You could hear the drum beats thundering from blocks away. Follow the sound, and you’d reach 20th and Harrison, where hundreds of people are impatiently waiting to get their temperatures checked and to be let into the spectacle. It’s May and most people are vaccinated, everyone wears a mask. It’s Carnaval.
While Carnaval 2021 looked a little different than the ones people remember — an ostentatious parade, a sea of sparkling low riders — this one aimed to restore as much culture and hoopla as years past, albeit with Covid-19 restrictions.
It was an opportunity to attend to the needs of a population and neighborhood hurt worst by the virus and devastated by job loss. There was a Covid-19 vaccine site was set up, and by midday on the celebration’s opening day, about 17 people received their shot; a job and resource fair held by Carnaval leaders and Mission Hiring Hall; and numerous other booths allowing passersby to register to vote or to learn more about the city’s health programs.
But most of all, the aura in the air was that it was time to celebrate. Giant, shiny gold balloons spelling out “2020” and “2021” at the foot of the main stage would later pay homage to the San Francisco Unified School District high school graduates receiving Latinx awards by the board of education’s president herself. Artists who had been struggling to make ends meet unveiled recitals featuring energized dancers dressed in silver flapper-style dresses and red bowler hats. Longtime artisans finally had a booth to sell their colorful, hand-stitched wares.
Cut Ramirez, donning a San Francisco Giants mask, spread out his specialized designs of Bay Area sports wear with Aztec lettering. He has a “Puro Pinche” San Francisco 49’rs shirt, and a shirt depicting the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission sign with a pair of huaraches on a telephone pole. Behind him is a large banner advertising his company, “Hella Paisa,” which he said combines his roots as a Mexican immigrant who was raised in the Mission District.
“This was inspired by the Mission lifestyle,” Ramirez said. “I was frowned upon as a paisa, which could be used back then as sort of like an insult. But then I embraced it. I said yeah, I’m hella paisa.”
Marta Muñoz, 50, drove from Los Angeles that night before Carnaval started, lugging her crocheted and embroidered clothes and rebozos in her car. On Saturday, she’s there with her daughter Isela, who lives in the Bay Area with her 4-year-old son, Nicolas, selling items from their company “Tita’s Crochet.”
“I’m staying here for three days, I was supposed to sell last year but it got canceled,” Munoz said, alluding to the much-smaller and postponed Carnaval last year. “But it’s most important for me to be with my grandson, and for him to see all of this.”
There was a lot to see. The feathered costumes and dances of the Danza Azteca Grupo Xipe Totec, who spun among billowing smoke and lively drum music. The few glittering and spray-painted low riders that were parked on Harrison, their trunks so low they appeared inextricable from the ground. Performances from beloved home-grown musicians like Loco Bloco or La Dona. Rising Rhythm, an Excelsior based dance company that faced hard times in the pandemic, wowed a crowd of parents, children, neighbors, and pets. At the performance’s finish, the youth dancers pulled the observers into the mix, catalyzing a dance party.
Other traditions were unique to this Carnaval. Jessica Campos from the San Francisco Human Rights Commission was holding a booth that allowed participants to make a “solidarity kit.” Picture books detailing different marginalized groups and areas — Asian and Black experiences, or a story about the Tenderloin — were spread on the table, along with Chinese red envelopes filled with candy and resources to combat racism, which has heightened in the past few months. An hour in on the first day, at least 20 people had stopped by to fill the free canvas bags with these items, keeping it either for themselves or giving it to a neighbor “who might need it,” Campos said.
“We often see each other for our differences, and it’s about having these hard conversations about racism and hate,” Campos said. “But these bags aim to show that we can be self-reflective of our views.”
Following the flurry of Cuicacalli skirts during their traditional folklore dance, Rodrigo Duran, one of the leaders of Carnaval and Calle 24 Latino Cultural District, made way on the stage for a special honoring and graduation procession of the high school graduates. These youth doubled as Carnaval interns and Latino Task Force volunteers, and the leaders ensured they got to commemorate the milestone of their academic achievement. Many graduates, especially those in the class of 2020, missed the traditional to-do due to the pandemic.
One student called out to the crowd from the microphone on stage, voice shaking, “I want you parents to be proud. Online classes aren’t easy,” she said.
As if handing them diplomas, Board of Education President Gabriela López came on stage and announced each of their names while she gave them a plaque declaring “Latinx Award.” The students filed onto stage one by one, dressed in colorful, patterned stoles. Beaming proudly on the stage with their gifted picnic baskets full of goodies, flowers, and plaques, López emphatically congratulated them.
“I”m almost going to cry looking at these youth. They’re going to go forward for all of us,” she said grinning on the Carnaval stage. “We’re going to begin the celebration.”