Newspapers reported that in the early morning of September 12, 2010, Adolfo “Fito” Celedon Bravo died shortly after being shot on this spot at Emerson and Adeline during an armed robbery as he walked home with his fiancée Amber Daniela Nelson after a night of dancing at Ashkenaz on his birthday eve. Nelson uses a different verb – he transitioned.
Celedon was Chilean. In Chile he studied business engineering and worked for IBM. He complained that esta corbata me mata – this necktie is killing me. He quit IBM three times and returned three times. When he quit the fourth time he didn’t return.
He busted out of conventional life to backpack and hitchhike South America. He took acting classes in Chile. He traveled in Peru, Bolivia and Chile with Nelson, acting along the way.
Celedon and Nelson met in Chile in 2008. Nelson was about to become a graduate student in architecture at Cal. He moved to the United States to be with Nelson. They moved in together in early 2010. To pay bills and support his acting, he worked at the Berkeley Marina. He told Nelson that he would build them a boat to retire in.
Here, he immersed himself in American culture. I asked Nelson if Fito spent time at La Peña with other Chileans. No, he didn’t. He said that if he had wanted to spend his time with Chileans he would have stayed in Chile.
He threw himself into street theater, focusing on the gap between the very wealthy and the homeless. He studied with and was inspired by Carlos Baron at San Francisco State.
Nelson wrote that Fito was “a man who was larger than life, passionate beyond reason, loving past words.”
When you read what Nelson has written and when you listen to her talk about Fito, you might think of Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon – “Madame, all stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true storyteller who would keep that from you.” This is a true story. There was death.
So what was Nelson to do after this truest of loves, her other half, was taken from her months before they were to marry?
First came the painted Imagine mosaic.
It is inspired by a mosaic in Strawberry Fields in Central Park where John Lennon is honored and remembered. Fito frequently referred to his love with Nelson as being as strong and poetic as John Lennon’s and Yoko Ono’s. At times Fito called Nelson “Yoko.” The mosaic there is based on a Greco-Roman design and was a gift to New York from Naples. Or it is in the style of Portuguese pavement, I have seen both claims.
Nelson says “The decision to paint the IMAGINE mosaic on the place where Fito died came to me as if a divine order. It was incredible. I emailed my friends with the idea and five hours later we had a crowd of twenty people, a laser-cut stencil replica of the original mosaic, and two colors of spray paint.”
In her graduate studies Nelson had worked on the idea of public sacred places. This is a public sacred place that did not follow her academic recipe. Instead it was created organically through daily contact when she was desperate for meaning and beauty. She later realized that it had arrived to the same conclusion as her academic recipe.
Nelson photographed the mosaic almost every day for two years, often enhanced with petals of flowers. The photo was the last step in a daily ritual: look over the garden and marvel at the growth since yesterday; close the best of the decaying matter already fallen from the plants; arrange a mandala on the mosaic; thank Fito and kiss the spot where his blood had spilt; and photograph it.
It has had several different looks over the years.
A collection of every individual photograph may be seen here.
By the six-month anniversary, Imagine was yellow and blue. Nelson closed the street to throw a block party to raise community awareness. For Fito and Nelson, blue and yellow were their colors.
This is what it looked like when I first saw it in early 2013 – green had been added – the colors of Brazil now!
Over the years, Nelson and others have touched it up.
Stickers and flyers. And then – a garden.
On the southeast corner of Emerson and Adeleine, near where Fito fell, is an organic taco stand named Flaco’s.
The owner suggested that Nelson install a plaque in the strip of land running along the sidewalk on Emerson Street. She suggested that the strip be cultivated and he agreed. The dirt – compacted mud. The existing plants – weeds. Nelson was a graduate student studying landscape architecture. She had given a lot of thought to public sacred places. The idea for a garden was perfect.
On December 12, 2010, friends gathered to prepare the soil and make the first plantings.
After a year, it had started to fill in:
And so the garden grew.
She began to play (yes – this is the correct verb) capoeira in August of 2011. It is a Brazilian art form that combines fight, dance, rhythm and movement. It would play an increasingly important role in her life over time.
She continued work on her Masters Degree, finishing in late 2012 with her thesis “Dimensioning the Public Sacred.”
Nelson stayed in the apartment on Fairview which she had shared with Fito. She felt his presence.
She told me a story about a cockatiel. I already know that I will not do it justice.
Nelson was at the Bay Fair BART station in San Leandro. A cockatiel flew to her. She took it home and named it Bayfair. The bird’s full name grew to be Bayfair “Fluffy Smith” Nelson in her imagined beginning of its life in a still-in-progress comic book.
She did not feel that she owned it, and so she gave it extraordinary freedom in her apartment, as in – no cage.. It chose one day to fly out the window. She watched in horror as a murder of crows descended on Bayfair, driving it from the sky.
She went to where she thought Bayfair came to earth. She could not find it. Through Craig’s list, though, she found the bird. On the day when Fito’s sister arrived for a visit – at the very moment when she arrived – Nelson was leaving to bring Bayfair home.
As it came time for Nelson to leave Berkeley for her trip to Brazil described below, she did not know what she was doing to do with Bayfair. Bayfair knew. The night that Nelson voiced her interest in joining the bicycle trip to Brazil and told her capoiera friends about Fito, Bayfair got sick. The bird nestled into her hands and died.
In honor of the bird, Nelson planted a parahebe perfoliata in the garden over the burial spot of Bayfair. Like the cocatiel, it is a native of Australia.
And I don’t need to tell you that she felt the presence of Fito in the bird.
Nelson was feeling detached from the earth and was looking for a way to bring herself back to the ground. She knew that her capoeira master, Mestre Acordeon (born Ubirajara Almeida) was hoping to commemorate his 70th birthday by riding his bicycle 14,000 miles from Berkeley to his hometown of Salvador da Bahia, Brazil.
Nelson drove the van that accompanied the bicycle riders. She left Berkeley on September 1, 2013, returning for a day on September 12th, Fito’s birth and death day. They arrived in Bahia on September 12, 2014 – one year later – and in the city of Salvador de Bahia on Sepember 20th, 2014 – her birthday and four years to the day since Fito was buried in Chile.
On the trip, Nelson scattered seeds from the California poppies from the Emerson Street sidewalk garden at every stop.
She got a tattoo showing an interpretation of the skyline of the trip’s highlights.
She explains the tattoo, from left to right:
peninha- a little feather, my capoeira name
desert- the cactus and hills of Baja California
mountain- the pine hills and volcanoes of Mexico and Central America
forest- the Amazon Rainforest, with the amazon river
farm- a corn or sugar cane field
shacks- simple grass huts
village- small group of houses
town- houses and some commercial buildings
bridge- The Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco, CA
city- Salvador, a sprawling global metropolis
b2b- Bay (Berkeley) to (Salvador da) Bahia, the name of Mestre’s project
Further: “This tattoo is meaningful to me for several reasons. First, it serves as a legend of the B2B trip, and all the landscapes we crossed making it happen. Second, it is strategically placed so that when I play capoeira, it presents itself to the other player, serving as a shield of protection. And third, it covers the gamma of earthly landscapes, and is a reminder for me as an architect and landscape architect, that biological and social diversity is why I do what I do.”
Juan Jose “Juanjo” González joined the trip in Oaxaca and biked the last 8 months to Brazil. He felt that he was too grounded and he saw the bike ride as a way to get his feet off the ground.
He and Nelson met, both looking for a new relationship with “normality.” They were, until reaching Bahia, trip buddies.
In Bahia, “When we said goodbye, goddess of the ocean Yemanjá spoke and the spark of romance lit.” They kissed. They moved to Rio de Janeiro on November 5th, 2014.
Fito spoke to Nelson in a dream – Quiero hijos contigo (I want to have children with you). She repeated these words to Gonzalez.
Their daughter Ramona was born on December 26, 2015.
In May 2017, Nelson visited Berkeley briefly with Ramona. The day she visited was beautiful, as was the garden.
The orange clock vine was there when Amber started the garden. It is a glorious vine. Nice free start for the garden!
The aeonium is an odd looking succulent with long, arching stems and rosettes of leaves that can often look artificial.
Alstroemeria, common name Peruvian lily.
The copihue is the national flower of Chile.
An Eye of God (Ojo de dios) still peeked out from the plants.
Fito stickers made by Nelson’s cousin Ashton Nelson once covered a utility pole and riser.
Now,not so much. Nelson shows Ramona the vestigial Fito sticker still visible.
She then took dropped flower petals to the Imagine sign, arranged them, Ramona scattered them, and they bowed to Fito.
Nelson returned for a work part at the garden on July 25,2017.
In cleaning up the garden, they found Eye of God that was originally placed over the spot where Bayfair is buried.
And once again, flower petals for Imagine.
Nelson continues to hope that the murderer will be found. She wants closure. For her, “closure” is something very specific.,”I simply want our clothes back that we were wearing that night. They’ve been locked up as evidence for almost seven years.”
As for Imagine, she seems content to let it transition with time and traffic.
A big challenge is posed by a planned development which would see demolition of Flaco’s and a multi-story, multi-unit residential building on the site, putting in peril Fito’s garden. Stay tuned on this one. Nelson spoke about her fears to the television stations that gathered for the garden clean-up party.
Nelson will continue on her magic journey with Fito present. Ramona will grow up knowing loving parents and knowing of a loving Tio Fito.
The Fito memorial is not quirky in any sense of the word, but the Rules Committee has a standing understanding that “quirky” exists here in no small part because it nearly rhymes with Berkeley.
I know of several other public sacred places in Berkeley.
There is the Zachary’s Corner memorial to young Zachary Cruz at Derby and Warring
And there is the memorial to Olivia Burke, Eimear Walsh, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcán Miller, and Ashley Donohoe who died in 2015 when a balcony at the Library Gardens apartments, rebranded now as the K Street Apartments, on Kittredge collapsed. As Joyce wrote in Finnegan’s Wake, they lived and laughed and loved and left. It is maintained with love.
There are more public sacred places, I am sure. If I write about the others, it will be with the same great caution and deference that governed me here.
This is a true story and I am trying to be a true story teller. Hemingway tells us that it must then end in death, but I don’t agree. Fito died, yes. But the story has not ended. It now lives with you too. True love doesn’t die that easily. The love transitioned, to be sure. But did it end? Clearly not. That kind of love doesn’t die.
I asked my friend what he thought of the post.
“Righteous.” That was all he could say for a while. “Righteous.”
It’s a good word for Fito and a good word for Amber. Anything more?
Thank you Tom, That is a truly beautiful story.
moving story and so well told. you brought all those people to life in a wonderful way. thank you.