Long Beach will inaugurate the first Latino city council member in the city's 87-year history Sunday.
At a ceremony in City Hall, Len Torres, a retired educator who began teaching in Long Beach public schools at 21 and ascended to the rank of deputy superintendent, will take the oath of office along with his Democratic running mate, Mike Fagen, and Republican John McLaughlin.
For Torres, a 58-year-old of Puerto Rican descent who prefers to operate, as he says, "behind the scenes," his new role as councilman represents his first incursion into political life.
"I've avoided politics for many, many years, including back in the '70s when the political climate was starting to heat up regarding immigration," Torres said.
Even as he steered clear of elected office at the time, Torres worked to expand services for the city's burgeoning Latino community.
While teaching fourth-graders during the day and helping adults learn English at night, he wrote a grant that helped launch the school district's bilingual and English as a Second Language programs, which he ran through the mid-1980s.
Torres has used his grant-writing skills throughout his career as he administered troubled districts in Roosevelt, Hempstead and the Bronx.
As the makeup of the Latino community in Long Beach shifted from mostly Puerto Rican to Central and South American, district officials sought Torres' help to revamp its ESL program.
Torres came out of retirement in 2008 to work for the district until August. It was his third return to work since his retirement in 2003.
"By the time I put in 35 years, I was in my mid-50s, so I was able to retire a lot sooner than a lot of other people," he said. "But it was too soon, I think."
He's also served on the city's zoning board and is one of the commissioners of the Long Beach Housing Authority.
As he prepares to tackle the challenges of governing Long Beach, Torres says he's focused on fiscal management, affordable housing and safeguarding the environment.
Still, he won't abandon his civic commitments, including his work as project manager of the Long Beach Latino Civic Association.
Torres and Fagen are the only two Democrats on the five-person council. They were elected in November. Torres will serve a two-year term.
Myrta Cuadra-Lash, executive director of Sinergia, a Manhattan-based nonprofit that advocates for low-income, disabled children and their families, praised Torres, who serves as vice president of the organization's board and has worked with the group for more than a decade.
"Len is just such a wonderful soul," she said. "He makes the trek whenever we have any board meetings, he's just so committed and so concerned about helping people."