In 2013, 18-year-old skateboarder and graffiti artist Israel “Reefa” Hernandez-Llach died of heart failure after being Tasered by a Miami Beach police officer.
In 2016, his legacy lives on in an unlikely place: a children’s book.
Filmmaker and journalist Stan Jakubowicz and illustrator Jefferson Quintana have teamed up to write “Isra & Lito,” a story that explores Hernandez-Llach’s two personas: the outgoing skateboarder and the impassioned artist. Fittingly, the book’s launch party kicks off at 5 p.m. at Books & Books + Bikes in Wynwood.
“When this happened, I was touched on so many different levels,” says Jakubowicz, who produced the 2014 documentary “Tasered: The Israel Hernandez Story” for Fusion (then a Disney-Univision joint venture). “He was an immigrant, a Latino, and I am, too. I got involved with his family and met his parents and sister. I helped them organize some events in his memory. But I still felt there was something to be done. Israel was part of a big national conversation about police brutality.”
There were no charges filed against Officer Jorge Mercado, who chased Hernandez-Llach for several blocks in North Beach after catching him painting a shuttered McDonald’s at Collins Avenue and 71st Street. After an almost two-year investigation, prosecutors declined to pursue criminal charges against Mercado because the Taser was considered a “nonlethal” weapon, making Hernandez-Llach’s death an accident. A few months later, Miami Beach changed the rules about how Tasers are deployed.
Unable to forget the story, however, Jakubowicz started writing a nonfiction account of Hernandez-Llach’s story (he says he may yet finish it). But instead, he opted for a medium in which he had more creative license. He saw inspiration and a worthy message in the young artist’s life that he wanted to share.
“I wanted kids to feel they could do what they wanted to do, even if it wasn’t traditional,” he says. “You want to be a skateboarder? Be the best skateboarder you can be. … His passion was contagious. He was real about his ambition to be an artist. I wanted kids to understand that of course there are no limits as to what you can achieve, but you have to play by the rules. I kept thinking, ‘If Israel hadn’t run away, he would be with us today.’ ”
In “Isra & Lito,” Jakubowicz changes the tragedy into a positive learning experience, turning the clash with police into a lesson that ends safely, with mutual respect.
“That was the biggest challenge,” says Jakubowicz, who adds that you can still spot Hernandez-Llach’s trademark flowers on the streets of Wynwood — they pop up from time to time as a tribute from other artists. “It was obviously a very sad story. But I didn’t want to write a book against the police officer. … I just wanted to turn something negative into something positive, to go from dark to bright, to write something that children can grasp and have a conversation about with their parents.”
Pay close attention to Quintana’s illustrations at the end of the book, though, and you’ll spot the truth of what happened, albeit in a subtle way. In one of the final illustrations, for example, the Hernandez-Llach house contains a mother, father, sister — and an empty space where a brother should be.
“I wanted to do something that doesn’t represent literally what the text says,” explains Quintana, who says learning Hernandez-Llach’s story gave him an appreciation for the talents of graffiti artists. “I’m working with metaphors here. I didn’t want to copy the Reefa style, either. I wanted to make a universal story so you can feel this could be your city, not only Miami. That’s why the boy doesn’t have skin color or eyes or mouth.”
Hernandez-Llach’s sister Offir, now a preschool teacher in Miami who will attend Sunday’s launch with her parents, said she loves the book and finds the changed ending bittersweet.
“I wish that had happened in real life,” she says wistfully. “Israel was very passionate and caring. He opened himself to everyone, he accepted everybody. … One of the things I said to myself when it happened was, ‘If and when I have kids, my kids won’t be able to meet their uncle. When I have kids, he will be the hero in every single bedtime story I tell them.’ And now the story is actually concrete.”
Meet the authors
Who: Stan Jakubowicz and Jefferson Quintana, “Isra & Lito”
Where: Books & Books + Bikes, 2602 NW Fifth Ave., Wynwood
When: 5 p.m. Sunday