This week on The Trip podcast: artist Vero Majano talks San Fransicso’s shifting Mission District.
“I’m glad you guys are still here…” If there was a motto for the old Mission District, this would be it, a little nod of solidarity for the Mission District of auto body shops and the Bi-Rite Market and taquerias like La Cumbre, where Carlos Santana washed dishes and pressed tortillas, long before you could amble down to Lazy Bear and have a $300 communal meal anchored by Miyazaki ribeye and natural wines.
I’m not from the Mission District. When I went to live with my father from middle school, I was mostly on the west side of San Francisco, trapped under a heavy layer of fog with a bunch of Chinese and Russians and Jews. But even from there you knew that the Mission was the heart of San Francisco. It had this weird sunny microclimate. It had stoop life. It had that big old Mission building that gave San Francisco its name. Santana once called the Mission District a jukebox, that there was a constant open-air soundtrack of music from car, conversation from the stoops, calls from street vendors. It was a neighborhood of families, strivers, hustlers, artists.
But the Mission has always been abused, neglected by politicians, eyed hungrily by developers. San Francisco is America’s perennial boomtown, and the newcomers forget every damn time that this was a mestizo city from the start, that the Latino immigrants who find safe harbor in the Mission are part of a much older bloodline.
My goal in the next few episodes is simple: I want to see if those guys are still there, to see if the jukebox is still playing, if how the latest insidious boom, the rise of the tech bro, has changed this place. I couldn’t start those conversations off in a better spot, with artist and activist Vero Majano. Together with her partner, the photographer Kari Orvik, she’s part of one of my favorite indie artist power-couples. She’s also deeply, truly, from this place, born and raised, ready to remember and defend and correct and clarify. We recorded this episode before the El Paso Massacre or the Mississippi raids or whatever godawful shit happened last night, but you’ll recognize the themes of persecution in her work about Los Siete, seven Latino boys railroaded for the killing of a San Francisco police officer in the 1969. And yet, you’ll also hear in this conversation that Vero has a far less combative view of change and cultural conflict that even I do. There’s a kind of grace in the way she handles the shifting streets of the Mission, which is sort of humbling and extraordinary.
Thornburgh: Let’s have a drink.
Thornburgh: Salud. Shit. That’s a double-dank IPA.
Majano: Yeah, I think it’s a double something.
Thornburgh: Just says West Coast IPA, which that’s all I need. That’s the only recommendation. I haven’t drunk a lot of beers that have been signed to the person who opened it. Somebody did a signature of this for you.
Majano: Yeah, it’s called Laughing Monk. It’s the brewery here in the Bay area, in the Bayview. A friend of mine, he did the artwork for this Dolores Huerta special edition beer and the proceeds go to her foundation.
Thornburgh: That’s badass. So that’s the guy who signed this can…
Majano: Josué Rojas, yeah. So he had it signed and I’m like, wait, I know what beer we could drink.
Thornburgh: That’s awesome.
Thornburgh: That is a limited edition. We’re not going to recycle that bottle. It’s beautiful. It’s like, it’s got a little crystal outline shape and then a, just like this fantastic painting of Dolores Huerta. The beer is called Hermana Dolores.
Majano: Yeah, Josué Rojas is an artist born and raised here, so I thought it’d be cool since we’re talking about the Mission.
Thornburgh: Yeah. How many of you are there now?
Majano: There’s still a couple of us around. It all depends. There is an old-school Mission, art school. Some of them are around, and then the Mission homie artists like myself are around. There’s a couple of us.
I feel like if you’ve been here in San Francisco more than 20 years, you should get discounts.
Thornburgh: It’s like a Venn diagram of endangered species, right? It’s Mission locals and then artists in San Francisco. The economy is coming for you from both directions, right?
Majano: Yeah. I feel sometimes that a lot of cab drivers are OGs that have been around here for a long time. I feel like if you’ve been here in San Francisco more than 20 years, you should get discounts somewhere.
Thornburgh: They have that in in Key West, the other place where I grew up—they’ll give you a local’s card and you can use it just because all the prices are so jacked up. But here, you would need discounts, you’d need housing discounts.
Majano: Yeah, a voucher for housing.
Thornburgh: Right? This was a thing when I came back for my high school reunion. Everybody had gone. The only people who were still living in San Francisco were in their parents’ homes.
There’s this ocean of memory and art that people just don’t know about when it comes to San Francisco
Majano: That’s right, because you’re from here, right? You’re from the Bay Area.
Thornburgh: I’m from the west side. I’m from the Richmond district, and it’s the same problem. I went to a little high school in the southwest, and everybody’s got good jobs, or they don’t. It doesn’t matter. They can’t afford to live here anymore. It was crazy to just see the big exodus.
Let’s get right into that, because I think the reason I’m doing these episodes [on] San Francisco and the Mission is knowing you, and following you, and having been so excited about what you’ve been up to, and the stuff I’ve been seeing from afar, particularly with Remember Los Siete. It just reminded me that there’s this ocean of memory and art that you are working with that people just don’t know about when it comes to San Francisco. I want to dive into that. So tell me about that project.
Majano: Remember Los Siete is the last project that I just finished in April, and it was a live cinema production. This year is the 50-year anniversary of the Los Siete Movement, Los Siete de la Raza. In 1969, seven young Central American men were accused of killing a white police officer in the Mission. They were acquitted. It took almost two years for them to get acquitted, but also, a lot of movements in the Mission were created out of that—trying to free Los Siete, and a collaboration with the Black Panthers. The Los Siete de la Raza organization had a newspaper called BASTA YA that was published together with the Black Panthers. Black Panthers lent their lawyer, Charles Garry, who was, you’re familiar with Charles Garry? The people’s lawyer?
Thornburgh: Yeah. I saw clips of him going off that you used in your show, right?
Majano: And it was great. It’s so powerful, and I actually knew about Charles Garry through other things—there’s a documentary about him, and he was called the people’s lawyer. So I decided to tell this story. I worked on it forever, and luckily the 50-year anniversary was coming up and that was kind of like the, If you don’t do it now, it’s not going to happen [moment].
Thornburgh: Los Siete were these were kids who were arrested, people said they’d killed a white cop. The charges were super-thin and they were ultimately acquitted, but as the people’s lawyer was saying in that clip, they’d spent over 1,000 days in jail collectively. That just the whole set-up was so outrageous that that was finally a breaking point for this neighborhood, or for this community. Was that the experience?
Majano: I think it’s the first time that organizing was happening in the Mission District at the time, and most movements who instigate that are young people, so there were a lot of young people. There were young men, young people with their friends, who were inspired to do that. A lot of the young folks were also doing a lot of the work at the San Francisco strike. So the strike was happening right around that time also, so a lot of these kids—and I say kids because they were about 20 years old—were starting to get inspired by organizing. Some of them, they were at the Huey Newton rally at the federal building, and they were all raising their little red Mao books.
There happened to be, one, Donna James, standing by one of the police motorcycles and she heard the announcement that the cops were looking for these people. When she heard the names, they were like, Yo, that’s our homies. Actually, one of the [suspects] was with her. So I think that incident was an important marker for a lot of folks to continue to organize. To this day, they’re still organizing.
Thornburgh: Was it the sense that these were political arrests, or was it just a symptom of the systemic racism where they would just frame up any Central American kids and say that they had done this?
Majano: As you know, San Francisco doesn’t have a good reputation with police officers and people of color. If you think about it, compared to today, it’s the same story. The only story is that there is justice for the young boys who were accused of the crime. I think it became very political. Then also, it became political how to talk to the community about freeing these boys, and continuing, and how people can get involved. Some communities, the parents had their ideas of what the Black Panthers were. And other organizations were trying to figure out, Is it a good collaboration? How are people going to take that? Until they started flyering images of the young boys—in English and in Spanish—This could be your son. So that’s when a lot of parents started to organize. That’s what I’m told.
Thornburgh: Your [project] was toward the end of a month of programming and exhibitions, and different people having a say about the 50th anniversary.
Majano: I wanted to make sure my expression of the story of Los Siete through my lens as an artist, a storyteller, my connection to it on a personal level. But I also wanted to make sure that people got other hits of it. Some of the people are more interested in the actual facts, the history of it. So I collaborated with many organizations, and they hosted panels for people, the women who were part of Los Siete. There was an art exhibition with Yolanda Lopez and Fernando Martin, a poetry night, a bike tour.
Thornburgh: No shit.
Majano: So I was really excited about that, because it’s very site-specific. People were just going around on bikes and telling this is what happened here, and not just where the incident happened, but actually what other organizations were inspired from that incident.
Thornburgh: Right, so you could visit storefronts and different activists’ shops or something, all in the Mission today and still see them all as an echo of what happened back then.
Majano: Yeah, and I think some people learn and gather information differently. I think site-specific space is really important for people.
Trouble has come for this neighborhood in so many different ways over the years, and it feels like it’s here now.
Thornburgh: It does sound a lot to me like the Central Park Five or something—just this seminal, defining miscarriage of justice, and obviously it worked out a little differently. It took a lot longer for the Central Park Five, but it’s that same thing. Sometimes it takes a single moment to get people to realize their collective strength or something? I don’t know, but the Mission, it’s almost like that was the beginning of the organizing, but certainly that was not the end of the trouble. Trouble has come for this neighborhood in so many different ways over the years, and it really feels like it’s here now. I definitely want to ask you about that stuff and what’s happening these days.
Majano: I feel my job as an artist, how I feel like I contribute, is making these moments that we remember what [the Mission] was, and maybe what it can be.
Thornburgh: So you grew up in the Mission. You were born and raised here?
Majano: Yeah. Right around the corner from here.
Thornburgh: Were your parents also from here?
Majano: They were from El Salvador.
Thornburgh: I think you’ve had some breaks, but you’ve been here the whole time?
Majano: I’ve been here. I lived in the East Bay for a blink, while ago, but I’ve been pretty much here my whole life.
Thornburgh: We all make mistakes.
Majano: For me, sometimes I feel like, Damn. Everybody found out about the secret of San Francisco. I fall for it every time I come back home.
Thornburgh: I get that same feeling. I even had that coming in yesterday. It’s just, fuck. That’s why they call it California. It’s got this ridiculous blue sky…
Majano: The light is perfect. It’s not too hot. It’s not too cold. Even on my way over here, I said, this is the perfect temperature, right here.
Thornburgh: This is also, by the way, why they hate us.
Majano: I’m hella Cali. I have no shame in it. I was telling Kari, my partner, because I say I was born and raised here, but I think I can see I’m getting old here right now. I hope I’m able to grow old here. I would love to grow old here.
Thornburgh: One of the things that I find remarkable and generous about the way that you reach across the aisle with some of the work and are not presenting a kind of harder front. If people want to hear your stories and get into it who are newcomers, like you’re welcoming them into your art. I think that’s, it’s remarkable because having known you for, I don’t know, like 10, 15 years since you started dating Kari Orvik, who’s a great photographer, who’s an old friend of mine. I’ve been with you guys and seen from the outside—the rental instability. Can we stay here? What’s happening? You guys are both artists in San Francisco. It’s fucking crazy. It’s really intense just to maintain a threshold, and I would see for myself a deep bitterness. Maybe I just got a bunch of coal in me, but it would get to me.
Majano: Oh, I’ve had my moments. I’ve had my moments. I mean, I get it. I get it. Sometimes starting Thursday nights is not a good time to be out in the Mission on the streets, because you can get really upset and judgmental and just pissed.
Thornburgh: Because it’s all the rich kids out there playing.
Majano: Yeah, and nobody’s tripping off me. Everybody’s hella tall. I’m pretty small, and nobody tripping off me. I’m just like, I can’t put my energy to that. I feel that I can’t put it to that. I might as well use to to something else, because no one sees me. Nobody sees me, just meaning like, I’m older here in San Francisco. It’s a young city, and I can’t. I mean, I’m not going to say I haven’t been there, and I have been [serving] with the community that’s experiencing homelessness and trauma for more than 20 years. So I work with some of the really poorest people in San Francisco. So I think that sometimes I measure my own privilege, or the people that I serve. I used to work somewhere where people would get in line really early in the morning just to get a cup of coffee, and it’d be a long-ass line. Then you go to Tartine, and it’s the same thing, but it’s just a different experience. I mean, I love me some Tartine, but I always think about the comparison.
That’s one thing I don’t like about San Francisco. People be standing in line for all kinds of stuff.
Thornburgh: Right, it’s like everybody’s standing in line for coffee.
Majano: For coffee, yeah, and then we all stand in line. I feel like that’s one thing I don’t like about San Francisco. People be standing in line for all kinds of stuff. Every level, I’m like, that’s why I think, no. I was born and raised here. I will still pay full price, but I’m not waiting in line. I feel like people love waiting in lines.
Thornburgh: So how would you describe the Mission in a couple of sentences?
Majano: Well, it’s a valley, and it’s always warmer than any other place in San Francisco. I would describe the way the light falls in here in the Mission is really beautiful, especially today, because it’s foggy, and then the light goes through the fog, I think that that’s really beautiful. I think also people respond to—because there is a Latino flavor here. I think that’s why people, Latinos, lived in the Mission in the early 50s, early 60s, because it was one of the poorest places to live. You couldn’t get spaces to rent out, so this is one of the places that people could rent spaces. Then Latinos made it into a very special, vibrant place.
Before that, it was Irish and Italian, and it was also an industry then of a lot of companies like huge laundromats for restaurants. There were the bakeries, Kilpatrick’s, so there was a lot of folks. It was working-class at one time for mostly white folks, Italians—but the suburbs happened, so people got to leave. It wasn’t like what’s happening now with Latinos, where you’re being pushed out. At that time, the folks that were here that were non-Latinos, there was an option to go somewhere else. So it was in between that. All the industries closing, and then Latinos moving in at the same time.
Thornburgh: Is there any sense of pride? Because I totally hear what you’re saying about having created what was one of the poorest neighborhoods in San Francisco, and then having made something that is really fucking attractive from El Farolito to whatever. It’s like people want to be here.
Majano: People come to just check out Dolores Park. That blows my mind. I mean, it’s a different park from when we were kids, and people now have the little maps or books to go to El Farolito [taqueria.] But even before that, we just had Carnaval and it’s just amazing. There’s just these moments where nothing’s changed. It remains the same. I mean, you still have, especially now in the summer, you’re going to have a bunch of low riders cruising up and down. It was just Cinco de Mayo, and I was working here at the Gallery. There were bands playing out here, and it’s just, whoa. This totally reminds me of back in the day. So there’s these moments where we just celebrated and were in it, because it is like back in the day. Most people live, they travel from the East Bay area or even farther just to come to get a hit of that, the combination of place and reminiscing. I mean, Carnaval is the party to be at.
Thornburgh: That’s crazy, but that’s true, because they would, as they’re getting forced out, they’re going to live in the far East Bay or other parts, but this is still the spiritual home.
Majano: This is where you come back, yeah. I mean, this is where all the low riders come back. A lot of them probably don’t live here, but they’ll do the caravan up and down. I think it’s very special that that still can exist.