“We’re entering a restricted area,” said muralist Marco Razo as we passed through the doors leading to the art studio and offices of San Francisco Wraparound Project.
Standing before the mixed-media fresco he was commissioned to create, Razo points to the image of an archetypal tree of life, its branches supporting a community and its people, but connected by a familiar looking red bridge. The whole scene is presided over by a gently smiling, flying woman.
“I consulted with doctors and case managers to find the subject matter for the mural,” he said. Wraparound’s client base, men and boys aged 10 to 30 are victims of violent trauma and have a tendency toward re-injury. “The image represents the need to break the cycle.”
Born into a movie-making family, trained as an architect, educated in art history and employed as a draftsman and teacher in New York, Atlanta, Puerto Rico and Florida, Mexico City-born Razo has found himself a new home in San Francisco, attracted not only to his volunteer work with Wraparound but to the Mission District itself.
“Basically, it’s the people. Maybe it’s a lady walking, or a man doing something in his garage,” he smiled. ”It will remind me of something in Mexico.”
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The Center For Global Surgical Studies and the Wraparound Project, the violence prevention program based at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, is Razo’s base as a community volunteer.
“Marco came to us over two years ago and created an art program for the clients,” explained Wraparound director, Dr. Catherine Juillard. “For several of them, working with Marco has been a transformative experience.”
Founded by Dr. Rochelle Dicker in 2002, the Wraparound Project addresses the root causes of violence among The City’s most vulnerable young men and engages them in meaningful activity as a means to prevent future incidents and potential incarceration. Traumatic injury reimagined as an opportunity for change is the essence of the program’s mission.
The addition of Razo’s art teaching and his personality — Juillard describes him as “quiet and patient” — has helped the program’s participants deepen their recoveries. Overseen by a staff of culturally in-tune caseworkers, the clients may move from art therapy to educational and vocational training and mental health services. A formal study on the outcomes of the art program is in the works, but the general effects of artmaking and mentorship are already yielding the desired results.
“One of my clients has gone on to art college,” said Razo, who teaches elements of art basics as well as studio technique. Students assisted in the creation of a second mural about to be unveiled in the waiting area of the General Hospital; they’ve also shown and sold their own work at auction. Last fall, the student artists created altars for lost loved ones and displayed them during the Mission District’s annual Dia de los Muertos remembrance at Garfield Park.
“The street art movement was born in Mexico City. The Chicanos brought it to San Francisco and transformed it to reflect their own reality,” explained Razo during a walking history lesson as we crisscrossed the hospital grounds.
Bold in color for the eye, and heavy on symbolism and sociopolitical content for the mind, mural art is also a defining feature of the Mission. It was, of course, Mexican artist Diego Rivera who first brought his work here in the 1930s; his three murals remain on view today.
Artists of the early Chicano movement in the 1960s and early ’70s — drawing from the content and style of Rivera, José Orozco and David Siqueiros, among other inspirers — added imagery from pre-Columbian (Maya, Aztec, Inca) art to their own assertions of identity, style and topical concern. Razo carries those traditions with him, although his fresco technique — created with joint compound, combined with textural elements and high-quality pastel color — was an accidental discovery; it also contains an unusual ingredient.
“I mix the pastels with olive oil,” he said. “It works like oil paints but without the fumes.”
As an architect, Razo specialized in community oriented, self-constructed and alternative projects designed for low-income people before he left Mexico for New York in 1985. “I was looking for something similar to what I was doing in Mexico, and I couldn’t find anything like it,” he said. What he found in New York was his own yearning to discover and create art.
“New York had a very strong art scene at the time, and I felt the need to understand the frame for conceptual art,” Razo said. He enrolled in the master of fine arts program at the Pratt Institute. After 10 years of New York living, he relocated to Atlanta, worked as an architectural draftsman and pursued teaching, traveling wherever the work took him.
“Initially, I was planning to go back to Mexico and for some reason it didn’t work. I stayed in Atlanta, but when I came to San Francisco, I saw myself in this environment,” he said.
“There’s a strong Mexican community here and a strong international community, and I was looking for something like that. New York didn’t provide me with that. Either you belonged to one community or another.”
In Atlanta, there was just one Mexican restaurant available to him; here, he chooses among the many family-owned businesses that mark the blocks from 14th Street and South Van Ness Avenue to 24th and Potrero streets.
“When you’re an immigrant who left the country a long time ago, you become the foreign guy who kind of knows how things work, but your country has changed and it’s not just the country … my family sees me like a foreign guy, too,” he said. “You’re not fully accepted, and it makes you wonder, ‘Where’s my place?’”
Razo’s family worked in the film business in Mexico City, his father a lighting man and his mother in the studio’s restaurant.
“I grew up there, among people dressed as cowboys, astronauts, cast members and directors. My brothers, brothers-in law, almost all my family worked in film,” he said. “My first job in movies was before the director screams action, somebody needs to scream silence.” He moved up to gaffer and camera assistant.
”When I worked at the studio, I met a guy we called ‘El Okey’ and he started giving us formal training in the history of movies,” Razo said. He retains a love of Italian neorealism, French cinéma vérité and German expressionism, though the family business was not for him.
“I was the first in my family to go to college, so they didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “But I grew up in an art environment. In Mexico, you find murals everywhere — on the street, at the store, at the farmer’s market. Even if you don’t understand the academic ideas, the art is everywhere.”
Talking our way across the campus, we pass a temporary installation by the artists of Precita Eyes, the Mission’s mural-making progenitors and keepers of the tradition of swathing blank walls with color-soaked, socially relevant art. In the Mission, as in Mexico, the art is everywhere.
“San Francisco is a very special place. The beauty of the nature here is just amazing. I’ve been living in different places and, in cultural terms and in nature terms, this is the place,” he said. “Of course, it has a lot of problems, like gentrification, but any place you go, you’re going to face some contradictions.”
Given our own country in crisis, the current inhabitant of the White House and his stance on Mexico, immigrants and their families, Razo remains informed and philosophical.
“The politicians did very well in Mexico and other Latin American countries with twisting truth, and they used it to their own benefit. But even in the worst dictatorships, the Pinochet times, there was always a glimpse of hope,” he said. “A lot of American people are very aware of this, and there is always the possibility for hope.”
For information on upcoming mixed-media mural workshops with Razo, contact Alley Cat Books at (415) 824-1761 or email@example.com.
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.