MyMission is a series of interviews with a diverse group of people, each with their own experience of the Mission. A few of them have been published in our zine, “MyMission, I Know My Streets,” a collection of resource, memory and cultural maps.
We first met Alejandro Chávez at the Mission Arts Performing Project, or M.A.P.P. He was standing in someone’s living room, playing a guitar in front of what seemed to be an inconceivable number of people squished together in such a tiny space. On the night that we interviewed him on the park bench on the highest corner of Dolores Park, he was just a few days away from his first gig at Yoshi’s. Chávez arrived accompanied by a cup of coffee from Philz and his guitar. This Saturday he will be at the Sunrise Cafe.
Mission Local: Why did you want to meet here in the park?
Alejandro Chávez: The first time I came here was one of my first days in the city. I had met a man named Carlos Disdier where I was working in Cuernavaca, Mexico. He said, “I organize concerts in San Francisco. I would love to take you there.”
So I came here. I was just looking for a place to read. I asked a few people, and no one knew of a place, and then I saw a kid on a bicycle and asked him. He pointed down 20th Street and said, “Go straight, straight straight and you will find some nice park.”
So I sat here and finished my book — the book that I had started reading in Los Angeles, and had read on the Greyhound all the way to San Francisco — in that park. The principal character of the book was Miguel Hidalgo, and I didn’t even notice that afternoon that there is that huge sculpture of Hidalgo in the park.
Mission Loc@l: I don’t know anything about Miguel Hidalgo.
AC: He was a myth. A lot of things that people thought about him are lies. Like the whole history of the war.
Since that little thing there was a lot of coincidence and random stuff. A few days later, I met an American woman on the corner of 23rd and Mission, and now she is my wife.
I don’t want to talk about it too much, because it’s personal, but I found this place to be magic.
ML: What are some of your other favorite places here?
AC: The Revolution Cafe. I feel that a lot of people there are trying to find something that is not there. They are looking for company. I felt the same way as them when I came here, with the wrong language and the opposite culture. I also like it because you can smoke pot outside.
Three years ago, when I decided to stay, I had bad culture shock. I spoke hardly any English. Just hello and thank you.
I was walking past the Red Poppy, and heard tango music. You know tango?
I stood outside on the street, crying. Meklit [Hadero] came out and said, “Are you OK?” I said I was OK. I didn’t want to talk to anybody, but I found the face of Meklit calming.
The cafés and bars in the Mission — you can survive as an immigrant here. I don’t feel that way about any other part of the city.
ML: How is living here different than living in Mexico?
AC: You know the concept “day job?” In Mexico, I was a full-time artist. There, if you are a musician, you can live good. You may not have a 2011 car, but you have a car.
Most people when they come here come because they can make money. Because the economy is better. I came here to play one concert. I came here because I met an American girl on the corner of 23rd and Mission and we began talking and we talked and talked and talked for the next 15 days. And I decided to stay here.
ML: So do you have a day job?
AC: I have a day job! I can’t live here without a day job!
ML: What’s your day job?
AC: It’s hard to find a job if you don’t have the language. So at first I found this terrible job as a driver. My boss didn’t pay on time. He was one of those people who takes advantage of people who don’t speak the language.
I was working a lot. I was always trying. Asking for new words. Asking people “How do you write these things down?” Now I meet people who have spent 30 years in the Mission and I speak better English than they do.
But I had the support of my wife — the American girl. And I had the support of the community, because I am part of a community of musicians. The guys out on Cesar Chavez don’t have that.
Now I have a job as a cashier. I am doing better in music. I have a recording studio in my home. I recorded Leticia Hernandez — she’s a poet from El Salvador. I recorded the Mission Bohemia Project — 30 different musicians playing together. I spent a year working on that. The result is not just a recording. It’s a lot of connections made.
I am happy for that. I respect every job, but I do not feel myself as a cashier.
ML: Do you think you’re ever going to write songs in English?
AC: I just want to keep singing in Spanish, even if I am here. I haven’t written songs in English, and I’m not going to try. I can’t pretend to know English that much. Hispanic people need to hear their language, and I need it too.
ML: Were your parents musicians, too?
AC: My mother was a singer, a professional one. My father plays the guitar and mandolin, but as a hobby. He doesn’t need music to survive.
My mother is from a huge choir because she is from a huge Catholic family. I learned to sing before I learned to talk, because if I could stand up by myself I could sing with the choir. They sang in churches. When I was young they gave me the parts with the highest voice. They moved me around the choir as my voice changed.
For me it was the greatest gift: to learn music as a game. I can play on almost everything without knowing the scale because I have these ears that I trained. That they trained.
My mother stopped singing when she and my father separated. It was too painful. It reminds her of problems now. But for me, music is my therapy.
My father had a lot of violence, and the price of his violence was really high. He lost my mother, and he lost his son for awhile — me. When I was a teenager he put me in a hard school to punish me. But I was like a fish in the sea. I learned how to fight, and I learned how to do things wrong. It’s a way to survive a hard life — to have a love of gangs, guns, violence.
When I was 17 I took my clothes and my guitar and left my town. I went to Mexico City with no idea of what I would do there. I was living on the street. Sleeping on the couch of a taxi driver who was really nice. Using some other musicians’ couches.
I needed to be alone. I needed to think about the experience of violence and fix that within myself. I think that when somebody hits you, you have to do something. You cannot sing, and you cannot stay.
I confronted my father a year later. I was in another city, and saw him randomly. I just talked, my father stayed, and afterward, I felt released. He’s demonstrated that he can change and be a better person.
ML: So when did you start to make a living as a musician?
AC: I moved to Jalapa Vera Cruz. I was surviving by playing music at a bar. The owner of the bar was really hard. He was always short of money. I had a friend back in Mexico City who said, “Come back here and record. I’ll take care of you.” So I borrowed money to take the bus back to Mexico City.
When I arrived at the bus station, I had three coins. I used one to call my friend. He said “Hey! So sorry! I just got a new recording contract and I’m going to LA to produce my new CD.”
I was 18 years old. I slept on the street, hugging my guitar. My biggest fear was that someone would rob my guitar. I finally found a friend, who took me to his home and gave me a place to sleep. I started to rebuild my life. The strikes in Mexico City were going on, and we were singing at the strike for eight months. Just for the coins that people were willing to share. We ate the food that people brought there. I learned one of the biggest lessons — that you can fight for what you believe.
I wanted to learn how to record, and so I got a job at a recording studio. They said “We need a guy to serve the coffee and put cables back in the storeroom.” It paid $50 a month. I had to borrow money just to get to work. I remember watching my boss eat and just being so hungry.
Once I was six days without food. Just coffee, and cookies that I took from the storeroom. Then one day, my mother calls me at the studio. She says, “Hey. I left your father.” I just hung up the phone. I told my boss, “I have to go outside.”
I stopped working there. Something changed inside of me. I started looking at the world differently. I ran into a friend and he said, “You are so thin! Next weekend we are going to Playa de Cuernavaca. We’ll pay for your bus there.”
We went there, and played songs, and afterward the owner of the bar said, “You play really good. You friend says you are looking for work. You can come here, play three days a week and I will pay you and give you breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
So I went to Cuernavaca. And I started to work in a recording studio, but not as an assistant — as a sound engineer.
And then one night I met Carlos, and that’s the other part of my history. I met Carlos, and he invited me to San Francisco.
Some of Alejandro Chavez’s music can be found here.