We had the privilege to be invited to share a meal among residents of Grandville Avenue hosted at the Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association.
As we sat around the table, guzzling down the warm Pepian— some of us in between bites of Bistec a la Mexicana and while others warming their hands with the homemade tortillas from down the street—we began sharing our hopes and dreams for tomorrow as we laughed about the mishaps of yesterday. We sat so close together, our elbows kept bumping into each other and although some of us were strangers to each other and newcomers to the neighborhood, the response to the mishap was always a smile.
For Eluwida Calderon, Blanca Santizo, Rocio Lopez, Margarita Ortiz, Sonya Eatmon, Rocio Reyes, Angelica Villami, Josefina Maldonado, and Dominga Lucas, sharing in this capacity has been made possible thanks to “La Casita” [Our Little Home]. La Casita refers to the community they have been able to build within the physical boundaries of the Roosevelt Neighborhood Association. Here, everyone is welcome. Calderon explains that she comes here to not feel alone, and Santizo interrupts her mid-sentence with a smile and explains that this is where she came right after she found out about the election results in November.
For her, the election results signified an overwhelming negative sentiment towards immigrants like her. In the good and bad times, the others remember, they have come together to share bits of flavors and tastes from home.Arroz mexicano prepared for the meal.
Ortiz makes room in her plate for the slightly yellow arroz mexicano decorated with small bits of carrots by stacking the tortilla Lucas spent yesterday evening making by hand. Ortiz is hungry and excited to spend another afternoon sharing with some of her closest friends.
In between the sound of the plastic forks being pushed against the styrofoam, Maldonado raises her voice a little bit louder to explain she has been living in the neighborhood for almost nine years and that she remembers what it felt like to be Villami, who has only been living in the neighborhood for two weeks, after her husband, and her two kids spent many years working as crop pickers in the states of Florida, North Carolina, and Michigan. The reason for their move was stability and higher paying job opportunities.
“Ya recogimos todas las blue-berries de Michigan,” explains Villami, [We already picked all the blueberries available in Michigan], reflecting on the countless hours her husband, Angel Alarcon, and her spent on their knees under the warm Michigan sun carefully picking the best and ripest blueberries.
Lopez, who spends most of her day caring for her one year-old Daniel, talks about her desire to go back to work, but hasn’t been able to find reliable childcare and she does not feel comfortable leaving Daniel with just anybody, she says.
“No tengo a quien pedirle que cuide a mi niño, pero me gustaria trabajar limpiando casas,” shares Lopez. [I don’t have anyone I can ask to help me take care of my son, but I would really like to work cleaning homes].
When Ortiz is asked to describe her community, she immediately responds with: “Es humilde—somos muy trabajadores.” [We are humble, hard working people]
Lopez explains that, for her, it was very difficult to learn how to use the bus to get to places. When she first got to Michigan, she didn't speak any English and felt very ashamed to ask anyone at the bus station to help her get a ticket. A long time passed from the first and second time she rode the bus. She emphasizes she had to wait until she gained enough courage to try again.
Riding the bus for Lopez is something she does regularly, and something she is not ever afraid to help others learn how to do.
The dish Reyes brought to share she calls “gelatina con amor,” or jello with love. The dish features tri color cubes of red, blue, and green jello tucked within the white jello that is made of milk—the result is a confetti party in your mouth. Sony Eadmon, resident of the Grandville Avenue, shows off her plate of delicious food.
This group of women are the backbone of this community—by passing flyers of the neighborhood clean up, offering their English language skills for that one new family in the neighborhood who might need filling out school paperwork or understanding their child’s homework, or volunteering in their children’s classroom ensuring all of the students pay attention to their teacher. Their goal is to make sure no one else feels like they once did as strangers to this community.
“Cuando recién llegue, mucha gente no me tenia paciencia porque no hablaba bien el ingles,” emphasizes Lucas. She is not afraid to bring everyone she meets to come and introduce themselves to the staff at Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association. For Lucas, The Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association is her safe haven and her second home. The place where she first went to grieve the days after the scandal had died around the tragic death of her husband.
“Tenia tanto dolor que solo podia sentarme en esa sillita en la esquina y dormirme hasta que mis niñas salgan del colegio” shares Lucas [I felt so much grief that the only thing I could do is sit in that small chair on the corner and fall asleep until my girls got out of school for the day]
Nuestra Casita [Our Little Home] for many of these women has served as a place of respite, a place where they can be heard and they can ask questions, and learn.
Here, they learn how to fill necessary paperwork for health insurance, how to pay bills, and most recently all of them have been a part of an English class to help them enhance their skills.Staff to the Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association, from left to right, Elizabeth Llamas, Rocío Rodriguez and Amy Brower.
The Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association [RPNA] was founded in 1978, and now has three paid staff, Amy Brower, executive director, Rocio Rodriguez, and Elizabeth Llamas, both Crime Prevention Educators and Organizers. Brower, who is the newest addition to the group, brought a delicious fruit salad to share. Lucas explains that she felt very nervous at first when Julie Niemchick, the previous executive director transitioned out and Brower arrived a little over six months ago, because she didn’t know if she would be welcomed here. Both women laugh about it now, as they have found affinity in their love for coffee and for the community.
“En las mañanas, Amy nos prepara el cafe y nos permite salir y entrar al edificio sin tener que preguntar,” explains Lucas. [Amy makes the morning coffee, and lets us come and go without needing to ask].
Although Brower is new to her role, she has already earned the trust of many in her community. Reyes, Maldonado and Lucas are not afraid to sing Browers’ praises as it is in part because of her that their Casita [Little Home] has lived on.
Rodriguez, who also serves as Parent Action Leader at Cesar Chavez Elementary, where her son goes to school, is the one who has brought all the women together for the noon meal along with a plate of steamy frijoles (beans) to share with the rest.
“I love my residents, their friendship and their trust” Rodriguez shares.
Rodriguez, who grew up in the neighborhood, understands first hand what its like to live in this neighborhood and the barriers many in this community face. For Rodriguez, these women remind her every day of the power women in her community have to make change. Although often times, these women aren’t recognized for the hard work they do to build community--she shares that this neighborhood would not be what it is today without them.The backbone of the community on Grandville Avenue.
As the noise around the table began to die down, and everyone sat back in their chair with their bellies and their hearts full—Lopez shared, “esta es nuestra casita” [This is our little home].
On The Ground GR
On The Ground GR is a Rapid Growth series. This series will highlight and celebrate the communities found touching along the Grandville Avenue of Grand Rapids.
Over the next few months, On The Ground GR journalists will be knocking on doors and getting to know the neighbors and community members. We will dive deeper into topics concerning this neighborhood's residents and stakeholders while celebrating the diversity and strength found in this area. We are on the ground listening and want to celebrate the community's unifying spirit of positivity and vibrancy.
You can follow On The Ground GR's work via Twitter (#OnThe GroundGR @rapidgrowthmedia), Facebook and Instagram. To connect with On The Ground GR's editor, Michelle Jokisch Polo (read more about Michelle here), you can email her at [email protected] and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.
On The Ground GR is made possible by The Frey Foundation, The Grand Rapids Community Foundation and the Steelcase Foundation organizations working to guarantee all communities thrive.
Photography by Dreams by Bella.