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My Boston History

I was the little girl running to her mom because the neighbor boy couldn’t see past the color of her skin

City Councilor at Large Julia Mejia recalls an encounter from her Dorchester childhood, and celebrates a city of today working across differences with compassion and love.

Julia Mejia lifts up the hand of her daughter, Annaliese Cooper, as they celebrate at her inaugural party in Roxbury in January 2020.
Julia Mejia lifts up the hand of her daughter, Annaliese Cooper, as they celebrate at her inaugural party in Roxbury in January 2020.Erin Clark for The Boston Globe

In the summer of 1981, I went for a bike ride. Days like those felt so uncomplicated — strap on your knockoff Nikes, hop on a borrowed bike, and take the scenic route through the streets of Dorchester. Riding along, it felt like another great day in my 11-year-old world. But I could hear someone behind me. I turned back to see who it was.

It was Bobby.

Bobby was the neighbor boy, and something about growing up next to a brown-skinned immigrant girl with a Dominican mother made his blood boil. Bobby stepped out from his yard, with his mean-looking German shepherd glaring right at me. Before I had the chance to react, Bobby unleashed his dog and sicced him on me. My heart raced as I pedaled faster and faster to try and escape. Everything felt like it was in slow motion, from the time that dog began charging, to the moment he struck my legs, knocking me off my bike and leaving me bruised and injured on the ground.

I collected myself and ran as fast as I could back home to my mom, the dog snapping at my heels. I explained what happened and I could see a troubled look on her face, not just because of my injury, but because of something else. You see, for an undocumented parent, situations like these are . . . complicated. Does she ignore my injury to protect her family in America, or does she risk being exposed as undocumented by taking her daughter to the hospital?

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What would you do?

Years later, in the winter of 2020, I stepped into my new office as city councilor at large. That day felt restorative, like the gears of change had finally begun turning in the right direction. My first act as councilor was to organize a hearing to find ways to strengthen our protections of undocumented immigrants. Less than a week later, I found a voice mail on my machine. My staff tried to stop me from listening to it but I pressed the play button anyway.

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It was Mike.

Mike had heard about my hearing and decided to call our office to tell me what he thought of me. He called me a bigot, a fascist, a criminal. He said my mom was a criminal and that I was “pushing for a fight.” Listening to that voice mail, at that moment, I wasn’t Julia Mejia, city councilor at large, or Julia Mejia, the woman who won her seat by a single vote. I was just Julia, the little girl running to her mom because the neighbor boy couldn’t see past the color of her skin.

What changed between these two events? My hairstyle, maybe. But what really, substantively changed? I can’t say what has changed for the Bobbys and the Mikes of the world, but I know what changed for me: I did what my mom couldn’t. Against the advice of nearly everyone, I published a video of Mike’s voice mail, set to images of protests, from the Civil Rights era to today. People always want us to hide the abuse, to pretend like it isn’t there even when we see it and feel it every day. We can no longer afford to be afraid of our bullies. That moment called for caring. I called Mike in, gave him an opportunity to see the humanity of the target behind the abuse.

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I love Boston. And no, not some sappy “you had me at hello” kind of love. The love I have is complicated, the kind of love you have for someone even though they’ve let you down, again, and again, and again. It’s not blind affection, but rather compassion. Because I’m not going anywhere, and the more you try and bruise me, physically or emotionally, the more I’m going to fight back with love and compassion.

Whether it’s 1981 or 2021, we’ve been having the same conversations in Boston over and over. What has changed is our capacity to lead with love and an understanding that it will take all of us working across our differences to move forward. How do I know this? Because I see it every day. People all over our city are stepping into their power and working together — people of different ages, races, sexual orientations, economic backgrounds, from Allston to East Boston, Hyde Park to Charlestown. The “Us” vs. “Them” narrative is starting to unravel. In our office, we work with renters and homeowners, students and school administrators, advocates, bureaucrats, nonprofits, business leaders, everyone.

Our future is so much brighter than our past, and even though we have a long way to go, we will do it together, all of us.

Explore this package: Haitian community | Summer of ’75 | “Black Nativity” | New Edition | Searching for home | Invisible illness

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This essay was co-written by Jacob deBlecourt, director of public policy in the office of Julia Mejia, city councilor at large. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.