A Barrio of Many Colors
World War II broke out, bringing a wave of Central Americans to work in the factories that supported the war effort. The postwar flight of the Irish middle class to the suburbs, and the arrival of succeeding waves of Central American immigrants seeking political refuge and economic opportunity, gradually changed the face of the Mission District once again. It became a barrio, a rich blend of many cultures of Latin origin - Mexican, Cuban, Salvadoran, Bolivian, Chilean, Guatemalan, and Nicaraguan.
In the 1960's, as the shadow of urban redevelopment threatened the jobs and homes of Spanish-speaking immigrants, the Mission District was a hotbed of radical political activity. The famed case of Los Siete de la Raza, a group of seven sons of Central American immigrants accused of killing an Irish American police officer, polarized the neighborhood along racial lines. Many young Latinos were catalyzed to participate in progressive organizations such as the Farmworkers Movement. The Mission District was also home to the political theater of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, as well as the highly politicized artistic community, which founded the Galleria de la Raza to show and sell their work.
Art spilled out into the streets in the form of stunning murals, many of which articulate the struggles of the neighborhood's Latino immigrants who came to the Mission District in the sixties, seventies and eighties. In the late seventies, the barrio identity was threatened by gentrification, and by an influx of Asian and Arab families who were buying up businesses, apartment buildings and homes. But today the neighborhood's rich and colorful Latin American identity remains strong in the midst of a diverse community of nationalities, cultures and classes.
Why Did Central Americans Immigrate to San Francisco?Central Americans were originally drawn to San Francisco because of the 1849 Gold Rush. At that time, coffee became a cash crop in Central America and, since San Francisco was the chief processing center for the major coffee companies, some migration of Central Americans to San Francisco was inevitable.
During the early twentieth century, many Salvadorans, Nicaraguans and other Central Americans were recruited to work on the construction of the Panama Canal. After it was completed, a number of them joined shipping lines operating in the Canal, which brought them to the doorstep of San Francisco, the main port on the West Coast at the time.
To escape civil unrest in their countries in the 1920s and 1930s, natives of Nicaragua and El Salvador moved to a small barrio south of Market Street. This barrio had originally been formed in 1910 by refugees from the Mexican Revolution. The munitions factories of World War II drew more Central Americans to San Francisco. More were to follow in succeeding decades because of the liberalized immigration laws of the postwar years and political struggles in their homelands.
In the 1960's and 1970's, the American government responded to the demands of civil rights proponents and admitted more Latin American political refugees into the country. The 1980's saw increased immigration from war-torn El Salvador and Guatemala. Unlike the earlier Central American immigrants, these refugees entered the country illegally, since the U.S. government supported their countries' leadership. As a result, tens of thousands of undocumented Central American refugees have found their way to the Mission District. Within the umbrella of the Mission District barrio, they form their own barrio, linked by a common insecurity and a desire for a new life.
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