Dear Ohio: The Fight to Say We Are Good

by on October 17, 2019 · 4 comments

in Election, Ocean Beach

Aida Reyes

By Joni Halpern

Dear Ohio,

There were moments of hope on October 15, as I watched the youthful audience respond to the Democratic Presidential Candidate debate.  One word spoken often by almost all the candidates was “fight.”  “I will fight for you.”  “I will fight the billionaires.”  “I will fight for the American people.”  “I will fight the corporations.”

Why must we be so embattled?

I remembered the answer when I connected with a memory that had been plaguing me all that day.  October 15 was the birthday of Aida Reyes, who would have been 68 if she had outlived a vicious cancer.  Her body may have left us, but her spirit remains.  She was a person who always knew why we must fight and why we can never stop.

It is a condition of the human species that we are a combination of opposites, even within ourselves.  We can tenderly embrace a loved one, and five minutes later, we can scorch lash out at them in anger.  We can repose our deepest secrets in the trust of an admired friend, and tomorrow, we can suspect that friend of the vilest treachery.

We can celebrate our achievements until we destroy them.  Like a sculptor who never knows when to put down the carving tools, we are never satisfied.  Tinkering all the time, looking for perfection, we finally tap one too many times into the stone.  A crack opens, spreads, and finally creates a divide that no amount of tinkering can fix.  The once beautiful work of art we wrought crumbles at our feet, a victim of our own self-doubt.

Aida Reyes

Aida Reyes was a woman who understood that every moment is a fight to claim the beauty in ourselves and therefore, in each other.  It is a fight undertaken not in typical battle dress and certainly not with lethal weapons.  It is a fight for our own best selves, a lifelong effort to sculpt the chunk of granite that comprises each one of us so we may leave upon this earth some piece of artistry that even if covered by the sands of time, contributes to the beauty of this universe.

Not everyone has the same idea of what our “best selves” means.  Aida’s idea was simple.  When we could set aside our ignorance, fear, prejudice, cynicism, mistrust, anger, dishonesty, and vengeance, we could become in any given moment our best selves, able to create the kind of community in which we all feel cherished.

This, Aida knew, was the real fight – the one inside us, the one in which we prevail over our own worst inclinations.  For her, the fight took place on the battle lines of the haves and have-nots, the powerful and the powerless, the cared-for and the neglected.  Aida had first-hand knowledge of these battle lines, for she had been skirmishing along them her entire life.  She knew what it felt like to be scorned for her color, her accent, and her poverty.

But she also believed these attributes were tools used only by people whose ignorance afforded them no other means of sorting humanity into friend or foe.  Her role in the fight was to break through this ignorance and inform people of how intimately we are all connected, how much we are all the same.  If we could just get that through our thick heads, she often said, we could really build a thriving community and a robust nation.

Aida employed the full range of strategies to communicate this message.  In her arms, the poor found the warmest embrace and the deepest empathy for their suffering.  She made gifts to them of anything she had available.  But those who came to her for succor also received the admonition that life was not just about them, that even in their suffering, they had gifts within themselves to give, and they had a duty to make their voices heard.  For how could others not suffering in the same way understand the pain of poverty, if the poor remained silent.  “You must speak for others who cannot speak,” she even told the children.

To those who should have known better, she applied a more public strategy.  When George W. Bush took the rash step of invading Iraq, with barely a whisper of concern from the American people, Aida stood at the corner of a busy intersection with a sign that said “Bring down the Bush regime.  Not in our name!”  For months, she endured the jeers and curses of passersby in the heavily Republican neighborhood where she peacefully held her signs every weekend and many evenings each week.  There were only about four other people who stood with her.

Aida withstood the harassment of police when she permitted low-income children to paint her car with their flowers and statements of their hopes for the future.  She once had a notice stuck in her front door indicating the FBI had come calling.  She did not succumb to fear or ridicule, but continued reminding her fellow Americans of their better selves.

She led innumerable marches of the disenfranchised:  children suffering from hunger who could not get food stamps because of too many barriers to the program; workers who were paid too little to put a roof over their heads; parents who were falling into homelessness as a result of welfare reform.

She volunteered at a nonprofit serving the poor, listening to their stories, finding resources, challenging the public policies that ensured low-income families in the new millennium would never escape poverty.  Neither chemo, nor radiation, nor surgery could keep her from volunteering, though she sometimes was forced to rest on a small foam pad behind her desk.

She started a study hall in the office where she volunteered.  It consisted of a group of about six teenage boys who had dropped out of high school.  She got them enrolled in a charter school and supervised their studies, challenging them to claim the gifts and the goodness inside them.  “You are not what other people say you are,” she told them.  “You are each great in your own way.”

She confronted each boy with a mandatory face-to-face discussion about their obligations to their better selves whenever one of the teens lapsed into behavior that departed from her expectation of their greatness.  They all finished high school and got jobs.  They all showed up at her funeral, some with wives and little ones in tow.

Aida used to sing a song in Spanish about people who were so poor they lived in cardboard cartons.  It was so sad, we used to tease her, wringing away invisible tears and giggling every time she launched into the song, her eyes warming to the lyrics.

“You guys laugh at me,” she would say with a little smile.  “But this song reminds me of all the people who need help.  We should fight for them all our lives.  Or how can we say we are good?”

This is the fight, Dear Ohio.  The fight to say we are good.   Happy Birthday, Aida.






{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Molly October 17, 2019 at 7:49 pm

Nice article Joni. The older we get, the more the warriors who walked with us fall to the wayside and it’s very important to remember them.


Joni Halpern October 18, 2019 at 12:36 am

Thank you, Molly. You are so right. We must always remember the warriors who walked with us. I miss Aida every day. Thank you for taking the time to read this remembrance.


Ken Brucker October 18, 2019 at 1:27 pm

I’ve been to Ohio and have met Ohioans. The place where flight, astronauts, music that I love and a woman who I loved has become alien to me since 11/9/16.

The legislature in Columbus is under the sway of a cabal which is more interested in restricting a woman’s agency to do as she sees fit to do with her medical care than giving cities the tools that they need to re-build that they need to repair neighborhoods. When one considers that Ohio supported Trump in the 2016 election, one cannot ignore the nihilism associated with that choice. The same should be noted about Iowa and New Hampshire particularly when those states’ choice for POTUS dwarfs California’s vote for the same office. The electoral college and the existence of the U.S. Senate makes the games of leap frog that any state takes to set it’s primary earlier in an election year a lot of work with minimal return to California.

California is divergent from any of the previously mentioned states. We Californians value our immigrant neighbors. If the states in the interior of the continent could even muster a live and let live attitude about our undocumented neighbors, the United States would have a functional immigration system. Because they cannot, because they have the wisdom and spirit of active opiate addicts, they treat us Californian like abstractions and visit cruelty on our neighbors by promoting terror and human rights privations inflicted by federal law enforcement agencies. This means that children who are citizens – kids who we live around now in California- are subjected to life changing trauma and privations. These nihilists cannot be reasoned with to give everyone in the nation healthcare without regard to their legal status inside the U.S. They cannot be relied upon to act rationally to oppose climate change, support effective education or build housing. To the last point, Californians need to consider how many decades that HUD has been a zombie to allow so many of our neighbors to lose a permanent roof over their heads.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Californians cannot reason with these people. Looking at negotiating civic affairs with the majority of the United States as having an interaction as an equal with a rational, moral person is a mistake. Treating them as an abusive, addicted partner is what is in California’s best interest. Aida like Anastasio Hernández-Rojas, Dreamers who recited the Pledge of Allegiance each day that they attended our schools need for all Californians to be like the abused partner, to grab the kids and get to a safe place to be protected from the monster in the house. California should be talking about divorce and child custody with Ohio and the rest of the United States.


Chris October 21, 2019 at 7:45 am

Kind of ironic that among these people who cannot be reasoned with, many of them would also love nothing more than California to secede. Way to help perpetuate the snow flakey stereo type many non Californians have of us. I’m no Trumpian or right winger by any stretch but I’m not willing to give up my U.S. citizenship despite everything you listed. I’d be willing to bet neither would over 99.9 percent of liberals/progressives who call California home.


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