By Julie Zigoris
“Here I am with this big-ass puppet,” said producer, playwright, and poet Paul Flores, as his cast and crew rehearsed in front of the Brava Theater along the 24th Street corridor.
Flores’ latest work “History Matters in the Mission” debuted in the namesake neighborhood on Saturday, Oct. 23. The event highlighted five local activists with a dramatic spectacle of song, dance and word, including City College’s own Juan Gonzales.
The performances showcased stories from the Mission in the 1970s, when the first wave of gentrification swept through the neighborhood. “The establishment of BART in 1973 forced development and disrupted the neighborhood,” Flores said. “What were once mom-and-pop stores became McDonald’s, Walgreens, and Popeyes.”
Further down 24th Street in front of the Acción Latina building, Flores played Gonzales in a short piece about El Tecolote newspaper. A five-piece band on a flatbed truck warmed up the crowd of about 40 as simple props were assembled: a square platform stage for a dancer, a small black table with a red telephone and a 1970s facsimile of El Tecolote newspaper.
Flores wore Gonzales’ original tan trench coat in his performance as he answered the phone to address topics ranging from Fidel Castro to the need for bilingual healthcare workers at San Francisco General Hospital. The lack of Spanish speakers in the hospital led to a young woman losing her baby, an episode highlighted in the piece with great emotion.
“What if this was us?” Flores asked in the performance, referring to Gonzales and his partner Anna.
“History Matters in the Mission” was inspired by the feminist artist Yolanda López known for her superhero images of the Virgin Guadalupe. “Then she passed, and that was real hard for us,” Flores said, big tears gathering in his eyes. “I want people to understand why the neighborhood we love and enjoy is like this,” Flores continued.
López had encouraged Flores to embrace radical theater techniques — like giant puppets and a “cranky” (a moving painted illustration) — for his latest project. While she imagined a work about homelessness, Flores decided to go more in the direction of the awakening of ethnic identity post-1969.
“In the 1970s, the neighborhood began educating itself,” Flores said. “Chilenos were learning about Día de los Muertos from the Chicanas. Mexicans were learning about Carnaval.”
At the same time, the Mission also served as an artistic and literary crucible, according to Flores. The mural movement that began in 1968 flourished and El Tecolote newspaper was founded by Gonzales in 1970, the same year that Carlos Barón underscored the AIDS crisis with his procession of coffins in the Día de los Muertos celebration.
“I was real pleased and a bit surprised,” said Gonzales on learning he was one of the figures to be honored in Flores’ piece. “It never dawns on you how people will recognize your efforts.”
The El Tecolote founder and City College Journalism Department Chair said he had a “deep-hearted feeling of gratitude” and the piece was important because it brings further identity to the neighborhood while also giving a glimpse into its history. “People will be better for it,” he said.
Bilingual newspaper El Tecolote, the longest running in California, began at a time when there were a lot of issues prevalent in the neighborhood, according to Gonzales. It brought attention to concerns like the need for bilingual health care, telephone services, and demanding jobs. It also spotlighted popular culture in the neighborhood.
“The paper was not only an informational tool, but also an inspirational one,” Gonzales said. It brought greater identity to the neighborhood and Latino community while also serving as a training ground for future journalists. Gonzales also acknowledged the “army of volunteers” that made the paper possible.
The other foundational Mission artists highlighted in the performance include: Michael Rios, founder of the modern mural movement; Yolanda López, the artist known for her superhero Virgin Guadalupe paintings; San Francisco State University theater teacher Carlos Barón; and playwright Joan Holden of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Flores has been working on the piece since 2019, when he decided he wanted to create something in honor of El Tecolote’s 50th anniversary.
The outdoor parklet at Adobe Books, another performance site for “History Matters in the Mission,” likes to host “guerilla-style performances,” according to Heather Holt, one of the bookstore cooperative’s members who specializes in operations. The Community Music School performed in the parklet with 29 youth musicians as part of Flores’ production.
“This is the first live event since the pandemic, and Precita Eyes is having their first Balmy mural tour since the pandemic,” Holt said. “It’s uplifting for people to come out and celebrate live music and performance. Having an in-person event feels very meaningful,” she continued.
“Transitioning from isolation to being in public is so important right now,” Holt said. “All the participants are really enthusiastic, and it’s an honor to participate.”
Flores has been working on this type of musical-oriented theater for the last six years, producing documentary-style performances that dramatize real events. Past subjects for his work have included the police killing of Alex Nieto — performed on City College’s campus — prison re-entry, and Afro-Cuban immigrant artists.