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Beloved street musician and Berkeley resident ‘Mama West’ dies at 49

Latonya Smith playing the keyboard during a walk with Where Do We Go Berkeley in 2019. Credit: Yesica Prado

Latonya Smith, known as “Mama West,” died July 4 in Alameda at age 49. She was a beloved and prominent figure in the Berkeley Street community, where she lived most of her life.

The Alameda County Coroner’s Office said she died of natural causes, including peritonitis and an ulcer.

Smith’s daughter, Jamara West, said her mother had recently found a home after many years of living on the streets and her family was shaken by her sudden passing. The two first reconnected as adults last year.

Smith lived in the former encampment at University Avenue and Frontage Road and near Interstate 80 before finding permanent supportive housing this year. People who knew her said she had a tough life but always protected others and found solace in music.

She helped found ‘Where Do We Go’ Berkeley, which grew out of the 2019 protests when Caltrans sought to shut down encampments in West Berkeley near Interstate 80. The encampment was eventually closed last summer after the city and Caltrans offered alternative accommodation. to the occupants.

Attorney Andrea Henson, who continues to advocate for homeless residents through Where Do We Go, was close to Smith. Henson said she was taken aback by the death of her friend, with whom she cherished many memories.

On Christmas Eve in 2019, the two hooked up a phone to a portable speaker and played karaoke all night in West Berkeley. Cherelle’s “Saturday Love,” the tunes of Alexander O’Neal, Whitney Houston and Beyonce filled the camp, accompanied by their giddy voices as others watched and sang.

“She was amazing – she was a public figure,” Henson said, describing how Smith protected the people around her.

Mama West - Latonya Smith
Latonya Smith and Andrea Henson on a walk with Where Do We Go Berkeley in 2019. Credit: Yesica Prado

When homeless residents protested Caltrans sweeps in 2019, Henson recalled that Smith – who loved music – put a keyboard in a shopping cart and played it on University Avenue, from the camps to the hotel of town. Smith wrote and performed his gospel songs, and you could often hear him sing if you passed by the West Berkeley encampments.

Although housed, Henson lived in the encampments for periods during the protests, and Smith moved Henson closer to his tent for protection. Mike Zint, an outspoken homeless activist from Berkeley who died in 2020, once said he had never seen a woman as strong as Smith, Henson said.

“Everyone who met her was touched by her. Some of the men in the encampments would come out and try to insult her, but she stood face to face and nose to nose,” Henson said. “She was a force to be reckoned with.”

She cared for many people as a street family and was a mother figure in the homeless community.

“Most homeless women have children who aren’t with them,” Henson said. “It’s a pain and a pain that has never gone away. In quiet moments, Mrs. West thought of them.

In February 2020, Smith suffered severe burns in a fire at his campsite that set his tent on fire. In the aftermath, she lost one of the seven puppies she cared for; the others were then taken away by Berkeley Animal Care Services, Henson said. She and others fought to get Smith’s beloved pets back, but were unsuccessful. Of all the hardships in her life, Henson said it was a moment that really broke her.

After a long search, Smith’s daughter had recently reconnected with her

Smith sings a gospel song at his camp in 2019. Video: Andrea Henson

Jamara West grew up away from her mother, who had 11 children. West said Smith had her first child when she was 13 and lived through inordinately difficult circumstances that separated her from her family throughout her life, which began in Oakland with a mother who was also homeless. .

West began searching for his mother last year, which led to numerous dead ends and false alarms. She didn’t know if her mother was in Oakland or Berkeley and said she spent many nights looking for her.

A few days before her birthday in July last year, she heard from her father that someone had met her mother on the street. She pursued the information and eventually found Smith in Berkeley days before being placed at the Rodeway Inn, which at the time served as alternate lodging for former occupants of the West Berkeley encampment.

Smith immediately recognized her daughter’s mannerisms and face, even though she hadn’t seen West since she was 3 years old.

“She remembered little things like birthmarks, my voice, my face,” West said. “Even the way I walk, she was like – ‘Oh my god, you walk like me?'”

West said the reconnection was life-affirming, helping him understand his own personality in all its impatience, generosity and quirks after losing that context as a child.

In June, West and Smith finally shared personal time when Smith moved into an apartment in Alameda, which was a dream come true for her. Henson said that even in encampments, Smith always divided her tent into a living room, kitchen and bedroom, and she had waited a long time for a home she could make her own. West said his mother enjoyed cooking seafood and sharing food with her new neighbors. She took her groceries and treated her to fine restaurants.

“The cards that were dealt to her, she did her best. She wasn’t perfect, but I knew she was doing her best,” West said. “I am just extremely grateful to have been able to experience [her] love at first sight.”

West is distraught over the circumstances of Smith’s death and wonders why her mother wasn’t treated for her health issues before she was released from the hospital. She said her mother died just hours after being discharged from the emergency room, and was initially told the cause of death was COVID-19.

West tries to hold a funeral and memorial service in Berkeley for Smith’s friends.

“My mom fought her whole life and she fought her last days,” West said. “I have to fight for her now.”