Celebrating community in the time of coronavirus

Events like the Tanabata Festival in East Los Angeles gave residents a chance to celebrate together. In its absence is something even more profound.


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Throughout my life, as the daughter of an Angeleno-Mexican mother and Japanese-American father, I’ve struggled to root my identity in the Western United States, even though I was born in California and have spent most of my life here. I grew up in the small town of Loma Linda, 90 miles east of Los Angeles, splitting my identity —Californian, Chicana, Japanese; small-town chick and intrepid LA urbanite.

But in 2012, after a graduate-school stint in the Midwest, where I struggled with mental health issues, I returned to the place of my birth, Boyle Heights, for my first Tanabata Festival. The Tanabata, also known as the Star Festival, has mixed ancestry, too. Though a Japanese festival, it was born out of Chinese folklore and has been celebrated in July and August throughout the world for centuries. There, in the diverse enclave and historic democratic haven of Boyle Heights, the avenues of my identity merged and I felt profoundly at home.

This year, because of the novel coronavirus and a second wave of infections, the Tanabata Festival was canceled. As a person who had found solace at this event in the past, I wonder what is lost by its cancellation. This economic and public crisis has put such celebrations of our differences — and our shared humanity — on hold. In the silence of its absence, I worry what might fill its void.

IN JULY 2012 — in what now feels like a different universe, let alone different time — I returned to Boyle Heights. I had been craving pan dulce, doughnut shop coffee and corn tortillas for long enough. The ocean breeze against the heat of traffic and concrete welcomed me home. After enjoying a meal from my childhood, inari (sushi footballs) at Boyle Heights’ iconic Otomisan Restaurant, I walked to Mariachi Plaza where the Tanabata Festival was being held that year. A DJ spun a blend of house music harmonizing with the thunder of the traditional Japanese taiko drummers’ mallets against large, round drums. Local Japanese members of the mariachi community played intoxicatingly soulful songs.

As I weaved in and out of crowds of Mexican and Japanese locals and trendy out-of-town gawkers, the mariachi band played. Newcomers were visibly confused, some even offended, misunderstanding the mesh of Japanese and Mexican music as cultural appropriation. But around me, Mexican-Japanese couples embraced as they listened to the mariachis, and their children jumped around in delight.

 Newcomers were visibly confused, some even offended, misunderstanding the mesh of Japanese and Mexican music as cultural appropriation.

That day helped me understand something new about myself: My culture is there to share, but not necessarily to explain to those who might not understand. My culture is how I view my place in the West and in the world.

And then the music stopped: The global novel coronavirus pandemic arrived in California, sending me reeling for a sense of place and a sense of self once again.

The Mariachi Plaza these days is mostly empty, except for a few people headed to work wearing face masks. This July, California again rolled back reopening in the wake of a new spike of COVID-19 infections. As the virus ravages California, the rest of the Western U.S. and the country, silently spreading in ways that we’re still only beginning to understand, our celebrations of culture, our mixed heritages, are imprisoned indoors.

This period of stasis means that we have to find new ways to express community. As a person who has coped with mental illness, I know how much this extended period of social isolation will test my friends, my family and my neighbors. Cultural celebrations are essential because they cultivate a shared identity, a shared struggle and a sense of hope for the future. We may not be able to come together and celebrate our shared differences at events like the Tanabata Festival this year, but every day I see the people of the Boyle Heights community connecting. They are not only compensating for this lost expression of humanity; they are also creating and enacting a vision for a better future.

On July 18, Boyle Heights residents took the streets to protest the military culture so pervasive at the Los Angeles Police Department and across the United States. Protesters gathered at Los Cinco Puntos, an iconic Mexican deli and site of a memorial dedicated to the Chicano veterans of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. The demonstration was peaceful and lasted for hours. A half-dozen participants held a banner that read: “LAPD stop killing Black and brown people.” Taken together, the protests around the world sparked by the killing of George Floyd add up to the largest social justice movement in the history of our country. This is not the Tanabata Festival that my soul craved earlier this year. It is even better: It is a collective reckoning, a culture coming to terms with itself.

Mariachi Plaza may be quieter than usual today, but children wearing medical masks still sell flowers, and neighbors drop off diapers and baby formula at the nearby YMCA. The smells of street-car tamales and freshly brewed café de olla fill the plaza with life every morning. And at Los Cinco Puntos, my community of the future is coming together.

Lucy Keiko Tambara is an essayist based in Loma Linda, California. She is currently writing a nonfiction book on generational healing and decolonization. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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