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For Aging Rebel, Path Leads To The Polling Booth…Rolling Up His Sleeves; Christian Tirado Strives To Help Latinos In Syracuse

For Aging Rebel, Path Leads To The Polling Booth


October 22, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

GABRIEL TORRES-RIVERA looks like an aging revolutionary in a biker's body. His beefy arms are covered with tattoos. And his past? Well, it's certainly no Hallmark card. He was a member of the Young Lords, a militant civil rights group in the 1960's. There was a murder indictment that was dismissed and a conviction for bank robbery when he was involved with the Black Liberation Army in the 70's. It led to eight years in prison.

On this sunny morning, Mr. Torres, now 57 and a sweet-faced grandfather with high blood pressure, is steeped in an enterprise at the heart of a democracy, empowering people to vote. He is not looking happy, though, as he holds a long sheet from the New York City Board of Elections, listing polling sites in the Bronx. It has a caveat. "Subject to change,'' the sheet says in big, bold letters.

"It's ridiculous," Mr. Torres says during an interview at the Community Service Society, a nonprofit organization on East 22nd Street that serves the poor. Mr. Torres, who directs the group's voter registration campaign, is worried that disadvantaged people will just go home if their polling site is suddenly changed.

"I'm not only frustrated," he says, covering his broad face in his hands. "It's just the confusion."

In an election year in which voter registration has surged, Mr. Torres is getting out the vote in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods. He is found in his cramped office, feeling achy, but he won't call it a day. He says his workload is busier than ever, even though the Oct. 8 deadline has passed to register in New York for the Nov. 2 election. He is preparing to mail more than 3,000 letters to remind potential voters of Election Day, setting up a phone bank and finding recruits to monitor the polls.

"This is my heaviest period," he says from behind a desk that is a sea of scribbled notes and Post-its.

Mr. Torres leads a voter registration drive aimed at the city's most marginalized groups: ex-felons, immigrants and low-income people. He can relate to them all. Born in Puerto Rico, he was raised by a maintenance worker and a homemaker in some of the city's meanest housing projects.

He is a Democrat, but he says the voter drive is strictly nonpartisan, and has to be, or his group's funding would be jeopardized. Not taking sides, he says, is the easy part.

"People, I've found out, have clear-cut views about what party they want to register in,'' he says. "It's ridiculous to think people are so politically ignorant."

The toughest part, he explains, is persuading people to overcome their reluctance to be involved in the political process.

"People say, 'I don't believe in that,' or 'Look at what happened in 2000,' '' Mr. Torres says. "I tell them, 'If you don't believe in voting for yourself, do you have younger brothers or sisters?' ''

Mr. Torres did not vote until he was 36. Before that, he was in prison, then barred from voting in New York because he was on parole. When he did cast his ballot, it was for Jesse Jackson for president.

"It felt great," he says, beaming. "It meant something to me to say 'I support you.' "

He would like parolees and even inmates, like those in Vermont and Maine, to have voting rights in New York. "It's a way to reintegrate them into society," he says. "You shouldn't lose your voice."

Mr. Torres is warm and gregarious. Behind him on a wall are family photographs. He lives in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx with his wife, his third, Ksisay, who is 33 and a special assistant at W magazine. They have two young children.

HIS life is a far cry from his angry 20's when he quit the Young Lords because he thought they were too nice. After he joined the Black Liberation Army, he was convicted of bank robbery and indicted along with his younger brother, Francisco, and three other men for the killing of two police officers outside a Harlem housing development in 1971. The first trial ended in a deadlocked jury and a mistrial. In a retrial, the judge dismissed the murder indictment against Mr. Torres and his brother, saying the prosecution's evidence against the two men was insufficient to send to the jury. The three other men were convicted.

"I'm not that person anymore," he says quietly. "I feel like I was a product of those times."

It is Mr. Torres who brings up the murder case with an interviewer. He says he wants to be upfront. In a gesture that seems a bit insecure during a long conversation, he frequently pulls out documents to confirm something he has said or done in the past.

After his release from prison in 1979, Mr. Torres studied education at City College and earned a law degree from the City University in 1989. He says he flunked the bar exam and never tried again. He worked as a drug rehabilitation counselor, a nightclub bouncer and a truck driver for United Way. He was collecting unemployment benefits when a friend from his Young Lords days brought him to the Community Service Society in 2000 as his associate.

So life takes peculiar trajectories, doesn't it? Mr. Torres nods. His big vexation now is that he cannot become a notary public because of his felony conviction. He pulls out a paycheck stub, pointing to what he pays in taxes. He wants to know whatever happened to second chances.

Rolling Up His Sleeves; Christian Tirado Strives To Help Latinos In Syracuse

Douglass Dowty Contributing writer

June 24, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

The Post Standard/Herald-Journal

Christian Tirado has earned twin master degrees in international politics and public administration from Syracuse University. Now he's lending his talents to the community.

The 25-year-old graduate of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Policy was born in New York City and grew up in Puerto Rico. He was exposed to plenty of instances of poverty in Spanish- speaking Latin communities.

At a Syracuse Common Council forum on June 15, Tirado presented results of a Latino poverty study he conducted in Syracuse.

But instead of just exposing the bare facts, Tirado also is rolling up his sleeves to help Syracuse's more than 7,500 Latinos. He has worked with the Spanish Action League and is a health care coordinator in the Cuban Division of the Syracuse City School District's Refugee Assistance Program.

Tirado took time to answer some questions about his passions and his outlook.

What is your favorite Latino tradition in Syracuse? The Latin American festival in August. It's a wonderful event. You get to see all of the Latino cultures, foods, music and performances.

How does being a young Latino help you understand the struggles of Latino children? I grew up in a not-so-rich family. I've seen poverty. I've seen the effects of poverty on children - living in bad conditions, in inadequate housing, with malnutrition. Getting an education is the key, the most important component to getting out of poverty. I hope to help more Latinos in that trend.

What was your most memorable experience while doing research in the community? I went to this house with a single mother and a family of three. She invited me into the house and offered me something to eat. I listened to the mother talk about not getting child care, not getting food stamps. Because she didn't speak English, she was being penalized by the system. It brought me to my senses that these single mothers really want to work. I thought how hard it was for someone who just got off the plane from the Dominican Republic to get a job. It's hard for me.

What is your favorite Latino drink? I always drink Cuba Libre (made of rum and Coke). That takes all the stress away after studying for six or seven hours.

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