Hector Centeno has lived in the same building for forty years. It’s at the corner of Irving and Mt. Pleasant, enormous and gleaming white. When his mother moved in, the building was burnt out, abandoned. Some apartments didn’t have water or gas, with holes in the walls. She was part of a group of families that took it over, fighting the city to make it their own.
Hector was five then, living with his godparents in Mexico. His father came to bring him to the States, a trip Hector remembers only in images: the little violin and Hot Wheels car he played with on the bus; an abandoned church near the border; meeting his father for the first time.
Once Hector got to D.C., the building became part of his family. The older kids watched out for him, walking him to Bancroft Elementary so he wouldn’t get jumped. It was 1980, when walking to school could be a risk. And there were risks at home: one of the building’s first occupants was murdered in her apartment. A stranger was shot and killed outside the front door. “Were you frightened?” I ask Hector. He shakes his head. Never.
He was too much a part of the community to be frightened. His parents helped start D.C.’s Festival Latino, and Hector rode a float every year, dressed up and representing Mexico. He assembled pie boxes at Heller’s and had a standing order at Kenny’s BBQ for nights his mother was too tired to cook. To this day, everyone on Mt. Pleasant Street knows his name. “It’s like the main street of a small town,” he says, adding, “I’m one of the few old faces around.”
He’s happy to still be here. His five-year-old daughter is used to hearing, “This is where your daddy grew up; this is your grandmother’s apartment; this is your home.” By the time he was her age, Hector had lived in Michoacán, Mexico City, and D.C.; his daughter has slept in the same bedroom her whole life. Even if they don’t live there forever, she understands: the building is a part of her family, too.
"If you want to play basketball,” Nequoiah Anderson says, “you’re going to listen, you’re going to focus, and you’re going to come.” She’s smiling, but if you were one of the elementary school boys she coaches at Imagine Hope Community Charter, your knees would be shaking. Nequoiah is serious about her game.
She always has been. When she was a toddler, her mother used to plunk her in front of NBA games, “with my bottle and my Barbie,” knowing there was no better way to keep her daughter amused. Starting when she was four, Nequoiah played at the Metropolitan Police Boys and Girls Clubhouse on 14th Street, which she just calls Number 10. Number 10, she says, is her community. It’s where she learned to play, where everyone she loved came to cheer. “My friends didn’t take basketball seriously,” she says, “but they used to love to watch me play.” Her mother and siblings? “The loudest family in the gym.”
These days, Nequoiah coaches and plays in the military league at Fort Myers while she trains to join a team overseas. Italy would be great, especially for the food. Dubai would be interesting, if only to see what life’s like in a country that rich. But the place isn’t important, really. What’s important is a life where, “I can get my hands on a basketball and work with kids that want to learn.”
There’s another basketball story here, too. Nequoiah was once a high school star who kept fuzzing out mid-conversation, figuring she was just tired from four-game days until a grand mal seizure landed her at Children’s Hospital, where she learned she had a brain tumor. Her mother cried; Nequoiah didn’t. “I wasn’t scared,” she says. “I had no other option. They had to crack my skull open, so they did. And I was playing college basketball two months later.” Basketball, she says, got her through. No wonder she’s serious about the game.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Washington, DC. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in NPR, the LA Review of Books, Make Magazine, and Bogotá 39: New Voices from Latin America.