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All the King's Horses and All the King's Men...
on January 17, 2004
"I just want to know why me, why...me!" Reymundo Sanchez wails during an explosive argument with his estranged sister about how, as a child, he suffered years of abuse at the hands of their mother. That question, which occurs about two-thirds of the way through this sorrowful memoir, haunts every page of this book, and indeed seems to have been the theme of much of Mr. Sanchez's scarred, young life.
Born in 1963 to a 16-year-old mother and a 74-year-old father in the hilltop village of Cayey, Puerto Rico, Sanchez (a nom de guerre) survived being raped and beaten by his 18-year-old cousin at age five. After his father died, his mother quickly remarried, decamped Puerto Rico, and moved the family to Chicago. There, Sanchez suffered another wave of physical and psychological torment from his mother and stepfather (and, subsequently, a third father figure named "Pedro") while his sisters seemed to escape much, if not all, of the mistreatment. At 13, Sanchez found himself alone on the mean streets of Chicago, after his mother cast him out of the family home.
By the mid-1970s, the Latin Kings had established themselves as a highly organized megagang in Chicago, and their mantra "Amor de Rey" ("King Love") seemed to hold the promise of a better, if not love-filled existence for Sanchez, who quickly joined. To his dismay, though, he found only further violence and ruinous relationships in his newly adopted "family." Still, as a gang member, there were other castaways with whom he could relate, and although he hated what was required of him to maintain his membership, at least he felt a sense of belonging.
Eventually, even the brotherhood of the Kings proved to be an illusion, and for the next ten blood-splattered years, Sanchez existed at the fringes of society on the unkindness of strangers and on a steady diet of alcohol, cocaine, and loveless sex. In the name of the Latin Kings, he also returned to society much of the brutality that had been inflicted upon him, by participating in the usual gang fare of beatings, shootings, and other acts of violence and revenge.
Most of these events are chronicled in Sanchez's first book, My Bloody Life: The Making of a Latin King (Chicago Review Press, 2000), a savage record of a young immigrant's cold life on the streets, whose hopeful finale had Sanchez quitting the Latin Kings and thinking ahead to college.
In this tortured sequel, Sanchez lets us know that that is not how things turned out.
Like Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part III, Sanchez proved no match for the lure of la familia, and was pulled back into the thick of the Latin Kings" lucrative drug trade, despite numerous attempts to stay out. He acknowledges that trying to give up gang life "is like trying to quit an addiction."
After he was arrested and convicted on a drug trafficking charge, the young gangbanger spent two years in a state prison, which, he says, turned out to be his salvation. Sanchez reports that it was a turning point in his life, and freely admits that, paradoxically, it was his membership in the Latin Kings that afforded him that singular opportunity. He used his time inside to educate himself, to write, and to begin reflecting on all that happened in his life -- this time from an adult perspective, and in relative seclusion.
In a series of emotional hemorrhages, Sanchez resurrects his tangled past, in particular, several ill-starred sexual relationships he had with women he mistook for people who cared, in part, one would imagine, out of a desperate need to relieve his own immense suffering, to feel loved, and to feel, finally, a sense of belonging to someone, anyone. Only in a coda tacked on at the end of the book does he reveal perhaps the real source of his impulsive behavior, and it's as eye-opening as it is troubling.
While the first half of Once a King focuses on Sanchez's misdeeds as a "restored" member of the Latin Kings, the second half centers around his life-redeeming but ultimately ill-fated relationship with a discontented feminist named Marilyn. Marilyn seems to be the first person in Sanchez's life who challenges his intellect, and whom he can trust with the knowledge of his horrific past. It is therefore devastating to Sanchez when she uses his past against him in a heated and ultimately violent exchange that alters their relationship forever. As Sanchez recalls: "The one and only person I had ever opened up to about that experience with my cousin had just used my own words to destroy me."
But destroy him it didn't. In a final chapter titled "Here and Now," Sanchez seems to have achieved another level of self-awareness and acceptance, even if he still seems disquieted about the past. Although his family's lifelong indifference toward him still haunts him, he has come to terms with it.
As a sequel to My Bloody Life, Once a King is best understood in the context of the earlier book. Like its predecessor, it is a somber, intense pathography, but offers a somewhat deeper insight into its author's tender psyche.
Sanchez's narrative style is effortless and evocative; its power lies in the naked honesty with which he chronicles his ultimate deliverance from the past. There are times when it seems he is revealing too much about himself; at other times, it's hard not to want to reach through the page, extract him from the situation he's in, and give him a life-affirming hug. Though the prose has its flaws ("Hearing the name made me mentally reminisce about the old days") and occasional cliches ("I had been robbed of my childhood and young adulthood"), Sanchez hits his mark so often, and with such resonance and candor, that it is easy to forgive him the occasional miss. --Jeff Evans, author of Undoing Time: American Prisoners in Their Own Words