Connie Rivera caught her breath, then turned to face the crowd. The sun shone on the east 24th Street BART Plaza as she finished another Aztec dance number planned for that day’s peace rally, the same one embattled in controversy just weeks before.
“What a pleasure to return to a clean plaza and dance,” Rivera said in Spanish. “We deserve it. This is our barrio.”
Last week, Mission leaders threw a peace rally and “took back” the plaza, lately the focus of efforts to clean up and legalize rampant street vending in the community. So organizers planned the rally to send a message: The hood takes care of the hood.
“No matter what comes up, we are still here. We’re not going anywhere,” said Ruth Barajas, a leader of the Community Resource Hubs. “Resilience and our unification is really just an instrumental piece in how we move in this community.”
The rally began as many Mission events traditionally do: A little late, full of affectionate shout-outs to neighbors and friends, and kicked off by prayer and Aztec dancing. “Creator, we ask you, clean this space from all and any pain, anger, hatred and fear, and replace it with love and peace,” said an indigenous leader named Mary.
To demonstrate that peace, Rivera invited youth in the audience to join her performers in the final Friendship Dance. The kids froze. Dance in front of everyone? They shrunk, ignoring parents’ pleas to “go on and get up there.” Then Rivera spied her hero: A young 20-something-looking man in a black Oakland A’s snapback.
“Come on, please?” Rivera begged. “You’re not that big. You’re still a baby to us.”
The young man exhaled, then cooly stepped up to the expectant dancers dressed in feathers and beads, bravely facing the cheering crowd. Six children, a couple of them dressed in school-uniform polos, shyly followed.
In front of an approximately 100-person audience, the dancers joined hands with the youth, and together they raced around a tree planted in the plaza. The audience cracked smiles, and one by one began recording the show on their phones.
Meanwhile, the Mama of the Mission and co-chair of the Latino Task Force, Valerie Tulier-Laiwa, emceed and peddled free community resources with the gusto of an auctioneer.
“Free at-home testing, it doesn’t cost a dime!” she said into the mic, pointing at some Covid-19 tests stacked neatly on a fold-up table. “And, under this mysterious jacket,” Tulier-Laiwa said, lifting a black windbreaker from a box, “is Narcan!”
Other organizers handed out Peace Pledges, or promises to commit to non-violence and protect the community, and asked passersby to sign. “If we could do it inside our county jails, we could do it out here,” said Michael Brown, who has distributed the same pledges to youth in the San Francisco County Jail through his nonprofit, Five Keys.
Comments directly addressing the 24th Street controversy were far and few between. Still, if vendors wished to obtain a new permit, said Calle 24 Latino Cultural District executive director Susana Rojas in Spanish and English, they could contact her organization for help. William Ortiz-Cartagena of the Small Business Commission said he’d pitch in, too. “Street vending has always been a part of us,” he said. “We’re trying to ensure that culture continues for our next generation … That they feel comfortable, safe, welcome.”
A drum circle opened up, and volunteers played a few rounds. Eventually it wound down, and the crowd dispersed and the items were packed up. The remaining Mission activists and residents talked amongst themselves, chuckling. Spectators walked home, grinning and feeling lighter.
“It makes you feel like someone is bringing some awareness that we need some peace, right?” Joanna Hernandez said, content. She sniffed the air, perhaps searching for the last scent of sage. “It even smelled like peace.”