Singing about San Francisco's Mission District, and How to Save It

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Rehearsal for 'El Son de la Mision at San Francisco's Commmunity Music Center (L-R): Alicia Mana, Luis Garcia Lemus, Camilo Landau, John Calloway, Mario Alberto Silva  (Photo: Courtesy Community Music Center)

El Son de la Misión, a new musical theater work, opens with a quote from an old Santana Latin rock number, and continues as a series of songs and stories highlighting  50 years of the Mission District's history, from Latino enclave to hipster hangout. There's doo-wop and soul, Latin jazz and salsa, rock en español, and a rap track about the death of Mission and Bernal Heights native Alex Nieto, killed by San Francisco police in 2014.

The Mission  is at the center of the Bay Area's growing fight over gentrification. And now the Community Music Center (CMC), a Mission music school celebrating 95 years in the neighborhood, has commissioned a piece to tell some of that story. El Son de la Misión plays at the Brava Theater Saturday, Mar. 19 and Sunday, Mar. 20.

Composer and music teacher John Calloway
Composer and music teacher John Calloway (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

"It’s like a ballad, it’s a narrative," says El Son composer and musician John Calloway. He's been teaching music to Mission kids at CMC and in east side high schools for 30 years. And many of the 45 singers and musicians in the show have been his students.

"The piece is meant to be a neighborhood gathering," says Community Music Center’s program director Sylvia Sherman. "You see four generations transmitting culture. It's like a large family."

That family shares its pride in its musical heritage and its grievances over the way the  community has changed in the past decade. "This is the perfect time to tell this story because of gentrification," Calloway says. "Maybe it's too strong to use genocide, but there are things happening right now in the Mission that are very alarming."


El Son features bits of the neighborhood's history, both cultural and political, written and performed by longtime SF State Theater professor Carlos Baron.

SF State Theater Professor Carlos Baron
SF State Theater Professor Carlos Baron (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

At one point in the piece, Baron explains how he too has been displaced by high rents in the Mission (he's moved to Daly City), then offers a half-joking olive branch to the tech community often blamed for gentrifying the neighborhood. "We have to dance, we have to do stuff creatively in order to heal," Baron says in the show. "Why not invite some hipsters to dance salsa, you know. It’s called La Rumba del Hipster."

Carlos Baron and Ariceli Leon do the rumba in 'El Son de la Misión'
Carlos Baron and Ariceli Leon do the rumba in 'El Son de la Misión' (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

Then Baron breaks into a rumba, with Araceli Leon, a 25 year old former student at CMC, born in the Mission and still living there.

Leon co-hosts El Son de la Misión. She says she thinks her old teachers' concerns are right on. "Money is starting to speak way louder and taking over so much," Leon says. "And the most important thing is we’re still here and the culture still remains."

That’s the point of the song cycle, say Leon, Baron, and  Calloway, who’ve spent most of their lives in the Mission. They want their songs to teach the newest residents to respect the cultural mix that’s made this oldest neighborhood of the city such a special place.