Yesterday, while I was attending a memorial service at the University of California, a tragedy was happening in my own neighborhood. A happy-go-lucky teenager rode a go-cart down an alley onto Bancroft Avenue, right into the path of an oncoming truck. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Highland Hospital. Sixteen-year-old Miguel Caicedo was the beloved cousin of the African American student who walks my dog, and he used to pass by my house frequently.
I live two blocks away from the accident scene in a quiet, racially diverse, residential neighborhood in southwest Berkeley. On Saturday evening I walked to the spot where the accident happened. It was marked by a photo poster of Miguel (known as “Snoopy”) tacked to a telephone pole, surrounded by flowers, candles, and dozens of quiet, sad-eyed friends, relatives and neighbors. Many of them, like Miguel, were teenagers of color, wearing the predominantly red and black clothes that had worried some of my neighbors recently. There had been a steady presence at the site for more than 24 hours. Earlier there had been outbursts of anger at the police for their handling of the accident (details of which are still unclear) and an incident involving some gang-like provocation, but generally it has been quiet, respectful, tearful.
At about 7 p.m. the family arrived and an informal, impromptu memorial began. His mother was barely able to speak, but his aunt, clearly a neighborhood earth mother, begged the youngsters not to stop coming around; she would still cook for them and watch out for them. Miguel, she said, had been turning his life around, and was well on his way to success. He was in school and had a job at the nearby after-school center, Berkeley Youth Alternatives. Miguel’s only fault seemed to be youthful over-enthusiasm; the many loving tributes on the poster board on the sidewalk attested to his warm-heartedness. His aunt’s message, repeated by other speakers, was strong and clear and mainly directed to the teenagers: make the outcome of this tragedy positive; make your own lives worthwhile; don’t make trouble or hate others; study; love your family, and each other.
Looking around, she celebrated the diversity of the mourners and begged us all to work together and not let color divide us. A male relative led a prayer, quoting Martin Luther King and John Donne; a beautifully written, heartrending poem by a young friend was read; we all held hands and observed a moment of silence; a young woman broke into a chorus of “Amazing Grace.”
I don’t suppose anyone really believes this teenage community will become a model generation overnight. A realistic message from Miguel’s grandmother was relayed, telling the teenagers they could come to the funeral in their street clothes, but please, just this once, pull up those baggy pants. I think they will. And maybe more. The rain that began to fall could not quench the hope springing from the sadness.