You don’t cancel Christmas, and you don’t cancel Carnaval. But The City plans to find out why the Mission district’s biggest and most important cultural event found itself in such dire fiscal straits that the May festival was nearly canceled.
Celebrated the Sunday before Memorial Day, the event features dancers, musicians and cultural elements from all Latin American traditions — making it a uniquely unifying parade and street fair that’s the biggest of its kind on the West Coast.
But fiscal problems at San Francisco Cultural Arts Traditions, the nonprofit responsible for organizing and putting on the event for the past three years, left it unable to produce this year’s 35th annual Carnaval.
Two weeks ago, Roberto Hernandez, the event’s former cultural director, was told by SFCAT organizers that the group was bankrupt — Carnaval would have to be canceled.
“I said, ‘No way; you don’t cancel Christmas, and you don’t cancel Carnaval,’” said Hernandez, who has spent the time since “burning the candles and working around the clock” to make sure Carnaval — in some form — happens.
Last year’s event cost $900,000 to put on. This year’s will be scaled down to $300,000, which means no stages for the colorfully plumed dancers and musicians and a heavy reliance on volunteers.
Instead, Hernandez said, there will be tents on street corners, “one for the Cubans, one for the Brazilians, one for the Puerto Ricans, and so on.”
“With 71 days, we just don’t have the time to fundraise,” Hernandez said, who is searching for last-minute corporate sponsors.
Putting on any large event that requires street closures is no small production. Carnaval’s permitting costs have risen from several hundred dollars in the 1980s to $28,000 in permits and another $33,000 in insurance now.
“Everything has gone up; what else can you say?” said Jennie Emire Rodriguez of the Mission Cultural Center, one of the nonprofits on the hastily assembled ad-hoc committee working to put together this year’s event while a successor organization can be found.
SFCAT is said to be roughly $170,000 in debt, a figure floated at a community meeting held at the Brava Theater Center on Tuesday.
Members of SFCAT could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Other San Francisco street fairs, such as SF Pride, also have come under scrutiny in recent years for fiscal problems.
In coming weeks, the City Controller’s Office will audit SFCAT’s books to find out what went wrong, said Supervisor David Campos. Malfeasance or corruption is not currently suspected.
Carnaval relies on some public funding to cover its costs. The $70,700 annual grant from Grants for the Arts is the largest public contribution to any San Francisco cultural event, according to the organization.
“At the end of the day, I don’t think the $170,000 deficit is there because of city fees,” Campos said.