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Rep. Ritchie Torres feels ‘the weight of history’ on his shoulders

Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y., could “feel the weight of history” on his shoulders as the freshman member of Congress entered the House floor for the first time Jan. 3. The office where Rep. John F. Kennedy once sat now has Torres’ name on it.

“It was surreal for me to go to my office for the first time,” Torres said. “I never thought I would embark on a journey that would take me from public housing in the Bronx to the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C.”

Torres, 32, made history as the first gay Afro Latino person elected to Congress. The son of a Black mother and a Puerto Rican father, he represents New York’s 15th congressional district, located entirely within the Bronx, where he was born and raised. His district, the most Democratic one in the country, is 64 percent Latino and 30 percent Black.

“I was raised by a single mother who raised three children on minimum wage,” he said. “The South Bronx is full of single mothers like mine who have struggled, sacrificed and suffered so that their children can have a better life than they did.”

“My rise to Congress belongs as much to my mother as it does to me,” Torres said.

‘A larger story’
Torres steps into office during one of the most challenging times in recent U.S. history — more than 427,000 people have been killed by the coronavirus pandemic and over 25 million have been infected by the virus. His community has been hit hard; since the beginning of the pandemic, Covid-19 hospitalizations and death rates have been consistently high in the Bronx, the poorest congressional district in the country.

“Covid-19 is more than a public health crisis,” he said. “It tells a larger story about the deeper inequalities and injustices of American society — the digital divide, a lack of access to fresh food, lack of income, housing insecurity, severe overcrowding, lack of access to health care, pre-existing conditions — all of these are manifestations of systemic racism.”

In his first week in Washington, D.C., tackling the effects of the pandemic would soon compete with another crisis.

Just a few days after Torres was sworn into office, a violent mob of then-President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol. The rioters, many of them aligned with white supremacist groups and ideals, effectively paused a ceremonial event Jan. 6 meant to affirm that then-President elect Joe Biden had won the November election.

“The insurrection is not only a siege on the capital. It’s a siege on the 117th Congress, the most diverse Congress in the history of the United States,” Torres said. “It’s a siege on multiracial, multiethnic democracy.”

Torres joined lawmakers in the House who voted to impeach Trump.

“A year ago, if you had said to me that I would become a member of Congress during an infectious disease outbreak, that I would witness a violent assault on the Capitol during the Electoral College vote count and that I would vote to impeach Donald Trump, I would have said, ‘That sounds like quite the movie,’” he said.

From ‘lowest point’ to youngest council member
Torres was born in 1988, just five minutes after his twin brother. His mother named him after the late Mexican American singer Ritchie Valens following the release of the 1987 film “La Bamba.”

“She named my brother after the Reuben sandwich, and me after Ritchie Valens. You can infer who’s the favorite son,” Torres said jokingly.

His mother raised the twins and their sister in a small New York City Housing Authority apartment, which Torres said had mold, leaks, lead, “and without consistent heat and hot water in the winter.”

Before making history in Congress, Torres became the youngest member of the New York City Council at age 25 and the first openly gay candidate to be elected to legislative office in the Bronx. As a council member, he helped secure a $3 billion Federal Emergency Management Agency grant after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the already-deteriorated housing authority buildings and opened the first shelter for LGBTQ young adults in the Bronx.

“What’s remarkable is that seven years before that, I was at the lowest point in my life,” he said.

Torres had recently dropped out of college after struggling with depression, substance abuse and grief after the loss of his best friend, who died of an opioid overdose. “There were moments when I thought of taking my own life because the world around me had collapsed,” he said.

He found an opportunity to channel his interests around affordable housing issues while working in the office of City Council member Jimmy Vacca. Torres later ran and was elected to the City Council in 2013. “Even in your moments of greatest darkness, never lose hope,” he said. “For me, that’s the lesson learned from my life.”

The ‘blessing and burden’
The pandemic has reinforced Torres’ central mission “to break the cycle of racially concentrated poverty,” starting with tackling decades of federal disinvestment in the housing authority, which houses more than 400,000 low-income New Yorkers.

While his political career is mostly shaped by his experience growing up in public housing, he also campaigned on job creation initiatives, addressing health disparities and public school segregation, and expanding services for the elderly, youth and immigrants.

“We’ve seen in America, the unraveling of the social safety net,” Torres said, “and the communities that pay the heaviest price are communities of color, which have been left behind by the federal government and which have been hit hardest by Covid-19.”

He acknowledges there’s a lot to tackle.

“Representation is as much a blessing as it is a burden,” he said. “I’m grateful for the blessing and burden of public service; I promised my constituents that I would work my heart out for them.”

“I was careful to tell them I’m not a miracle worker, I cannot pluck a magic wand out of thin air and magically solve every problem, but I am a worker. I am a fighter,” he said.

Torres recently partnered with Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., who is also of Puerto Rican heritage, to urge the Biden administration to release disaster recovery funds to Puerto Rico, and with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., to support essential workers on a weeklong strike to demand higher wages.

A ‘passing of the torch’
Torres managed to ascend through the ranks of the New York City Council and prevail in a crowded primary last summer to replace Rep. José Serrano, a 16-term Democrat from the South Bronx, who announced his retirement in 2019 after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

Serrano’s departure was “a big deal,” Ed García Conde, a longtime Bronx resident and activist, said. “A lot of people that I know, including myself, were concerned about losing a Puerto Rican member of Congress with all that seniority who could be a voice for the Puerto Rican community — for us, visibility and representation continue to matter.”

“The South Bronx has been a dumping ground for a lot of pollution,” whether it’s because of truck traffic or factories, said García Conde, who founded the hyperlocal news site Welcome2TheBronx. The district has high rates of asthma and other health issues, making environmental justice a key issue, he said.

During his campaign, Torres raised significantly more money than at least nine other of his opponents combined. Unlike some of his rivals, he didn’t restrict himself from accepting money from donors with connections to real estate and others corporate interests, a move that drew skepticism among some progressive Democrats. Two major LGBTQ political groups, Equality PAC and The Victory Fund, also fundraised on his behalf in an effort to give him an edge over opponent Ruben Díaz Sr., who has a history of anti-gay remarks.

Torres said that while he considers himself “my own person with my own priorities and experiences, it’s not lost on me that I am continuing half a century of tradition of Latino leadership in the South Bronx — from Herman Badillo to Bob García, to José Serrano, to myself.” He said, “When José Serrano first entered the United States Congress, I was only two. So, the fact that I’m succeeding him at age 32, represents a genuine passing of the torch.”

As he begins his freshman year in Congress, Torres said voters know his deep roots in the community, as well as his story.

“No one has handed me anything on a silver platter,” he said. “I’ve had to fight for everything that I have in my life.”