The path to finding your way on a bicycle can be a long and circuitous route. Gabriela Bilich grew up around the Southeast Cities having a typical childhood. She was raised around family, went to the local schools, and appreciated the community she lived in.
After high school, Gabi didn’t really know her next steps, but at the urging of her aunt, she applied to colleges and attended the University of La Verne. Though just miles away from home, going to college opened up a whole to world to her.
Looking for work, Gabi started her career with L.A. County Social Services nearly twenty-five years ago not knowing exactly what she was getting into. She soon learned she had the ability help people and loved working as a case manager.
Soon after starting her work there, Gabi moved to the Foothills area for several years until moving back to Bell Gardens last year to live next to her mother. Though she hadn’t really biked since being a child, Gabi discovered the nearby L.A. River Path and her love for cycling instantly took off.
Not only did she start making new friends through cycling groups, but recently became co-chair of the Downey Bicycle Coalition.
Gabi shares with us how inadvertently finding cycling gave her a new outlook on life.
Describe the community that you grew up in.
I grew up in Southeast L.A. in Cudahy and the surrounding cities during the '70s and '80s. It was and still is a predominantly Latino immigrant, working-class demographic. It was a poor neighborhood but despite that and gangs, it was a pretty tightly knit neighborhood with a strong cultural identity. I grew up in a 24-unit apartment building, wall-to-wall with kids, and many of the tenants in the various units were actually related to each other, so there was a strong "family" atmosphere and neighbors got to know each other pretty well. My favorite memories are of the "Posadas" during the Christmas season. After the procession through city streets to the Guadalupe Mission down the block to commemorate the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12th, the neighbors would get together and organize the 12 days of Posada celebrations, complete with the singing procession re-enacting the story of Mary and Joseph asking for room at the Inn, piñata, pan dulce, and hot chocolate. Tenants would take turns hosting each night and the celebrations would culminate with a huge party on Christmas Eve with live music, food and dancing. Definitely my fondest memories.
How did going to college change your perception of the world?
Going to college opened up the world to me. Growing up, I knew we were different from mainstream "white" society, but that fact didn't impact my everyday life. Everyone around me was like me. We shared the same cultural heritage and it was sort of like we were trapped in the overlapping space between two worlds: Latino/Mexicanism and White America. It wasn't until I went to college that I actually met large numbers of young white people. And Armenians...I had never heard of Armenia or Armenians. It was also the first time I ever experienced the sense of being perceived as "different" and really feeling like a minority. I took advantage of the travel opportunities and that's when it happened: I became a cosmopolitan, a global citizen in the sense that my world got bigger...and smaller at the same time. The places that seemed so foreign and far away now seemed closer, less strange and more fascinating. Learning about the world outside my neighborhood helped me to realize that despite the cultural differences, people from all over the world essentially want the same things: to live with dignity, to feel safe, to be loved, to provide and care for the people they love, to be happy.
Gaby putting hard miles in to get ready for the LA River Ride
When you started doing social work, what surprised you most?
What surprised me the most about working in social services is that I'm really good at it! I had other, more sophisticated career plans. I wanted to be a college professor, teach Spanish/Latin American literature, go on sabbatical, travel the world. Instead, I found some of the most rewarding experiences in connecting people to the resources that would help them live with dignity and provide them opportunities to change their lives for the better. There's no better feeling than knowing you did something that mattered and made someone else's life easier or better. I don't do case management anymore, but I still love what I do because I get to keep making those connections for people to help them help themselves. Most people who are down on their luck are reluctant to ask for help because it feels like charity and reminds them of their plight. But when you point people in the right direction, when you give them the right tools, information and guidance, they feel empowered to change and improve their lives. And doing that for oneself carries with it a sense of pride.
Can you tell us a story about any special memories?
When I was working with homeless families, I was assigned a really tough case. She was a single mom, wheelchair-bound, victim of domestic violence, undocumented, with U.S.-born children. They were sleeping on the floor at a church. I was able to connect her with services and programs that enabled her to resolve her immigration status, find housing, and get access to medical coverage. Two days before she and her family moved into the rental unit I was able to connect her with, I left my assignment due to a promotion. I left her case in the hands of co-worker with specific instructions for how to proceed. I had no idea what happened to her after that. Two years later, while out with friends, I was ambushed with a hug from a woman who looked vaguely familiar. It was her and she was walking. Due to the services that I was able to connect her with, she was able to get the physical therapy she needed, she obtained a work permit, had a job and was still housed. She thanked me for what I was able to do for her and her family. That is still one of the proudest moments of my life.
Once you moved back into the Southeast Cities area, what differences did you notice?
Well, we got a Starbucks and a few more chain stores and restaurants, but other than that, a lot of things still remain the same in terms of lack of civic engagement and community building. It's still mostly working class immigrants, low/moderate income earners struggling to make ends meet, to give their kids a shot at a better future.
What are some of your favorite places you frequent in Bell Gardens?
Rocio's Mexican Kitchen on Garfield and Ira is by far my favorite restaurant. If you love "mole" way I do and crave a Mexican menu that differs from most other Mexican restaurants, this is the place. It's great that I can walk there from my place. I also love the fact that I live across from Ford Park and the adjacent Rio Hondo bike path. I love being able to ride down to Long Beach whenever I want.
Gaby now travels all over the state looks for new rides.
What got you back on your bike after all those years?
I was in the process of reinventing myself, of rebuilding my life after a divorce. I reconnected with friends and some of them were into cycling. They told me about CicLAvia and I went to my first one in 2013. It was awesome, but I still didn't have a bike. I rode my Streetstrider (elliptical on wheels). In May 2014 I went on a camping trip to Yosemite with a friend. She had a bike and I rented one. As we were riding around the valley floor I got the most exhilarating sense of freedom that moved me to tears. My life was changing and that feeling of freedom signaled my new life on my own. Two months later I bought my first bike, an Althea Cannondale...she's a lovely hybrid.
What has surprised you most about biking?
What surprised me most about biking is how hooked I am on it and how much it has helped me to manage symptoms of chronic anxiety, depression, and Type II diabetes. Biking on a regular basis has done more to help me manage my symptoms and control my blood glucose than anything else, including prescription medication. It's that happy cycling "high" that I keep chasing and biking delivers every time!
Where do like riding most?
I like riding everywhere, but especially on the bike path just outside my door. I've had the opportunity to explore so many parts of L.A. County by bike that it's difficult to choose one favorite ride. I have a few. I like riding the upper San Gabriel River Trail near Santa Fe Dam during the week. It's a great, conditioning and calorie burning ride after work. Riding down to Long Beach or Seal Beach on a Friday morning for breakfast is pretty cool too. Beachside morning rides are awesome!
How has cycling become a community for you?
Cycling is definitely its own subculture. I have met so many amazing people that have become friends. They are people from all different walks of life that I probably would never have met through my normal connections. But the one thing that brings us together is that the love of cycling trumps everything. Many of our friendships have grown beyond cycling and the proof is in the amazing support we give one another through life's challenges. From the loss of loved ones, through job losses, health issues, accidents, and stolen bikes, our group comes together to offer emotional, spiritual and at times even financial support.
Now that you’re the co-chair of the Downey Bicycle Coalition, what are some of the exciting things that are up and coming?
At this point, DBC is focused on increasing local ridership. We're trying to build a love of biking in the community because when you do that, people have a vested interested in fighting for what they love. We're doing a monthly Sunday Earn & Burn breakfast rides where we earn our breakfast on the ride to the restaurant and burn it off on the way back. On May 21st we're also going to try our first Bike & Kayak ride for a full body workout. Essentially, we're riding down to Sunset Beach to kayak for a couple of hours, have breakfast and then ride back. We're also bringing back the Family Rides with kid-friendly routes and a family picnic upon returning. We're going to be busy for the next few months! Check out our DBC page on Facebook for a list of events.