By Aisha Walker
Every Tuesday and Wednesday morning Emily, Eileen and I step up to this gate—a rusted, brown, diamond criss-crossed pattern chain gate—with a four foot high door cut out centrally on the bottom. Just behind this gate, there is a set of French doors, painted blue. On the right hand molding, at the fringe of an arm’s reach, is a door bell, with a handwritten sign in black ink, “Toca Timbre”. Sticking my hand through the biting chained gate, I feel the white plastic give under my finger’s force. A moment later, I hear the jingle of Mariela’s numerous keys on her giraffe guarded key chain, as the secretary hurries from her office to greet us, opening the little door in the giant gate. I allow Emily and Eileen to pass through before I, too, fold my body in half at the waist, hunch my shoulders toward my center and squeeze through this little gate. Standing erect, I give Mariela a quick beso before taking a deep breath. I have arrived at La Luciernaga.
Every Tuesday and Wednesday morning, Emily, Eileen and I walk through the front office of La Luciernaga, past the stacked green and yellow boxes of glossy paper on which the magazines are printed in house. Past the open air office of Mariela and Oscar’s—the founder of La Luciernaga—closed door before taking a slight right out the back door of the building, down three red tile steps and over a raised cement threshold into the heart of the community. I run my hand along the cement wall with chipped orange-red paint to my right, skimming over the ever-changing posters inviting the young men to history, recovery, success, and presence. I smell Fabuloso, a cleaning product, which alerts me to Paola’s presence somewhere nearby. Just a couple steps further and the room opens up. A vaulted ceiling with square sky lights allows the end of summer heat to reflect off of the chipped, cream colored tables and chairs in two rows that fill the cement floor, illuminating the room. I move my hand away from the wall, continuing farther into the room and into our community.
Every Tuesday and Wednesday morning Emily, Eileen and I open ourselves up to the emotions of others, allowing what is theirs to become ours. It begins by walking into the arms of Tio Julio, our supervisor at La Luci. He hugs me. Not in a quick greeting kind of way, where there is only a light beso and abraso. Julio’s mid-sized frame envelops me, squeezing tight, reminding me that I am safe with him, invited home in his presence. After being released, I continue around the gathered circle of faces that are becoming more familiar every visit— Pablo, Anna, Laura, Paola—exchanging besos and abrasos. The lasting impression of Norma’s—the chef of the comedor—cheeks on both of mine, sharing her Uruguayan culture in her simple greeting. The aroma of mate mingles with the beginning stages of Norma’s cooking as the odor of chopped onions sizzles through the air. Taking a seat at one of the tables, I stare at the artwork that adorns the risers that lead to the second story of the building. The abstract blocks of pinks, yellows, greens, and blues defined by black outlines shift with every movement of my eyes. At the top of the risers, my eyes lock on the second door from the right, Victor’s office. Seeing a flash of movement, I wonder who is in there a moment before I hear Victor’s signature: “JULIO!” Chuckling to myself, I quietly sing the Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk line (“Julio get the stretch”) as Julio takes the stairs to the right of the risers two at a time up to Victor’s door.
I hear lighters pop and cigarettes burn, making my eyes water, as canillitas begin to trickle into the community. Some irritable, others buoyantly happy, they greet me all the same. “Como andas?” I ask them of more than how their walk to La Luci was. I ask of their emotional walk, too, as we share besos and abrasos in this place where the collective cares about each individual’s path. After eating a rich lunch of heavy foods that keep the canillitas full for their hours spent selling magazines on the streets of el centro, I make my way from the comedor outside to the grassy area behind the center. The over grown grass is dying as the weather turns from summer to fall. Even so, Angel and Priscilla—Paola’s kids— want to play soccer with a blue, deformed, undersized, plastic ball. I leave my form ingrained into my seventeen years of play at the goal line, allowing myself to be silly, miss the ball, and run aimlessly around this field, while Angel schools me in my sport and Priscilla’s dimples take some of the sadness out of her eyes.
One Wednesday, I walk out to the back lawn space, my hands covered in green paint after making a sign; Gonzalo—a canillita— guides me toward a faucet in front of the bathroom out back where I can clean up before the lunch of milanesas. He
holds the button down the entire time, allowing me to wash the Hulk off of me, into the red bucket below. Once I’ve cleaned myself up, he picks up the plastic bucket, full to the brim with water swirled with the blue and green paint of the day, and pretends to throw it at me. I flinch, clenching my eyes shut, my left leg lifting in a karate move of defense as my arms move to block my face from the spray and a high-pitched squeal escapes from the depth of my girlishness. After I moment, I peek out of the corner of my clenched left eye, to see Gonzalo laughing hysterically, doubled over, grasping his stomach as silent giggles erase the stress from his face. As I relax my stance, he catches his breath enough to chuckle through a reenactment of my fear, describing it in such rapid Castellano that I cannot even keep up. But, I can’t even be upset because the glow on Gonzalo’s face, his pure joy at the lighthearted joke is contagious. Hi smile automatically bringing one to my face, removing some darkness from my heart. Because that is what La Luci has given to me: a tingling sensation that consumes me when laughter, the universal song of love, permeates not only a language barrier, but circumstances, too. La Luci is the place where I have been humbled enough to acknowledge that the collective cares about the individual. Where my emotions are worth being seen and felt by other because every day of our lives are gifts that we share—both the good and the bad—with each other.
Every Tuesday and Wednesday morning Emily, Eileen and I step up to this gate—a rusted, brown, diamond criss-crossed pattern chain gate—with a four foot high door cut centrally on the bottom. Every Tuesday and Wednesday morning I fold my body in half at the waist, hunching my shoulders toward my center and squeeze through this little gate. When I stand up, I share my life, my time, and my emotions within these walls, within the safety of La Luciernaga.