By Alexis Terrazas
As Michelle Santana stood at the base of the sprawling mural at 24th and Osage streets, the one commemorating her iconic musical and Mission-rooted family, the memories of her late father, Jorge Santana, came flooding back.
“We did everything together,” reminisced Michelle, standing in the very same neighborhood that raised not only her father, Jorge, but his virtuoso brother Carlos as well. “And of course, we would look at all the beautiful murals. I mean, they’re breathtaking.”
It was in 2019 when Jorge — a Latin Rock legend in his own right — beamed with the excitement of a child on Christmas morning when he broke the news to his wife Donna and their children, Anthony and Michelle, that a Mission mural immortalizing him and his family was in the works. But he would never live to see it. On May 14, 2020, Jorge died of natural causes. He was 68.
“I’m moved. I’m emotional. When I look at the mural, I feel a sense of peace and love, and I’m just beyond grateful,” said Michelle. “Even in this moment, I feel him. I feel my dad. And the feeling I get is joy.”
The Santana family, along with dozens of community members, musicians and politicos that included Mayor London Breed and community organizer Roberto Hernandez, gathered at the 24th and Mission Street BART Plaza on Oct. 29 for the blessing and unveiling of the 60-foot mural stretched across Osage Street. The mural, painted by San Francisco artists Crayone and cartoonist Mark Bode, incorporates sketch designs provided by Randolph Bowes and Jorge Santana.
Supervised by Lisa Brewer of the Mission Art 415 gallery, Dr. Annie Rodriguez and Latin Rock historian Dr. Bernardo Gonzalez, the mural depicts Carlos Santana, eyes closed and head tilted toward the heavens, jamming on his guitar. Next to Carlos is his late baby brother Jorge, lovingly called “Memo” by those who knew him best. To Jorge’s right are his parents, Josefina and Jose, and finally, Carlos’ son Salvador playing the keyboard. The words, “La Familia Santana,” are emblazoned at the very top.
“If Don Jose, my grandfather, didn’t come up here and settle down with his family … who knows what would have happened,” said Salvador. “We were meant to be here, right here in this beautiful part of the world.”
But despite all of the planning and organizing, the mural could not have been possible without Josefina and Jose. The couple that migrated from Jalisco, Mexico, to San Francisco’s Mission District in the 60s unknowingly set in motion the proverbial wheels that would forever alter music history, their sons blazing the path for a music genre that had never been heard before.
“Without my mother, this would not have happened,” said Carlos.
It was Josefina who in 1962 convinced her then 15-year-old son to leave his cozy nightclub gig in Tijuana, one where he would play music for an hour, all the while watching prostitutes undress. “Being a kid, I was like, ‘Man, this is great,’” Carlos recalled.
But in the end, Josefina prevailed. Carlos attended James Lick Middle School before graduating from Mission High. It was around that time when a young Carlos Santana, while picnicking at a park in San Jose, heard the sounds of Mariachi, Afro Cuban rhythms and rock music, all coming from different directions.
“I said, ‘Oh shit. This is what I want to do, all of it at the same time,’” Carlos told El Tecolote.
Mariachi — the Mexican genre that originated in Jalisco but which can trace its roots to German Polka and French Waltz — was something Carlos knew well. His father Jose played in a Mariachi band, distributing his hand-signed business cards to businesses in the Mission who yearned for live music. Combining Mariachi with rock, the Indigenous sounds of the Americas and rhythms of Africa would soon propel him and his bandmates to superstardom.
But no matter how many awards, countless hits and international acclaim, Carlos gives all the credit to Josefina.
“Without my mother, my dad would have not made progress. None of us would have made progress because, like a real shepherd, she was intense with her discipline, but none of us were lost, because she knew how to instill in us a deep sense of self-worth,” Carlos told El Tecolote. “I owe my mother my sanity. I owe my mother my resilience.”
That resilience was also passed down to Carlos’ younger brother, Jorge. A Latin Rock legend himself, Jorge was the lead guitarist for the highly popular band, Malo. Pastor Martin Cantu, Malo’s former lead singer, and Leo Rosales, Malo’s former drummer, and Dr. Bernardo Gonzalez, who managed Malo for 25 years, all paid their respects, trading stories of the dedicated father and musician that was their friend.
And even now in death, Carlos can feel him.
“I believe Memo right now, he’s here. And he’s very very happy, he’s very grateful,” said Carlos. “And he’s deeply aware that we’re only a breath away. I can touch him with my thoughts and he can touch me with his thoughts. So I don’t need AT&T to talk to him no more.”
This article originally appeared in El Tecolote, San Francisco’s Spanish-English bilingual newspaper serving the Mission District since 1970.