"MaestraPeace" mural on the Women's Building overlooks homes on 18th Street in the Mission District, San Francisco. (CTG/SF/Flickr)
If you walk down 24th Street today, you'll see colorful murals and papel picado hanging overhead, and smell Latinx food being cooked. How did this area come to be the center of Latinx life and community in San Francisco?
The Mission wasn’t always this way. It's actually one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city and has been home to many different people. It was home to the Yelamu, who spoke the Ramaytush language and were one of more than 50 Ohlone groups to live in the Bay Area for hundreds of years before Europeans came. In 1770, the Spanish arrived and chose the Mission for their settlement. But as with most California history, when gold was found in 1848 it changed everything.
The news about the gold rush spread internationally, and people with mining experience from places like Mexico, Chile and Peru came looking for a shot at fortune. When they arrived, many established homes near present-day North Beach, along Broadway.
"That's what the people will call, in so many ways, the Latin Quarter," said Carlos Cordova, professor emeritus at San Francisco State University. "That was really the hub where people in the community would do their economic business."
The shift from gold mines to factories
By the 1860s, fewer and fewer miners were striking it rich in the gold fields. But people kept coming to San Francisco for new jobs being created here. Emigrants with capital started businesses, and San Francisco’s deep-water harbor was a thriving port. The city was growing and work was plentiful.
San Francisco’s early Latinx residents made their mark on the city in many ways. Take the Potrero Hill neighborhood: "Potrero" is a Spanish word.
"That means the place where you keep the horses and other animals, four-legged animals, cattle," Cordova said. "And there were many slaughterhouses in that area."
Tanneries and shoe factories opened in Potrero Hill, too. A lot of Latinx residents living in the Latin Quarter got jobs at those slaughterhouses and factories and moved to the neighborhood.
Across town, coffee brands like Hills Brothers and Folgers established warehouses along the Embarcadero and near Rincon Hill. They’d import the coffee from Central and South America and employ Latinx people living here who knew their way around coffee production. These large employers meant that at the end of the 1800s and during the turn of the 20th century, most of San Francisco’s Latinx residents lived in what we now know as North Beach, in Potrero Hill and near Rincon Hill. Soon more manufacturing would emerge in the Mission District.
"One of the oldest companies here in San Francisco was Levi Strauss," Cordova said. "And many Latinos, African Americans and Asian women actually worked there as seamstresses."
Even though Latinx folk were employed at the Levi Strauss factory at 14th and Valencia streets in the Mission, they didn’t live in the neighborhood yet. Most of the homes were owned by Irish, Italian and Russian immigrants who had settled in the Mission earlier. Twenty-Fourth Street, now the beating heart of latinidad in San Francisco, was an Irish stronghold in the early part of the 20th century, said Cordoba.
It wasn’t until the 1930s that the Mission District as we’ve come to know it began to take shape. Families were trickling into the area for jobs already, but the trickle became a flood when work began on the Bay Bridge in 1933. One of the massive pillars was built right through the area where many Latinx residents lived, a place known as Rincon Annex. The project forced people to relocate their homes and businesses. First they moved to the Fillmore, and eventually into the Mission District. The makings of the barrio had begun.
San Francisco booming (1940s-1950s)
World War II was a boom time throughout the Bay Area, especially in shipbuilding and other war efforts. People from all over the country and world once again saw San Francisco as a place to find a good job, including people from Latin America.
"We had already the connections," said Cordoba. "People follow their relatives." This is called a social migration network: People follow their friends and relatives to new opportunities in foreign lands. The new arrivals to San Francisco needed places to live, and they found vacancies in the Mission.
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After World War II, there was a housing crisis. Soldiers returning from war needed places to live, and there wasn’t enough housing. Housing developers built large tracts of homes on the west side of San Francisco, in places like the Sunset District and Daly City.
Many people who had been living in the Mission moved to these newly built neighborhoods. Latinx families, on the other hand, did not have the same opportunity. Redlining prevented them from buying in many places, and racist lending policies made it difficult for them to get the low-interest loans that white borrowers received. "The Irish and other white ethnic groups moved from the Mission, and then Latinos came to the Mission," said Cordova.
The final factor pushing San Francisco’s Latinx residents into the Mission was the Broadway Tunnel. Its construction forced Latinx business owners to relocate their shops. Important businesses like Casa Sanchez and its tortilla chips — still a thriving business today — had to move.
When the Mission became a barrio (1960s-1970s)
As Latinx folks were moving to the Mission and forming a community, they were watching another community in San Francisco be destroyed: the Fillmore.
San Francisco City Hall had a thirst for "urban renewal," the practice of tearing down so-called "slums" to make way for new development. Fillmore residents — part of a vibrant African American community — were forced out of their homes, often without much warning or adequate compensation from the city. They had to find new places to live, and many left San Francisco all together.
"Quite candidly, [the city] lied to the African American community," said Roberto Hernandez, who was born and raised in the Mission, and remembers the destruction of the neighborhood.
Though the city had promised Fillmore residents they could move back after the neighborhood was rebuilt, it didn’t work out that way. High-cost condominiums and studio spaces were built in the neighborhood, and homes owned by Black families were destroyed. Black residents either couldn’t afford to move back, or had moved on with their lives. The Fillmore was never the same.
In the mid-'60s, textile factories were leaving the Mission for Asia or Latin America, where labor was cheaper. That exodus left the Mission spotted with empty lots and buildings. The city’s redevelopment agency targeted it for “improvement."
The city had a plan to introduce two BART stations along Mission Street. They planned to build massive high-rises with housing and offices and a plaza for commercial use. This urban-renewal plan was a red flag to Mission residents who didn’t want to see what happened in the Fillmore happen to them. Residents began organizing to fight the city.
The Mission Coalition Organization helped organize the community into “block clubs,” ready to mobilize with a word from their block captains. The block clubs became the foundation of a larger movement for Mission residents to decide what support their community needed and how to work together to get it.
"It was a beautiful time to see how well-organized the whole neighborhood [was]," Hernandez said. "I felt like it was like Godzilla vs. Bambi because of the power that their redevelopment had at the time was to come in and literally wipe out communities."
This form of organizing was a huge success. It brought the community together and got everyone involved. And the Mission community needed that unity to fight the city over the redevelopment plan. Ultimately, the mayor at the time, Joe Alioto, gave into their sustained protests, and he listened to the Mission organizers who had their own ideas about what would help revitalize the community and support its residents. Winning the fight not only saved the Mission from redevelopment, it solidified a feeling of unity among residents proudly displaying their cultural identities.
The Mission of now
Two BART stations were built in the Mission, and homes and businesses were destroyed to make room for the 16th and 24th street stations. A McDonald's opened at the corner of Mission and 24th. But a majority of the Mission survived.
"It's even more meaningful because [of] knowing what we as a community were able to stop," Hernandez said, referring to the destruction of the Fillmore District. "And unfortunately, when we look today at how it wiped out the African American community, we would have been wiped out."
The residents of the Mission had pushed for the right to decide what happened in their community and won. That power carried them forward as they developed plans to invest in the well-being of its people.
The neighborhood also got federal funding through the Model Cities Program, which helped support the projects they’d outlined to city leaders. They used the funding for employment, education, and legal and housing services. Important Mission organizations still working to support the community, like the Mission Hiring Hall and the Mission Housing Development Corporation, got their start.
After winning the redevelopment fight, the Mission has continued to grow and change. New immigrants arrived, notably Salvadorans and Nicaraguans who were fleeing wars at home. Organizers like Hernandez created public celebrations of Latinx identity that brought neighbors from different backgrounds together to celebrate their unique identities. Cinco de Mayo, Carnival and Fiesta de las Americas all bring the city to the Mission in celebration.
When I travel to the Mission District today, and I walk up the BART stairs, I’m grateful for my elders who fought to preserve this community. I love when I catch a glimpse of a lowrider, or hear snippets of cumbia music floating out from the shops. The smells, the colors, the sound of Spanish being spoken — this is where I can express my latinidad proudly. This is the Mission to me.
But even this version isn’t safe. The Mission District is gentrifying, Hernandez said, and it’s time to get organized once again in defense of home. But for now, this barrio still stands, strong and loud.
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