Race, class, and community in San Francisco's Mission District
The Camotero used to come out at night to sell roasted sweet potatoes (camotes). He kept them warm in a metal stovepipe on wheels that released a whistle to announce his presence on a street. In the summer, the sound carried throughout the La Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City. Lupe, nanny to my mother and her eight siblings, would put my five sisters and me to bed on our summer visits to our grandparents’ place. She drew the blinds closed to block out the twilight and told the story of the time the family dog Penchi escaped, then returned mangy and world-weary to the house. She groomed him and made him well. She would repeat this story until the sound of the camotero signaled that the veil of dreams was thin enough to cross.
La Condesa is now often called La Fondesa, a reference to the fondas, or bistros, that have blanketed the middle-class art deco neighborhood by ignoring residential zoning laws and filling every street corner with valet parking to accommodate the transient diner and drinker. The camotero still makes his rounds in the evening, but his whistle is less distinct amid the pounding bass of the neon-lighted bars.
I now live 2,000 miles north, in San Francisco’s Mission District, a Latino barrio that is changing in much the same way that La Condesa has changed. For decades, the Mission’s apartments were owned by working-class Poles, Russians, Germans, Irish, and Italians. My landlady Frances inherited her building from her Italian-American father, and ironworker on the docks; she was still a teenager when she helped him pick it out.
But the ironworkers are gone now, and the docks are rotting. The work the new Latino immigrants find—at construction sites or on the line at restaurants—can’t cover a down payment on a mortgage. They’re renters, not owners as their predecessors were, and so subject to owner move-ins and other means of tenant eviction. In a growing trend, Latino tenants are moving out to Daly City, Stockton, Richmond, Gilroy, and Hayward—some of these places nearly an hour away on the inefficient and inconvenient commuter rail. But every morning they still come in, to build houses they can’t live in and make food they can’t afford.
On a recent Sunday, I went out to the corner of Shotwell and 24th to find an open house sign. A Chicano family of seven siblings was selling their home. None of them had the means to keep it. One now lives in his truck on the street. Newer Mission neighbors were happy that they left—a few of the family members who’d lived longest in the house had been accused of associating with loud drunks and gangbangers—but I was sorry to see them go.
There is a young man named Christos who often hangs out at that corner. I pointed out the open house sign to him, and he told me that two years ago, his family lost their place on Shotwell Street after his uncle failed to negotiate refinancing his mortgage.
Gentrification is turning vulnerable residents into tumbleweed, and it’s gradually transforming the Mission. The change is slow, and mostly invisible, but you can see it in the changing food establishments. Standing at the corner with Christos and his friend Xavier, I looked across the street to see that yet another taqueria had been erased from the Mission, this one by a delicatessen, Wise & Sons, selling $13 pastrami sandwiches, leaving people on $5 budgets to seek burritos downstream. Christos and Xavier, both born and raised in the Mission, watched bemusedly as a line of foodies turned the corner.
We think of gentrification principally in terms of real estate, race, and class, but I more often find that food is the thermometer reading the temperature of gentrification.
In January 2010, then-Mayor Gavin Newsome was out with his 5-month-old daughter in the Haight-Ashbury, where they lived. As they turned a corner, their path was blocked by a homeless man lying on the ground. That month Newsome announced his support for the Civil Sidewalks, Sit-Lie, ordinance, which—like those adopted by so many other cities—would criminalize sitting or lying on the street. The measure’s proposal had been triggered by neighborhood complaints about the traveling kids on Haight Street, who smoke weed, panhandle for money outside stores, and keep company with road dogs—a remnant of the Summer of Love. The measure would also increase the policing of the thousands of pushcart homeless in San Francisco. But to residents of minority neighborhoods, where the corner is a meeting ground, Sit-Lie looked like an enemy of street life in general.
A while back, I joined a day of protest against Sit-Lie. I made coffee cake and a spicy tea in a large tin kettle. My husband brought a beanbag toss game and flyers about the proposed law. We took possession of the corner of 24th and Shotwell, a block from our house. The corner has an Egyptian-owned convenience store catercorner to a taqueria and a Hispanic-owned unisex family hair salon. It sits a block up from hipsterish Philz Coffeehouse and a step away from the Maricopa daycare coop. It is a morning walking place for the homeless and a favorite posting spot for gang guys selling drugs and homies hanging out. It is one of my favorite corners in the entire world.
At the tea party, a homeless junkie named Wolf sat for a long time chatting and eating cake. He was a Norteño who had made his rounds through the prison system, and now lived contentedly on the street. I called over a woman sitting on the opposite corner to enjoy a baked good and tea. She was unemployed and living out of her car. Her legs were bandaged and her health was clearly waning. As a courtesy, I offered tea to the owner of the convenience store, who thought it tasted distinctly Middle Eastern.
Later in the day, we were joined by two neighborhood homeboys, J.D. and Beto. I offered them drinks and treats, and they expressed their gratitude profusely. One thing people don’t often realize is that guys in gangs are painfully polite. They learn their manners because in their world uttering the wrong sequence of words can lead to getting the shit beat out of you.
Not long before this, in September 2009, at that same corner of 24th and Shotwell, the wrong sequence of words had been uttered, and Michael Sanchez was shot dead. Members of Michael’s traumatized clique, over by New Hampshire and 24th, retaliated a few days later by killing two former members of the 24th-Shotwell crew, Frank Peña and Cisco Cornejo. It happened when Frank and Cisco were strolling over to Papa Potrero’s Pizzeria.
Papa Potrero’s Pizzeria is no longer there. It seems to have died with Frank and Cisco. A new Chinese restaurant, Wok and Go, has taken its spot, and everywhere else up and down 16th and 24th streets, new shops and cafés have begun replacing the traditional ethnic spots. In this transitional phase, Bauhaus-style cafés and shabby-chic clothing stores rub shoulders with greasy taquerias and traditional panaderias. These cafés and shops give sanctuary to the yuppie and hipster in an area that the gangs have otherwise carved into competing territories and turned into a field of violence. The junction of these two populations made headlines when the neighborhood news website Mission Local reported on what happens when “Gangs and Foodies Share Territory.”
When Mexicans say they are going through “a time of skinny cows” (época de vacas flacas), they mean that money is tight. My father’s family lived through many periods of skinny cows as farmers in La Huerta, Jalisco, and later in the coastal town of Tecoman. In such times of vacas flacas, my father and his brothers would sometimes need to take the “modest sack” (el costal discreto) out on a walk. This sack was known to return home with a papaya, a coconut, a watermelon, or a few guavas encountered along the way. Once a distracted chicken found its way into the sack. The sack was always modest, since it never gleaned anything that would be missed too much.
But that is not the life I have lived. I had a comfortable upbringing, raised as a Mexican expatriate with a quasi-diplomatic status. But like many child expats, I was never socialized into one nation; I was at home where I was foreign. And like many children of parents who had struggled in or into the middle class, I felt compelled to become a professional myself.
In 2002, all-but-dissertation, I returned to Mexico City to work as a well-paid federal public officer. During this period I lived in La Condesa, where my salary allowed me to pay the expensive rent. I was a gentrifier helping to upscale the formerly middle- and working-class neighborhood where my grandmother, widow to an artist, still lived. Every night I came home late from work to the convenience of a local bistro for dinner and a three-room apartment I barely inhabited, two blocks from my grandmother’s house.
In my mid-thirties, I returned to the Bay Area to complete my graduate program. I met my bohemian husband and eventually moved into his place in San Francisco’s Mission District. During those first years of being a precariously self-employed PhD, I found a sense of belonging in the Latino-American barrio, where saying “I am Mexican” granted me a visa across a class boundary. I got to know my neighbors, many of whom have survived plenty of times of skinny cows. Some are migrant laborers, others are immigrants and their children.
In our many conversations, we often find each other sharing our thoughts over food. They teach me about border crossing and about growing up in a low-income neighborhood. With their patient teaching, I’ve also been threading my way back toward knowing my old nannies, and the many other women and men who have served me. Back even to my family history.
Since he was a little boy, my friend Beto has shared a room with his mother in a small apartment on Shotwell, living with four to five other family members. When he was 13, a SWAT team banged the door down—the place was allegedly being used by his mother and her friends as a crack den.
One Sunday, Beto and I took a stroll down 24th. The street was closed to all but foot and bicycle traffic. After checking out the lowriders on display on Harrison, we entered Bello Coffee & Tea, next door to the Humphrey Slocombe ice cream parlor. We were getting to know each other.
Beto told me how much he loves to cook, that he’s loved it ever since a friend’s mom taught him to make nacatameles. That day, Beto also told me that he is a recovering MDMA addict and alcoholic and a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. He is only 26. During our longest cell phone silence, I learned that he had been locked up in the mental ward at San Francisco General Hospital after a psychotic rage at home. Beto has been told his mental illness is genetic; I suspect it’s at least partly the result of living through violence and addiction on Shotwell Street. Beto is now in charge of his mother, and both of them are on welfare. Between his sheet and his health issues, he can’t get a job very easily. He struggles to put food on the table.
As we chatted in the café, Antonio Román-Alcala—a founder of the urban Alemany Farm—stepped inside for a coffee. He then headed off to the nearby Free Farm Stand at the Ninos Unidos park to help give out food. The Free Farm Stand gathers surplus from farmers’ markets, community gardens, and fruit trees in order to distribute food on Sundays. I explained the concept to Beto and mentioned that it partially evolved from anarchism. Beto asked, “What’s an anarchist?” I said, “Someone who doesn’t believe that state government is the best form of governance, and favors forms of voluntary cooperation instead.” Beto responded, “Oh, I think I’m an anarchist.”
Later, Beto and I walked over to the Free Farm Stand. He left with armfuls of fresh bread and organic vegetables. He was delighted to find the free market, but I don’t think he was surprised. Throughout his life, it has been supportive neighbors, like Mrs. Pena, who babysat him as a kid, and now, serendipitously, Antonio, who’ve helped him through rough spots.
The Free Farm Stand was started by Dennis “Tree” Rubenstein. Tree was one of the founders of the Kaliflower Commune and the Free Food Conspiracy of 1968, in Haight-Ashbury. After the Haight became recognized as cool, the area quickly got too rich for conspiracies, and Tree and his Kaliflower communists were pushed out to Shotwell and 23rd.
The Stand is now in the midst of the working poor of San Francisco’s Mission District, a testament to the idea that radical food politics will sprout where they are needed. Much of what we call food politics today—buying local, farming organic, eating vegetarian—originally came from collectives that wanted to raise awareness about industrially produced food. The People’s Food System of the mid-’70s was a network of community food stores and small-scale food collectives that organized to take back control of food from large agricultural and chemical companies; they built direct connections to farmers to establish the first farmers’ markets. Meanwhile, the Black Panthers were hosting free community breakfasts in their neighborhoods, and Alice Walters opened Chez Panisse partly as a space to talk about politics. Various collectives shared the urban farm known as the Crossroads Community (The Farm) on Potrero Avenue at the edge of the Mission.
All this activity resulted in a paradox: as radical food politics succeeded, healthy food became commodified as elite food, proving that successful social movements can be gentrified, just like neighborhoods. The best farmers’ market in San Francisco, at the Ferry Building, is also the least affordable, and Waters’ Chez Panisse, the standard-bearer of locally grown, seasonal food, has become one of the most expensive restaurants in Berkeley.
In recent years, urban farming has undergone a spirited revival in order to approach the issue of food security—the availability and accessibility of food—in its own way. There are five community gardens in the Mission, including one managed by the Free Food Stand, and seven more within walking distance. There are also edible gardens at schools, including Cesar Chavez Elementary School. Still most community garden plots in the Mission are tended by middle-class urbanites, perhaps well-read in food politics, but mostly involved in community food security; and more and more, urban gardening takes place on private plots. So even as radical urban farming resurfaces, a critical piece of the radial community garden or urban farm—people coming together to work in collectives and cooperatives—is lost.
The Mission Community Market—which includes a farmer’s market, street food, and craft vendors—has been running for about four years, from spring through fall, on Bartlett Street between 21st and 22nd. I love seeing stands packed with local food and instantaneous zÓcalo (public plaza) effect of the market. I also noticed that the shoppers are nearly all yuppies and hipsters.
My concern with the MCM has always been that it may further assist real-estate gentrification. (My concern landed me a place on the MCM Board of Directors.) The food at the market can be more expensive than at a Safeway or the grocery stores with imported Latin American food on every other corner of the Mission. So how do you find a place for this weekly market that is respectful of the needs of an established low-income migrant neighborhood?
Jeremy Shaw, the executive director of the MCM, has tried a new tack every season. Recently the MCM has drawn in local nonfood vendors to incorporate a tianguis (Mexican street market) selling cheaper items. This season Rainbow Grocery Cooperative is providing a matching EBT fund for every dollar spent on fresh groceries at the market. The MCM is also working on a proposal that would permanently transform the street into a park. The immediate beneficiaries would be the La Raza public housing compound on one side—and the buildings soon to be refurbished for million-dollar condos and a Cineplex on the other.
The first time I went to Occupy San Francisco, I arrived with my thermos of spicy cinnamon tea to share with the scraggly occupiers. There was no kitchen. A week later, I found a tiny kitchen, and took a bread and apple snack and stayed longer. The last time I visited was in December 2011. I was on my way to a dinner celebration for my mother-in-law’s 75th birthday when I darted in for a look.
At the kitchen, I asked the server how many people they fed a day. He hesitated. I was dressed in a black wool cape, high-heeled faux-leather boots rescued from the Goodwill, and a silver Peruvian necklace, given to me by my husband. In my 1-percenter get-up, I was treated with suspicion. “Why do you want to know?” he asked. I threw up my hands, “I just want to know.” An older homeless man called after me, “Your donations are welcome, ma’am.” The kitchen cook finally answered, “A thousand a day.”
I took the BART across the Bay and got off a block down from the Oakland Occupation. I was picked up by my stepdaughter, who is a steadfast Occupy Oakland organizer. Then together with my in-laws, we enjoyed what I suspect amounted to a $500 dinner at Baywolf.
While I sipped my Carpano Lorenzo cocktail, I considered the many ways my life is full of class and identity contradictions. I can go “slumming” for a burrito, but for someone who can only afford a burrito, the reverse experience of gourmet ghetto dining isn’t readily available. I’ve tried to become part of—rather than conquer—the neighborhood I found in San Francisco’s Mission District. I know it’s not enough. My political point of view, though, in solidarity with my neighbors, separates me from their day-to-day concerns. The long-standing Mission residents are still cautiously accepting me, but at least we’re swapping stories.
On a recent Sunday I went out to watch the final of the paisano soccer league that runs for five months at Garfield Park. I leaned against the fence with Gorras and Chamagol, my game commentators. The final match was won by a team of Mission Latino sons and laborers originally from Mexico City, sporting the yellow jersey of the Aguilas de las Americas and named Juventus, after the famed Italian team.
The league started about four years ago, when Chamagol, originally from Hidalgo, organized laborers and their agile sons into a soccer league. These young recruits, and the rare blond gringo, are able to outrun or outsize any potbellied cook or carpenter on the field. The finals are incredibly competitive, but everyone is welcome to sign up for a team and play in the leagues. Each team brings a picnic and sport drinks for their games.
Chamagol is Hidalgo barrio all the way. He told me that his team has a self-respecting barrio name, Los Pulqueros, “not like those guys who delude themselves with fancy names and shirts.” Pulque is a saloon drink made with fermented agave; it recently became trendy as part of the craze for tequilas and mescal.
Gorras, on my other side, was the foreman on the renovation of the Wise & Sons Deli. Chamagol was one of his carpenters. It was a slow job, they said, since they often had to stop work to wait for the New York designer to return and provide new instructions. On those off days, Chamagol and the rest of the workers would line back up on Cesar Chavez Street to play the job roulette.
I walked back home through Balmy Alley, one of the Mission’s iconic mural ways, and came upon two homeboys in their mid-twenties, smoking pot and discreetly drinking. They were admiring the murals. One pointed at the garage door painted with two enormous brown eyes, subtle drawings of death and a peace dove in the pupils. Surrounding the eyes were green fields of planted crops, with farmworkers plowing hard on one side and a cotton plant on the other.
“This teaches us where we come from,” one of the homeboys said, when I asked what they thought of the murals. The other added, “All it needs is Cesar Chavez’s UFW Eagle and a sign that says, ‘Nuestra Familia.’” (This is code for origin legend of the Norteño gang.)
Then, politely, “Would you like some?” They offered me the joint.
I said thank you and took a hit. “It’s very generous of you.”
“That’s how we roll. We share what we have.”
I continued my walk home in the haze of what was likely California hydroponic. On my way, I recalled a meeting I had a few days ago with my building neighbors—writers, activists, performers, a cook—to talk about land trusts and housing co-ops. I had made some fish stew for it, and still had leftovers. Now I felt the munchies. I went home, heated some up, and ate.
Adriana Camarena likes to talk to strangers on the streets of the Mission District in San Francisco, and has a professional background in law, society, and development studies.
Excerpted from n+1 (Summer 2012), a print magazine of politics, literature, and culture published three times yearly.