In the early morning of Sept. 12, 2010, Adolfo Ignacio Celedón Bravo died shortly after being shot on Emerson and Adeline streets during an armed robbery. He had been walking home with his fiancée, Amber Daniela Nelson, after a night of dancing at Ashkenaz on his birthday eve. Berkeley police are still looking for two assailants who murdered Celedon, 35, near the Ashby BART station. There is a $20,000 reward for information that leads to his killers.
Nelson doesn’t use that terminology. She uses a different verb – she says Fito (his nickname) transitioned.
In the seven years since Fito died, Nelson has confronted her grief and remembered her fiancée in many ways. She is back in Berkeley this week and will be holding a work party in the garden she created for Celedón at 1 p.m. on Tuesday. She also plans to hold a press conference at the garden at 3 p.m. to speak out against a development that would destroy the garden
Celedón 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 around South America. He took acting classes in Chile. He traveled to Peru, Bolivia and Chile with Nelson after they met in 2008, acting along the way.
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 at Emerson and Adeline streets.
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.”
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 20 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 at 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; choose 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 spilled, and photograph it.
The mosaic has had several different looks over the years.
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!
Stickers and flyers. And then – a garden.
The owner of Flaco’s, located near the spot where Fito was killed, 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 Dec. 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 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 master’s degree, finishing in late 2012 with her thesis “Dimensioning the Public Sacred.”
Nelson stayed in the apartment on Fairview Avenue that 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 but could not find it. Through Craigslist, 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 she took to Brazil in 2013 (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 capoeira friends about Fito, Bayfair got sick. The bird nestled into her hands and died.
And I don’t need to tell you that Nelson 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. When her capoeira master, Mestre Acordeon (born Ubirajara Almeida), announced he 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 knew.
Nelson drove the van that accompanied the bicycle riders. She left Berkeley on Sept. 1, 2013, returning for a day on Sept. 12, Fito’s birth and death day. They arrived in Bahia on Sept. 12, 2014 – one year later – and in the city of Salvador de Bahia on Sept. 20, 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 has 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
“This tattoo is meaningful to me for several reasons,” said Nelson. “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 eight 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 Nov. 5, 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 Dec. 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.
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, which has gently faded, and arranged them. Ramona scattered them, and they bowed to Fito.
Nelson continues to hope that the murderer will be found. She wants closure, but more than that – “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, Nelson seems content to let it transition with time and traffic.
The future of the garden is also uncertain. There is a multi-story, multi-unit residential development planned for the site which would necessitate the demolition of Flaco’s and put Fito’s garden in peril. Nelson will continue on her magical journey with Fito present. Ramona will grow up knowing loving parents and knowing of a loving Tio Fito.
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. The 5-year-old was killed Feb. 27, 2009, when he was struck by a truck while on an after-school outing.
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 storyteller. 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.
Tom Dalzell, a labor lawyer, created a website, Quirky Berkeley, to share all the whimsical objects he has captured with his iPhone. The site now has more than 8,000 photographs of quirky objects around town as well as posts where the 30-year resident muses on what it all means.