As local musicians, poets, housing advocates, and community members joined forces in commemorating one of the Mission District’s most beloved voices this Saturday, Carlos “Kookie” Gonzalez stood among his peers before a colorful mural at 24th and South Van Ness Streets, carefully observing his work.
“This mural is a stance against big business and big money,” the local muralist and retired juvenile probation officer said during the mural’s unveiling, which also served as an anti-displacement rally. “It greets the techies coming off BART into their new luxury apartments in the Mission, and for those of us who are still here, it portrays everything that ‘Chata’ represented in this community.”
Gonzalez referred to Micaela “Chata” Gutierrez, the woman depicted in the new mural on a wall facing west at the corner of 24th and South Van Ness. It overlooks a lot where, throughout the course of the day, people of all ages stopped to protest evictions, partake in a community concert, and honor Gutierrez by dancing rumba under her portrait. Short haired, with glasses and a tight smile, the popular radio host and DJ was a local hero who died in 2013 after a decade-long battle with liver cancer.
“Chata was always willing to help out — she was there for the community and opened up the station to talk about issues that affected us, such as police brutality, unemployment, education,” said Gonzalez about the influential radio personality who, for more than 40 years, worked as an activist and exposed generations of listeners to salsa, Latin Jazz, and rumba through her show “Con Clave” on KPOO 85.5 FM.
“At the same time she played the baddest salsa,” said Gonzalez. “I’ve been hearing her voice throughout my life as a young man coming up in the Mission District, and she was a true inspiration to so many of us.”
The idea for a mural came after a 2009 fundraiser to help Gutierrez pay her medical bills.
“She was totally, totally against the fundraiser — because she thought that the community didn’t owe her anything,” said Gil Medina, a longtime friend of Gutierrez. “I thought that was selfish, because she gave herself above and beyond to her community. It took two weeks to convince her to participate.”
“When we found out she was sick, we knew we had to do something,” said Gonzalez, who was commissioned by Medina in 2009 to create a flyer for the fundraiser to support the DJ in her health struggle. The original flyer featured an image of Gutierrez surrounded by Rumba drummers with the Golden Gate Bridge as a backdrop.
“People loved the flyer, it took a flight of its own,” said Gonzalez. “After the fundraiser, we turned it into a poster. And when Chata died, that poster became a template for her mural — at that time, I promised her family that I’d find a wall for her.”
And with the help of some of Gutierrez’s friends as well as community leaders, he did. The 24th Street wall that Gonzalez was eyeing for the mural belonged to Virginia Ramos, better known as the “Tamale lady.”
After promising to plug her business (Gonzalez incorporated Ramos’ logo into the Chata Mural), Ramos gave him permission to place his mural on the side of her building. However, the muralist still lacked the necessary funding to go forward.
“We needed about $10,000 for the project to cover supplies, permits, fees, and my salary,” said Gonzalez. A fundraising campaign on Rally.org organized by Medina yielded a mere $2,400 for the project. “Two years after Chata passed, we were still struggling to get that money.”
It wasn’t until the winter of 2014 that the timing was finally right. Gonzalez was approached by Susan Cervantes of the Precita Eyes Muralists Association with a grant from the city commissioning four murals.
“She had the money but needed a fourth wall. I had the wall, but not the money,” said Gonzalez. The collaboration paid for the supplies, scaffolding, and permits, and set the muralist up with a group of youth artists that helped him paint — although it was not enough pay Gonzalez. “That was a little sacrifice — but in the end, the mural was a labor of love.”
After retiring from his job as a probation officer in May, Gonzalez was able to focus full-time on the mural, which took just three months to paint. “The kids tweaked the original design and really enhanced it — they made it more beautiful than it was before,” he said.
“I added two Aztec gods to the top of each corner of the mural — I love my culture connecting to it through art,” said 20-year-old Jesus Rodriguez, who participated in the mural painting through a Precita Eyes youth art program. “Although I didn’t know Chata, I would have loved to meet her. She was a role model in the Mission because she spoke up for us.”
Although the mural was completed in early September, the unveiling ceremony was set for October 10 to coincide with a rally in support of Prop. I, the November ballot measure proposing a moratorium on new developments in the Mission District.
“Chata was very much about the preservation of our culture and promotion of our people and in the end, that’s what neighborhoods are about. This is a very critical election for San Francisco — with proposition I on the ballot among others, we are trying to preserve who we are as a city,” said District 9 Supervisor David Campos.
“Money can’t buy everything, and it definitely can’t buy the history, people and culture of this community. The November election is about people over profits, and the celebration of Chata’s life is ultimately about that.”