Rising above: Recent high school grad turns hate crime experience into sharing, learning and teaching opportunity
What started as an evening of celebration at a Glenwood Springs restaurant last summer turned into a night that would forever change Brandon Torres’s perspective on growing up Latino in his native Colorado.
Torres was the victim of an ethnic-bias-motivated physical and verbal assault — an event which he could have allowed to weigh negatively on his senior year in high school.
For several months, it did — getting in the way of his school work, threatening his ability to graduate, haunting him in his sleep at night, keeping him from going out and socializing with friends and seriously worrying his family.
But the recent Bridges High School graduate overcame the trauma, taking the cue this past spring to turn his experience into a positive call for awareness and change in his home community.
“After experiencing hate and racism for the first time in my hometown Glenwood Springs, I was inspired to hear other people’s stories … because everyone needs to have their voice heard in these cases,” Torres said.
For his senior capstone project, Torres created a website where members of the Latino community, or anyone who has experienced racism, discrimination, hate or injustice of any kind, can share their stories.
The online forum, Comunidad Contra El Racismo — Community Against Hate and Racism — seeks to empower those who want their stories heard, as a way to raise awareness and call attention to the issue here in the Roaring Fork Valley.
That includes his own story.
“It can feel scary and stressful, so I decided to make my final high school project about this very strong and important subject that happens every day in our world,” Torres explains.
For his efforts, he was awarded a special citizenship award from his teachers at Bridges High School. He has also become actively involved with Voces Unidas de las Montañas, a newly formed organization in the Roaring Fork Valley that seeks to give voice to the Latino population on important community issues.
“I really did not think that something good was going to come out of my experience,” Torres said. “But it has, and I’ve made some really good friends and come to know some important people in the community through this.”
On Aug. 15, 2019, Torres and some friends went to Chili’s restaurant in Glenwood Springs for his 17th birthday.
Torres’s actual birthday was the day before, but he was working his regular summer job and didn’t want to take time off, so they waited a day.
Once seated, his group of about a half dozen friends were talking and joking around like they always do, in Spanish.
They soon started hearing chatter from the neighboring table of about the same number of people, telling them to “shut up.”
“It kept growing and getting louder, but we just kept ignoring it and laughing it off,” Torres said. “We weren’t causing any trouble to the establishment, or anything like that.”
After they finished eating and their waitress was taking payment, she questioned a debit card belonging to one of his friends, which happened to be a logo card for his favorite college. Torres said she asked if it was stolen.
“We thought she was just kidding around, so we laughed and continued to check out,” he added.
At some point, the waitress apparently said something to the neighboring table about the card, and that’s where things began to escalate.
“When we were leaving, this guy started to record us and telling us the cops were on the way, and we were like, ‘what the heck?’
“It escalated quickly, and they were saying things like, ‘go back to your country, f’ing Mexicans … which is weird, because most of us were born here in Colorado, including myself. I’ve always been really proud of where my family is from, but at that point I’m like, I’m not even from Mexico.”
The confrontation turned physical after Torres said he began recording a video himself, as one of the eventual defendants in the ensuing criminal case pulled away in a pickup truck. Torres said he suggested maybe they were the ones who should have the cops called on them for driving drunk.
“He (the driver of the vehicle) got out and charged at me and threw me to the ground and started punching me in the face,” Torres said.
When he fell, he hit his head on the pavement and began bleeding. That was concerning, Torres said, because he used to have seizures when he was younger.
His friend, Gerardo, intervened and pulled the man off of Torres, when another member of the party attacked Gerardo.
The scuffle was relatively short-lived, but they got the suspect vehicle’s license plate number and reported the incident to police.
The two men eventually arrested in connection with the incident, ages 22 and 30 at the time, were charged with 3rd-degree assault, a misdemeanor, and bias-motivated crimes, a felony.
The men were contacted by the PI about the incident. One declined to comment and the other did not return requests for comment. The PI generally does not name individuals convicted of misdemeanor charges.
Torres went to the hospital that night for treatment of his injuries, and to make sure the head injury hadn’t triggered other problems. Fortunately, it didn’t.
“For me, though, it was a life-changing experience, and for the worse,” Torres said.
It was also from that point forward where the Torres family and several advocates who rallied in their support felt like they were being dealt an injustice.
As victims of what they believed was clearly a hate crime, Torres and his mother, Rita, said they didn’t feel particularly supported through the ensuing criminal justice process.
“We were there for the court proceedings every single time, but we were not really informed and brought up to date on what was going on,” Rita Torres said. “We had to beg, basically [to be informed].”
What ended up on the courtroom table come spring was an agreement where the defendants each pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor assault charge only and had the felony bias crime charge dropped.
On May 14, the two men were sentenced to two years supervised probation each, and to 40 and 60 hours of community service, respectively.
“They basically admitted it in court, that they were saying racial things to my son and his friends,” Rita Torres said. “In my opinion, it was a slap on the hand, and if they believe all they did was get in a fight then I worry they’ll continue to do something similar, or worse, than what they did to my son.”
Julie Comins Pickrell co-chairs the board of English In Action, a local nonprofit working to bridge the Valley’s diverse cultures through language acquisition.
She came to know of the Torres case because Rita Torres works as a caregiver for her sister’s disabled stepdaughter.
“I was disturbed to hear that the Torres family felt continually marginalized by the people behind the legal proceedings, including the DA and the victim’s rights advocate assigned to support them,” Comins Pickrell said.
After speaking with Brandon at length in March, she said she was deeply saddened to hear what happened to him and his friends.
“The events of last August are deeply disturbing in and of themselves,” Comins Pickrell said. “But, taken in the greater context that hate crimes are on the rise nationally, especially crimes involving violence, they are even more so.
“Laws against bias-motivated crimes exist for a reason, and all people, especially our youngsters, deserve to feel safe in our communities.”
Jasmin Ramirez is program coordinator for Voces Unidas, and also works as a coordinator for the Roaring Fork Latino Network (RFLN) and is a member of the Roaring Fork School District Board of Education.
From her knowledge of the case, she said the Torres family did not feel safe or protected in the months immediately after the incident — not in the courts system, or by the police while out in the community, or even in the schools.
She and other RFLN coordinators met with the Torres family to hear more about their experience and be available to answer questions during the court proceedings.
“One thing was very clear from the beginning,” Ramirez said. “These boys and their families were traumatized, they were living in very real fear of being followed and harassed by these grown white men who had attacked them at a local restaurant on what was supposed to be a happy day.
“Somehow, these grown white men continued to have power and privilege even though they were the perpetrators,” she said. “They attacked two underage minors, and they were only given probation.”
Balancing the scales
Ninth District Attorney Jeff Cheney defended his office’s prosecution of the case, saying many factors, including input from the victims, help determine the final outcome of any criminal case.
“Our team consulted with the victims and adhered to our philosophy of hearing the victims’ out and making sure that each was respected and treated with dignity,” Cheney said.
However, factors such as the criminal history of an offender, defense arguments, the quantity and quality of admissible evidence, and presence of genuine remorse by an offender, also weigh into those decisions.
“Without commenting on these factors relative to this case, after all the factors were considered, a careful decision was made regarding the ultimate disposition,” he said.
“Our mission is to seek truth and justice, and obviously there are robust opinions about what ‘justice’ is in a particular case. I am certainly humble enough to know that sometimes we get things right and sometimes we get things wrong in another’s eyes.”
Cheney added that he hasn’t seen an uptick in the specific charge of bias-motivated crimes being brought to the attention of his office.
There’s a distinction to be made, Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario said, between bias and hate as a motivating factor in committing a crime, or whether it’s incidental to the crime.
“Sometimes we will mark an arrest case as bias, but we might not charge it,” Vallario said. “Sometimes it will be added later as an enhancer.”
“We are very frugal and cautious with that charge,” he added.
In such cases, law enforcement agencies have to consider whether someone clearly went after a person because of their ethnicity, or if something inappropriate was said in the heat of the moment.
“Anyone who targets someone strictly because of ethnicity, that’s more serious,” Vallario said.
“There is a balance, and it goes back to a person’s First Amendment rights to free speech, even if it’s controversial,” he said. “We have to determine, at what point do you cross the line.”
Cheney concurred that, beyond the more obvious cases of bias-motivated crimes, there are many cases where a derogatory term meant to denigrate someone is used.
“One is too many,” he said. “Our office believes that all persons should be treated with dignity as human beings.”
Comins Pickrell disagrees. She believes justice fell short in Torres’ case.
“This should never have been treated as a mere assault,” Comins Pickrell said. “It was not. It was a hate crime.
“And as a community, we need to send a message that we will never tolerate attacks by grown-up on kids, not for any reason, but especially not because of their skin color.”
She also believes restorative justice — where a perpetrator is required to work in a facilitated setting with victims to find understanding, and in this case, “heal systemic racism” — should have been included as part of the sentence in the case.
Torres said he was surprised at the post-incident trauma he experienced during the ensuing months as he headed into his senior year at Glenwood Springs High School.
“When school started I was really kind of messed up,” he said. “I was second-guessing, and people would invite me out, but I was afraid to go.”
Normal activities — even just joining friends to play basketball on the courts at Sayre Park, going to the movies, going out to eat … “they wouldn’t happen anymore,” he said.
Going to school every day was a struggle, and he often wore a hoodie to hide his emotions.
His school work slipped, he was having trouble sleeping, and his general mental and physical health flagged.
“We were scared, and didn’t know what was going on with him,” Rita Torres said. “I have two small kids and another teenager, and it was affecting them. It was life-changing for all of us … we didn’t know what to do.”
The school system wasn’t particularly supportive, at least at first, said Ramirez, who won election to the school board that November, after she’d become familiar with Torres’ case.
“To my knowledge, they were never contacted by school counselors in relation to this issue, and although the SRO (school resource officer) was aware of the pending court case, these boys did not feel protected at school,” she said of Torres and his friend, Gerardo.
Eventually, Torres was given the option by school counselors to finish high school at Bridges. Located in Carbondale, the district’s alternative high school serves as a safety net for students who are at risk of not graduating.
It was there that he thrived, and turned what had happened to him into an opportunity to shed light on social justice issues.
After his school transfer, Torres was far enough behind that he was advised he would need to take an extra semester and not graduate until December of this year. Instead, he turned things around quickly, with help and support from the teachers at Bridges. He completed his capstone and other requirements, and — even with the altered school year due to the coronavirus — graduated on time in May.
“I don’t regret that decision to go to Bridges at all. They were amazing, and really helped me through a lot,” Torres said.
Bridges graduation ceremony on May 29 included a special ritual in which each of the students had decorated a rock to place in the center of the ring of graduates when their name was called.
Torres had painted a U.S. flag alongside a Mexican flag on his rock, and a Frog, which is the Bridges mascot.
In a typical teenager moment, though, he forgot his rock in the rush to get to his graduation ceremony, and had to use a replacement rock with his name on it.
But the message wasn’t lost.
His English teacher, Adam Carballeira, said he immediately noticed that Torres was disenchanted when he arrived.
Carballeira cited poet Charles Bukowski in describing Torres’s transformation.
“He was right when he said, ‘what matters most is how well you walk through the fire’…
“Brandon quickly got to work,” he said. “He is a skilled writer, and he made some good friends, good grades, and worked long hours at his job.”
For his poetry and short story work, Carballeira recognized Torres as “Student of the Block.”
“Brandon exemplified the ‘fresh start’ that Bridges likes to give kids. He took advantage of every opportunity, never complained, and was an inspiration to other students, and staff … he makes me proud of our young people and gives me hope for the future.”
Call to action
Torres and his friend who was also attacked that night, Gerardo, have since been working closely with Voces Unidas, and are part of the group’s Community Response team in relation to race.
Torres was born in Aspen, and bounced back and forth between the Roaring Fork Valley and New Mexico when he was younger. When his family settled in Glenwood Springs, like a lot of the inhabitants, he considered it a little slice of paradise.
“Everything seemed to be pretty normal here,” he said. “I never really heard about crime, hate or racism. In my eyes, it was the perfect town where everyone seemed so happy.”
That night of his birthday party changed his perspective somewhat, but he believes that community spirit can still win out.
“You really never know when these kinds of things are going to happen,” Torres said. “But it does happen everyday in our world.”
That’s why he started Community Against Hate and Racism — so more people can have their voices heard. Whether it’s about discrimination and hate because of someone’s ethnicity, what language they choose to speak, what gender they are, the fact that they’re gay, “that’s why I created this (web) page,” he said.
“I didn’t have the courage to speak out until this happened to me,” Torres said. “Everybody needs to use their voice, because everyone is free, and everybody deserves rights.”