A little bit of Shakira, Ricky Martin, Celia Cruz, Vicente Fernandez and other icons of Latin pop music have disappeared from the Mission. Though, if you walked by quickly enough, you may not have even known they were there.
Before it was a T-Mobile store, the big corner storefront at the corner of 20th and Mission was Ritmo Latino. Open since 1990, the record store’s entryway had been adorned with handprints and signatures of Latino music stars in the mid 1990s. It was like a mini Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Mission Street, but instead of Marilyn Monroe’s hands there was Tito Puente’s.
And now, they are gone.
“I was pretty disappointed to see them go. That was the main attraction of this store,” said T-Mobile employee Mimi Mendez.
Even after 2009, when Ritmo Latino’s owner David Massry partnered with T-Mobile to turn locations of his Latino music store into cell phone retailers, the plaques stayed put. It was only in the last few weeks that workers came in to take the handprints away, says Mendez. In their place is a painted-over wall and a small, lingering gold plaque that says: “Huellas Originales Dedicados a Ritmo Latino de Artistas Famosas.”
“It’s because we’re moving, that’s why they took them down,” said Mendez, referring to T-Mobile plans to move this franchise down the street to a smaller location. Whether or not the handprints would reappear at their new location, Mendez said she didn’t know. Though she wasn’t optimistic, she hoped so.
“They made it different from other T-Mobile stores,” she said.
When Ritmo Latino converted to a T-Mobile, owner Massry had hoped the location would have a little bit more character than a traditional cell phone store. He told Mission Local that the store would have a foosball table among special bits of flair. The plaster handprints seemed to be a part of that.
In a 2003 interview with Billboard magazine, Massry had said the handprints were inspired by the decorations of Planet Hollywood. According to Billboard, Ritmo Latino at one point had the biggest collection of handprints of Latino artists. Reportedly, there was one Ritmo Latino employee that drove around with a cement-filled tray on the off-chance that he ran into Shakira, Marc Antony, or some other Latino star.
Given that Ritmo Latino had dozens of locations which all had copies of the handprints, it’s unlikely the Celia “Queen of Salsa” Cruz or anyone else actually stopped by 20th and Mission to permanently leave behind her fingerprints. Though, Mendez thinks it’s not impossible.
While T-Mobile employees seemed saddened by the lost of the handprints, others in the neighborhood had little to say on the matter. Julio Lucero, owner of Julio’s, a Latin music store at 25th and Mission streets, didn’t even know they were there. He shrugged it off as just one small transformation in a neighborhood rife with it.
“Things have changed so much,” Lucero said.
Janet Garcia, who works at the nearby La Quinta Restaurant and has been in the Mission for over 30 years, didn’t think much of the lost handprints. “I don’t really care if they removed them, but yes, I remember they were there,” she said.
But for some, the removal is the erasure of a part of history and that’s unfortunate. Gerard Koskovich, historian and contributor to the Facebook group Preserving LBGT History, which first posted about the missing plaques, thinks this a significant loss.
Koskovich says he considers the plaques remnants of an important bit of history. He also notes that the plaques included Ricky Martin, an out gay performer, and many figures with a significant gay fan base, such as Thalia and Shakira.
For Mendez, who grew up in Oakland and has been working for T-Mobile for three years, the plaques were a reminder of an important cultural institution in her life. She says her father would frequently visit the Ritmo Latino and buy CDs in Oakland and that she had applied for a job there before the record store became a cell phone store.
“It has a history, it’s not just any old T-Mobile Store,” Mendez said.
Where the handprints went or whether they’ll come back is a mystery. Ritmo Latino’s owner David Massry could not be reached for comments. For that matter, neither could Ricky Martin or Shakira.
Additional reporting by Andrea Valencia.