Six of our arts and community reporter's favorite stories of 2021. Credit: Amir Aziz, Henry Castro, David Meza

When 2021 started, many of us were hopeful that the pandemic would soon be a thing of the past. It had been announced in mid-December 2020 that Oakland would be receiving its first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines, and our newsroom was busy covering the rollout.

As more people got inoculated, the local economy began its slow recovery: Shops of different sorts began to welcome patrons back indoors. In-person shows and festivals made a triumphant but cautious return. It seemed as though we were finally flipping a page on the pandemic. 

As we reach the end of the year, there is still reason to be hopeful, even as the omicron variant sows uncertainty and fear of another winter surge. But even as we look ahead to brighter days next year, I wanted to take a trip down memory lane by revisiting some of my favorite stories from this year. There were many to highlight, so I chose to present a handful that I believe best reflect what it was like to cover arts and community in Oakland during the pandemic.

How I helped my grandmother get the COVID-19 vaccine

Grandmother of Azucena, Oaklandside reporter after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine in Oakland
Oaklandside reporter Azucena Rasilla’s grandmother, after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine in Emeryville. Credit: Amir Aziz Credit: Amir Aziz

When Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that residents 65 and older were eligible for the vaccine, I decided to document the process with my grandmother. I knew there were countless other Oaklanders who, like me, were also scrambling around trying to figure out how to help their elderly loved ones secure an appointment and navigate the healthcare system. It wasn’t the first time that I’d written about my grandmother. In July of 2020, I also wrote about what it was like for me to take care of a vulnerable loved one during the early and frightening days of the pandemic. 

Meet the Oakland pickling chef taking Instagram by storm

Manny McCall, chef and former server as Zuni Cafe now owner of Pickle Pana, selling pickles and donating money to those in need.
McCall’s Instagram-famous spicy garlic pickles. Credit: Amir Aziz Credit: Amir Aziz

Of the stories I’ve written in recent years, many of my favorites have come by way of Instagram. Such was the case when I was scrolling on the app and came across @tacosandbanchan. Manny McCall is a self-taught chef who used the social media platform to launch his business and sell his now-famous pickles. Since writing the story back in March, McCall has explored new ways to reach foodies. In November, he hosted a private dining experience (something he plans to do more of in 2022) and has been cooking and feeding the unhoused folks at Wood Street in West Oakland. 

How Oakland’s Street Level Health Project navigated the pandemic year

Last year, when the Oaklandside visited Street Level Health Project in mid-May, the food distribution had gone from 60 to 80 bags a week pre-pandemic to more than 150. Credit: Amir Aziz Credit: Amir Aziz

So many incredible local organizations have stepped up during the pandemic to help meet the needs of community members struggling financially due to the ongoing crisis. Street Level Health Project, a nonprofit based in Fruitvale that caters to the undocumented community and day laborers, saw an increased need in the community for food. Before the pandemic, the organization was already distributing between 60 and 80 bags of food per week. The number rose to 150 bags per week earlier this year. Street Level even found a way to provide COVID-19 emergency cash payments of $500 to undocumented families that were not eligible to receive any federal assistance. The nonprofit is also providing information and resources about the COVID-19 vaccine to residents in Fruitvale, one of the areas with the highest COVID-19 case rates in the county.

Mexican folk art is on display at Adalynn’s Fiesta Latina

Mexican folk artist, [name] and wife Guadalupe inside of Adalynn's Fiesta Latina, their shop with handmade leather items and other goods.
Mexican folk artist, Rigoberto Murillo inside of Adalynn’s Fiesta Latina in Fruitvale. Credit: Amir Aziz

Sometimes, I find interesting stories when I roam around town. I came across Adalynn’s Fiesta Latina on a random weekend when I was in Fruitvale looking for a birthday gift for my brother-in-law. I ended up walking into this shop owned by Rigoberto and Guadalupe Murillo. I was mesmerized by all of the custom-made leatherwork that Rigoberto does. He told me about how he pivoted his business to making and selling face masks after he was forced to close the shop to customers. Despite the uncertainty of the pandemic and the financial struggles it brought, the Murillo’s were able to keep their business afloat. It was a pleasure to highlight this hardworking family, one of many that make Fruitvale thrive. 

Damien McDuffie sees augmented reality as the future for preserving Oakland stories

Damien McDuffie in front of the largest augmented reality mural on the west coast located at the corner of 7th Street and Washington. The mural depicts Black Panther Party founders Bobby Seale (left) and Huey Newton. Credit: Harvey Castro Credit: Harvey Castro

I have this saying whenever I write about someone from Oakland doing great work in the community: “Oakland kids doing big things.” I love it when I get to write about Oakland folks like myself who still live here and choose to continue building community in the Town. I’ve followed Damien McDuffie’s work since his stint with the culture collective, Wine & Bowties. During the pandemic, he began working on an augmented reality app called Terminus, which he’s used to helping tell and preserve the history of the Black Panther Party. Through the app, Damien is able to share archival footage not easily accessible elsewhere, to immerse users in the story of the Panthers. 

Every Halloween, this Oakland chef transforms his home into a ghoulish attraction

Wilfried Eisinger begins decorating the outside of his residence the first week in October. Credit: David Meza Credit: David Meza

On most nights when it doesn’t rain, my boyfriend and I like to go on neighborhood walks. When the Halloween season started this year, I was especially interested in seeing how neighbors decorate their homes to make them look festive. That’s how I found one of the most elaborate, decked-out homes I’ve seen. Initially, I wanted to simply ask the homeowner for permission to have my colleague Amir Aziz (The Oaklandside’s visual journalist) take photos of the decor. But once I chatted with the homeowner, I learned there was a fun story behind how he came to acquire his massive collection of Halloween props. If you happen to be wandering around the Laurel anytime soon, you may just get to see how he decorates for Christmas, too. 

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.