Through walks, gardening and dance, Amador Aguilar brings Salem together

Before Noemi Almanza opens her business for the day, she takes a mile-long walk around the La Pulguita flea market on Northeast Portland Road.

Almanza, her four children and her husband joined a small group heading out Saturday morning at 9:30 a.m., chatting with other flea market business owners. The group squeezed past traffic on narrow sidewalks and waved at construction workers building a home on Northeast Blossom Drive.

“I get tired, but at the same time I feel like I get energy to do more stuff,” Almanza said of the walks.

They’re the brainchild of Amador Aguilar, a Northgate neighborhood resident who has spent more than 20 years working to build community connections in the area through his Enlace Cross-Cultural Community Development Project.

His goal is to give people the tools to be active participants in their neighborhood — a topic that’s been a renewed community focus over the past year as Salem leaders discuss how to combat an increase in gun violence that disproportionately affects northeast Salem.

“We are not (the) solution, but we want to be part of this,” Aguilar said.

Amador Aguilar walks around the La Pulguita flea market in Northgate on Saturday, April 13, 2024 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Though no elected officials have put forward a plan to fund programs, there’s been broad agreement that in the long term, preventing violence will take community organizations working to give people, especially young people, safe places to go and programs where they can be themselves. 

Engaging people in their neighborhoods is a related goal, encouraging neighbors to look out for each other and take care of community spaces like parks.

Aguilar said neighborhoods need “different tools that can help the neighborhood be strong to face these kinds of challenges.”

The walks are the latest piece in a toolbox that Aguilar has been slowly assembling over the years.

His focus is on building small connections over time — having a handful of ballet folklorico dancers perform at the Northgate Peace and Forgiveness Garden, or offering free guitar lessons to farmworkers at Englewood Forest Festival. He wants people in Salem to better understand one another and connect across cultures.

“It looks like it’s only me, but behind us there are more people,” he said.

Dancers with Enlace Cross-Cultural Community Development Project perform at a spring easter event at Northgate Park on Saturday, March 30 (Courtesy/Eduardo Angulo)

Enlace offers regular classes in Mexican folkloric dance and music, teaching everyone from preschoolers to adults. Performers are a fixture at many community events, like a recent spring and Easter celebration in Northgate Park.

Enlace started about 25 years ago after Aguilar, a mechanical engineer by training, lost his job working at Xerox when the company closed some of its operations in Wilsonville. He always wanted to make a difference in his community and figured it was the perfect chance to pursue his dream.

He describes his work with Enlace like engineering — trying different strategies to build bridges between people to see what works and develop formulas that can be used again and again.

Aguilar began leading the community walks last year, but Enlace’s work at the La Pulguita market goes back a decade.

One weekend a month, he and his wife Veronica spend the day in the market, working out of a booth on the west side that’s stuffed with children’s books and musical instruments.

They offer walks, music performances, reading, art activities, seed planting and more, aiming to connect with the children who often spend the weekend inside the market working in their parents’ shops.

“They don’t have the opportunity to go outside sometimes,” Aguilar said.

Participants in a community walk organized by Enlace Cross Cultural Development Project pose before opening their businesses for the day at La Pulguita flea market in Salem’s Northgate neighborhood on Saturday, April 13, 2024 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Almanza said she appreciates the community within the market, where she and her husband sell new tools they acquire from distributors after they’ve been returned to large retailers like Home Depot.

On Saturday, she brought her children to the Enlace booth, where they made paper masks.

“The people here, it’s friendly, we care about each other,” she said. “I feel like my kids are safe.”

McKay High School freshman Brenda Juarez volunteers at the booth, setting up activities for kids. She began working with Enlace a few months ago, trading community service for free guitar lessons after seeing Aguilar while shopping.

“I wanted to learn how to play,” she said.

The Enlace booth at the La Pulguita flea market is a hub for chldren’s activities, reading and music. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Aguilar has also had a hand in many community projects in northeast Salem in recent years. 

He helped organize the painting of a neighborhood street mural in 2022.

For six years, he’s been the garden coordinator for the Peace and Forgiveness garden, which is run by Marion Polk Food Share.

He works with a group of about 20 regular volunteers to maintain and expand the space. Some of the beds are tended by families who keep what they grow. Others produce food for the community and food share.

As he works in the garden, Aguilar talks to people who come by: homeless people, kids skipping school, families out and about. He tries to get people involved through word of mouth.

Amador Aguilar clears a branch in the Northgate Peace and Forgiveness Garden in January 2024. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

In 2018, Auilgar earned the city’s Vern Miller Key Citizen award, which recognized “an outstanding citizen, who may never be identified with a major project, but who contributes time and energy year after year.”

As spring dawns, Aguilar is preparing for a busy season of garden programs, walks and other community events.

He’s also seeking nonprofit status for Enlace, which will allow them to receive grants to offer more free lessons and other programs.

April is the beginning of Enlace’s community walks season. The La Pulguita walk and day of activities happens the second Saturday of the month starting at 9:30 a.m.

Other walks are scheduled on the third Friday of the month, meeting at Don Froylan, and on the fourth Thursday at 6 p.m., meeting at the Northgate garden. (The Friday, April 19, garden walk is canceled so people can attend a Spanish-language gun violence forum the Salem Police Department is putting on.)

On Saturday, April 20, Enlace and the Hallman Northgate Family Council are putting on a free Earth Day event in the garden from 4-7 p.m. There will be pizza and time for volunteers to weed, a craft to maks spring masks, dancing and drumming.

For more information on Enlace activities, follow the group’s Facebook page.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.