‘I think it’s important that people in California and the Southwest, whether they are of Latino heritage or not, understand that they are part of Latin America, its history, its roots, how it develops and even the names of their cities,” says Alejandro Murguía in “Keeper of the Fire,” the new documentary about his life and art, co-directed by David L. Brown, Raymond Telles and Lou Dematteis.
“Identify is so crucial to Alejandro and to his work,” said photojournalist and filmmaker Dematteis, “You can’t separate them.”
The challenge for the team of filmmakers, including director of photography Vincente Franco was “how to present a film of ideas that connects with the visual language of the film,” said Dematteis. The result is a short poetic look at the words, themes and the arc of the life of its subject.
“Who am I…what’s my country…where do I belong,” says Murguía of the questions writers generally ask themselves. For Murguía, born to a mother from New Mexico and a father from Mexico, his call is answered as he comes of age as a poet in the Mission District of the early 1970s.
“This is where I live and function and recreate memory…I can’t go back to wherever…I’m from here,” he says. The Chicano movement was rising and the Mission was “the artistic center of the universe.”
Dematteis was also immersed in the Mission’s art and culture scene of the time. Raised in Redwood City in a family with Italian American roots in The City, he said, “I moved to the Mission for the first time in 1973.” He remembers when the district was still populated by Italian Americans, including his own great aunts.
“There were still remnants of its Italian American history. Ricci’s on 24th was producing some of their own Italian American goods. And Lucca Ravioli, that area had a big concentration of Italians and Italians Americans,” said Dematteis of the blocks around 23rd and Valencia. “And there was Dianda’s Bakery,” located in the Mission since 1962.
Though Demattais’ and Murguía’s paths crisscrossed, and they shared experience of time spent in Nicaragua — Murguía as a rebel fighter and Demattais as a photographer — they didn’t really become acquainted until later in life.
It was Brown who approached Dematteis in 2013 with the idea of making a film about Murguía, though at the time, Dematteis was knee deep in the production and distribution of the film noir “The Other Barrio.” Based on a story by Murguía, directed by Dante Matteo and set in a gentrifying Mission District, the movie is about how a trail of suspicious fires leads to civic corruption while the passions of the people refuse to let the spirit of their neighborhood die. Some of its themes would naturally intersect with “Keeper of the Fire.”
“I covered gentrification in North Beach in the ’70s and early ’80s,” said Dematteis, who for a time in the late ’70s lived in North Beach. Tracking the lives and the changing face of the Italian American community, he was also traveling frequently to Italy for photography assignments and showing work at the Museo Italo Americano when it was still in North Beach.
“Developers were trying to turn a residential space close to downtown filled with Italians into commercial space. Later it would happen in Chinatown and there were no laws at the time to stop it,” he said of the gentrification wars waged decades ago.
When I spoke to Murguía for this column in 2018, he had just written a play about Mexican American dancer Maclovia Ruiz, her roots in North Beach and its history as the Latin Quarter of The City.
“Hopefully, we’re able to spark memories, not only of North Beach and The Mission but of other neighborhoods going through rapid changes and to encourage people to find out about their neighborhoods and the people who contributed so much to The City,” said Murguía, who’s also chronicled the changes in poems like “16th and Valencia” and “Mission Vision.”
“Keeper of the Fire” draws further connections between the creative and political movements that have been historically based in North Beach and the Mission.
“It was just natural for the American Beat poetry tradition movement to ally with what was happening in the Mission District,” says Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the film. Other poets with local ties, like Roberto Vargas, Juan Felipe Herrera and Nina Serrano, are interviewed for “Keeper of the Fire,” as was Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal, with whom Murguía became acquainted with during his time fighting to overthrow the Samoza family dictatorship.
Murguía’s deep feeling it was “a time to act” for the people of Central America takes its cues from poets like Roque Dalton and Federico García Lorca: In 1978-79, he organized on behalf of the Sandinistas, then left with Vargas for the frontlines.
“There were lots of demonstrations here in support of the Sandinistas,” said Dematteis. “It’s where my focus was, so I moved back to the Mission. Even when I was living in North Beach, I was covering all the protests.” He was also in Nicaragua, covering the uprising.
“The conflict photos are mine from when I was there. We filmed a lot of it ourselves and we had the archival footage from David,” he said. Dematteis would return to Central America through the years to report on elections between other assignments for worldwide news bureaus Reuters and UPI. In 2016, Dematteis, Murguía and the film crew returned to Nicaragua for a poetry festival, then spent the next several years seeking finishing funds. A few days before San Francisco shut down for the pandemic last March, the film finished shooting on Market Street. It streams from June 3-20 as part of this year’s SF Docfest and live at the Roxie at 4:45 p.m. June 5.
“One thing we’re really proud of with the film is people are talking about the connection between poetry and social justice, social reform,” said Dematteis.
The unique ability to compress complex webs of information and send strong messages through imagery are often overlooked purposes shared by poetry, photojournalism and documentary filmmaking.
“Change and resistance,” said Dematteis. “They’re part of the deal.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” SF Lives Livestreams from Bird & Beckett Books on the second Sunday of each month at 10 a.m. Join the conversation June 13 with guest, artist Anna Lisa Escobedo. More at denisesullivan.com and @4DeniseSullivan.