It’s November 1 as I write this, the Catholic Church’s Feast of All Saints. I’m sitting in Chula Vista’s Lauderbach Park, looking from the vacant community center to the homeless encampment on the hillock and thinking of the old saw about how the difference between a sinner and a saint is that the saint keeps getting back up after he falls down. I’m thinking of Catholic wag G.K. Chesterton’s line about how if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. I’m thinking of a story that I never wrote, because to tell it properly would have taken more time than I could give it. And how its subject, Ruben Torres, deserves better. But if I fell down on him before, I’m getting back up now.
In January of this year, Ruben Torres was named California’s Citizen of the Month in honor of his various charitable outreaches, many of them organized through his nonprofit, Love Thy Neighbor. “Love Thy Neighbor started in 2010 when I was helping to make a documentary on human trafficking,” says Torres. “My younger brother knew a guy named Cheyo who had been deported from LA. He was involved in some stuff he shouldn’t have been involved in, but he had information, so we filmed him from the neck down and did an interview in Tijuana. Afterwards, I said, ‘Hey, what can I bring you?’ He asked for a basketball — ‘Not for me, for the kids. There’s a court down here, but nobody uses it. I’ve done so much bad in my life. If you could just help me do this one good thing.’ People would look at a guy like him and think he’s already too far off the deep end, but he planted a seed.”
The same goes for Enrique Rivera, Torres’ friend from way back who spent 22 years in Soledad State Prison. “I’ve had family and friends in and out of jail and prison,” says Torres, “and I was trying to figure out how to do more for them. Enrique told me, ‘There are a ton of artists in here. I could send you some stuff.’ I put on a ton of art shows, and I started mixing prison art in with the other art. Mayor Salas saw Enrique’s painting of Santana playing guitar and said, ‘I want it.’ Now it’s hanging on her wall. I got Santana singer Andy Vargas to visit her.” He also got Vargas to talk to Chula Vista high schoolers about the music business — “not just how to make a song, but how to copyright it, how to market it.” When Torres was that age, “you could either sell drugs, join a gang, or do music. Everybody down here has a hustle. We might as well teach people how to do it legitimately.”
Back then, Torres chose music — his involvement with his friends’ band P.O.D. is what got him started in film, which is how he wound up interviewing Cheyo. Today, he is still very much a believer in what art can do for people, professionally and otherwise. “I judge art shows at Soledad now. The warden came up to me and said, ‘When you write and tell them there’s a show coming up, they get hyped on it. They’re in their cells working on stuff, and they’re not causing trouble. It’s therapy: their brains are working differently. It’s an escape.’” Or a path forward: Torres recently gave 25 students a chance to work with actor Jose Yenque’s Arts for a Better Tomorrow. “He works with orphans in TJ every weekend, kids who are transitioning to the world from the orphanage. He doesn’t want them to take the wrong path, and he tells them there’s no ‘Woe is me;’ He gives them roles to give them another place to take their mind, to build up who they are. It’s like cognitive therapy, but it doesn’t feel like therapy.” It feels like acting.
Yenque hails from Brooklyn; he took an interest in Tijuana and San Diego while he was down here filming the 2000 drug picture Traffic. But for most of Torres’ celebrity assistants, this is where they’re from. “They get what I’m doing because I’m in their neighborhood.” One of his recent outreaches involved bringing WWE superstar and former Montgomery High classmate Rey Mysterio back to Chula Vista for an essay context and bike giveaway. “We never had anybody of influence come to our schools when I was a student,” says Torres, “and I think people would rather hear from people of influence than someone like myself. The hook was using creative writing to create change: we asked 36 kids to write an essay on what superpower they would want and how they would use it to change the community.” The contest was aimed at third-graders, but a second-grader won. “She didn’t use regular sized paper; she used legal paper, and she wrote on both sides, in Spanish. Everything was so detailed. She said, ‘To build community, we need to take responsibility for our community. And that community should be responsible for those in the community.’ She articulated all of it.”
Which brings me back to Lauderbach Park. The same month he was honored by the State of California, Torres received word from the city of Chula Vista that he was getting custody of that vacant community center to serve as a headquarters for his arts and culture campaigns. Councilman Mike Diaz had approached him about partnering with the city’s cultural arts commission. There was Measure P money for repairs. “I want to turn this into a place that the community can call their own,” Torres told me at the time. He envisioned youth diversion into all manner of healthy channels: a coffee cart to teach business skills, a long, flat wall dedicated to legal tagging, cooking classes that would both feed local restaurants and teach kids the industry…a recording studio…a farmer’s market… “It’s the opportunity to make the impact of a lifetime.”
It hasn’t happened yet. But I hope it does.