Fátima Ramirez was attending a talk at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in 2012 when she says “a lightbulb went off.”
The then-editor of University of San Francisco’s Foghorn was at the center to hear Carlos Consalvi, a museum director from El Salvador. Consalvi told the crowd that when he visits San Francisco, Salvadoran expats want to give him objects — intricate textiles, colorful paintings, rare pottery — to take back to his museum, in order to retain the country’s historical memory and culture.
“I thought, ‘Why should we send the objects back to El Salvador when clearly there is a large Salvadoran community here who is interested in seeing themselves represented?’” remembers Ramirez, who was recently appointed head of the storied San Francisco institution Acción Latina, which publishes El Tecolote, California’s longest running Spanish-English newspaper.“That got me thinking about how to use my journalism training to explore multicultural and intergenerational storytelling.”
Ramirez is doing just. This weekend, Acción Latina will present PASEO ARTÍSTICO: History Matters in the Mission. The free community arts and theater event directed by poet and playwright Paul S. Flores — and co-presented by some of the neighborhood’s revered cultural institutions — is not just pan-Latino and cross-generational, it is also low and high tech.
Ramirez is 31 but comes across as older, perhaps because she understood her interests early and took little for granted. In the 1980s, her parents fled the civil war in El Salvador. Her mother was granted asylum with help from a Mission District nonprofit, which made San Francisco easier to embrace as a second home. Ramirez was born in Las Vegas, and when she was 9 she moved with her family to San Francisco’s Excelsior neighborhood.
Ramirez describes herself as the kind of teenager who asked too many questions and strove to make connections between the El Salvadoran and American sides of her upbringing. She attended Immaculate Conception Academy in the Mission and then University of San Francisco, eventually earning a master’s degree at Columbia University’s Teachers College in Manhattan, where she focused on how families’ collective memories of civil war pass down through generations and across borders.
Ramirez is the youngest female executive director of Acción Latina. She follows in an illustrious line of Mission leaders, specifically Juan Gonzales, the organization’s founder, and his wife, Ana Montes, former El Tecolote editor, contributor and statewide organizer.
Gonzales is probably best known for teaching the first college-level course on journalistic representations of Latinos at San Francisco State University. Out of that 1970 class came El Tecolote (the Owl), which was founded — and whose mission remains — to reflect the voices and concerns of Latinos in the Mission. Gonzales was central to a movement of students and professors at San Francisco State University who fought for ethnic studies, establishing the first College of Ethnic Studies in 1969. This paved the way for Assembly Bill 101, a law Gov. Gavin Newsom signed this month that adds one semester of ethnic studies to California’s high school graduation requirements. (San Francisco already has such a requirement.)
When asked about critics of ethnic studies who argue that its teaching will further polarize the nation, Ramirez remains characteristically poised. “I think they are wrong,” she says. “We need to have more honest conversations about the different groups that make up this country. And I don’t think the term ethnic studies captures the histories that need to be taught. They should be called American histories.”
Acción Latina has two full-time staffers — Ramirez and Alexis Terrazas, the editor in chief of El Tecolote — and 10 contractors, who run the newspaper and nonprofit’s website, translate the articles and distribute the 5,000 copies that are printed twice a month. The paper is still largely written by student journalists, some of whom have gone on to NBC, National Geographic and other large media organizations.
Thanks in part to Ramirez’s fundraising skills, the organization is in a growth mode. It receives support from the San Francisco Arts Commission, Grants for the Arts, Hewlett Foundation and others — and is $7,000 away from a $50,000 crowdfunding effort. The nonprofit was incorporated in 1987, and in 2000 it purchased a building at 2958 24th St. in the area now designated as the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District.
Ramirez spent her childhood wandering those streets and, like many, is wistful about the changes. She and her husband have a 3-year-old and would love to buy or even rent in the Mission, but prices are out of reach.
“I grew up meeting members of my local youth group at St. Peters at La Victoria bakery on 24th Street and Alabama,” recalls Ramirez. “It’s how I met Laura, the current owner of La Victoria SF now on 24th Street and Capp. The original La Victoria bakery remains boarded up but the new location is thriving right in front of the COVID vaccination and testing site. This rebirth and resilience despite gentrification is what reflects my Mission community.”
Acción Latina is not only the publisher of El Tecolote. It supports an arts program that has produced since 1982 Encuentro del Canto Popular, a festival of social justice-oriented Latin American music. In 2015, the nonprofit opened the Juan R. Fuentes Gallery, to showcase visual art created by established and emerging Latino/a artists. The gallery is named after local Chicano art teacher and poster and printmaker Juan Fuentes, who attended SFSU with Gonzales.
Indeed, the people who have built up Acción Latina over the past decades form a kind of who’s who of Latino San Francisco educators, activists, journalists and artists. Ramirez and her colleagues are busily archiving their contributions. Ramirez says about 10,000 items on a Google Drive must be digitized for the historical record. Particularly impressive are El Tecolote’s poster and art collection and photo archives — as well as its 51 years of journalism. “We want people to access all of this online,” says Ramirez. “It must be funded and done.”
Ramirez knows well that the Latino community in San Francisco is not a monolith. Salvadorans are different from Guatemalans, Brazilians are different from Mexicans. That’s why Acción Latina takes a melting pot approach to its offerings, using The City and particularly the Mission as its unifying ingredient.
This Saturday’s event, PASEO ARTÍSTICO: History Matters in the Mission, features artistic contributions from Precita Eyes, Brava Theater, Community Music Center, Dance Mission, Adobe Books and Mission Cultural Center. The program kicks off at 24th and Mission streets at noon as a traveling history of the neighborhood. Spectators can watch 5-10 minute “docutheater” performances from El Tecolote’s archive of legendary artists and activists. Augmented reality featuring videos, artwork and archival photos from the newspaper will be available for viewing via smartphone at select locations along the paseo/route.
“The Mission really became a Latino neighborhood in the late 1960s. It was around then that these legendary local artists I interviewed found themselves in the Mission during the strike for Ethnic Studies at SF State and the Black Panthers movement,” explains Flores in a press release. “From 1970-1977, the Mission exploded with Latino culture, including the mural movement, Los Siete de La Raza, the founding of Galeria de La Raza, El Tecolote newspaper, establishment of Carnaval and Dia de Los Muertos events. So much of what people recognize about the Mission District, including our burritos and Santana’s Latin rock music, really takes off then.”
Ramirez says that older Latinos in San Francisco know this history, but many young people don’t. “That’s why I want to make it accessible through events that meet people out on the street, that offer storytelling through AR and mobile,” she says. “I want to make sure that Acción Latina remains not just multicultural, but intergenerational.”
IF YOU GO
PASEO ARTÍSTICO: History Matters in the Mission
When: Noon to 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Calle 24 Latino Cultural District
Must wear masks/Mascarias requeridas
Noon: Precita Eyes History of Balmy Alley Mural Tour
1 p.m. Brava Theater, 2781 24th St. — History Matters in the Mission Band and dancers; special guest performer (inside Brava cabaret): Vero Majano “Remember Los Siete”
2 p.m. Acción Latina, 2958 24th St. — Paul S. Flores with Vanessa Sanchez , AR by Shamsher Virk
3 p.m. Harrison & 24th streets (continues to Balmy Alley) — Vanessa Sanchez; Jessica Recinos and Diana Aburto Ibarra, Batuci and band; Giant Puppet by Jonathan Youtt; AR by Shamsher Virk
3:30 p.m. Adobe Books, 3130 24th St. — Community Music Center Mission District Young Musicians Program
4 p.m. House of Brakes, 3195 24th St. Paul S. Flores with Vanessa Sanchez, Jessica Recinos and Diana Aburto Ibarra Band
4:30 p.m. Dance Mission, 3316 24th St. — Dance Brigade (inside), the Bay Area’s original feminist, political dance theater company directed by Krissy Keefer
5 p.m. 24th St. BART Station, East side — Paul S. Flores Pedro Gomez, Jason Moen, Chris Carter, Baba Daru Vanessa Sanchez, Jessica Recinos and Diana Aburto Ibarra; Cranky painting and moving illustrations by Josue Rojas; AR by Shamsher Virk
5:30 p.m. Mission Cultural Center, 2868 Mission St. — Mission Grafica exposition