Truth, Justice and the American Way: Victor Toro

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“There is no way the average police officer can understand the complexities of what it means to be a Latino immigrant in New York City today,” says Victor Toro. He has plenty to say about the police because they’ve been trying to shut down La Peña, the Bronx community space Toro founded 15 years ago for migrants from Latin America.

Like 24-year-old Humberto, who earns $300 a week working for a grocer in midtown. After a 12-hour shift, Humberto and his friends have no place to chill. Latin nightclubs don’t cater to their musical tastes–heavy metal, rancheras, hip hop. They’re often denied entrance anyway. “People come to the U.S. because of economic and political hardships in their home countries, but when they get here and ask for help, most community institutions are closed by the time people get home from their jobs,” observes Toro. “There has to be a place where people can feel free to rejoice and be political at the same time.”

Tucked behind the parking lots of Lincoln Hospital, La Peña appears to be a rusty auto-body parts garage. But inside lies a haven. La Peña is filled with pockets of people–some admiring art dangling from the ceilings, others perusing Latin American newspapers. Older patrons share a bottle of Chilean red and stories of work, politics and life, while youngsters wait for a Mexican band to hit the stage. One recent evening featured both a strategy session for a deli workers’ strike and preparation for an International Women’s Day event. On weekends, families from Mexico and El Salvador host parties.

But police see something different: They have determined that the activities at La Peña pose a threat to the neighborhood. After September 11, Toro received a letter from the 40th Precinct stating that La Peña was one of 10 organizations in the South Bronx under the scope of police intelligence, and indicating concern with the group’s “potentially threatening content.” (Precinct officials did not return calls from City Limits.)

On three occasions last fall, plainclothes officers entered La Peña and shut it down. “All the police see are young Mexican men dressed in black attending a heavy metal party in the Bronx, and they do not comprehend that such a thing is possible,” contends Toro. In all, the cops have issued more than 50 summonses for loitering, inadequate lighting, even noise pollution (the closest residences are nearly five blocks away). In March, La Peña was padlocked for unpaid fines; It reopened once a judge threw the charges out.

Toro believes he’s being singled out for political reasons. Some protesters of February’s World Economic Forum passed through La Peña, and the center has also staged a rally in response to the police killing of Anthony Baez. Then there’s Toro’s own history as a founding member of Chile’s revolutionary MIR party. After helping win election for socialist Salvador Allende, Toro was commissioned to reappropriate assets from foreign banks and Chilean landholders.

Toro, now 61, hasn’t wavered from his ideals. “Most of us leave our countries because of poor economies and repressive governments,” he says. “But when we get here we realize that the promise of making it comes with a price, and no one should be stripped of their humanity just to make a living.”