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Representative Ritchie Torres, who breaks the barrier, moved from municipal housing to the House of Representatives

Torres, the first gay Afro-Latino in Congress, serves New York’s 15th Congressional District, the country’s poorest.

When Rep. Ritchie Torres won his seat from New York’s 15th Congressional District in November, he became the first gay Black member of Congress — an honor he soon shared with Mondaire Jones, whose election in the 17th District was called hours later.

It wasn’t the first time Torres, a Democrat, had made history: In 2013, Torres, then 25, became the youngest member of the New York City Council — as well as the first openly gay lawmaker from the Bronx.

But when he took office in January, he said, he still felt “the weight of history” on his shoulders.

“It was surreal for me to go to my office for the first time,” Torres said. “I never thought I would embark on a journey that would take me from public housing in the Bronx to the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C.”

That Torres’ offices were once occupied by John F. Kennedy, who served in Congress before he was elected president, only added to the dreamlike nature of his rise.

But Torres had little time to relish his victory: The Covid-19 pandemic was devastating the nation — and the 15th District, the poorest in the country, was hit especially hard, with among the highest rates of infection, hospitalizations and deaths in New York City, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The pandemic has shown us now more than ever how vital it is to address systemic issues of race, climate change, housing and economic inequality,” Torres said in a statement in January.

Just three days after he was sworn in, a violent mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, hoping to stop the counting of the electoral votes electing Joe Biden as president. To Torres, the assault wasn’t just an attempt to wrest control of the presidency; it was also an attack on “the most diverse Congress in the history of the United States … on multiracial, multiethnic democracy.”

It wasn’t the first time Torres, the son of a Black mother and a Puerto Rican father, had felt attacked for his identity. In the Democratic primary for the 15th Congressional District, he faced off against fellow City Council member Ruben Diaz Sr., a Pentecostal minister who has referred to gay people as “cursed.” As a state senator, Diaz voted against legalizing same-sex marriage in 2009 and 2011, and in 2017 he helped kill a transgender rights bill in committee. In 2019, Diaz complained that the City Council, which had five LGBTQ members at the time, was “controlled by the homosexual community.”

Diaz “made the experience of running for public office more terrifying for me,” Torres said in 2019.

After a lengthy ballot count, Torres emerged the victor, with 32.2 percent of the vote. Diaz finished third, with 14.4 percent.

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