'Sometimes, It Takes Time': Erina Alejo, the Third-Generation Renter

Erina Alejo uses their art to take a critical look at San Francisco, the city they grew up in.  (Evelyn Anderson)

Erina Alejo is an educator, artist and cultural artifact keeper. But when asked how they self-identify, Alejo says they're, a "third-generation renter."

Alejo's grandaunt immigrated from the Philippines to the Bay Area in 1959. Soon after, other family members joined. They lived in the East Bay city of Pittsburg, before moving to San Francisco. They've been renters the whole time.

Now Alejo, who spent their early years in the Mission District before being priced out and moving to the Excelsior, says they've been watching the story of gentrification unfold through a unique lens.

A trashcan in the Excelsior Erina has documented for years
Erina Alejo has documented this trashcan in the Excelsior for five years. (Erina Alejo)

Alejo is a photographer whose work focuses on the story of housing. One of their passions is taking photos of people awaiting to speak at City Hall in San Francisco. Another is revisiting the same public trashcan every so often, documenting the changing world around it. Alejo is in the process of publishing a book titled, "A Hxstory of Renting," which highlights this work.

In this week's episode of Rightnowish, you can hear Alejo talk about their work, and the specific story behind the trashcan series.

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Below are lightly edited excerpts of my conversation with Erina Alejo. 

Pen: What's the value of taking photos of the same object over and over? I know it's a matter of noticing small differences, but what does that mean? These subtle changes – what do they actually tell you?

Erina: It's not noticeable across two days that I take a picture of the same trashcan. I can relate it to, say, listening to the same song in different parts of my life, or across seasons. My relationship with that song and those lyrics change. And it's same for the trashcan. There's a lot of resilience and power in sitting and listening and watching – which my work is about. I'm not a photographer that puts out my work all the time. I'm really slow. There's a certain timing to when I realize the relevance of a particular photo or a series.

Pen: I got to ask, how is it even possible in this day and age that you can have patience and not post a photo right after taking it? How do you hold on to the photos? How did you develop that practice?

Erina: Sometimes it's just the issue of being a packrat and realizing that, "Oh, my goodness, I have so many archives". I think in the long term of how the impact of something that I'll post will be understood, and how it will be perceived over time. While I do have folks who are like "Erina, where's the picture you took of us at a community action like five years ago?" I have it. I'm learning how – as an archivist (and I do want to go to school for library sciences) – how do we take time and put grace and care and to how we tell stories. And, sometimes, it takes time.

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.