MyMission is a series of interviews with a diverse group of people, each with their own experience of the Mission. Our earliest interviews are highlighted in our recently published zine, MyMission: I Know My Streets, which includes resource, memory and cultural maps.
Adriana Camarena talks to everybody. She talks to teenagers drinking on porch steps, lonely-looking guys in bars, tough-as-nails tarot shop proprietors, day laborers, strawberry sellers on corners.
A few of the stories she’s collected will be published as an essay called “The Geography of the Unseen” in the forthcoming book Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas. (Full disclosure: I met Adriana because I have an essay in that same book.)
Adriana is legendary among the contributors because of her struggle to compact 50,000 words of interviews into a 5,000-word essay. At one point, one of the book’s editors at UC Press ran across this phrase, “I would tell you more, but editors are to writers what the border patrol is to migrants.”
“He came up to me at a party and said, ‘I know that you put that in just for me,’” says Camarena. “And then he told me, ‘I almost left it in, but I cut it anyway.’” She is now in the process of turning her interviews into a book.
When I meet her on the front steps of her apartment, she says, “We should walk around. That will give you a sense, perhaps, of how I came to write the essay.”
Adriana Camarena: I like how at this corner outside of Philz you have the cops and firemen getting their coffee, and then just a block away at 24th and Shotwell you have the gang kids hanging out. It’s one of the things I love about the Mission. How many layers you find coexisting.
Look at this mural.
These names are all guys who’ve died: RIP Tiny T, Boxer Chucky, DJ Domino….
A few days ago, around the corner here there was a shrine up for Frank Peña. This was his corner, at 24th and Shotwell. He used to be here all the time. He died September 22 of last year.
Mission Loc@l: What happened to him?
AC: A kid named Michael Sanchez was killed while celebrating getting his GED. He was part of a clique at York and Hampshire. Frank and his friend Cisco walked down to 24th and Potrero to get pizza and they ran into this group of bereaved kids out looking for revenge. Frank and Cisco got killed on the street.
ML: But the shrine is where he hung out. Not where he was killed.
AC: Right. Frank was an old-timer. He told me that back when he was a kid and Philz was still a convenience store, Phil used to hire him to sit on top of the refrigerator and watch out for shoplifters. Frank told me the ups and downs of his life, and after he died, his story became an important part of my essay “The Geography of the Unseen.”
ML: Do you ever give the kids that you talk to legal advice?
AC: No, I don’t often bring the lawyer in me to the interviews. Besides, I don’t have a license to practice law here, only in Mexico…. I think they have all been to jail. It’s just really sad that things are structured in such a way so that before they even know the opportunities that are available to them, those paths are closed.
I’ve been spending time at this Santería store, the Botanica Las Tres Niñas y Hilario. I applied for a job to read tarot here. For my interview, I read to people who were just hanging out in the store.
ML: Do you think your reading was a success?
AC: I had a great time. To me, the tarot is an instrument of meditation. The subconscious gets tugged a little. Almost like going to therapy. The consensus was that my reading skills were alright, but nowhere near Sandrita’s.
This statue is the Santa Muerte. In Mexico and Central America, they’ve taken back the culture of worshipping death and made it into a Catholic-like saint. The church condemns it.
ML: Did you hang out at places like this back when you lived in Mexico City?
AC: No. I worked all the time. I was working in the government. As a telecommunications lawyer.
This is the time of day when all of the schools let out. All the kids get out of school, and all the little homies cruise up and down 24th Street. Some of these kids travel for almost two hours to hang out here.
And this McDonalds on the corner of 24th and Mission is a social hub, especially in the morning. My landlady hangs out here.
ML: Why did you start to interview day laborers?
AC: In the U.S., the mention of “Mexican” brings up an image of Chicanos or undocumented immigrants. That’s who I am supposed to be here, no? But I am neither. When I moved here, I would pass day laborers and Chicanos on corners, without relating. I was Mexican, but not Chicana. I was not a day laborer. I was not a nanny. That’s why I interviewed migrants and gang kids, who stand on corners.
There’s a novel by a writer named China Mieville, called “The City and the City,” about two populations living side by side who learn to “unsee” each other. The space where they violate the rules and see each other is called the Breach. I started breaching the distance to people who we often “unsee” by standing on their corners.
ML: How did you go about interviewing them?
AC: If you go in the morning, there are too many men on the corner. They just want to banter and play. By the afternoon, some have been hired. Some have gone off to drink. Some serious diehards stay there until sunset. They are more willing to talk.
I always watch the soccer games at either Carlo’s Bar or El Farolito. I had a great conversation at Carlo’s with a guy who said that he had been a Sandinista. He showed me YouTube videos that he and his friends had shot of them, in their guerilla days. Eventually he had to escape Nicaragua, and he became a truck driver.
One thing you learn here fast. You can’t sit too long in a bar without a guy buying you a drink. You have to be ready to interact.
I was here at El Farolito the day that Mexico played Argentina. It was packed. Argentina won. It was a horrible defeat. I wound up drinking a bucket of beer with this guy that I met walking on the street on our way there.
(Turns to the man next to us at El Farolito, who is watching a European soccer game, and begins speaking to him in Spanish.)
He is telling me that he just came back from El Salvador. That he hadn’t been back there since the war. He says that it is very dangerous now because of the gangs, but that he lived there through the whole war, with bullets flying past him.
Today, we interpret the Mission to be a Hispanic and working-class space, but it has another immigrant and working-class history. My landlady Frances, she’s Italian. Her father worked at Bethlehem Ironworks and bought our building. There are other reminders of the former European immigrant working-class Mission — for example, the Polish House at 22nd and Shotwell, the union building at 17th and Shotwell, and the Lutheran churches. All these houses were worker houses.
(Begins talking to the bartender as well.)
She’s been here 13 years, 12 in this bar. At most bars like these, the bartenders are women.
She also says that in the morning the seniors come in right when the bar opens, at 10 a.m. They have a poetry club. A history club. A Kama Sutra class. A Spanish class.
ML: You also researched the Mission map “North of Home, South of Safe” for “Infinite City.” How did you map the gang territories?
AC: I walked into the Gang Task Force office at police headquarters. It was Friday. The receptionist was tired. The Mission Gang Task Force officers were in a meeting. I said, “I just want to know if you have a map of where the Mission gangs are. The officer I spoke to looked around and said, “Hold on a minute.” He took the map off the wall, made me a copy, and gave it to me.
So the map that goes with my essay in the book has an outline of the Sureño and Norteño gang territories — or where the police think the gangs are — but that is not the only focus. We included the stream of day laborers on Cesar Chavez Street, as well as the remittance shops along 24th Street. On the map, the border with Mexico runs right along Cesar Chavez Street. And then we marked the organizations that provide community services here: schools, after-school programs, clinics, family centers. It’s a very useful map.
ML: Have you always been this comfortable talking to strangers?
AC: When I lived in Mexico City, I hated driving. I would take taxis. I loved taxi drivers. I would always ask them for stories. I got in the habit of listening and getting taken away by people’s stories.
What I am mostly trying to do as I navigate the Mission is to travel. It can be such a quick move from stranger to acquaintance. Maybe even friendship. This may not sound right, but I like to invade — to stand in other people’s space and to negotiate with them. Once you’re in someone’s space, they have to see you.
Adriana Camarena will be reading with Rebecca Solnit, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Jaime Cortez, Aaron Shurin and Joshua Jelly-Shapiro at Mission Cultural Center this Saturday at 8:30 p.m. as part of the talk “Some Lost Tribes of San Francisco.“