A week after I had met after I had met a Cape Verdean activist at a political rally in Buenos Aires, there I was, headed to his son's 12th birthday party.
He called me with very specific directions on how to arrive. I was told which buses to take, from where, and what corner to get off at. After the 45 minute trip, and a little bit of help from the bus driver, I nervously got off of the bus hoping that my embarrassing sense of direction hadn't struck again. I was ecstatic to see Marcelino and a round faced teenager waiting for me. I was greeted and introduced, then he focused completely on making sure that I knew the way to the house.
He walked rapidly and recounted his steps.
"You get off here, you go straight here, left here, then right. You’ll know the house because of the broken down van in front."
He joked jovially that he had accompanied me because of how dangerous the neighborhood was, but it was understood that he came to gently show me the ropes, and that I wouldn’t be picked up from the bus stop like a school child again. If I was going to be a part of the community, I wouldn’t be coddled, I wouldn’t be treated any differently then the others that lived in the community. This meant, if I didn’t feel safe walking around the community by myself, well, then I shouldn’t come.
True to his description the front door to Marcelino’s house was literally open and without locks in a “dangerous” neighborhoods inside of Gran Buenos Aires. After a corridor of car parts and other recyclables hastily covered with blankets, we entered into Marcelino’s home—the nucleus of the neighborhood. Quaint, but powerfully consolidated, the small space was one kitchen, living room, and dining room without walled separation. It is a space for the public, a space to solve problems, to plot strategies, to feed hungry mouths; a space to laugh, to raise a glass of whiskey, a place to dance.
As I walked in, Marcelina, his wife and fellow keeper of the neighborhood, rushed from behind the sink with arms open.
“Diane!” she exclaimed like I was her child returning home from my first year at college. She gave me the customary peck on the cheek then pulled me close for a hug.
Marcelina is a short and round woman with soft curves, a disarming smile, with hands always in a giving position. She's quick with a hug, and kind words, and her voice is certain and coaxing. With her hand softly on the small of my back, she led me around the room to meet the family, all eyeing the newcomer from the sidelines.
There were three teenagers on the futon next to the dining room table. Tatooed, pierced, and with the general air of youth disgruntlement, I was surprised to know that they were all much older than me, and spoke to me with timidity. After twenty minutes of tattoo and music comparisons, we were all speaking easier. They reclined onto the futon comfortably and I slumped back into my chair.
Though makeshift, and short for space, the room had a definite order. Marcelina seemed to always be in the kitchen when I arrived, moving with ease and a magic spoon, constantly serving and preparing. The youth would come in and out of the corridor. If they stayed in the room they’d sit on the futon listening vaguely, or whispering among themselves. Sometimes they’d fiddle with the community computer, and their selections of cumbia, and fulana, were always appreciated by "The Marce's".
Marcelino and I would sit at the dining room table that sat in the middle of the room. I would realize soon after that business was done around the table, but only after a good meal, and a few cups of coffee or on better days, whisket. This day wasn’t a business affair. Este dia fue una celebracion perras —and my induction of sorts into the Cape Verdean family.
Christian, the birthday boy, eventually strolled in, baby-faced and flanked with his gang of compañeros. He reminded me of my older brother, Paul, whose skin is a soft blanket of brown and whose silky black hair earned him nicknamed Chinese Boy. Christian's confidence was obvious by his stance and his careful questioning would always show a social awareness that betrayed the 12 years that he was turning.
“Cuantos anos me das?” He asked, placing his hands on his hips.
How old do you think I am?
“Ya me dijieron que estás por cumplir 12."
They already told me you were turning 12
It was a few weeks later that he would ask me if he seemed older to me, and I would tell him truthfully that he did. He took a second to measure my sincerity by looking me rightly in the face, then he nodded, satisfied, and walked off.
The birthday was the introduction to the inner circle. Not only did I meet all of Marcelinos five children and all of the neighborhood friends, but other Cape Verdeans who work with and around Marcelino.
Among other honors, it was the first time I tried the amazing food blessed by the hands of Marcelina. First there constant rotation of homeade pizza and empanadas, but after the kids got full of the appetizers Marce brought out the real food CapeVerdean food of fried fish and cow tongue for the grown ups.
After we had laughed, and drank, and ate way past contentment, the tables were moved to the perimeter of the living room and we danced. Cumbia, Reggaeton, Fulana. (MUSIC LINK HERE) Christian had the job of making sure I learned the moves, and he never missed a step, although his stature didn’t permit him to lead me too much.
After a few hours of dancing, it was Christians time to steal the spotlight! Everyone had told me that Christian was a dancer but Good Lord! We cleared the dance floor and Christian grabbed a black top hat. He turned towards the door and somebody hit the music. The unmistakable first bars of Billie Jean came on and Christian slid across the floor, moonwalking, gyrating, and getting his full MJ on. The kid killed it!
After all of us contributed our own pitiful MJ impression, the cake came out.
With the lights dim and the room still smoky from birthday candles, I appreciated just how lucky I was to have found this home away from home. As Marcelino and Marcelina constantly repeated,
"we want you to be a part of this family. What you can do to help the community is great, but primarily we want you to know that you’re welcome here and that you’re home here."Though finding ways to share my gifts with others is definitely apart of my goals in Buenos Aires, Marcelino and Marcelina's organization is first based around a family, and it was there that I’d found my home.