Scenes of Thomasa Duarte on 15th Street in SF
Thomasa Duarte and her domain on 15th Street. Photo by Naomi Beth Marcus

Unreliable. Poor historians. 

Those are the names mental-health practitioners give to clients when their biographical information is hard to verify, when their stories are disjointed or submerged in murky seas of lost or stolen documents, multiple hospitalizations, unresolved immigration issues, homelessness, and, perhaps, selective amnesia.

Here is the slender thread of a story that Thomasa Duarte has stuck with, over the 14 years I’ve known her: that she was born on December 29, 1954, in Havana, Cuba; that she was kicked out of school at 8 or 9 for fighting, so she went to work cutting “malanga, yucca and sugar cane,” which she hated; and that she came to the U.S. in 1980 at the age of 26, in the Mariel boatlift. Initially, she lived in a refugee settlement in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, then briefly had a sponsor in Princeton, Missouri,  then made her way to Los Angeles before landing in San Francisco. 

Poor historian.

Abundant spirit.

I first met Duarte at the clinic where I was working as a vocational counselor. We performed together at a fiesta the clinic held to celebrate Latinx heritage month: She played a little toy piano and I played guitar, and we delivered a socko rendition of Guantanamera,  while other clients lustily joined in the chorus.  We were such a hit, we did three encores.  That was in 2008.

She wore a frilly white blouse and a chiffon skirt with blue flowers. She was housed.

This month, when I visited her at her place on a few 15th Street sidewalk squares,  I reminded her of our performance.

She lit up. “Te acuerdas? (You remember, Mama?) AY,  I don’t have that blouse anymore or that skirt,” and she shrugged, ah well, easy come, easy go, “or that little piano.”  She rummaged through the piles of clothes, dolls and ribbons, packets of cupcakes and juice boxes that surround her, and nope, no piano.

Duarte is not a sidewalk sitter; more like a sidewalk boxer, bobbing and weaving.

Naomi Beth Marcus

“But I really could use some shoes.” She points to the mismatched pair on her feet. “I walk all day long  and I need good shoes, size 8.” She grins at me slyly. “It’s my birthday soon.”

“THOMASA, your birthday is DECEMBER and it’s JUNE!”

“Well, Mami, you missed my last birthday.”

For a few years before it closed and was replaced with condos, she lived in front of the Navigation Center on Mission Street, in a lean-to under a tarp. Whenever I walked past her, we would greet each other warmly, two grizzled veterans of San Francisco’s mental health, um, services.  

Sometimes she was plinking melodies on that little toy piano.

“Who taught you to play, Thomasa?” I once asked.

“Nooo, nadie, Yo sola, Yo sola, Mamita, Yo sola hago mis cosas.”

(No one,  just me alone, by myself, me alone, I do my own thing,)

A community of Cuban men also lived there. On afternoons, they sat in lawn chairs with salsa on their boom boxes, playing cards. Duarte was accepted, almost a mascot, clearly safe among her compadres.

Because Duarte and housing are a “sometimes thing.”

Sometimes, Duarte is housed, and sometimes she is not.

Sometimes she has a case manager, and sometimes not.

 “You remember Monica, Monica, my case manager?  She was so nice, Mami, so nice.” 

I do remember my coworker, Monica; she placed Duarte in some decent hotels, out of the Tenderloin. But Duarte gets restless in rooms.

And for someone who has lived over a decade mostly outdoors, and mostly on the streets of the Mission, and is pushing 70, she hasn’t aged badly; she looks much the same as when I met her in 2008.

She has always been cartoon-thin, with stick-figure legs and an androgynous look  (almost bald, baggy shirts, shorts). She maneuvers along crowded Mission sidewalks with fierce determination, deftly steering two shopping carts; one she pushes ahead, one she pulls behind.  I have watched her spindly frame half disappear into a Recology bin, then emerge triumphant, clutching a pack of Dos Equis empties.

Duarte is not a sidewalk sitter; more like a sidewalk boxer, bobbing and weaving.

“I like to work, every day I work en la lata (in the cans). I get cans and bottles and deliver them there at 11th and Market streets. To recycling. Since I don’t get a check, since  I lost my ID, so I  can’t re-apply, so I have nada so I need the $10 or $15 I get recycling.”

“How is your drug use these days, Thomasa?”

“No mucho, cocaina mostly.”

“But Thomasa, how? You have no money — ”

“Pero que voy a hacer, Mama? (What am I going to do?), I bring my bottles, I get a little bit,  Mami, I use a little bit when I get some cash for my bottles.”

She laughs. “I went to the old clinic, you know, to get a copy of my ID, and they said I am not enrolled there anymore, so… ni modo.” (There’s nothing to be done.)

 “How is your health, you OK?”

“CLARO,  mira, yo soy entera.” ( See, I am whole!)

She slaps her thigh.

“Ni tomo pastillas, ni vitaminas, nada, estoy bien bien.”

(I don’t take any pills or vitamins, nothing, I am fine, fine.)

Her ‘hood is a four-block radius around 15th and Mission streets. The street cleaners know her and call her Mama Cuba. The couple in the adjacent tent with the dogs know her, the port-a-potty attendant in front of St John’s the Evangelist church knows her,

 “She is around,” he said when I couldn’t find her, “she’ll be back.” And she was.

I asked if she would like to go home again, if she could.

“Claro, pa ver mi mama, no mas.” ( Just to see my mom.)

Is she alive?

“SI, si, yo creo que si, pero I don’t know,”

And then she surprises me,

“I have a room now, some team here on the street they got me a room, at Sixth and Market. It’s an empty room,  just a mattress.  No radio. No chair. No TV. No microwave. No mini-fridge … And lots of bugs.” She pulls out a cigarette.

“So I get so bored, so I come back here to do my thing.”

She pauses a moment to smoke and sift through her cart. She pulls out two dress-up dolls still in their packages. “Look,” she says, “I am going to sew some clothes for them, if I find some thread, if I find a needle, “ she nestles them almost tenderly back into their boxes.

 What about lunch, shall we get lunch?

“Naah, I am fine, “ and she gestures to all the food parcels in her cart, “ but  if you see a little piano, a little piano like before, Mami, I would play again.”

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  1. This is my favorite profile! Thomasa seems so at peace despite her circumstances. Very beautifully written.

  2. In each person’s eyes is an entire universe. Thank you for allowing us to glimpse Thomasa’s world.

  3. Thank you for this clear and kind glimpse into the life of a person we see and otherwise try and ignore every day

  4. Thomasa is such a lovely person, always laughing and joking when she comes in as a guest and friend at the Gubbio Project at St. Johns church. She is often there, drinking coffee and chatting with her friends and the volunteers.

    Thank you for sharing her story!