Ana Teresa Fernández’ revelation came while driving on 280, as she exited the freeway.
Traveling between her home in the Excelsior and her studio at Hunters Point, she discovered the work of the late Oakland graffiti artist Mike “Dream” Francisco (and his TDK acolytes) on a building by the side of the offramp. Over and over again, multicolored tags reading "DREAM" run along the building’s concrete block wall.
“It was such a beautiful piece, and such an incredible moment every time I drove past it,” Fernández says, “because it says what art can do best: create a sense of introspection and awareness within ourselves.”
Not unlike Francisco, whose vital graffiti pieces spark joy and unity in places off the beaten path, Fernández creates art that disrupts our traditional idea of what exists on the fringes.
In her Borrando la Frontera (Erasing the Border) series, she paints the metal posts imposed between the United States and Mexico to blend with their natural surroundings: a skyline in one, the ocean in another.
In this, she imagines the possibility of a utopia unfettered by the formation of boundaries, an allusion to the seminal works of Chicana feminist thinker Gloria Anzaldúa.
For DREAM, she says, she sought to create a hopeful vision for her neighborhood by transposing Francisco’s sentiment onto a larger space.
“There's murals here in Alemany Market, and the Dream murals, but there wasn't a piece that spoke louder for the community, that was visible, that was for and about the community,” Fernández says.
She pitched her ideas to Yerba Buena Center of the Arts and San Francisco Public Works. First, she imagined the word “DREAM” atop the building, then -- with encouragement from YBCA’s civic engagement manager Rebeka Rodriguez -- atop the hill. That was three years ago.
Fernández partnered with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School for the ambitious project. As part of YBCA’s Youth in the City initiative, select middle schoolers were tasked with attaching the sculpture's individual aluminum panels. They made regular visits to her studio, working intimately with Fernández to understand the process of creating art -- from conception to final product.
The school implemented a yearlong artistic and academic curriculum on the concept of dreams. Students designed architectural mockups, made posters, and wrote songs and poems exploring what it means to dream.
Then came the election — and Donald Trump's divisive, often exclusionary campaign promises came to life, which wasn't lost on the students.
For the artists involved in this project, kids and adults alike, dreams often give way to the unforgiving conditions of material reality. Fernández was evicted from her home. Trump’s DACA repeal was implemented mere weeks before San Francisco officials approved the installation of her DREAM sign.
Those realities, and their accompanying uncertainty, hit close to the project's home: According to data published by the San Francisco Unified School District, 95 percent of students at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are students of color, 75 percent come from “socioeconomically disadvantaged” backgrounds, and 23 percent are categorized as English learners.
The installation itself was originally envisioned as a beacon of hope for those who travel through and reside in the Excelsior neighborhood. Now, DREAM has taken on a more vital undercurrent of urgency and resistance.
“It’s a real privilege to be able to use art and the creative process to make space for young people to be critical thinkers and to be able to dream about a future that is, for the most part, not really easily visible in our current climate,” says YBCA’s Rodriguez.
The term itself has gained a political currency with mixed implications. Certainly, it provides a unified rallying cry for proponents of DACA and other allies of undocumented immigrants – and yet the term dismisses others who fail to meet the exhaustive hurdles of the current American immigration process.
When I spoke to CultureStrike filmmaker and undocumented activist Jesús Iñiguez soon after Trump’s DACA repeal, he critiqued the failure of “viral” DREAMer narratives to capture the multiplicity of the experiences of undocumented immigrants. Their heroic stories elicit sympathy, he says, but fail to create a humanizing perspective that lifts up all undocumented immigrants.
“There’s a narrative. There are some ‘good’ immigrants and there are some ‘bad’ immigrants,” he says. “All you need to do is make one mistake, and then you get lumped in with the ‘bad’ immigrants.”
But on the south side of Bernal Hill, DREAM stands not for respectability, nor for exclusion. Rather, Fernández poses it as a question of access, of who is granted the ability to dream in this current political landscape, of who is permitted to exist in particular public spaces.
“With the travel ban, with who can serve in the military, with DACA and DREAMers, it becomes a question of who is allowed to dream,” Fernández says.
Dreams, by virtue of space and context and opportunity, are political. Mike “Dream” Francisco recognized this; every click of his aerosol can built community and solidarity through his singular graffiti art. His art was his activism.
Fernández’ DREAM exists on a smaller scale, especially in comparison to her work that explicitly presents grander political possibilities.
The sign itself is a modest, unimposing thing. Even at its most visible vantage point -- standing in the easternmost corner of the Alemany Market -- it is overshadowed by a billboard hanging above it. (During the opening ceremony, the billboard advertised a developers’ conference sponsored by Samsung.)
It doesn’t speak loudly as much as it rings like a dull siren. Sunlight reflects onto the sculpture, reflecting onto the passerby. It is a quiet insistence of Fernández’ message not just to dream, but to reflect on these dreams.
With the accelerated pace of the world in 2017, DREAM may not achieve the original vision Fernández set forth. But, now, in this political moment, the message taps into the same spirit of defiant, exuberant hope as Francisco’s graffiti. It’s an homage that befits the artist, and the community he believed in.
For more information about Ana Teresa Fernández' 'DREAM,' click here.