In Boyle Heights, the coming of Spring begins to permeate our mornings through the smell of flowers when the wind blows and in the brightening brown faces of gente walking the streets of a community perched atop a hill anchored in the heart of LA. As I walk around my community, up and down streets lined with victorian homes and multi-family apartment buildings bustling with life, on a bright March morning the jacaranda trees bloom and sprinkle its petals on the faces of brown children and viajeras who glance up to embrace its beauty and grandeur. The purple flowers hang off tree limbs that extend expansively into the sky above, a presence unwavered by wind and time.
Spring, as bearer of life and rebirth, serves as a backdrop for a community filled with hundreds of people as strong and as present as the jacaranda trees planted here and throughout nuestra américa, our transbarrios. Yet it was under a patterned blue and light purple evening sky, that I discerned perhaps for the first time yesterday, the meaning of this presence, how tangible, beautiful, and singular people of Boyle Heights are.
My love for this place runs as deep as my love for the smell of moist soil, the taste of food prepared by men and womyn in dozens of its street corners, for happiness and community on a park and plaza bench, and the gift of walking and moving and knowing where I was born, where my parents chose to stay and build, to harvest, and to grow.
Yet for a long time, when I’ve walked down its streets I have seen and felt an absence in this place I love without measure that I couldn’t exactly name. In my treasured ritual of walking down 1st street, an avenue of constant movement where storefronts neighbor the community theater and police station, I often have searched to find a connection, the gaze of my neighbors both young and old, to find reassurance in a smile and in an affirmation. Without understanding this need, I felt I wanted to embrace the people who live in a community I have gone on to carry with me wherever I have traveled, when Boyle Heights has rolled off my tongue when speaking with students and activist in Mexico City, when strolling down the pebbled streets of Oaxaca, when stepping onto the campus of a university in a small predominately white town in Northern California.
Many times I have instead seen the downward gaze of an elder man dressed in a sombrero and guaraches walking in the opposite direction determined to get to some place. I have seen lackluster storefronts, one after another, profiled against a sunset peaking through the skyline down below, absent of people, absent of warmth. As a community so close to downtown and so familiar to migrant spirits, its sidewalks and bus benches become home to lingering souls, momentary refuge for rest and sleep. Through the unceasing cycle of night and morning, I have yearned to feel and to see and to know that collectively us gente from Boyle Heights know how beautiful it is to be and to be together, here.
But it was under the illuminated lavender sky of March that I finally found what I had for so long searched for. Walking home from work, while waiting at the intersection, across the street I discerned my community convening to share tacos and company. Posted all along a rail in front of our local surplus food store, the man who sleeps at the entrance of the youth center sat awaiting his order. Beside him was the older man who wakes up early every day and tours the neighborhood to pick up plastic bottles to recycle. And surrounding them were men, womyn, elders, and families all lined up at Tacos y Burritos El Texano, waiting to scarf down an order of 4 tacos de al pastor each, some seriously considering buying a champurrado or tamale from the man stationed with his shopping cart right at the corner.
This vision, people who I greet day after day on my walk through Boyle Heights were together, eating, sitting, existing, and occupying space in a community that is ours. I discerned presence. I discerned space. I discerned the existence and being of individuals that for many never exist. In my search to affirm the communality and love of Boyle Heights, I have not only learned that the sadness of our people informs our collective existence, but that many times what we consider absence, is really living and breathing presence.
As the light turned green I walked across the street, exchanging a wave with my neighbor and plastic-bottle collector, and began my way down the street I have known as home for twenty-four years, the wind caressing a smile onto my face. Somos como la jacarandá, sigilosxs y presentes.