Posters of Caribbean spices and tropical beaches are still plastered on the building where Harold “Lefty” Encarnacion served the community for more than 20 years.
So it seemed like just another one of his block parties as more than 200 people gathered Wednesday night at the place where Millie’s International Market once stood. However, this time the crowd was there - not for the salsa music, not for the sultry Latin artists, or the spicy Caribbean food that Lefty always provided.
They were there to honor the memory of the community leader who died Tuesday at age 62.
The mourners lit candles and sang songs about Lefty ascending to heaven with the angels, then held hands as they recited the Lord’s prayer. Lefty’s wife, Millie, stood among them, showered with hugs and kisses.
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The crowd represented a variety of ethnic backgrounds and generations.
“It’s not just Hispanic,” said Shevon Thomas, a local attorney originally from Jamaica. “It’s a community that shares a lot of old ways, some norms, some foods and music....And for some reason this spot has sort of become a melting pot for a lot of people.”
As he spoke, I thought about Lefty and how happy he would’ve been to see so much love and support.
I first started writing about Lefty a little over a year ago when he was planning the Third Annual Latino Tri-city Festival. At the time, he was still running his grocery store, restaurant and the city’s only Hispanic radio station.
Lefty was so full of life then and hopeful for the future.
It’s amazing how quickly things changed.
A couple months after the story ran, I stopped by Lefty’s store and he revealed to me that he was losing the radio station and having trouble running his business.
I continued to write about his struggles and learned with each visit that the situation was only getting worse.
Then two months ago, Lefty told me that he was closing the business due to declining health. He found out later that he needed a liver transplant.
Through it all, his only concern was how the situation would affect his family and community.
One day, Lefty’s sister, Yolanda, called me to say she was starting a GoFundMe campaign to help with his medical expenses. I wrote two columns trying to drum up community support, and we continued to keep in touch.
When I learned that Lefty died, I tried calling Yolanda. I found out a few hours later that she had died unexpectedly a week earlier.
It was a bizarre twist in a saga that began to feel like a Shakespearean tragedy. My heart goes out to the entire family.
But there was some solace in seeing the crowd Wednesday. And I’m sure Lefty would have been pleased.
He brought everyone together - even in death.