For the 37th year, Carnaval will kick off on the corner of 24th and Bryant streets this Saturday and for two days transform parts of Harrison Street into a multi-block party, while a colorful procession of drummers, dancers, and themed floats snaking up 24th street and along Mission Street, will immerse the neighborhood in various aspects of Latin American culture.

With food vendors and free performances by the Oakland-based hip-hop group Los Rakas and Venezuelan salsa legend Oscar D’Leon, the festival’s organizers plan on a “big [freaking] party,” but more important, they hope that Carnaval’s distinction as a cultural institution will unify local residents in their struggle for civil, social, and economic justice while holding on to tradition.

“This year, we need to feel the movement [that’s happening in the city],” said Carnaval’s executive director, Roberto Hernandez. “After everything that we have been through, the gentrification, the police killings, the evictions – we need to give people hope and joy.”

Carnaval has turned into a celebration of social justice after the ousting earlier this month of Police Chief Greg Suhr — who resigned following the police killing of Bayview resident Jessica Williams — as well as months of community pressure including a 17-day hunger strike that drew national attention to the issues of excessive violence and racism in the police force.

Fittingly, Carnaval’s traditional Sunday parade will be led by 86-year-old labor and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, who was named grand marshal of this year’s parade.

A leader of the United Farm Worker movement, Huerta became a victim of police brutality in San Francisco during a 1988 protest against George H.W. Bush, who was Ronald Reagan’s vice president at the time.

During the demonstration, the then 58-year-old union leader was beaten by police officers, even though she had been “cooperative” – the attack left Huerta with a ruptured spleen and two fractured ribs.

“Sometimes, things have to get really bad before they can get better, and I think San Francisco is seeing that right now,” said Huerta.  “We see this blatant racism … and the attacks on people through gentrification, which is not an open attack, but the effects of which are pretty much an attack [on people of color]. “

When learning about the beating, Hernandez said he demanded that then-mayor Art Agnos fire his police chief, Frank Jordan. “They ended up removing a bunch of cops, and I got really mad at the mayor at the time. I said fire the chief – he refused.”

Regardless, Huerta remembers that the attack had other ramifications.

“There was a big shakeup that happened right after that,” remembered Huerta. “They had to change their policies in terms of crowd control.”

Speaking on the issues of police reform that San Francisco is grappling with some three decades later, Huerta said she is proud to see the level of organizing that has come out of the city in recent months.

“I think the movements of resistance, the fasting, that is so great that they have done this, because ultimately that’s the only thing that will make any difference,” said Huerta, referring to the “Frisco Five” – a five-member group of two rappers, two educators, and a politician who went on a strike earlier this month in an effort to unseat the police chief.

“It seems that the city’s fathers are either not listening or they are ignoring,” she said. “The only people that can make [lasting changes] are those that are still remaining there that haven’t been gentrified out of the city.”

Edwin Lindo, a member of Frisco Five who is also running for office as the Mission’s supervisor, said the group of hunger strikers were invited to partake in the parade.

Lindo, who was born and raised in the Mission, said his father participated in one of the very first processions at Precita Park, where Carnaval started in 1979, and called the event “sacred.”

“It’s an honor to even be asked to walk in Carnaval, and to have five hunger strikers be present,” he said, adding that the Frisco Five will march in the parade, backed by the support of a “coalition of black and brown communities and advocates for the homeless” to show Carnaval-goers the results of “people-powered change.”

“Carnaval is a platform,” said Lindo, adding that Huerta’s presence is significant in inspiring residents to continue their fight for social justice.

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