18,000 pained faces stare solemnly as the names of the deceased ring out across Harder Stadium: “George Chen, Cheng Yuan Hong, Weihan ‘David’ Wang, Veronika Weiss, Katherine Cooper, Christopher Michaels-Martinez.” Amidst the silence, there is only the barely audible click of press cameras. My skin prickles. This week, news vans took up residence on Pardall, Isla Vista’s main street, ready to capture a community that seems permanently caught between utopia and chaos. We seem to be the perfect paradox: a coastal paradise plucked straight from a movie set, yet marred with the crime rates of an inner-city ghetto. As UCSB students, we have slowly become desensitized to the ritual weekend emails that populate our inbox in the early hours. We reach for our phones and glaze over yet another police report; “Attempted robbery” blurs with “assault” and “suspected weapon”. To the outside world, we are a town of riots, tear gas, beached bodies and binge drinking.
I understand that; it’s what makes the news. But this half-painted picture cannot be the only one we offer. When I arrived in California from London at age 19, the kindness of this community astounded me. It took me from a scared, lonely freshman thousands of miles away from home to a passionate advocate for our little town and all its beauty. Isla Vista has mystified me, taught me and inspired me beyond my wildest imagination.
My mind leaves the stadium and wanders to the swaying eucalyptus groves that line the bluffs, their trailing leaves rustled by the warm afternoon wind. They carry an unmistakable scent that any Isla Vistan will recognize: the earthy fragrance of bark mixed with ocean breeze and just a hint of oil. For many of us, it smells like home.
A sea of students bob like seals in the glassy ocean, a movie scene that is nothing but another Tuesday afternoon in Isla Vista. There is beauty in this place and its people that can never be captured on cameras. They will never see us enter as wide-eyed freshmen, smitten with partying on Del Playa, but leave as activists, teachers, artists and entrepreneurs. They weren’t there as we swept broken glass from our streets after the riots, when we cleaned our beaches or raised $200,000 to save our local food co-op. We are so much more than the collective sum of our headlines. We are nearly two square miles of passion, learning and growth. Our town is so compact that it sometimes seems we feel a collective heartbeat. Emotions spread through our neighborhood like an incoming tide; we laugh together, play together and mourn together. Now, more than ever, we must heal together.
The sinking sun turns the ocean to liquid gold as hundreds of boards glide through the water, headed for the growing circle gathered for Wednesday’s Memorial Paddle-Out. I look around to see hundreds of my classmates bobbing beside me, hands interlinked in solidarity. We splash the water and chants echo to the open sky as we remember those we have lost. A feeling of unity flows through the vast circle like electricity. Saltwater mingles with tears and flowers arc the air, making rainbows on the ocean surface. Looking into the glowing faces of those around me, I have never felt so deeply connected to my fellow Gauchos.
“Now, turn to the person next to you and greet them,” the loudspeaker says. “Touch them, rub their hair, hug them.” I look around to see the ocean shift in a thousand embraces, and realize in this instant that our community is more powerful than I had ever imagined. I have never seen smiles more genuine, or felt hugs more sincere than in those moments, as the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean.
Right now, we may feel small and fragile after the actions of a few, of those who see our community only as something to be torn down. This week has taught me that the only power we have against these unstoppable forces is our kindness to one another, those actions that cost us nothing — the time we take to smile at strangers, listen with sincerity, show empathy and kindness to everyone who crosses our path. Days after the event that shook our town, a sense of fragility still fills the air, but it is tinged with something else, too. Now, words seem gentler, the smiles longer, the embraces tighter.
On my way home from class, I gaze at the bullet holes peppering the glass of I.V. Deli, the site of Christopher’s shooting. Flower petals spread over and around these wounds, almost eclipsing the original scars in the window, and spill in the hundreds onto the sidewalk below. As we begin to recover, I can only hope that we don’t forget what this week has taught us.
In the words of a banner tied to a house on Sabado Tarde, “What we do now is up to us.” Let us tread lightly on this beautiful patch of land we call home for four years. Let us show respect and kindness as if it were our only means of survival, because that might just be the case. Let us realize that our love for one another is our only defense, but that together, we are strong.
Hanna Mendoza is a fourth-year global studies and technology management double major.