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 firstname.lastname@example.org.