Bridging Every Divide
By Nancy Bernhard
Photography by Kelly MacDonald Photography
Bob Doherty, 64, recently retired after almost 38 years with the Somerville Fire Department (SFD). These days, he practices yoga at the Be in Union studio (11b Bow St). He says it’s made him feel taller and 20 years younger.
He is one of several Somerville firefighters who practice yoga. And the firefighters aren’t alone. Many police officers practice too. And a big reason for it is Blanca Alcaraz, founder and co-owner of Be in Union. Of course, Alcaraz also happens to be a lieutenant with Engine 3 of the SFD – the second woman lieutenant in city history after groundbreaker Leslie Rentel – and the only one currently serving. Alcaraz speaks English, Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese, and her language skills make her a unique asset to the SFD.
In fact, her most memorable calls involve children who don’t speak English. One little girl was burned by a pot of boiling water that spilled on her back. No one was able to calm the child enough to put a dressing on her wound. Alcaraz was able to distract her with a story about a similar accident that happened to her when she was a child, involving her dog and her “sister’s dumb cat.”
Paul MacKinnon, who has been with the SFD for 24 years, says Alcaraz has a “special personality.” Walking with her around Somerville, he says, is like being with the governor. “Everybody knows her, everybody loves her.” She gives caring but no-nonsense attention to everyone, putting her hands on the shoulders of a panhandler in Union Square, calling him “brother,” offering hugs to students after class. “Gimme some sugar,” she says.
Alcaraz embodies many of the diverse populations within Somerville — immigrant, public servant, working parent, yoga practitioner and small business owner. Her life story explains this unusual combination in part. It also explains how she became the type of person capable of bringing these populations together.
Yin and Yang
Alcaraz, 43, is the third and youngest daughter of migrant farm workers who traveled each year between Michoacan, Mexico, and the central valley of California. She knows all about planting, pruning and picking everything from garlic to grapes to almonds, and has the strong, tough hands to prove it. “I was always figuring out what I could do to survive, to make money.” She sold the edible stems of cacti, or nopales, to other migrants, 12 for a dollar. Her grandmother taught her massage, which she later studied for certification.
Her parents are both gone, but her mother is still her greatest inspiration, because she “did so much with so little.” Her father, a smoke jumper, taught her to take excellent daily care of her tools, which she still does. Alcaraz loved smelling his gear and poking around in his rattlesnake kit. When she was a little girl, she witnessed him in action during an accident on Highway 65. And it was this accident – along with the memories of her father’s gear – that helped Alcaraz realize that, from a very young age, she wanted to be a firefighter too.
Though she admired her father, she also observed his darker places. When Alcaraz was eight, her parents’ marriage came to an end, largely because of her father’s abuse of alcohol. Years later, when she was in middle school, the family – her mother and sisters – settled legally in Porterville, Calif. At school, she encountered anti-Mexican biases every day. Her seventh-grade social science teacher and coach, Wenston Alexander, remembers the first day Alcaraz walked into his classroom in baggy khakis, a sloppy shirt and a red bandanna around her head. He thought, “Have I got a problem now.”
And he was right. She was often suspended for fighting. But he realized Alcaraz was bright too. Before long she was living on Alexander’s horse farm as one of the family, with his wife Darla Jean and daughter Theresa. The farm kept her off the streets after school. Alcaraz credits the Alexanders with saving her life.
She excelled in school – and at multiple sports. She once scored 46 points in a single basketball game, standing all of 5-feet-3. She won a full scholarship to the University of California at Davis, where she played rugby and spent her junior year in France studying French, Italian and Portuguese. Later she played on the French Women’s National Rugby Team. She decided she wanted to teach, and was accepted to Harvard’s Department of Romance Languages for a Ph.D. So much for firefighting.
She thought the acceptance letter must have had a typo — they could not have meant to offer her so much fellowship money. She moved cross-country in 1992 and settled in Somerville. She continued to play rugby. A black eye from a game once aroused suspicions of domestic abuse from her professors. She completed her coursework and passed her general exams with distinction. She loved teaching and planned to write her dissertation on Emile Zola’s La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret.
But academia was not a great fit; she was the only member of the department with tattoos. Caught in a power struggle between two senior scholars, she took a leave of absence and again considered becoming a firefighter. She took the civil service exam and joked that if it didn’t work out, she had Harvard to fall back on. At the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy in Stowe, she was the only woman ever elected by her classmates to be their president.
You might think that a Latina with Harvard pedigree would have little trouble getting hired as a firefighter, but the question that came up again – and again – was her education. From the chiefs down, they all assumed she would work for a year, gather material and write a book. She told them, “Shame on you. I worked in the fields as a kid, I grew up on the streets. That’s part of my education too.”
Once on the force, she won over her fellow firefighters with hard work. Doherty remembers how she went on off-hours jobs to learn skills in carpentry, electrical work, plumbing, heating and chimney repair, in case she needed those skills in an emergency. “Guts is no object,” he says, remembering one fire that destroyed a house, where all the fire companies were working. He watched film afterward, and wondered who the heck was on the roof peak doing a tough ventilation maneuver. It was Alcaraz.
Plus, she has a sense of humor – even about herself. “She’s not thin-skinned,” says, MacKinnon. “She’s a lot of laughs.” Alcaraz calls the men she works with “the brothers I never had. We’re family.”
Like many firefighters – like many people – Alcaraz was deeply shaken by 9/11. Her ex suggested they try Baptiste yoga in Cambridge, known to be a challenging workout. “It knocked me on my ass, and kicked my ass,” she said. She went back the next day. And the next. For years she treated yoga only as a workout. Gradually she came to realize there was more to it: that working the mind-body-breath connection allowed her to feel more deeply, whether she was feeling joy or sadness. She was able to recognize and modulate her own intense drive. So she began to study, taking teacher training with the Baptiste studio, Prana Power Yoga and Coeli Marsh’s Teachers Study Project. At Prana, she was deeply inspired by teacher Jacqui Bonwell. It took her years to overcome insecurities about her body, voice and authority. She admits that she still feels fear every time she stands up to teach.The impulse to start the studio came from her desire to create a community where people could come as they are, and not have to put forth some perfect, “stick body” image. After months of renovation with plenty of off-hours help from members of the SFD, Be in Union opened in October 2009.
When Alcaraz put out a call for teachers, one of the people who answered was Jaclyn Kryzak, whose yoga journey mirrored her own. Kryzak had healed many injuries incurred playing hockey for Boston College, and was unhappy sitting at a desk all day “billing every six minutes of my life” as an attorney. She left her firm to start her own family law practice in Ball Square. Then she jumped in to help build Be in Union. She became Alcaraz’s business partner, as well as her girlfriend. She oversees day-to-day operations at the studio.
As teachers, they complement one another. Alcaraz is the visionary who listens deeply and sees into people. Kryzak is the choreographer, manifesting the vision in sequences of playful poses. They resist treating the studio as a business. In fact, only after a year did it begin to break even. Alcaraz has always been very careful with money, but the renovations and early losses still took every penny of her life savings. They did little advertising or promotion, preferring to let it grow by word of mouth. The opposite of teacher-divas, the two of them clean the studio twice a day, including the toilets. The yoga room is unusual and striking, with a coffered, skylit ceiling and deep coral walls.
Washington Street resident and Charlestown High School teacher Kim Kilcourse had tried many kinds of yoga, but Alcaraz was the first teacher who didn’t make her feel guilty for not already being perfectly serene. “I like when she shares her life and the rough day she had, and she says, ‘I’m here for you, and we’re here together.’” Alcaraz makes her laugh, which reminds her to breathe more deeply. Kilcourse’s fiancé, Seth Hunter, a doctoral student at the MIT Media Lab, agrees. “She makes people comfortable with her, so they can be comfortable with themselves,” he says. In search of a “wise woman” to conduct their July Block Island wedding, Kilcourse and Hunter asked Alcaraz to officiate – and she humbly agreed.
Rebecca Altepeter, another regular Be in Union student, invited Alcaraz and Kryzak to offer yoga classes at her workplace. It’s no ordinary workplace: Altepeter is the Principal at the Germaine Lawrence School in Arlington, which has programs for girls aged 11-18 who have been the victims of trauma – often physical, sexual or emotional abuse. They come to Germaine Lawrence because their own resources or those at home are not adequate; typically, they have become aggressive, set fires, been sexually exploited or run away.
Staff at Germaine Lawrence do not usually share details of their lives with students, but with outside instructors, there is more room. Alcaraz has not shared specifics, but the girls know her life has not always been easy. Altepeter says, “It helps them feel a level of trust that helps them take risks in her class and feel comfortable. They were giggly and nervous at first, but it feels good to them.”
Moreover, Alcaraz knows a thing or two about the types of troubled youths who become fire setters. She has learned this not only from her own life, but also in a classroom setting: In May, the Somerville Fire Department sent her back to the Massachusetts Firefighters Academy, specifically to take a class on working with fire setters. That training has brought yet another dimension to her understanding of the Germaine Lawrence girls.
Kryzak says each class is different; sometimes it takes the girls 20 minutes to settle down so they can begin, sometimes they spend the whole class lying down and breathing. Another Be in Union instructor, Norman Brzycki, is now teaching two classes a week as well. At 6-feet-2 and 53 years old, he provides a wonderful male role model for the girls, who may not have encountered gentleness in someone of his description before. In just two months, Brzycki has seen great progress. They come into class as scattered as any group of teenagers, worried about how they look and their place in the pecking order. But within five minutes, “they are calm, breathing together, moving together, asking the right questions.”
One girl, a recent immigrant who had lately been removed from her parents’ home to a group home, found herself feeling lonely and scared. She had a history of running away, but instead did some yoga poses and used breathing techniques to calm herself down. She also remembered that there were people who cared about her, who had taught her these skills, and felt a connection that allowed her to make better choices.
Alcaraz says starting Be in Union was the hardest thing she’s ever done. All her careful planning could not prevent the overflowing toilets, the failing heat, the early hit-and-miss staff. During the same period, her marriage dissolved and her mother died. But still, she calls teaching “the highlight of my week,” and the studio now runs smoothly. Of course she loves it when police, firefighters and EMTs practice. They tell her, “Thank you for making it safe. Thank you for not laughing at me.”
In many respects, the acts of firefighting and yoga teaching are comparable for Alcaraz. People can depend on her, and lean on her. “Trust yourself,” she says, “Trust me. We may fall together, but I’m not going to drop you.”
“She risks her life in one breath and teaches you how to save yours in the next breath – that’s pretty masterful,” says her yoga mentor, Jacqui Bonwell. “That’s someone I could learn a lot from.”