"For Latino Heritage Month, our fierce warrior #ValerieTulierLaiwa is winning the Rosario Anaya Community Award, and I was lucky enough to get to draw her” wrote artist, teacher, and activist Lucia Ippolito on her Instagram (@cialuart).

When Mayor London Breed opened the 2021 Latino Heritage Month celebration Thursday night, she introduced Valerie Tulier-Laiwa as a “Mama Bear” and the recipient of the Rosario Anaya Community Award for her tireless work with the Latino Task Force during the pandemic. 

The award reflects the legacy of Rosario Anaya, who was the first Latina to serve on the School Board and was the longtime leader of the Mission Language Vocational School, a place that Tulier-Laiwa and others turned into a social-service hub during the pandemic. 

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“When we talk about all this incredible work that the Latino Task Force did to help distribute [personal protective equipment], to help make sure that people had food, to make sure that they were getting the rental relief resources to the families in need, the resources for the kids who could not do work at home, they needed someone to help them,” said Breed. 

“During the pandemic, you were not messing around,” she added, addressing Tulier-Laiwa. “Mama Bear was right there, directing all of everything to do it.”

Tulier-Laiwa received her award with her compañero, J.R., and her mijo standing beside her. A longtime friend and “mayor of the Mission,” Roberto Hernandez, presented the award to Tulier-Laiwa, speaking of her contributions in many different circles and movements. 

Valerie Tulier-Laiwa, Olga Miranda, and Rita Elvira were individually honored at a Latino Heritage Month celebration last night. “They are … working hard for the Latino community during the pandemic. This is in their life’s blood. This is what they do. This is who they are,” said Mayor London Breed. Photos courtesy Valerie Tulier-Laiwa.

The mayor’s description of Tulier-Laiwa as “not messing around,” was apt. Throughout the pandemic, the longtime Mission activist, who now works for the Public Utilities Commission, was often the first to arrive at the Alabama Street hub that operates out of the Mission Vocational School. She made sure everything was in perfect order on testing days, and reminded volunteers and visitors of the honor and responsibility they shared in serving the community. She often talked about the “Mission way” of service. 

Tulier-Laiwa and seven other Mission leaders, including Hernandez, organized the original executive committee of the Latino Task Force early in the pandemic, and began offering services to the community long before the city stepped in with funding. 

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The honorific “Mama Bear,” Hernandez said, like names traditionally bestowed on community elders, was earned. “Her corazon is just so gentle, so pure. Her spirit lights me up,” he said. “Her soul dances.” 

He read a statement accompanying the award, recognizing Tulier-Laiwa’s service: 

“Your legacy in serving your community will forever be accommodated here in the city’s history. Your advocacy to ensure the Latino community is heard and represented at City Hall and beyond represents San Francisco’s values at its best.”

Tulier-Laiwa gave a litany of thanks to the ancestors of the land, her family and community, Mayor London Breed, and the “many she-roes and he-roes” of Latino Task Force committees. She drew special attention to the youth involved, many of whom are under 30, who are learning how to respect and serve their communities through nonprofit organizations.

Like other generations before them, they’re participating in what Tulier-Laiwa calls the “Mission 101” curriculum. “We learned this behavior,“ she said, and now she and her generation are modeling it for the next.

“It is really hard for me to receive the recognition, you know,” she said after the ceremony. Everyone brings their own gifts, she said, and hers was exquisite facilitation and how to “move the energy” of others learned through years of community involvement.

“I was the thread in all of this work, but the work doesn’t belong to me, the credit doesn’t belong to me,” she added. “The credit belongs to the community.”

Watch the full celebration and award ceremonies here.

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"Annie" is originally from Nebraska, where she found her calling to journalism as editor of her high school newsletter. Before returning to the field, she studied peace and political science in the Balkans, taught elementary and middle school, and worked as an epidemiologist during the COVID-19 pandemic. Follow her on Twitter @anlancheney.

I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. Like many local news outlets, The Tribune no longer exists. I left daily newspapers after working at The New York Times for the business, foreign and city desks. Lucky for all of us, it is still there.

As an old friend once pointed out, local has long been in my bones. My Master’s Project at Columbia, later published in New York Magazine, was on New York City’s experiment in community boards.

Right now I'm trying to figure out how you make that long-held interest in local news sustainable. The answer continues to elude me.

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