Across the tutor’s living room where our freshman orientation took place, the young man with the glistening black pompadour and moustache immediately caught my eye. Fresh from Roosevelt High School, Alfred looked more grown up than the rest of us motley freshmen moving into Harvard’s Canaday Hall dorm. His startling hazel eyes stood out against his brown skin, reflecting more of life’s heartbreak than the rest of us had seen, already alchemizing it into compassion.
There was something in his manner simultaneously foreign to a girl who had grown up in New York City’s trendy Tribeca and familiar to a girl whose father’s family hailed from Boyle Heights. Over the next four years, our tight-knit group of multi-cultural misfits helped each other weather Harvard’s pressures by singing and dancing to Ana Gabriel and Elvis Crespo until the sun came up.
As long as I’ve known Alfred Fraijo, he has loved art, becoming an accomplished painter himself. Now, he’s more abstract. Back then, he painted lone, winged men, their heads tilted downward somberly, their backs to the viewer – angels.
Our first year of college, Alfred lost his father to a sudden heart attack while he was home for spring break. When he watched his father die, Alfred said, he’d felt an overwhelming urge to heave with sobs. But as soon as he saw his mother and sister fall apart, his soul sucked his feelings backward like a vacuum so that he could hold his family together.
Not yet out of his teens and just beginning to navigate the alien territory of America’s Ivory Tower ––to say nothing of his nascent understanding and acceptance of himself as a gay man– Alfred, the first member of his far-reaching Chicano family to finish high school, became “Dad.”
He put his head down, kept ironing his jeans, and exercised the same emotional muscle that had enabled him to see the corpse of a young gang member on the street outside his childhood home and still excel at school, while working seven hours a day at his weekend job. Seeing the dead boy “was an experience, but it wasn’t life-changing,” he told a Los Angeles Times reporter for a 1995 profile when he was a Roosevelt senior. “It didn’t make me want to move.”
He stayed true to his word. Upon graduating from Harvard — where he’d won a full ride, worked, advanced the LGBTQ association, run Raza, strategized how to one day help his community, and worn a sarape sash over his graduation gown — he could have taken a lucrative job on Wall Street, as many of our classmates did. Instead, he returned to Boyle Heights and attended Loyola Marymount Law School. His mother and sisters made tamales for hundreds at his 2002 graduation party.
After a stint at a firm in San Francisco, he returned once again, surprising his mom with the bungalow on Camulos Street, where she still lives, fulfilling her lifelong dream of owning a home. He helped raise his younger siblings, enabling them to follow his footsteps to college. He has saved friends and family members in ways no one will ever learn.
He has leveraged his position as a successful real estate and land use lawyer at the esteemed Sheppard-Mullin law firm to expand housing options for people in his community, to find a permanent home for Self-Help Graphics, the Chicanx art collective founded there in 1973, and to help spearhead the Hollywood Central Park Project, a green space to be built over the 101 freeway.
He founded the nonprofit community development organization LURN (Leadership for Urban Renewal Network, Inc.), which helped win a major victory for small immigrant-owned businesses as part of a campaign to legalize LA street food vendors. He founded the Honor PAC to launch progressive LGBTQ Latinx candidates, including State Senator Ricardo Lara, currently running for California Insurance Commissioner. Alfred joined the board of Farmworker Justice, passionately supporting legal aid for immigrant farm workers, like his maternal grandmother, who as a lone teen had fled sexual assault in Sinaloa with her baby, Alfred’s mother, on her back, to pick strawberries and lettuce in California’s fields.
Alfred and his partner created the CityLabs co-working spaces in Boyle Heights, to help foster entrepreneurship and creativity in underserved communities. It’s the home of Mi Centro, a bilingual LGBTQ center that offers youth and senior services, family counseling, immigration support and legal services, among others. He became a patron of Latina and Chicano queer emerging artists from Los Angeles, including Boyle Heights, to support the vision of those making the unseen seen.
Now, Alfred is a husband and a father, his pompadour and mustache long gone. He still paints, when he can find the time. I’ve been thinking about his early angel paintings. Did the angels represent his father? Dead vatos on the streets of Boyle Heights? Figures out of an iconic Chicano street mural?
Those who know him understand that the real angel of Boyle Heights is Alfred himself, lifting others like him on his many-colored wings.