The endangered Midwest hug — not yet, please!

Nicolás Dumit Estévez Raful Espejo

Nicolás Dumit Estévez Raful Espejo

performance artist and teacher who has worked across the USA and internationally

Albion Through My Eyes / Nicolás Dumit Estévez Raful


The Endangered Mid-West Hug – Not Yet Please!

The Earth is finally getting a break, but at what expense for many of us.

A stroll outside home in the Bronx reveals how much has changed so soon, very rapidly, in less than a week. Trees are buddying and flowers are blooming, seemingly oblivious, but not really, to the collective health devastation on our planet. I spot some ornamental cherries with blossoms coming right out of the tree trunk. I stop to query their logic, but nature can be quirky. No responses for me. Daffodils planted along the sidewalk are actually opening up, completely unbothered by passersby and their four-legged companions. Birds are minding their own bird business, which seems to me more like play, and the air quality Downstate resembles that of a rural Upstate town. The Earth is finally getting a break, but at what expense for many of us.

except for the group of Garífuna men from Honduras, who gather in community day in and day out, rain, thunder or shine, at Rainey Park, all spaces of public use are almost deserted.

The blossoms of the Bronx help to cheer the empty streets in April 2020.

Those who are part of the sparse pedestrian flow circulating around my neighborhood avoid being in proximity with one another. Most everyone is cautious. Many cars are parked, but only a handful is circulating the streets. And except for the group of Garífuna men from Honduras, who gather in community day in and day out, rain, thunder or shine, at Rainey Park, all spaces of public use are almost deserted. We have been instructed to elude gatherings of more than ten souls and to forgo physical contact as much as possible. In any case, New Yorkers do enjoy a good talk, but are not necessarily the most effusive people when it comes to greeting, the Bronx, in my opinion, being an exception. Getting a hello in certain parts of the city can sometimes be like pulling teeth. This brings me to the last Midwest hugs that I received not long ago. They came from Ikpemesi and her father James Ogundare during their visit to Manhattan from Ohio and Michigan.

Little did I know at the time that, as a result of the coronavirus, interactions would morph drastically. Our faces then were not donning masks and James, Ikpemesi and I moved freely along the High Line, the former elevated freight train tracks that have been repurposed as an urban garden. The afternoon was cool and sunny. Splendid. People were out in big numbers enjoying the city. Our encounter was brief and, of course, determined by how long Ikpemesi and James could park their car downtown. Two hours: coffee, tea, selfies, sightseeing, a stop at the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe on 14th Street to peek at its turquoise painted interior, and hugs at the end of our meeting by the entrance of the parking space on 13th Street. So fast!


Several weeks later, exchanges like those I had with Ikpemesi and James would take for sure a different contour. No handshakes permitted, much less the Midwest hugs that I learned to perform with ease while in residence in Albion. I am therefore curious as to how the current health situation is redefining the quotidian in that city, where physical displays of affection are key to its daily life. It could well be that the Midwest hug will have to be put in storage until the pandemic subsides. I might have read somewhere, or perhaps I am totally making this up, that such form of greeting was probably born out of the need to connect in a vast landscape with extreme winter temperatures. But New York is somewhat similarly cold, and the Dominican Republic, where I was born, enjoys pretty hot weather, and people do hug plenty in that Caribbean nation. All this said, hug or no hug, there is great love in the Bronx, and even citywide, if one learns how to intuit this and go beyond the superficial roughness that seems to characterize New Yorkers.

We too in the Bronx, like neighbors in Albion, are figuring out how we acknowledge each other in the midst of the virus. The Thomas Guess Neighborhood Senior Center, where I teach with a city program called SU-CASA and the Bronx Council on the Arts, is a good example of this. This elder haven is one of those places where everything seems to be happening all at once, from enacting friendship to playing domino games, to watching TV and tending to a couple of ring-neck doves—to cake sharing, to eating bagels and drinking coffee, while working on coloring books and welcoming those who arrive for the day. “Are you new?” Asked a senior, as he opened the door for me at the center, hence welcoming me unknowingly into my own seniorhood. My midlife rite of passage!

The public areas, usually full of life, are strangely empty in the spring of 2020, in the Bronx as elsewhere.

Friendly hugs, I must admit, are not a rarity at these premises, that was, until last week, when I forgetfully shook an elder’s hand and he pulled out a bottle of sanitizer. I assured him that I would try to remember not to do this again. He smiled gently. No words. Empathy. A few days later the center closed until further notice, and with it all of the love and caring that the group kindles everyday, under one roof, including hugs, handshakes and referring to one another other as “sweetie.”

Talking about hugs as an endangered form of affection at this moment in history might not be an exaggeration on my part. Hugs have being brought to an abrupt halt for obvious safety reasons. I therefore question how a prolong stay of the virus could redefine who we are in the long run, especially in Albion. That is so, because who we are happens in connection to those around us and as result of our interactions. We co-regulate one another through eye contact, conversations, the sharing of stories and, yes, through touch. Hugs bring two hearts in close proximity, physically and emotionally. If a handshake reassures a potential enemy that one is not carrying a weapon, a hug spells surrender and momentary fusion with another being.

A hug protects the back of the one being hugged from harm, symbolically speaking.

A hug protects the back of the one being hugged from harm, symbolically speaking. It also spells, in essence, the act of accepting the other as that person is, and in opening oneself to another person as one is. Hugs help us acknowledge life and mortality. Every time we hug another person, we hold their bones in our arms; their skeletons. We hug them in life and death simultaneously.

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Albion Through My Eyes – A collection of images, videos, and writings about Albion, Michigan by
Nicolás Dumit Estévez Raful Espejo

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