Photos by Kyle LaMere
Regardless of whether you have experienced her beaming smile in person, or heard of her work, or the organization she founded, Reveca Torres is changing the way you think about people with spinal cord injuries and disorders. An artist, storyteller and humanitarian, the Chicago-based quad is promoting an exciting new identity for the SCI/D community — one that moves beyond the dichotomy of the inspirational and the depressing to a more approachable and real depiction of what people face every day. She understands the importance of empowering people within the SCI/D community, while connecting with and educating people outside the community, and her unique approach to achieving those ends is at the heart of why she is the 2015 NEW MOBILITY Person of the Year.
Reveca Torres is too restless to sit behind a desk every day. She devotes most of her time to running Backbones, the SCI/D nonprofit she founded, out of her home in suburban Chicago, but she loves to leap into adventures, both large and small. Variety keeps Torres, 34, motivated and stimulated. “It keeps it exciting. I like trying new things, new activities. I might not always get good at them, but I like to try.”
This week it’s a group harmonica lesson at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, where I agree to meet her. The instructor is named Skip. He’s a robust and avuncular white man with a gray beard. He wears an Irish motorist cap. His black pants are hiked up high around the equator of his waist.
The five students join Skip in singing a few rounds of the blues song he is about to have them take turns playing.
How long? How long?
Has the evenin’ train been gone?
Torres sings tentatively as she stares intently at the song lyrics spread out on the music stand in front of her wheelchair. In her lap rests a small black case containing a wide array of harmonicas.
How long? How long?
Baby how long?
It’s Torres’ turn to play the tune solo. Her sound is faint and thin. She has a bit of a struggle keeping up the tempo. The song ends with everybody singing one last round. And then Skip says, “Such a gloomy song.”
Yes, but it goes well with the gloomy autumn day. Outside the window, the afternoon sky is slate gray. Golden leaves still cling to bare black tree branches. Torres looks at me after the song ends and says, “I’m out of breath.” But then Skip announces that the next song for everybody to play will be Cabaret. It’s a much faster tempo. Hang on tight!
After class Torres and I chat in the lobby of the Old Town School. She says she played much better during her round of harmonica lessons earlier in the year, but she got rusty over the summer because she didn’t keep up practicing. She says she played violin before her injury happened on the last day of 1995. As a kid, she fantasized about being in a Mariachi band. After the injury, she says, “I tried playing the violin to see if I could adapt it somehow. But you really need fingers for that. I was looking for something to play.” And then a few years back her nephew gave her a harmonica “just to mess around with,” she says. “I told him, ‘I can probably do this. And it’ll probably help my breathing, too.’”
Torres had a good excuse for not keeping up with the harmonica last summer. She was busy helping organize a Chicago version of the ReelAbilities film festival. The four days of disability-themed film screenings and panel discussions was intended to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. One of the festival sponsors was Backbones. The Backbones mission statement says it’s there “to help people with spinal cord injury or disease and their families connect with their communities … by creating events and experiences that promote awareness and engage people of all abilities.” That description could just as easily apply to Torres’ mission since she was paralyzed at the age of 13.
A Fateful Trip
New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, 1995. Adam Torres is driving his van back to Chicago after visiting family in Guadalajara, Mexico for the holidays. He’s in a hurry to get across the U.S. border. The auto insurance he purchased to cover this trip expires at midnight.
In the front passenger seat is his son, Noe, 11. In the rear seat is his daughter, Annie, 6. Adam’s wife, Francisca, sits behind him on the middle seat along with their one-year-old son, Jacob, and Reveca, 13.