Tales of San Francisco: preserving Hispanic culture in the Mission, as told by artist Susan Cervantes

Meet artist Susan Cervantes, the founder of a mural collective that began transforming the Mission district back in the 1970s and continues to mix paint, politics and passion in this traditionally Latin American ’hood.

Published 5 Nov 2020, 08:09 GMT
Artist Susan Cervantes, muralist and founder of the Precita Eyes collective.

Artist Susan Cervantes, muralist and founder of the Precita Eyes collective.

Photograph by Andria Lo

It’s a sunny afternoon on Balmy Alley and artist Susan Cervantes is inspecting her life’s work. She walks up and down the mural-covered, block-long alley inspecting the paintwork. But there’s not much time to focus because people keep coming up to her. And then there are the two men carefully levering off the wall an enormous wooden baby emerging from a giant vagina.

“They’re delicate but just do your best,” says Susan to the workmen. The men are in the process of taking down a set of wall-mounted figures: a woman with her arms and legs splayed apart, and a man catching a child’s head as it’s born into what appears to be a river. Susan turns to me: “We’ve been waiting years for this,” she says.

“This” is going to be a new affordable housing building for senior citizens — something the area lacks. Historically the Latin American district of San Francisco, the Mission has long been prey to gentrification, but the past few years have seen a rise in the number of lower-income locals being squeezed out. The building the workmen are going to demolish to construct the apartment block is home to one of Susan’s best-known works: an enormous applied arts mural, Five Sacred Colours of Corn, inspired by the yarn artwork of Mexico’s Huichol people. It’s dominated by this joyful, spiritual birth scene.

“We see people bringing kids to touch the belly,” Susan tells me. Indeed, the woman’s face and womb (made of copper) are mottled and dented by the touch of many hands. “It’s been here almost 30 years and it’s something everyone wants to see back on the wall,” she adds. That’s why the men are taking such care; as soon as the new building is up, the artwork will be hammered straight back on.

The murals of Balmy Alley, in San Francisco's Mission district.

Photograph by Andria Lo

In an area whose identity is at risk of being whittled away, Balmy Alley offers a concentrated dose of community. The murals here forcefully remind their audience that this is a Hispanic area, regardless of how many new high-rises are rocketing up around the fruterías (fruit shops) and taquerias (taco sellers). The art is almost all political and is made overwhelmingly by local Latino creatives. Just along from Five Sacred Colours of Corn is Enrique’s Journey, a 15ft-long mural of a little boy’s journey from a hilly Mexican village to San Francisco on top of a freight train, facing Grim Reaper-like immigration agents and a clueless Uncle Sam on the way. Like the rest of the murals, it bursts with colour — and packs an emotional punch, too.

This outdoor gallery — like many of the bright murals that drench the Mission neighbourhood — owes a debt to Susan. As an art student in the 1970s, she was inspired by a local group of female muralists called the Mujeres Muralistas to harness the power of public art. In 1971, she began the Balmy Alley project and, in 1977, founded Precita Eyes, a community-based mural organisation that aimed to increase local pride and cohesion.

Today, residents give the group permission for their garden walls to be painted on, and artists get to work. The only criterion: this must be art that means something. So alongside little Enrique and the childbirth scene, I also spot a brutal takedown of gentrification; in the mural, a woman with a shopping bag from ‘Wealth Foods’ (using the logo of the chichi supermarket chain Whole Foods) toasts a policeman with a Starbucks frappuccino, and a blousy white family moves into a historic wooden gingerbread-style house where a sign reads ‘sold for $51 million’. The estate agent is named ‘Rich White Realty’. Meanwhile, a homeless person sleeps on cardboard, and Renaissance artist Masaccio’s famous figures of Adam and Eve are thrown out of Eden by a foreclosure team. Nearby, the uplifting Women of the Resistance mural is a collage of 38 global activists, including civil rights campaigner Angela Davis; education activist Malala Yousafzai and #MeToo founder Tarana Burke.

Precita Eyes has been called on to work on murals from Lebanon to China, but Susan is currently staying close to home, working on a new community project. Back at HQ, she shows me the plans — everyone involved has created something, and nobody gets rejected. The Mission may be changing, but if she has anything to do with it, the community will stay strong.

Precita Eyes runs mural tours on weekends. $20 (£16) per person

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Published in the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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