccer games … even bike polo. The park even has a colorful Boundless Playground, designed so kids with and without disabilities can have fun while building essential skills.

JC volunteers as a baseball and softball umpire at local parks — and now he has a job at one of our our parks. He loves having the opportunity to motivate and coach neighborhood kids.

As a father himself, JC says he strives to raise his children with the values he learned from his mother (“Respect the elderly. Don’t hurt children. Don’t hurt women.”), and with the patience, respect and principles of non-violence he learned from Detective Ortiz and Sergeant Joe Rimondi. He still calls Rimondi on Father’s Day.

He is grateful that the Little Havana his children know is a far more peaceful environment than the one he remembers from his youth. JC longs to cultivate an even stronger sense of community and shared responsibility for the neighborhood and the children who call it home.

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