‘The ‘80s Matter in The Mission’ Honors Latine Activists of Decades Past

Grupo Maíz presents Baile Folklorico from El Salvador. PHOTO COURTESY OF NICK DERENZI

With walls adorned with vibrant murals and the rich scent of Latine food, San Francisco’s Mission District is a celebration of Latine history and culture. However, the people who laid the foundation of today’s Mission are often overlooked. The latest SFMOMA art installation by Acción Latina, “The ‘80s Matter in the Mission,” was celebrated at its opening event just in time for the end of National Hispanic Heritage Month. The exhibit honors Latine artists and organizers who advocated during the AIDS epidemic and the immigration of Central American refugees to the Mission. 

Most notably, the exhibit pays homage to queer Latine artist and advocate, Juan Pablo Gutiérrez Sánchez, who passed away last December. Dedicated to bettering the lives of Latine immigrants and queer Latine folks, Gutiérrez pushed for AIDS education, served as one of the first gay directors of the Mission Cultural Center, and made sure Día de los Muertos was celebrated in San Francisco.

Guitierrez’s life was honored through a mural by Mexican-American artist Elizabeth Blancas that was the focal point of the exhibit. Blancas’ mural, “Nuestros Muertos No Se Venden,” or, Our Dead Are Not for Sale, is a nod to Guitierrez’s motto speaking to parties trying to profit off of Día de los Muertos. 

One of the event’s curators and speakers, Paul S. Flores was overjoyed to “make the past come to life through art.” Flores, who is a Latine advocate, poet, and professor at USF, hopes for viewers to not only remember the past, but to, “listen to it. Watch it. Experience the visual memories and the voices of the time.”

When they weren’t looking at art, viewers dug deep into the archives of California’s longest running bilingual newspaper, El Tecolote. Co-curator Fátima Ramirez, executive director at Acción Latina and former Foghorn news editor, wanted people to immerse themselves in and experience all aspects of the Mission in the ‘80s through the newspapers from the time.

El Grupo Maiz delighted the crowd with an El Salvadorian Baile Folklórico performance halfway through the event and audience members danced, sang, and clapped along.

Viewer Isabel Raskin was moved by the presence of culture and solidarity at the event. “I just love seeing so much energy, spirit, and a sense of community and support.”

Another audience member, Christos Eugen said he felt, “sadness and happiness because we’re trying to remember all what happened to all the Latinos during the ‘80s and ‘90s in the Mission and in the whole San Francisco.”

Muralist Josué Rojas made two pieces that hug the book shelves and play on his Central American heritage as a child growing up in the Mission. His piece “Central American Pie” is a personal recollection of the neighborhood in the 1980s. Tanya Orellana’s neon and vinyl print installation is inspired by her childhood memories of the Mission tiles she saw growing up near the Mission Playground Pool and when the Lexington Club transitioned from a Latine bar to a lesbian stronghold in the Mission.

“It’s important to know our history and to remember the people who gave a lot of effort to change the political and social realities in our neighborhood and community,” said Flores.

The exhibit will be featured at the SFMOMA through June 23, 2023. 

Jordan Premmer contributed to the reporting of this story.

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