When she returned to San Diego on the Greyhound bus, she did so with her brother’s three-year-old son in tow. The boy lived with her until he was seven or eight and then went back to Tacoma. Three or four years later, while Cheatom’s brother was overseas, his wife ran away; she left their three children in the care of her family members in Texas. Upon his return, he retrieved the children and handed them off to Cheatom, who raised them.
“I was always the adult. At 19, I had three kids from my brother’s family, raising them and stuff. So I stayed around and did what I had to do for my family and the community. People still give me their kids, mostly when the kids get in trouble. They give them to me, because I always do well with them.”
A man with a full head of tidy, uniform dreadlocks comes out of the building; he’s followed by a woman with a beaming smile. The man steps forward. He dips his head in apology.
“I know,” Cheatom says, before he can speak. “People are asking about the Noche Cubana. We need to figure out a night.”
“Let’s do it in March,” he says.
“Yes, let’s get ready for that,” she says. “I’ll be here this week, if you guys want to make an appointment on Friday.”
The woman looks at the man and says, “We’ll be downtown.”
“Okay, good,” Cheatom says. “Come by. I’ll expect you.”
The couple apologizes for the interruption and walks off.
“I’ll have some lentils for you,” Cheatom calls after them.
The woman turns back. “Oh, yeah!”
Cheatom says to me, “I’m a good cook. Everyone wants to eat my food. On holidays, I put on free shows, and I cook all night, just to make the money, so I can pay the sound, pay the musicians, just so the people can have a free concert.”
On that note, she stands. She wants to show me the garden.
We cross the concrete driveway in front of the cultural center, and head down a path lined with flowers and other vegetation. Toward the back, on the left, she points out the bok choy and salad greens growing in her “vertical garden,” a series of Styrofoam pots painted brown and mounted on tall poles rising from the ground. A squirrel runs out from under the gate.
“Oh, no. You gotta get out of here.” The squirrel scurries out from under the gate and runs away. “I’m gonna get his butt, man.”
Cheatom points out various features of the garden, the solar oven, the solar-powered fountain, and a curved bench (created by pouring and molding cement over 500 bags of sand) that circles a fire pit.
The way Cheatom tells it, it was the mid-’80s when she noticed there was “nothing supporting Africans and African-Americans in Balboa Park.” By that time, she’d studied Transcendental Meditation with a woman named Beulah Smith in Coronado, telecommunications at Mesa College, and food service and culinary arts at City College. Her restaurant, The Prophet, had a large following, as did her radio show on 91X, and she’d begun to host reggae boat cruises on the Hornblower and regular reggae nights at Bogey’s and Spanky’s Saloon.
“I had all the cab drivers, all the Nigerians,” she says. “Every African from the diaspora was there. Me and Damaje Lee [her radio partner] were the DJs. The Jamaicans were there, but we didn’t just play Jamaican music. It was like a little New York. I’ve always had a New York vibe. Everybody thinks I’m from New York. I played soca, I played salsa. I played a lot of reggae. The Ethiopians would be there. So I had support of the whole African diaspora. It was happenin’.”
Balboa Park didn’t have anything to represent all these people. So Cheatom approached park administration and asked for a building to start a cultural center. Though she says she’s not great with dates, she guesses that was about 1985.
“They were, like, ‘Nah, we don’t have no buildings.’”
So she went to the city council. She was assigned a hearing date, when she’d be able state her case and vie for the building which currently houses the Mingei International Museum. She knew she wouldn’t get that building. She felt that park administration was forcing her into a battle she couldn’t win.
This date, she’s sure of: September 21, 1989. The same day her mother died.
“The day I was supposed to go to the hearing, at 3:00 in the morning, my mother died. The hearing was at 9:00. Everybody [at home] said, ‘Don’t go.’ I go in the room, and I close the door. My mother’s body was in the other room. And she was talking to me. I had been her caretaker. I forgave her for all the mean things. It was hard, you know.”
“So my mother dies,” she continues, “and I thought, you know what? My mother scrubbed all these people’s floors in Point Loma and downtown and all these motels. I said I’m going to do it for all the maids and people who got harassed in San Diego.”
At the hearing, when it was Cheatom’s time to talk, instead of fighting for the building she knew she wouldn’t get, she said, “I just want a dilapidated water tower.”
Those at the hearing laughed.
In the end, Cheatom got what she wanted, though she claims it would take the park three years to remove all the garbage and construction junk stored in the building. In June 1995, it became the official location of the WorldBeat Cultural Center.
“All these plants,” Cheatom says now, gesturing at the garden around her, “all this was just nothing. The park didn’t do nothing. Everything I’ve done in the park, I’ve had to fight them tooth and nail. Institutionalized racism continues. I want people to know it is not gone.”
Off to the right of the garden path, posters bearing diagrams of grasshoppers, honeybees, ants, and dragonflies adhere to stakes in the ground. A woman who has joined us on the path points them out to her young daughter. Cheatom’s face lights up.