The brisk morning air under gray skies didn’t chill the festive mood along International Boulevard last Friday on the lot of taco truck Aguachiles El Tamarindo. Billed as “a taco truck lot take-over,” the “Fruitvale Fiesta” event marked the kick-off of Berkeley-based Center for Independent Living‘s (CIL) week-long 50th anniversary celebration and, in particular, the re-opening of its Fruitvale office following the pandemic.
Featuring free burritos and tacos, a DJ and live music, and representatives from a dozen area community organizations, CIL hoped to get the word out about its expanded outreach at its Oakland office, where it has been a presence in the Fruitvale district since 2000.
CIL grew out of a ground-breaking program at UC Berkeley led by Ed Roberts, a Cal student with post-polio respiratory quadriplegia who spent most of his day in an iron lung. According to a history by a fellow co-founder Hale Zukas, Roberts and a small, gutsy group of fellow disabled students started in the 1960s to advocate for and secure a range of campus services, including finding notetakers for classes and attendants for daily living needs.
For example, ramps — now standard in building codes — were attached to buildings and the world’s first curb cuts, also standard code in municipal design, extended several blocks down Telegraph Avenue. A growing number of local community members with similar needs sought out their services, from repairing wheelchairs to finding accessible and affordable housing. By the time CIL opened its doors in 1972, it had already sparked the worldwide Independent Living Movement, and the blueprint for over 400 replica centers nationwide along with similar organizations in 20 countries.
DJ Trilce set the morning’s tone with a steady stream of hip-hop accented Latin music as local residents drifted in, browsed, and found out more about local community groups. Longtime Fruitvale anchor groups like La Clinica and La Familia tabled alongside the East Oakland Collective and the Alameda County Registrar of Voters during the event.
A face painter sketched colorful renderings to the customer’s liking next to a “quiet table” for folks to explore their own artistic expression. Local artists with disabilities displayed their work while guests lined up to enjoy their choice of Aguachiles El Tamarindo’s menu offerings, courtesy of CIL’s Fruitvale office.
At one of the tables, visual artist Charles Blackwell displayed his paintings. Blackwell identified himself as legally blind and uses a cane for mobility. “I just received a beautiful compliment from this woman who was speaking Spanish,” Blackwell said. “I only know a few words. This is a great bringing together of people: Mexicans, Blacks, whites, people speaking to each other face-to-face, the way it’s supposed to be.” Blackwell is in the planning stage with several other disabled artists in creating a mural at the Ashby BART station where the elevator leads to the Ed Roberts Campus, home of CIL’s main office.
Under the bright sun of early afternoon, Mariachi Colima de Javier Magallón serenaded the food line which now snaked through the lot as a couple of CIL’s bilingual staff and one of their clients talked about the event. Adelene Miranda, bilingual program coordinator, said, “Given the pandemic and our offices being closed, we’re grateful for the turn out. Trust is a big thing here.” Program director Zayda Ortiz, who oversees CIL’s programs added, “I think today is a pretty nice overlay with Hispanic Heritage Month which ends tomorrow. I’m also Latina and I work closely with Adelene. Different needs come up with different consumers. We brainstorm solutions together.”
Concepcion Hernandez, a wheelchair user in the neighborhood, told Oakland Voices through a Spanish interpreter that she is grateful for all the assistance she has received from CIL. “I’m very emotional, excited and grateful to be here today,” Hernandez said. “They helped me apply for housing and gave me health and other kinds of information. I hope many more people will come to their office. I know people who could get more services.”
As he waited for the food line to ease, CIL’s new executive director Ted Jackson told Oakland Voices, “The fiesta is exactly what I expected. Folks are cycling through. We get a chance to talk to them about what we do. Our partner organizations in the neighborhood get to talk about what they do. It’s a fun, relaxing environment where folks feel safe enough to reveal their, or a family member’s, needs for services related to disability. It’s a great way to increase the number of people we serve here.”
Beyond the Fruitvale fiesta, CIL has a busy week ahead. A free, live-streamed three day summit conference runs from October 19-October 21, with different themes each day: independent living, community engagement, and employment. A street fair follows on Saturday and Gala Awards Dinner on Sunday.
“The week is a way to bring everyone together to celebrate this 50th anniversary milestone,” Jackson said. “We have the opportunity to relearn from the past — where we’ve been, where we’ve come from, and how we did it — to refuel ourselves and renew our work into the future.”
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CIL’s Reflection, Reunion, Renewal concludes with a street fair on October 22 in front of the Ed Roberts Campus, Noon to 5:00 pm on Adeline between Ashby and MLK Jr. Way and the 50th Anniversary Gala, October 23, 4 pm – 8 pm, at the Ed Roberts Campus.