SF Carnaval turns 40

Joy and sweat have turned the city’s party into one of San Francisco’s most diverse multicultural parades. Born out of dancing classes, enthusiastic bands, and a group of friends eager to express themselves, Carnaval celebrates 40 years on May 25th and May 26th with Los Tigres del Norte as this year’s headliner. The fun begins April 27th with the selection of the Queen, King and Drag Majesty competitions.

Follow your star
Follow your bliss
Give a kiss on the cheek you care for
Give a damn for the things you dare for
Pick a chance
It’ll really happen
Do for once what you really mean
Adventure comes
Sometimes love
If only you follow your dreams

So play on the music and dance
Lift your heart and your feet
Take a chance on romance
Feel the pulse,
Hear the beat

Why should we limit our lives?
Can’t we make this a paradise?

(Adela Chu’s song for the 2000’s Return from Paradise Tahitian-Samba Block) 

A humid Sunday morning could not dampen the mood: San Francisco Carnaval was going to be born under wind and drizzle. On February 25, 1979, about 400 drummers and dancers, grouped by style and dressed in multicolor, paraded around Precita Park, in the southern border of the Mission District. A thousand observed from their windows and inside the park.

It was the dream of one person realized by a multitude. Adela Chu, a dancing teacher born in Panama, had been staging smaller performances around the city for a few years. A visit to Brazil on 1978 cemented her intentions. That year’s West Indian Carnival in The Fillmore put her and her friends to work.

Months of rehearsals turned music and dance students into a better organized contingent that could parade in the sidewalks and into the park, as the police permit allowed. Without floats, the focus was in the giant masks and the costumes. Volunteer lowriders provided security around the park, before grabbing their own drums and joining the party.

Adela Chu’s only complaint: “it has to be bigger next year!”


After 1979’s success, an organizing committee was formed to steer the Carnaval to achieve permanence. Adela Chu (creative direction), Marcus Gordon (musical direction), Pam Minor (costuming), Sir Lawrence Washington (logistics), Lou DeMatteis (documentation), and Carole Deutch (production and permits) took the Carnaval to Mission Street and Dolores Park, this time in April. Victim of its own success, it had to move to Civic Center in 1981, and finally settled on Memorial Day Weekend in 1982. After a hiatus in 1985, SF Carnaval took over its current route, from 24th and Bryant down Mission, with the festival in Harrison Street.

Adela Chu (right) and Sir Lawrence Washington (left) lead the march at the first Carnaval, on February 25th, 1979. Photo: Lou DeMatteis.
Marcus Gordon (center) commands the masses at Precita Park, location of the first Carnaval. Photo: Lou DeMatteis.
Brazilian dancer Marlene Rosa leads a carioca-themed block at the 1980 carnaval parade. Photo: Lou DeMatteis.
Dancers perform in Precita Park in 1979, in the first Carnaval celebration. Photo: Lou DeMatteis.
Blocks of women and children parade on Mission Street during the 1980 Carnaval. Photo: Lou DeMatteis.
Tropical dancers make their way to Mission Street at the 1980 Carnaval parade. Photo: Lou De Matteis.


The man behind SF Carnaval since 1986, Roberto Hernández has spearheaded the efforts to keep the event alive through changes in funding, city fees and composition of the Mission community. Not everyone wants a Latino party at their door these days. After a close call in 2013, when it had to be scaled back to even take place, organizers have settled for a mix of sponsorships and fundraising through parties and other events.

“You just don’t cancel Christmas, and you don’t cancel Carnaval,” Hernández said.

That instability is, in a way, what links the current Carnaval to its Precita Park origins: in its search for volunteer efforts, it ends up involving everyone.

“Many people see the Mission as one entity, but Carnaval started as an organizing project that united a lot of people that were not necessarily united,” said Carole Deutch, who is now compiling records, testimonies and mementos for the upcoming SF Carnaval Archive.

“It’s not just an event for entertainment, and it shouldn’t be,” she added. “It is something that lives on because people are involved, committed and want to work together to create something fantastic.”

Photo: George Lipp.
Photo: George Lipp.
Photo: George Lipp.
Photo: Darryl Kelly.
Photo: Jayashima Nuggehalli.
Photo: Trinibwoy Rog.