“Comamos Juntos,” or as titled it in English, “Around the Dinner Table,” was a shared dinner celebrating Grandville Ave. and the meaningful relationships built every day in that community.
It was last Friday evening, and Josefina Maldonado had spent the last two days hunched over her stove, blender, and oversized pots and pans, busily preparing the delicious mole she would be bringing to share for the evening community meal. Maldonado, Rosa Corona, Dominga Lucas, Margarita Ortiz, and Blanca Santizo were the heart and soul of the event; the women had come together over a month ago to coordinate and plan what each of them would be making to feed their neighbors, families, and friends.
Each of them passionate about sharing their gifts of cooking with community, they crafted a three-course menu highlighting each of their strengths to feed the bellies of the 36 confirmed guests. Our event, “Comamos Juntos,” or as we titled it in English, “Around the Dinner Table,” was a community celebration part of On The Ground Grand Rapids series to foster an opportunity for residents and leaders to engage in dialogue around the kind of community they long for and how they are working toward creating it for themselves. The dinner was inspired by the message we consistently heard from residents around their willingness and desire to develop solutions through meaningful relationships and sharing of personal gifts and talent with one another.
The dimming afternoon sunlight was reflecting off two large windows onto the tables, joyous music played over the speaker in the corner, and laughter could be heard seeping through the front door at the Cook Library Center, a place many in the community have learned to call home. One by one, guests were trickling in, excited to meet their friends, neighbors, and community leaders and share a meal with one another.
The guests took their name tags and picked a seat at one of the two tables, hungry for what stood in front of them and anxious for the evening to begin. Soon, they all quieted down to hear Corona share about what she had made. Every detail, whisper, and shared word would be spoken first in Spanish and then translated into English. Usually, community members on Grandville Avenue who speak English as second—or even third—language do not have the opportunity to have their primary language prioritized.
Rosa Corona“A mi me toco el plato más difícil por que tuve que cortar cada pedacito de jitomate y cucumber,” she says. [I got the most difficult plate to make because I had to cut each little baby tomato and cucumber separate.]
The appetizer prepared by Corona
Corona, had cut up more than 40 baby tomatoes, as well as raisins, to serve over a slice of queso fresco, turkey, ham, and cucumber. The four ingredients decorated the rounded cracker she had so carefully placed on every single plate. Corona is originally from Mexico, and enjoys using her skills as an artist to make things aesthetically pleasing. By choosing to make this for an appetizer she explains she could use food to make something visually appealing for the guests.
Corona has lived on Grandville Avenue for the last two decades, and she has three children. She longs for everyone in her community to know their strengths. She believes anything is possible, including learning a second language in middle age—as it wasn’t until she was 40 years old that Corona became fully bilingual in English and Spanish.
Veronica Quintino-Aranda Veronica Quintino-Aranda begins the evening by sharing her name and why she is here. “Yo crecí en la avenida Grandville y para mi la comunidad es San Jose Obrero,” she says. [I grew up on Grandville Avenue and for me community was St. Joseph the Worker.]
Sisters Donna Jean Thelen and Sister Dorena Gonzalez sit next to Veronica Quintino-Aranda, and the Maldonado family (right to left: Elizabeth, Josefina and Ruben) during the meal. Sister Donna Jean Thelen and Sister Dorena Gonzales, sisters of the Catholic Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids, smile proudly after hearing Quintino Aranda talk about the vibrancy of the community many years ago, which they helped to develop. The two lived on what the community called, “la casa rosada” [the pink house], the convent next to St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church on the corner of Grandville Avenue and Rumsey Street.
Quintino Aranda provides a glimpse into her experience around the ways displacement had an effect on the ways residents developed relationships and shared resources. St Joseph the Worker moved in 2007 to Wyoming, but for many years the church was a hub for relationships in the community.
“When we moved from Grandville Avenue, it was difficult to leave behind a community that was so connected to who we are as a parish. I think moving made it difficult for everyone in the area to feel like the meaning the church brought to the community was still acknowledged,” says Quintino Aranda to the guests present.
(Learn about the legacy of sacred space left behind by St. Joseph the Worker and its parishioners on Grandville Avenue here. This past Nov. 8, the building was demolished to make room for the Plaza Roosevelt development. You can find out more about the development happening on Grandville Avenue here.)
As the guests empty the plates at the back corner of the library, one could hear Lauren Fay Carlson, Ken Miguel-Cipriano, and Tommy Allen, all Rapid Growth Media staff, and Erika VanDyke, communications coordinator for the Latino Community Coalition, carefully plating the main course of Mole Poblano.
Mole Poblano is a traditional Mexican dish with roots in Aztec and Nahuatl traditions (the Aztec and Nahuatl are two indigenous communities in Central America). The dish consists of a chicken leg drenched in a thick brown sauce made with three different kinds of chile, some chocolate, and 20 other of ingredients.
Josefina Maldonado shares with the guests next to Veronica Quintino-Aranda who translates Maldonado's words into English for the non-Spanish speaking guests.
This dish represents my family and my home country,” shares Maldonado, a proud mother of five who moved to Grand Rapids to provide her children better opportunities of education—opportunities she didn’t have back in her home country of Mexico.
Corn tortillas made by Dominga Lucas-Perez and her three daughters, Liliana, Sindy and YulimarTo accompany the dish, Dominga Lucas-Perez, a resident of Grandville Avenue, made by hand more than 100 corn tortillas with her daughters Liliana, Sindi, and Yulimar, tightly wrapping them in foil and cloth made up of fabric traditionally worn by members of her indigenous community in Huehuetenango, Guatemala.
(Read about the strength of the indigenous community of Grandville Avenue here.)
During this part of the evening, Synia Jordan stands up to share her story of Grandville Avenue. Jordan was named after her grandmother, Synia McBride, a woman who refused to sell property on Grandville Avenue because she understood how valuable it was that her, as a black Grand Rapidian, had been able to obtain property in the city.
(Read about McBride’s story of resistance here.)
Jordan, who most recently was appointed as the president of the Grandville Avenue Business Association, explains the ways she is working hard to connect residents to resources.
“I want my community to be able to generate their own wealth—but in order for us to do that we have to talk about resources and connecting each other to resources,” Jordan says.
Jordan, who grew up on Grandville Avenue and owns a salon on 701 Grandville Ave. SW, shares how much more difficult it can be for the residents of Grandville Avenue who do not speak English as a first language to navigate resources and access opportunities. During the event, Jordan took the opportunity to share her contact information with Dave Allen, Third Ward Commissioner of Grand Rapids and executive director for the Kent County Land Bank, who was also in attendance at the event.
For Jordan, building the community she wants lies in her responsibility to ensure her neighbors have the same kinds of access everyone else in the city has.
Jacque and Henry Bouwma
Beaming with joy after listening to Jordan's story, Jacque Bouma pulls her chair closer to her husband, Henry; the two are residents of Grandville Avenue and have made it their mission to provide housing opportunities to folks in the area who would benefit from living in one of their homes on Naylor Street rent free.
(Learn more of Jacque and Henry’s work on Grandville avenue here.)
To end the evening meal, Blanca Santizo and Josefina Maldonado stand up proudly to announce what they brought to share. Maldonado explains she made her famous Flan—a dish she is well known for by residents on the avenue.
“I have lived here for 22 years,” her voice squeaks a little louder, Ortiz who is originally from Mexico city, shares that she is not usually in front of a lot of people and it makes her a little nervous. “I made this dish with love for all of you,” Ortiz explains.
The guests remain quiet while Santizo stands proudly to share that she had only been a resident on the avenue for the last seven months—and that she moved here with her husband Gabriel and her two daughters from Florida.
Crepes made by Blanca Santizo“Yo prepare una crepes rellenas de fresas and banano que un chef amigo mio de Francia me enseño la receta,” explains Santizo. [I made crepes filled with strawberry and banana—a recipe from a friend of mine who is also a chef from France.]
Concluding the evening, Rocio Rodriguez, crime prevention organizer at Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association and parent action leader at Cesar Chavez Elementary School, shares about the strength of her community. Rodriguez grew up on Grandville Avenue, and she fills her days building relationships with every single resident of the neighborhood.
(Learn more about the relationships built through Rodriguez, Elizabeth Llamas, and Amy Brouwer, staff from the Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association, here.)
“Many of us here are faced with barriers and difficulties accessing the same resources others have—but we get together and come up with solutions. We are living in the kind of community we want to live in,” says Rodriguez.
The evening ended remembering the life of long time community leader and advocate, Samariz Hernandez Cruz.
“I kept thinking of Samariz as everyone ate and laughed together. She would have loved it,” shares VanDyke.
Dominga Lucas-Perez and Veronica Quintino-Aranda Around the Dinner Table served as a glimpse and a reminder of the ways residents of Grandville Avenue are committing to creating the kind of community they long for -- one where meaningful relationships are necessary for survival.
This event was made possible thanks to Blanca Santizo, Dominga Lucas-Perez, Josefina Maldonado, Margarita Ortiz, Rosa Corona, Monica Zavala, Sue Garza, Erika VanDyke, Anna Geurkink, Lauren Fay Carlson, Tommy Allen, Ken Miguel-Cipriano, The Cook Library Center, The Latino Community Coalition, The Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association, St John’s United Church of Christ, 3:11 Youth Housing, El Granjero Mexican Grill, and Grand Rapids Dominican Sisters.
On The Ground GR
On The Ground GR is a Rapid Growth series. This is the final article of our series focusing on the community of Grandville Avenue. We are incredibly grateful to all of the residents, leaders, neighbors, and community organizers who help facilitate relationships, shared their stories with us, and allowed us the opportunity to get to know them. If you have any feedback or comments about our series please feel free to comment below.
You can follow On The Ground GR's work via Twitter (#OnTheGroundGR @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 Twitter.
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.