Cesia Abigail Baires remembers that George Floyd loved to dance.
She spent every Sunday at Conga Latin Bistro in Minneapolis where Floyd — “Big Floyd” as she and other friends called him — worked as a bouncer.
“Whenever he had a little chance when he heard some Spanish music playing, we’d just started dancing,” Baires said. “If there was a new security at the door, and they tried to ID me, he’d say ‘Hey, now that’s my girl. She’s good, let her go.’”
This past Sunday night though, instead of salsaing with Floyd, Baires was working in solidarity with demonstrators all over the country who were protesting Big Floyd’s killing by then-Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin after Chauvin kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes when Floyd was in his custody. Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder.
In the days after Floyd’s killing, Baires found herself mourning her friend and supporting the south Minneapolis community, where she opened her Salvadoran joint Abi’s Cafe five years ago when she was still in her mid-20s, just blocks from where Floyd died.
The second night of the protests, which escalated into looting and arson, the owner of pawnshop Cadillac Pawn fatally shot Calvin L. Horton Jr., who he suspected of trying to rob the store. Horton died a block away in front of Abi’s Cafe as Baires and her staff tried to quell the bleeding.
“It was sad to see what happened to him [Floyd] and not only that but to then see what happened to another Black man right outside of this restaurant,” Baires said.
Complicating matters further, her cousin, Carlos Baires Escobar, is an officer with Minneapolis Police working on the community engagement team specializing as a Latino community officer.
“If you don’t want to see more police out there doing stuff like that, then get in it. That way you can make the change,” Baires said. “If you want to make a change within your community, do something about it.”
She is determined to make sure her dance partner Floyd’s death is not in vain. She barely slept during the week after the killing, spending most of the night either protesting police brutality or helping to quash the looting and arson. Her own restaurant — where she once gave a man experiencing homelessness a job after he asked for some money — was looted and most of her elecontrics stolen.
In the early hours of Saturday morning, she was an amateur videographer, live streaming a city lit by burning buildings and shrouded in smoke.
Later, she helped put out fires at a nearby liquor store after finding an industrial hose that had been left behind. “I don’t even know where I got the strength,” she said, rubbing her sore shoulder.
Her adrenaline tapped out last weekend, and she realized she was forgetting to eat. Or do the thing that’s always nourished her — feeding others. She decided her new mission was to help sustain the demonstrators. She set up her griddle and kitchen supplies outside, preparing to make pupusas — the El Salvadorian staple — for everyone who would pass through that evening, for free.
“With everything that’s been happening you don’t even get hungry,” Baires said. “Your body is tired, your mind is tired.”
June 1 brought early summer. Heat shimmered off the griddle. She wiped sweat from her brow.
Hardly a few minutes went by in front of Abi’s Cafe without a car going past and a driver honking to get her attention, or rolling down a window for a quick chat in Spanish. A woman slowed down and asked Baires if she wanted a slice of pie. Who says no to pie?
Cesar Hechavarria rolled to a stop in his silver sedan, beats bopping from the stereo, as he hopped out and grooved to the Latin tunes with Baires.
Between hosing down burning buildings and serving food to her neighborhood, Baires hasn’t had much time to process the death of her friend. She’s also dealing with the emotional turmoil of a hurricane that’s wreaking havoc on the lives of her extended family and grandmother in El Salvador, where Baires was born before she moved to the United States as a child.
“I’m helping over here and I wish I could be doing something over there to help,” she said.
By 4:30 Baires was rolling out dough to form pupusas. As they hit the grill, a small crowd gathered to watch Baires craft ingredients into a hot meal.
She reflected on the legacy Floyd leaves behind. She hopes something good will come of it, “for all of us, for the whole world to not see another video like this over life.”
Even as the protests wane, the rebuilding begins and life returns to something like normal, Baires said she is going to take her time going back to dance at Conga, knowing Floyd won’t be there to greet her or be her partner.
“It’s just not going to be the same without him now, when we go back.”