The bell chimes at St. Peter’s Church met the rumble of motorcycles. The riders disembarked, but instead of entering the church, they joined the young men dressed in Niners jerseys and gold chains to observe the memorial scene from across the street.
Like the hundreds of other attendees on the church steps, the motorcyclists came to pay their respects to Mitchell Isaiah Salazar, a community leader who spent his life helping youths that others had written off. He spent his life in the Mission, in classrooms, in garages and at City Hall. From the age of 16, he aided teens down on their luck, provided jobs for former gang members, and channeled city resources to communities in need, his friends and city officials recalled in interviews and at the memorial at St. Peter’s Church on 24th Street on March 21.
“Play some oldies!” One woman implored a rider. But no time. The four generations of Salazar’s family, distinguished in lavender attire, accompanied the patriarch’s coffin into the church. Salazar died from lung cancer on March 11. He was 60.
The church was filled with City Hall suits, men from the Department of Public Works where Salazar had his final job, gold-hooped homegirls, flanneled sneakerheads, teeny señoras and his “brothers from another mother.”
“He sacrificed for many of you here today,” said longtime friend, Pastor Tony V., at his service on March 21. “How could one man love so many people? How could one man care so much?”
Salazar was born Nov. 21, 1961 in Clovis, New Mexico, to Isaiah Salazar and Anita Powell. He was 11 when his mother moved him and his two siblings to San Francisco in 1972, where his family made a home on Andover Street in Bernal Heights.
“He was on a mission for the Mission. That was the purpose that God had for his life,” Pastor Tony said.
Salazar attended John O’Connell High School, where he met his future wife, Cathy Velez. At 16 he started deejaying the legendary Mission “You and I” dances that ran from 1978 to 1982. The dances evoked the sentiments of the 1979 flick “Boulevard Nights” and the shiny lowrider culture of the time.
Community leader Gaynor Siataga recalled seeing Salazar, when she was 5, at her house to visit her uncle. Siataga’s mother and grandmother also worked to keep low-income kids off the streets, and in the ‘80s and they allowed Salazar to throw events in her garage for youth who might otherwise wind up in trouble. Siataga recalled Salazar driving around in various vans, some bullet-riddled, picking up runaway kids on 24th Street. In a week, hundreds of teens passed through that garage to find breakdancing, pool tables and a respite from the street.
“They created a whole safe haven there,” Siataga said. “I would always say, ‘RAP started in our garage.’”
RAP, the Mission nonprofit the Real Alternatives Programs, helped impoverished youth and empowered them to be leaders and achieve social equality. RAP recruited Salazar to be a youth organizer. He and andhis future wife, Velez, started on the same day.
Salazar spent 20 years at RAP, 15 as executive director of the program, which eventually made a home at 23rd and Florida streets. Under his leadership, RAP started an alternative high school recognized by the San Francisco Unified School District, where homeboys and gangbangers painted murals and fulfilled the requirements to finish high school.
He advocated at City Hall for programs to prevent violence, substance abuse and HIV. He envisioned a free tattoo-removal program for former gang members, and launched it at CARECEN SF. It was the only of its kind in the city.
“My uncle is the only one I saw who could walk into City Hall, and walk out the same day with a check,” Siataga said.
Former Mayor Art Agnos recalled when Salazar and community leaders Santiago Ruiz and Roberto Hernandez interviewed him in an “intense” RAP meeting. “He was unwavering in his commitment to our common values and stayed with me as a trusted confidant throughout my career,” Agnos wrote in an online obituary site.
The community warrior
If you wanted to change your life, or you needed a job, Salazar helped. At a time when Pastor Tony was struggling, Salazar found him a gig sorting crooked keys from straight ones at a lock shop at 16th and Mission streets. “Mitchell believed in me,” he said. “’I’m only one of thousands he believed in.”
He regularly tapped lawyers to bail out teens who wound up in jail, and scrambled to get them character references.
Salazar was “never judgmental,” Siataga added. He secured teens jobs as security guards at Carnaval, where they earned $150 and free tee-shirts and jackets. “We felt like, okaaaay! It was fun,” Siataga said.
“Most of the folks that Mitch helped were people that all these people turn their backs on. We were just too wild, or too troubled, or too bad, no one wanted to work with us,” Siataga said. “He didn’t care. All he cared about was your future, your survival.”
After RAP, Salazar held a number of positions, including director of workforce development at Mission Neighborhood Centers, where he partnered with the city’s Department of Public Works program to hire public housing youths to landscape the city. Many of the teens belonged to gangs and arrived at work with bullet scars, Salazar told SFGate in 2012.
“There are young men out here that are one foot in and one foot out trying to do the right thing,” Salazar said in 2012. “Some of these guys need hope and faith to continue.”
Eventually, Salazar took over as the manager of the Department of Public Works’ apprentice programs in August, 2014. It was his final job.
He founded the Community Peace Initiative to consolidate partnerships between city departments and encourage violence prevention, which became a model for today’s Roadmap to Peace. And he worked to ensure equity within the local cannabis industry as a San Francisco Equity Group member, on which John Nauer, Jr., a friend for 40 years, serves, too. “You wouldn’t find him going to mass every Sunday,” Nauer said at the memorial service. “Where you will find him doing God’s work is out on the streets and in the community.”
The Mission says goodbye
It was 2021 when Salazar was diagnosed with lung cancer, Siataga said. He improved with chemotherapy, but started a list of “assignments” to ensure his beloved organizations outlived him.
A few weeks before his death, he went to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, with his family, now quite large: There’s the three children, Christina, Angel, Mitchell II; plus seven grandchildren and a great-grandson. His marriage to Velez lasted 39 years, in spite of Velez’s half-joking threats to kick him out after an argument. His family described him as a good husband, father, and an “amazing” grandfather who offered advice and overcame his dislike of dogs to walk the family’s pet, “Money Salazar.”
Hee recently visited Siataga at her office and gave her a candle and photos of community leaders that used to hang in Salazar’s office. He eyed a spot and said, “When I die, you’ll put my photo right there.” When the mourners poured out of St. Peter’s, the motorcyclists still waited across the street. Salazar’s kin carried his coffin to the hearse, and piled into their own cars. A motorcyclist in a custom Niners jersey labeled “Mission #24” revved his engine to lead the family to the cemetery. Lowriders followed and, one by one, each turned onto Calle 24 on the way to the burial.