In the Heart of the Mission

Last weekend I returned to the San Francisco Mission District, where I lived in the late ’70s and ’80s. I was welcomed with a colorful feast—for the soul. I visited old haunts like La Victoria Bakery and new ones like Kaleidoscope, a home for free artistic expression.

Kaleidoscope dog with art

The legacy of revolutionary art that began in the Mission in the early ’70s lives on. The murals of Susan Cervantes, Juana Alicia and many others decorate the streets with rich images of earth’s abundance and human beauty and travails. I traversed streets and alleys where dozens of brilliant murals created or restored since the ‘70s line walls and garages, thanks to the inspiration of community artists who believe that art belongs on the street for everyone to enjoy and even create. The story of Bishop Oscar Romero, who used his status in the church to stand up against the Salvadoran military regime, was memorialized in several pieces. Continuing struggles for immigrants’ rights and dignity were portrayed in other scenes. Precita Eyes Muralists Association cultivates residents and business owners, who offer up their sidings to the genius of artists from different cultures. It maintains a map that you can purchase at its 24th Street storefront to find the nearly 100 local murals.

As in the ‘70s when making art for social change was about the collaboration between activists, artists and community members, these old and new institutions are highly collaborative today as well. Take the bakery for example. Sixty years in the business, La Victoria still makes pan dulce. But, in addition, young bakers specializing in cupcakes or bagels, share the space that Jaime Maldonado owns, which he inherited from his father and grandfather who ran the bakery and restaurant before him. The variety of players makes the offerings both traditional and contemporary. The need to economize is driving established and budding entrepreneurs to share space.

I came for an apple turnover at La Victoria, and later returned for an inexpensive dinner, which is available every Sunday from 5 pm on. The taco trio got my taste buds jazzed: one with pork loin smoked in banana leaf, the second a lemongrass confit snapper and the third a Hodo soy tofu taco. All three were distinctive and delish, to say nothing of the gazpacho with tecate foam and the queso fundido with black truffle and burnt nopales.

“Jaime, these dishes aren’t really traditional Mexican, are they?” my friend Tom asked the congenial owner of the bakery.

“Yes, they are, actually,” Jaime explained, suppressing a laugh. “You could find all our menu items in a classy restaurant in Mexico today. But you could also find one or two of them at stands or modest restaurants there too. The stands might have just one or two types of tacos or fundidos.”

After dinner, we went to another community spot, Kaleidoscope, where poets and musicians ply their trade before a drop-in

Montana on mandolin

audience. As we entered the free space, a guitar player was singing original music while an artist painted portraits to the songs. Then Montana, a 30-year-old woman, stepped up, after just getting off work she noted, and accompanied herself on mandolin, adding some booty waggin’ to one of her original tunes. In between, Kaleidoscope’s founder sold raffle tickets to raise money to “keep the space.”

The beautiful thing about the Mission is that some things never change, and some are always changing. Both phenomena keep the neighborhood feeling so alive.

©Leanne A. Grossman

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