Freddy Torres lived a life of redemption

I received news the other day that Freddy Torres had died.

His best friend, Chuck Valencia, said he died of cancer in San Bernardino, his wife and three children at his side.

But right up until the time he could do it no more, Valencia said, Freddy was still preaching to the street, still telling the bad guys that God was their salvation.

He walked in the drug-infested parks after dark and down the alleys of no return; he spoke at churches, schools and prisons.

He stood before the young and the dispossessed, his face solemn, his eyes dark with remembered anguish, and he would say, "Look at me." And then he would talk about his life.

Gang members listened because they were still afraid of the muscular, tattooed man whose reputation haunted those areas of Southern California that he had terrorized. Children listened because his life, once full of hate and agony, was a place no kid would ever want to go.

Freddy was telling them that once he was the baddest of the bad, more violent than any man who ever strode the barrios of East L.A.

He was El Feo, the ugly one, a fury of fists and knives on the street and in prison.

But one miraculous afternoon he fell to his knees for the first time in his life and vowed to change. That was 30 years ago.

Since then he has been preaching a doctrine of atonement, of making up for the pain he had caused, evangelizing the possibility that even the worst of them could turn their lives around.

He was living proof that redemption was possible.

"He was a good man," his widow, Belinda, said. "We all knew about what he had been. He used his own history to point our children in the right direction. He used himself to help them." A son is in college, and a son and daughter are in high school intending to go to college.

Valencia recalled an incident in Freddy's preaching years: "He would go to this park in San Diego at night with crazies everywhere; guys walking around with bottles of wine or shooting up in the bathroom. He would set up a microphone and began preaching."

One night an especially dangerous man walked toward him, his intentions unclear. Freddy saw him but never stopped preaching, telling him, as he once told a group of prisoners, "We are all in a prison and only God can free us." The man stood before him for a moment and then dropped to his knees crying. Freddy embraced him.

I wrote about him 30 years ago. He was one of seven brothers, a gang in themselves, whose very presence in the barrio sent tremors of fear through anyone who crossed their path. Freddy was raised on the street. At 8 he was smoking dope. At 10 he was popping downers. At 13 he was shooting up. He was stabbed with a pencil when he was 12. Other stabbings followed over the years, with weapons that ranged from knives to broken bottles to prison-made "shanks."

"I went into prison with one intention," he said to me back then -- "killing and then dying. I just didn't care anymore."

The miracle occurred when he was at the home of a girlfriend who, in a jealous rage, stabbed him repeatedly. To Freddy, the memory is vivid: "I saw all the blood and ran, saying to myself this is it, man. When am I going to die?" He bolted into his house and to a mirror.

"There wasn't a mark on me," he said, his eyes filling with tears. "No blood, no scars, nothing. It was heavy, man . . . heavy."

And that night Freddy Torres, El Feo, prayed to be different. Shortly thereafter he began preaching on the street, slipping back into the old life only once. Drunk and angry, he started a fight but stopped suddenly, his fist in the air, poised to strike and said to the victim who lay on the ground under him, "You know, man, I'm sorry. . . . I'm really sorry."

He never returned to violence after that. The vato loco who had terrorized the barrio entered Bible college and then embarked on a career of redemption. He married Belinda 17 years ago and worked hard to ensure that his own children would never become what he had been; and he worked hard to help clean up the streets that he had bloodied.

He said to me once, "No one wanted me, man. No one loved me. Do you know what that's like?" He wasn't trying to excuse the life he had led. He wasn't even trying to explain it. He was a man talking to himself, peering deeply into his own damaged soul, trying to see through the darkness that had made him El Feo.

It doesn't really matter whether you believe in God or the kind of miracle that turned Freddy around. He believed, and it was that belief that not only changed his life but that made the change all the more significant to those children of despair who had heard his compelling message: "Look at me."


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