24 Jul / Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker by Julian Voloj, illustrated by Claudia Ahlering, introduction by Jeff Chang
Given that gang violence, unfortunately, makes for all-too-familiar headlines, the story of a gang truce is truly noteworthy news to be lauded and emulated. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, New York’s Bronx was both a haven for poor ethnic communities pushed out of Manhattan, and a battleground for gangs fighting for turf.
Born in Puerto Rico and raised in the Bronx via Greenwich Village, Benjy Melendez began gang life early “to have protection.” Eventually he would found and lead the Ghetto Brothers, one of the largest, most influential gangs with 2,000 members in just the Bronx, with membership that spread to New Jersey, Connecticut, and beyond. They proudly wore the garbage can emblem on their backs, which “symbolized the dilapidated conditions in our environment, the terrible conditions of living in the South Bronx.”
When “Black Benjie,” a Ghetto Brother member, was shot and killed in December 1971 while attempting to deliver a message of peace to a rival gang, the Bronx could have imploded. Instead, Melendez set in motion what would become known as the Hoe Avenue Peace Meeting, an unprecedented event that finally brought a careful, steady truce to the Bronx. What was once violent energy would somehow morph into music and creative mayhem, giving birth to Hip-Hop and easing the dangerous divides between factions.
Melendez eventually left gang life entirely, although not before losing his wife and children to frustration and abandonment. He discovered his Jewish roots, even after attending Sunday mass throughout his childhood. His family, he learns after his father’s death, were descendants of Spanish Jews expelled from their country in the 15th century; he’s surprised (readers, too!) to learn the centuries-old connection of the word ‘ghetto’ to his own heritage.
New York photojournalist Julian Voloj and German artist Claudia Ahlering’s contemporary collaboration provides new generations the opportunity to experience and understand how to broker peace. That Melendez is hip (-hop), has lived on both sides of the law, is still alive to tell the tale, makes him a different sort of icon for today’s questioning youth. Almost-half-a-century doesn’t seem to have made us particularly less violent – the hope is we’ve at least become smarter by learning and adapting the work of visionary leaders like Melendez. And sooner than later, we can make peace our own.
Readers: Young Adult, Adult