Photo by Claudia Escobar

Silvia “Mamacoatl” Parra tried to heal the world with her music, art, spiritual work and activism. Over the span of several years in the Mission, Parra touched countless lives and pushed back against global injustices with art and community collaboration.

On December 13, 2015, Parra died in Mexico of stomach cancer. She will be honored tomorrow at a memorial and fundraiser for her daughter, Paloma McGlothin, at the Brava Theater.

Friends and collaborators remembered Parra as a capable organizer and outspoken advocate despite being, at her core, gentle and sensitive.

“Silvia was intense, really focusing when meeting someone, and then was very calm and tender,” wrote visual poet Adrian Arias.

“She was very generous with her personality, very open, very inclusive,” said San Francisco poet laureate Alejandro Murguía.

Todd Brown, director of the Red Poppy Art House, said Parra played a vital part as a core organizer for the Mission Arts & Performance Project, at a time when the project’s future was uncertain. Brown said her enthusiasm and stoicism might have hidden from the public the fact that it took significant courage for her to step into that leadership role. 

“I got to see a more delicate and vulnerable side of Silvia then, because she was so nervous about that responsibility!” Brown recalled. “It surprised me, you know, because it conflicted with that warrior image I had of her.”

Parra arrived in San Francisco as an undocumented immigrant, and after several years, work drew her back to Central America.

“Although she wasn’t here in San Francisco a super long time, I think she definitely left a lasting impression with the community, and certainty among the community’s artist and poets,” said Murguía.

During her time locally, Parra forged ahead with her healing practice and her art despite, at times, financial duress and uncertainty. These contrasting traits were reflected also in how she presented herself to the world – delicate and beautiful, but bold and expressive in spite of underlying vulnerability.

“She was physically very beautiful. But it was the kind of beauty that wasn’t just a well formed mouth and nose and eyes and her slenderness, but the intelligence that lit her face, and the taste with which this economically impoverished single mom would come up with these beautiful outfits that enhanced her form,” said poet and radio producer Nina Serrano.

Serrano also remembered Parra’s “quick and graceful movements” and her razor-sharp mind, coupled with enormous empathy.

“She was never trying to impress you, and quite humble,” Serrano said.

The artist-activist’s relationships with other artists often cultivated creative work that took on political and social injustices.

Together with Serrano, Parra would coordinate weeks-long stretches of advocacy and direct action to promote women’s rights that began every year with November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and culminated in the U.N. Human Rights day on Dec. 10.

Arias wrote that Parra pushed then-mayor Gavin Newsom to acknowledge the day to end violence against women. She inspired a more irreverent, unabashed feminism in her already vocal collaborators.

“She was always pulling me forward and making me be what I didn’t know I could be,” Serrano said.

With Arias, she would also work internationally.

“Once I went to Cuernavaca and Mexico City, to make a video clip and help her in the production of Sweep Mexican Corruption, where she literally swept the streets of Mexico City, beginning in the main square, to the house of the president of Mexico,” Arias wrote. “It was very emotional, and real.”

Parra’s mystic wisdom and artistic leadership are reflected in her chosen moniker, Mamacoatl.

“Coatl, of course, means serpent – kind of as an elder, a leader of the community because the serpent in pre-Columbian times symbolizes knowledge,” Murguía explained. “I thought it was very unique in how she was presenting herself.”

“I will never forget her laughter,” Brown wrote. “I can still hear it ring out across the room, as bright and raspy as her song.”

Mission Local had an opportunity to interview Parra three years ago:

Poetry, art, speakers and music will commemorate Parra at the Brava Theater from 2 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, January 24. For more information about the memorial fundraiser event on Sunday, click here

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