A Long Climb Back From the Brink

Drug-dealing and street life consumed teen until a near-fatal attack changed him

HARRY RIVERA is on his bike pedaling hard with skinny legs through the streets of the South End. Watch him flash by, and you're sure he's a high-energy 15- or 16-year-old Latino kid racing home after school. Yes and no, for several reasons.

First, Harry just turned 18 and recently graduated from high school. He is enormously grateful just to be alive. "I seen people die - young kids, drug dealers, drug users shooting people, robbing people," he says of his recent past in this part of Boston where exuberant Latino life is overshadowed by severe social problems.

"You learn from it," says Harry about the days and nights he says he earned hundreds of dollars selling drugs and watching lives disappear in violence. "You say, 'Is that going to be me in a couple of years? Am I going to do something like that? He speaks in a flat, quiet voice followed seconds later by a pizza-sized grin that says, "Hey, it's over, I'm alive!"

Second, when he was deep into street life at 14, Harry was stabbed three times with a rusty knife in a drug dispute. He woke up in the hospital, staring at the ceiling and growing smarter by the minute.

"It was scary," he says now, seated one afternoon two weeks ago in the office of Eddie Ortega, a streetworker at the Blackstone Community School. "I thought I was going to die, but I thank God I'm here, and I want to stay here until I see my kid grow up."

Third, and most important, Harry is going to be a father in six months. He says of his girlfriend, "I got her pregnant, so I have to take the responsibility. She's a great person. I love her a lot. She wants a boy, but either way I'll take what I get and love it just the same.... This is going to be a new generation coming up for blacks and Latinos, so we have to give all the love we can give, and give the baby everything it needs."

On one level the raw, disturbing life Harry has seen and done in 17 short years is the product of what sociologists would call a brew of high-risk elements: born in the ghetto of Latino and black heritage; living in the projects with a single mother on welfare; dealing drugs (he says he never used them); unemployed; and a soon-to-be teenage father in no hurry to get married.

On another level there is no discounting the spirit and determination of this boy/man who was the class clown in school and known as "Cheerios." He says, laughing, "That's me, oat-bran color and everything is cool."

BEHIND Harry's humor, though, is the reality of what he believes based on his experience. "You can walk in any direction," he says, "and get drugs or a gun. People you wouldn't think would sell drugs are selling drugs. There is no solution to the violence, except in each person, and that's not going to happen all at once."

He says his mother used to worry so much about him. "She'd take me to the hospital for a blood test, but it always came out clear. She knew I sold drugs. She'd tell me, 'Don't do it no more.' But I was hot-headed. I wouldn't listen."

Harry's father left his mother when Harry was five and died several years ago in another state. "It was tough for my mother," says Harry now; "I learned the facts of life on my own."

In the hospital, Harry started to listen to a community worker sent by Harry's older brother. "At times I would cry at night," Harry says, "and ask 'When is it going to end? If drugs are going to bring me these problems, I think it's time to leave before I lose my life.

Out of the hospital, Harry went to the community worker who got him a temporary job cleaning buildings. "He talked to me the day he hired me," says Harry. " 'Your head is coming back,' he told me, 'Now try to keep it on your shoulders.' He was like a father to me."

Harry also credits his girlfriend, Stephanie, who lives in nearby Dorchester, with helping him. "She changed me a lot," he says. "I had a street attitude, yelling all the time and cussing, and she'd ask me why I was doing it. She's the one who pumps me up now, gets me going."

And Eddie Ortega has been there for him, too. Dynamic, and filled with enthusiasm and street savvy, Eddie is a streetworker employed by the city of Boston. He works out of the Blackstone Community School, a battered brick building attached to a public school that serves as a recreation center for the community.

"Harry was just a kid hanging around," says Eddie, "and I got him involved in a lot of activities - basketball, a singing group - and he and I took a swimming class together. I tell the kids they can achieve anything they want. People look at a Latino kid and say, 'He can't do this.' I say, 'Hey, listen, you can do anything. Be proud of that.

Two blocks from Blackstone is Villa Victoria, an open cluster of dozens of modern three-story brick town houses shaped around a plaza and courtyards. It is the center of the community. On a hot summer afternoon, the Latino world is out in full bloom: kids play on the sidewalks, music booms from radios, rich cooking smells waft from windows. Young men play basketball, while others sit on doorsteps. Harry lives in Mandela, another project a mile or so away.

Walking through the plaza with Eddie and Harry, Eddie offers a running commentary on something that is getting closer and closer to Harry: fatherhood. "A lot of it is peer pressure just to have sex," he says, offering some insights into male teenage attitudes. "Four or five guys standing around talking about sex and getting hyped and they don't realize the consequences," he says. "I tell them you can't expect to make a lot of babies and get away with it."

On one corner there is a gathering of young mothers and little babies in strollers. Eddie says, "See, I told you they'd be here." These young women meet just about every day with their babies to talk and be seen. "Sometimes the fathers will come around," says Eddie, "but not too often."

Eddie knows there are cultural forces at work, mainly a pervasive acceptance here for teenage girls to have babies, married or not. There are other kinds of pressures, subtle and not-so-subtle.

LATER, Harry explains how his situation evolved. "My mother would love to see me have a son or daughter," he says, "because everybody else is having one in my family, and I'm the only one left to get married. Stephanie is very happy. She's been wanting to do this. We started going out a few years ago. She'll be 18 in September."

Another streetworker from Blackstone is Dana Weiss, who works with many teenaged pregnant girls. "At least twice a week a girl comes to me who is recently pregnant," she says. "Most of the girls are fiercely independent. They will do what they have to do to take care of their baby, and if they happen to have an amicable relationship with the father, so much the better. But it's not necessarily part of the package to stay together with the father when they have a baby."

From society's perspective, the problem is that most of the mothers get welfare payments from the state. "Welfare tracks the fathers for support," says Dana, "because they say, 'Why should the state pay so much welfare when the fathers should help support the children?' "

Asked if any of his teachers in school or school counselors advised against having a baby at a young age, Harry responds, "A lot of my teachers said to wait, but other people said it's a great thing to do because we don't know how long we're going to live, you know? I'm happy to be a father. Everything is going right for me now, and we're really happy together."

His immediate plans are to attend a training program at a local college to become a paramedic, and later maybe a policeman. For now, he volunteers to help with kids at several playgrounds, setting up programs, and spends a lot of time with Stephanie.

"You want to hear one of my rap songs?" he says, sitting in a chair in Eddie's office. In that staccato beat of rap chanted everywhere, he fires away:

When I was a young boy, admiring the bad boys, cops and robbers were playing with real toys.

This was no game, living in the fast lane, watching all the brothers going insane.

But they was no punks, and never got junk, standing on the corner selling all that damn junk.

But as they grew up and always got caught up killing the person, and then got skeeded up [high on drugs].

They was no joke and never went broke. Sooner or later they gunna get smoked.

But that's not for me because I'm a cool brother, fella. Let me tell you now, man, it's living hell in the ghetto.

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