An occasional series on long-time mission residents.
With all the changes occurring in the Mission, nostalgia crept up on me. I started to reminisce on what the neighborhood was like ten years ago. I then began to wonder what may have been here ten years before that or even twenty years or before I was even born 25 years ago.
There was really only one way to find accurate descriptions on the history of my neighborhood. I had to meet and talk to long-time residents.
First, I approached Florentino and Imelda Ortiz, who happen to be my uncle and aunt.
After moving around the Mission when they first arrived in the 1960s they settled in for good at their 24th street home in 1972. They’ve collectively been here over a century, which to me meant countless priceless memories. Here are their stories of what the Mission used to be like.
“We met in Santiago Papasquiaro, Durango Mexico in the 50s I think,” says Florentino. “We have five adult children and only three still live in San Francisco. It’s quite expensive to live and raise a family here.”
Florentino first came to the United States in 1950 with his brother. They arrived in Salinas and worked for a few years in a couple of different canneries and in the fields.
“The pay was’t great, but in those times I could buy a nice pair of Levi’s for a dollar and some change,” says Florentino, who still knows where you can find the cheapest gallon of milk in the Mission. (Right now a market on 24th seems to be in the lead with 2 gallons for $6.48.) Phil, the owner of Phil’z coffee, used to sell the cheapest milk from his liquor store on Folsom – that was long before he started his coffee business, he said.
After working in Salinas it was back to Durango, Mexico and then back to the states with Imelda, who clearly remembers the date she came. It was a moderate day in May of 1963. “The same moderate weather that is attracting all the Americans to San Francisco. That’s the main reason everyone moves here,” agreed the couple, apparently unaware of the dotcom boom. “Surely we are seeing more people because it never snows here and our summers aren’t so brutal. It’s the perfect place to live!” When I asked if they knew what a “techie” was, they responded, “No idea.” Google? “Tampoco” [Not that either.]
Imelda remembers there being a lot less foot traffic and also not as many Latinos. Imelda says that in the 1960s, “The majority of people in the Mission were Caucasian. Americans. It wasn’t until later that the Mission became primarily Hispanic, we were the minority at first.”
Imelda was a seamstress and had five children to attend to. Her first home was on 21st and Florida. She then moved with Florentino to 24th and Treat, where she says their room was tiny so they had to relocate to 20th and Folsom to live with a family. They finally landed at their permanent residence on Hampshire at 24th, where they have lived happily since 1972.
“Times were much more peaceful,” says Florentino of the past. “There were pachucos nearly everywhere at one point” he said, referring to the young slick Latinos. “They wore zoot suits and drove mostly really good cars but they didn’t cause anyone any harm. The gangsters on the street today are the ones you gotta worry about, they’ll shoot you for looking at them wrong.”
In 2008, a young man who was born and raised in the Mission was brutally slain just outside their home. The scuffle started down the street but the man was shot point blank at the bottom of the Ortiz family’s stairway.
“It was really bad and ugly, we had to talk to the police even though we hadn’t seen anything, and the friends and family of the victim also tried to get information from us. We just kept telling them we didn’t see anything. They congregated outside our home for weeks where they collected photos and candles of the young man. It was a very sad time for the community.”
Florentino explains that prior to the large influx of Latinos there was hardly any competition in the Mission. He was able to buy his home in part because it was much more affordable, and also because the union was keen on giving immigrants work.
“At one point union contractors and foremen would look for employees in places like 16th and Mission. At this time it was cleaner and their weren’t nearly as many people. There were winos here and there but not like now. During the 80’s things went downhill fast and drugs and alcohol took over big areas of the Mission. Everyone knew someone who was strung out or on the streets without a home,” says Florentino.
As a young couple they used to go to “discotecas,” or nightclubs, and movie theaters. They remember three: the Brava theatre, a theatre at 16th on Mission, and the New Mission theatre.
“Dear, do you remember walking home from the movies together? That was nice,” Imelda says, looking at Florentino. “When we arrived I went to watch Caballo Blanco at a small theatre on Mission and Cesar Chavez. It was my first time at a movie theatre and I slept through the entire movie! Oh My… ”
The couple says that most of their friends that immigrated and moved here around the same time they did were homeowners, and that most of them have passed away. Apparently purchasing a home was much more common in those times. When asked if they’d relocate they say, “We’re happy here and we’ve never had problems with anyone. Why would we move?”
In a place where the only thing that is constant is change, it is wonderful to see a married couple who have more or less remained traditional for more than six decades. I wonder if I too will be telling the story of my home to someone in 40 years. It seems so foreign but it is closer to the truth than one may think.