When Sergio De La Torre, a professor of community-based art at the University of San Francisco, began doing immigration-related artwork almost a decade ago, the situation — to say the least — was different. “Back then, because we had a progressive president, people didn’t care as much about immigration,” De La Torre said.

The artwork he produced then juxtaposed Latin American immigration data — border deaths and detentions, the number of border patrol officers, and remittances to Latin America from the United States — with historic turning points in immigration history. The 2009 exhibit in the Mission was well-attended, but lacked the political climate that gave the work a sense of urgency.

While Barack Obama’s record on immigration was far from perfect, President Donald Trump’s is far from humane.  

This national turn of events, for better or worse, has allowed De La Torre — who was born in National City, Calif., near San Diego, but who spent most of his childhood in Tijuana — to expand on his project with his collaborator, Chris Treggiari, a professor at California College of the Arts. The most recent — and, perhaps, the most visible — incarnations of his so-called Sanctuary City project are two billboards in the Mission. And more are on the way.  

On Mission Street between 19th and 20th, one reads: “The Country of the Immigrant Is Here” in hot pink against a solid green background. The project paid for this billboard, and it went up on Oct. 15. But the other, at 22nd and Florida, was done “guerrilla-style,” De La Torre said.

Until a couple weeks ago, it read: “This Is A Sanctuary” on top of a tiled background of 15 California flags. “[We] went one morning and did it 15 minutes,” De La Torre said. “The California flags were [already] there, and we put the words on top of it.”

Not everyone has liked the project. “Some people are not happy with it,” he said. “Some people are very vocal, saying: Why do you protect criminals?”

The words have since been erased at 22nd and Florida.

Courtesy of the Sanctuary City Project.

Regardless, the professor says that there are seven or eight such California flag billboards in the Mission, “so we’re going to do them all.” (De La Torre does not believe the flags send an anti-immigrant message, but rather. he wants to send the message that California is, and should be, a sanctuary for immigrants.)

It’s also unclear who paid for the existing California flag billboards De La Torre has altered — there’s no signature or logo — and the professor does not know either. “It’s a mystery for us,” he said.

De La Torre is planning on setting up six more (legal) billboards and is awaiting some grant money. He said the initial (legal) billboard on Mission cost $1,750 for a month. The others, he estimates will cost $2,500 per month. (The illegal, guerilla-style billboards are, of course, free). “We want the others to be more visible,” he said. “The one that’s up — people don’t notice it.”  

On Friday, from 2 to 6 p.m., De La Torre and his team will be printing posters in front of the billboard on Mission between 19th and 20th.

This most recent blend of activism and street art began last summer, when the project set up a four-month printing shop at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The exhibit had participants to answer questions such as: What is a Sanctuary? Or, What would you tell an immigrant?

“In three weeks, we got 250 responses,” De La Torres said.

He and his team narrowed the responses to the best 14 and printed them on posters. (“This is a Sanctuary” and the “The Country of the Immigrant is here” were among those chosen.)

Since then, De La Torre has continued to print posters with the slogans, rolling around a mobile printing shops (on a tricycle) that has visited Fort Mason, the Bayview, and spots in the East Bay. The stop in the Mission will not be the last. De La Torre said the project will continue until well into 2019 in San Francisco with new billboards. And he hopes to take the project to San Diego, Miami, Seattle, and somewhere in Arizona.

And the tricycle has a 90-percent chance of showing up on Mission Street this Friday, De La Torre said. “People like the tricycle.”