Youngest elected official in NYC history credits historic rise to Latino upbringing

SOUTH BRONX (WABC) -- Though not even old enough to run for president, Ritchie Torres is already a historic figure in New York politics. Currently a New York City Councilman, the 32-year-old just won the primary to represent his South Bronx district in the U.S. House of Representatives.

This is old hat for Torres, who became the youngest elected official in New York City history when he won his council seat in 2013.

"But seven years before then, I was at the lowest point in my life," Torres said, speaking to Eyewitness News from Ciccarone Park in the South Bronx, where he used to play as a kid. "I was struggling with depression. I had dropped out of college. There were moments when I thought of taking my own life because I felt the world around me had collapsed."

Afro-Latino, young, gay, and born in poverty, Torres doesn't conform to the typical image of the stodgy, old lawmaker. He says the decision to enter politics stemmed from his poor upbringing in Bronx public housing and the influence of his family's Hispanic roots.

"I am the product of wise Latinas, strong Puerto Rican women, my mother, and my grandmother," Torres said. "I was raised by a single mother who had to raise three children on minimum wage, which in the 1990s was $4.25 an hour. So whether it's housing or food insecurity, poverty, or inequality, the struggles of the South Bronx are not academic to me. These are struggles I've lived in my own life."

At age 24, Torres described having a moment of clarity.

"I said to myself, rather than complain, why not become the change that I wish to see? Why not run for public office?"

Against all odds, he won the election for City Council in 2013. Since stepping into the role in 2014, Torres' primary focus has been the issue closest to his heart: public housing. He's exposed the dangers of lead paint contamination, secured millions for public housing complexes in the Bronx, and investigated what he calls, "slumlords," including presidential advisor Jared Kushner.

Through it all, he hasn't lost focus on the seismic shift in politics he represents.

"For the first time, many people are beginning to see a new generation of leadership that is every bit as diverse of America itself, coming not from places of privilege, but places of struggle."

Torres also acknowledges he, "stands on the shoulders of giants," when it comes to the Bronx's history of Latino leaders, including Herman Badillo, Bobby Garcia, and Jose Serrano, whom he hopes to replace in Washington.

"When Jose Serrano became a member of Congress, I was three years old. So I recognize that I'm continuing a tradition that's much greater and older than myself. I have big shoes to fill."

And Torres hopes his story, while specific to his heritage and upbringing, finds universal appeal with voters.

"My story is the story of the Bronx. It's a story of struggle. But it's also a story of overcoming. And that's the story of America."

To hear more amazing stories of community leaders and heroes in our area, join ABC7 in celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month.
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