Mission District born and raised Rodrigo Duran is like a beacon in a city that has had its reputation for welcoming diverse communities considerably dimmed. His love of people and of language and his commitment to cultural expression has carried him from Chinatown to Rio de Janeiro and home again to the Latino Cultural District where he lives and works.
“There’s a term, root shock,” said Duran, referring to the book, “Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, And What We Can Do About It,” by Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove.
“If you pull a tree up, it’s not only the tree that’s impacted, the environment around the tree is impacted too,” he said. ”When you take away the people, the artists, the businesses, the venues, the institutions that have been here, it affects every aspect of the neighborhood.”
The City’s often-overlooked local treasure includes community-run festivals and celebrations like the upcoming Fiestas de las Américas, marking Mexican and Central American independence, and the annual Carnaval, which Duran directs. The events are among those central to the neighborhood eco-system and Duran is fiercely dedicated to enhancing and sustaining them, not only for the Mission but for the whole city.
“When we have these occasions where the street is ours, it reinvigorates our souls. You can’t quantify that. You can’t write to a foundation and say, ‘This is how we’ve impacted the Latino community…we’ve reinvigorated their souls,’” said Duran, who stressed the importance of Pride, Juneteenth, Chinese New Year, and smaller festivals, like Pistahan.
“Five years ago Carnaval was going to disappear,” he said, a culmination of Levi’s leaving the area earlier in the decade and the displacement of sewing workers and volunteers. “We just didn’t have the people power.” And yet, Carnaval reigned.
“You’d be surprised how resilient our people are,” he said of those who drive in from three directions yearlong to prepare for such large-scale events.
“These celebrations reaffirm that our existence matters, that our language matters that our culture is worth celebrating. It’s important to create safe spaces especially in the time we’re living in politically. It’s imperative people take ownership for the places they live,” he said.
Duran is a first generation Mexican American. “My dad came from Mexico City in the ‘70s. My mom immigrated in the ‘80s. She worked at El Faro, where I personally believe the super-burrito was invented,” he smiled as he conjured Mission food lore. He’s seen an old photo of his mom seven months pregnant with him at Carnaval. “She’s waving to the crowd in traditional Aztec dance regalia.” His father was also an Aztec dancer who travelled from coast to coast, performing at pow wows and other happenings, encouraging the family’s four children to become involved in movement and martial arts. Duran chose to pursue Brazil’s capoeira along with salsa, samba, and traditional Aztec dance.
“It’s a lifestyle, a way of praying, to be a dancer in the Aztec community. It helped us learn who we were,” he said, noting it has health benefits too.“You dance for hours at these ceremonies.”
Duran carried his heritage “With orgullo. It means pride,” he said, during his primary education at Gordon J. Lau Elementary where he learned Chinese tradition and a few choice words in Cantonese. He made lifelong friendships among the mostly Latinx student body at Horace Mann (like his sweetheart, María Calero, a Mission-raised Nicaraguan American tech worker to whom he is engaged). Looking back, he recognizes the school was underserved.
“My mom ended up working in the kitchen, just to make sure the teachers were attentive. She saw the end goal, which was college,” he said.
At Lowell High, he experienced mutual respect among his largely first generation Asian American classmates. He picked up more Cantonese and was president of the Latino club.
“I didn’t feel pressure to assimilate, the pressure was academic,” he said as he readied for a major in marketing and a minor in Portugeuse at UC San Diego and a move to Brazil. Upon his return to the City for his masters in public administration at State, he started to see The City in new light.
“The way it’s laid out, the redlining that happened, the huge disparities in class… it’s culturally progressive but in many ways economically conservative,” he said. “The hippie, Black Power, Chicano and LGBT movements that brought people together here in the ‘60s and ‘70s carried over. Until now. We’re losing that essence of what makes San Francisco culturally diverse.”
He can count the people he grew up with who are still in the Mission on two hands.
“It’s criminal, what’s happening to the middle class, the poor class, people of color. It’s not a healthy city. Everywhere in San Francisco, they’re looking for cooks, looking for people to work in hotels,” he said. He likens the Mission to a ghost town.
“A lot of us feel like second class citizens in the Mission now. It’s like we don’t exist and it doesn’t exist for us,” said Duran. “We pass by and folks don’t acknowledge we’re here. Now that I’m in my 30s, looking to build some roots with my fiancé, I can’t see myself living here,” he said, even with the combined income of a couple.
“It’s peanuts,” he said. And yet he persists in bearing culture.
“I do it because my parents always said life is not linear and the dead are not dead and you can’t tell what the future is, but you can mold it for yourself and those who are going to come in generations after you,” he said. “I’m carrying the torch for my ancestors,” though sometimes it takes others to remind him of what’s so great about San Francisco.
“My Brazilian brother, I call him my brother, came to visit me a couple of weeks ago,” said Duran. “We went to different parks, different events, here and in Oakland and he noticed people from all walks of life coming together,” he said. “I take it for granted but with the type of economic and racial tensions in Brazil, he doesn’t have spaces where people interact—an Asian American break dancing by a Latino, then a black American came by and a white person hugged him. Through his lens, I realized I’m in a special place here. I’m very fortunate to be here. To be a San Franciscan.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.