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Urban Connections

The strip mall to my right seemed a good option for finding lunch. I parked, noticing a red car circling the crowded lot stating “Security” on its doors. Salsa music blared from pickup trucks. Families walked by with mothers holding their small children’s hands and fathers carrying large shopping bags and take-out food containers. Despite the noisy crowd, small brown birds could be heard chirping from their perches in leafless trees. It was a cool Sunday in January, but the sun shone brightly.

            I walked past the Habitat for Humanity thrift store, an Afghan market, and a laundromat touting “Free Soap on Tuesdays between 6:00 and 2:00.” Next to the small shop displaying a large sign stating, “Envios de Dinero a Mexica por solo $6,” was a small restaurant with a large window image of Pancho Villa, bands of bullets across his chest. Looks perfect.

            Pushing the heavy door open, I spotted two older, ponytailed men glancing up, their plates still heaped with rice and beans. A smiling young woman in a colorful flowered blouse and white gathered skirt approached me.

            “Hola,” she said, and motioned her menu toward a side table.

            “Gracias,” I replied, placing myself in a chair beneath a painting of dark green palm trees, a glimpse of blue water, and a red-tiled roof.

            The menu was in Spanish, but I knew what I wanted, and she understood: “burrito, vegetariano, no crema, no queso.” She nodded.

            Soaking in the atmosphere, I enjoyed large, three-dimensional metallic village scenes in bright gold and brass colors adorning the walls. In the corner sat a table of nine animated young men, most in hoodies, with bottles of cervezas in painted, yellow flowered metal ice buckets. Several ate from large platters piled with food, others from half-sliced pineapple boats.

           Through the window I could see three musicians in mariachi costumes gathering on the sidewalk. One was in his twenties. The other two appeared a generation older. The trio opened the restaurant door, playing two colorfully decorated guitars and an accordion. Moving toward a table of five adults, they sang about a senorita. A teenage boy in a Raiders cap helped a woman about eighty, perhaps his abuela, out of a chair. Dancing an intricate two-step combination to the music, he twirled her between tables. Customers pulled out cell phones for photos. As the song ended the young man guided her back to the table. The room applauded. While still seated, an older man and a middle-aged woman sang loudly to the band’s next number.

            I paid my bill and walked out of the restaurant, leaving the camaraderie behind, remembering when I lived and worked in a Black community, and later in a Jewish neighborhood, still wishing for a stronger cultural identity of my own.

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