My Luis Garden Acosta

Luis Garden Acosta (Photo courtesy of El Puente)

[Editor’s note: Brooklyner Luis Garden Acosta died on Jan. 8 at the age of 73. Mourned by many city officials, Garden Acosta was a longtime community activist, civic leader and co-founder of El Puente (the Bridge), which brought progressives, clergy, and residents of Williamsburg together to devise grass-roots solutions to health, education, and social justice issues. Below, veteran New York City labor leader Heriberto (Ed) Vargas pays tribute to his friend from childhood.]

I met Luis around 1954 – I was 6 and he was 9. He lived at 133 Navy Walk and I at 125 Navy Walk. At the time I didn’t know that our mothers had known each other for a long time. He became my big brother and mentor forever. Luis was a rocker, not as in rock ’n’ roll but a rocker when he thinks. He would sit in his straight chair, rocking back and forth, back and forth. Great things were happening in his head during this time, but not always. Sometimes he would stop and say, “Let’s go to the store and buy some Twinkies.”

When I was in the Cub Scouts, he was in the Boy Scouts and had all the merit badges one could get. He didn’t have just one sash – he needed two sashes to fit all the merit badges.

When I was a little older, he brought me and a few other friends to his Boy Scout troop on Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights. After about three months with the troop Lou was called in by the troop leader and was told that they had enough kids from the projects and he didn’t need to bring any more. This was the first time I saw Lou very, very angry. He came to me and the others and said, “If they don’t want us, we don’t need them, and we’re quitting and leaving these racist people.” And that’s just what we did. It was my first act of defying injustice.

Luis went on to seminary school, because he wanted to become a priest and when he came home, we’d call him Brother Lou. We spent a lot of time together during his time home in the summer, listening to the music of Cal Tjader, Eddie and Charlie Palmieri, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Cuba and Harry Belafonte to name a few. At times, we’d talk about whether he still wanted to be a priest or not. He wanted to change things and was beginning to think that the priesthood was not the only direction. I think some of this was also because he met a girl in the projects he really liked and questioned the vows a priest must swear to. The two fell in love and had their daughter Arianne, who he loved dearly.

Around 1962, a lot of the local kids started to hang out at the St. James Church with the help of two radical priests who worked out of the box to bring families and youth together. Batman and Robin were the names we gave Father Powis and Father Sullivan, and they became our mentors and helped us form clubs: the Chalices, the Christinians (for girls), the Mysticals, the Disciples, and others. These clubs gave us an alternative to the drugs and dangers of the projects. Luis, as always, recruited the young bloods from the projects and formed a club called the Roman Cardinals. During the blackout of ’65, Luis grabbed me and others to go home to get flashlights and head towards the subway station at Jay Street and Myrtle Avenue. There we escorted people home when everything was black. Luis was always organizing.

The ’60s were a turbulent time across America – President Kennedy was killed, churches were burned in the South, the Vietnam War was raging, we witnessed the assassinations and murders of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner.

In Brooklyn and in Fort Greene, things were changing. The projects had started out integrated, but white families had been moving out and by the late ’60s it was only blacks, Latinos, and very poor whites who remained. You were either drafted into the military (Vietnam War), arrested and put in jail, strung out on drugs, or you became radicalized.

Luis became radicalized – he saw better than most the injustices that would take hold of our communities and that we must do something to protect our neighborhoods and those that look like ours across the nation. He would join and become part of the leadership of an organization called the Young Lords. A group of mostly Latino men and women, they served our communities by educating our youth, providing breakfast programs so children would not go to school hungry, so they could learn better. Teaching parents how to keep their apartments and making sure that heat, water, and electricity would stay on and that the police would not take advantage of them. This was of course done mostly bilingually because most of our families spoke Spanish or English – although sometimes neither very well. These tools would come in handy later in life for Luis.

I went into the service, got married and lived in Riverside, California, and Luis kept organizing. We kept in touch but we were doing our own things.

In 1982, Luis, his wife Frances Lucerna, and Gino Maldonado, founded El Puente, his baby. He would describe El Puente (the Bridge) as the bridge to bring people together and break the tension in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn. The bridge between the Hassidim and Latino communities, the bridge between the different Latino and ethnic groups (Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, African Americans, etc.), the bridge between being a young teen and becoming a young adult.

They did this through education and teaching skills, foremost the skill to be responsible to oneself and others. To become a rounded, educated person through arts, dance, ethnic pride, reading, and community commitment. The development of El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, an alternative high school, is a lasting legacy of a great team. Living once again in New York, I was persuaded by Luis and Gino to join the Board of Directors for El Puente in the early days, which I did gladly for the time I could make that commitment.

The bond between Luis and Frances was special: He was the community organizer, she was the educator and artist. He had all these ideas swirling in his head as he rocked back and forth, and she would look at him in a way that said, “earth to Luis, earth to Luis,” that would help keep him grounded. Then their daughter, Raisa, came into their lives and she became the heart and soul of the family.

After our daughter, Sofia, was born, my wife Liz and I wanted to celebrate the first year of her life, and we went to Luis. We wanted someone who in a special way could perform a meaningful ceremony. I called him and he said, “Ed, I would be honored to do it,” and he did it beautifully, weaving in the many strands of our lives and our values.

Luis, you will always be with me and my family. We love you and your family. Frances, thank you for sharing him with us all, and Lynda (sister), thank you too – with love from Ed, Liz, Sofia, Greg and Ariane Vargas.

Heriberto (Ed) Vargas is a veteran New York City labor leader.

A funeral mass for Luis Garden Acosta was held on Jan. 12. A public memorial service will be held in coming months; please check the El Puente website for details.

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