Preserving San Francisco’s Latino Voices

The Nuestra Historia project aims to document and preserve Latino voices through documenting oral histories such as the family of John Trasviña. Photo by Leslie Nguyen-Okwu.

The Nuestra Historia project aims to document and preserve Latino voices through documenting oral histories such as the family of John Trasviña. Photo by Leslie Nguyen-Okwu.

En Español.

If San Francisco city planners had known more about the former thriving North Beach Latino neighborhood near Guadalupe Church, they would have done more to minimize the negative impact of the Broadway Tunnel, which ultimately displaced the community in the early 1950s.

Now, a team of scholars working with the San Francisco Latino Historical Society and San Francisco Heritage are in the midst of collecting the Latino and indigenous history in San Francisco through a project called Nuestra Historia. The group had its second public meeting on Saturday at the Mission Neighborhoods Center on Capp Street to record stories. It’s one of many ways the group is documenting Latino history.

Anne Cervantes, a local architect and businesswoman who formed the Latino Historical Society and was key in establishing Calle 24 as a special district, said a formal historic context statement will mean that, “we’re not treated as recent immigrants but [recognized for] the long history that we’ve contributed to the development of San Francisco.”

A historical context statement for the Mission District already exists, but Cervantes felt the documentation of Latinos and indigenous history was too “inadequate.” The proposed 200-page report will not only document shrinking Latino voices through photos, maps and illustrations, but will also give recommendations on how best to preserve the cultural and historical contributions of San Francisco’s Latino and indigenous communities.

Some of the contributions that the group heard about on a recent Saturday included those of Catherine Herrera, who recently discovered her Ohlone Indian heritage and John Trasviña, whose ancestor founded the Chihuahua state in Mexico. Funded by the Historic Preservation Fund Committee, Nuestra Historia will be a tool to preserve the Latino neighborhoods that have been wrestling with gentrification due to the high costs of living in San Francisco.

“I don’t want this to just be an academic exercise where we just come up with a fancy report with great pictures and it just collects dust,” said Grande, the community outreach coordinator for the one-year project and the son of blue-collar Salvadoran immigrants who came to San Francisco in the late 60s. “I wanted to move away from that, especially in light of the displacement and gentrification happening.”

The project’s organizers are still figuring out the best way to present and distribute the stories. The lead researcher for the project, Dr. Carlos Cordova, hinted that a series of books might be in order, whereas Grande envisions an online video and audio archive with thousands of stories. The most important aspect, however, is accessibility.

“One of the important things is presenting it in first voice—from an insider’s point of view,” said Cordova, a Latino studies professor at San Francisco State University. “This is a way in which we’re able to get the experiences of people who have actually been here, who have been players in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the community.”

One of the main objectives of creating a historical context statement is having an impact on city planning decisions, according to Grande. He hopes to create a “living document” that can put the legacy of Latino families into action.

“Our city planning system is broken,” he said. “They would never do anything like this. If you want to get a parklet, call the city planning. But if you want to uncover history and ask the community how they want to plan their neighborhoods and talk to the people, well… We’re hoping to reform the way the city does planning and have those planners step out of their cubicles and talk to everyday real people about what they want to see.”

Next month, Nuestra Historia will team up with StoryCorps for Latino Heritage Month and record oral stories from community members who wish to sign up to be interviewed for 40 minutes by their own friend or family member about their family histories.

Lead researcher Cordova explains that the final product does not aim to encapsulate centuries of Latino and indigenous history. Rather, it will be an easy model for documenting these voices to be expanded upon by future generations.

“It will be somewhat academic, but it has to be written so that the common person can read it,” Cordova said. “Unfortunately, it is a huge span of time that we have to cover and we have one year to write the work; It cannot be something that provides an in-depth aspect of every view of life in San Francisco, but it will be providing the foundation for further work.”

Most importantly, anyone from the community is welcome to contribute to the project, Grande and Cordova stress.

“The idea is how deep are your contributions, not the length of how long you’ve been here,” Grande said. “Sometimes it feels like this city doesn’t love us. But we love this city. We love what we’ve been able to build and sustain in the different neighborhoods we come from; Those are the stories we want to hear.”

For more information about Nuestra Historia, contact Project Director Desiree Smith at dsmith@sfheritage.org.

13 Comments

  1. Bob Evans

    I think Tech workers make deeper and better contributions to SF. Without them we would not even be commenting here!

    • native

      Its not about who contributes more. Its about the contributions over a long period of time and the stories tied to it. It’s important to recognize that this group has made those contribution and to the making of San Francisco. Its not taking from others or pinning one group to another.

  2. Schlub

    How manipulative and disingenuous of these folks to group “Latino” and “Indiginous” together as if they’re the same. They’re not, not even close in any way shape or form.

    Native American people were here long, long before the Spanish arrived and claimed their land through conquest, killing and war.

    • Backtotheburbs

      Wait, you are saying that Latinos are Spanish? No one lived in central and South America before the Conquerors arrived? And the Earth is flat?

        • Sam, this isn’t a story about the debate about whether to use Hispanic or Latino. If it had been, your comment would have added to the discussion. This story was about preserving a group’s history and how that is being done. Please keep you comments on the topic of the story. Thank you, Lydia

    • native

      That’s not what the article implies. It does show the ties between the Mexicans and the Ohlone Indians and not who was here first. Many Mexicans and Ohlone suffered the same fate. Hangings, beatings and forced to lose their language, land and culture.

  3. Sam: I’m unsure how your comment contributes to a discussion about this piece. I would think that it would be interesting for everyone in the city to have voices preserved – Latinos, blacks, Asians, white, Irish, Italian, German, tech, gay, working class etc. This story is about one effort and how it is being done. At ML we’re interested in the history of the neighborhood and different groups – all of them. Our first story sparked an e-mail from an Irish resident and so we called and wrote her family’s story. It is fascinating. My point is keep your comments on point. Can you add to the story? Have we gotten something wrong? Can you – gracously – add more nuance or correct us? Perhaps your family has an interesting history. Otherwise, we would ask that you keep your comments to yourself. We reserve the right to zap uncivil, unhelpful comments. Best, Lydia

    • Missionite

      Lydia, Sam has encapsulated ML’s overriding narrative. While it’s unpleasant to hear dissenting voices and I agree this isn’t the right place for it, his points are entirely valid. While the majority of your articles are focused on “techies” you never once have made an effort to present a balanced view of these Mission residents. Tellingly, these citizens were excluded in your list of “everyone in the city”. Perhaps better aligning your content with the demographics of the Mission as your mission statement implies might smooth out these flare ups?

      • Missionite: I respectfully disagree. We report. We do the best we can. I think if people read the site – and so many comments are made without a piece being read – they would see that there are so many sides to the Mission’s story and we do our best to report them all. Could we do better? Always. So help. Be specific. Send leads. missionlocal@gmail.com. Thank you, Lydia

        • godzuki

          There is also the fact that all news comes from a biased perspective. If the perspective offends the reader, there are countless other media outlets to get your information from.

          • Sam: Please add to the information in the article. Perhaps you know a good story for us to cover–an interesting tale of anyone. Or maybe there is a group of scholars working on another Mission group. We would be interested in that and your suggestion would pertain to the article. Thank you, Lydia

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