A Heartfelt Letter to Rene Yanez
& the SF arts community.
by Guillermo Gómez-Peña.
San Francisco, September 2013.
(A community action to benefit Mission artists Rene Yanez & Yolanda Lopez, with the participation of Culture Clash, Doctor Loco, Alejandro Murguia, Marga Gómez, Cherie Moraga, Enrique Chagoya and many other artists. Performances & art auction will take place @ Brava Theater on October 26 at 7:30 pm.)
I don’t even know how to begin this letter…we are outraged! All of us, artists, writers and activists in San Francisco are outraged that you Padrino, your beloved Cynthia, our dear Yolanda Lopez and Rio Yanez, the whole Yanez-Wallis-Lopez clan, puro Chicano royalty, are being evicted! After 35 years in your home, and just when you and your loved ones have become ill and vulnerable, the base from which you’ve supported a lifetime of making art and promoting the art careers of so many others is being cruelly pulled out from under you. You are being physically and culturally evicted, along with so many others in San Francisco. It’s an outrage, it’s tragic, and sadly it’s all too common in this merciless city that seems to care nothing for those who’ve helped to make it what it once wanted to be.
“San Francisco values,” remember those? This was the place where anyone could come to live out their alternative dreams, where artists and visionaries filled the cafes, a sanctuary city where outsiders and subversives could find refuge. This was a city where subversion, creativity and irreverence were not only “tolerated” but celebrated, where the politics were far to the left of everyplace else in the US, and where the downtown people had their downtown lives and the rest of us didn’t pay much attention to them.
But this is the new San Francisco, a city that’s been sold to the seven most powerful internet corporations, and now you’ve become collateral damage, just some nuisance to be pushed out of the way by yet another greedy landlord marching along to the triumphant fanfares of the not-so-virtual takeover of our city.
None of us are safe — unless we own our homes and studios. As renters our hours here are numbered. But even though the rest of us are hanging by a thread too, we are here for you, and by extension, for everyone who’s being uprooted and thrown out in this way.
Rene, you are my artistic godfather and needless to say, you are an icon; the artistic Capo of the Bay Area Chicano movement. Not only were you one of the founders of Galeria de la Raza, but you were the curator who jumpstarted the multi-cultural, multi-themed Dia de Los Muertos parade and exhibit, one of the cultural fixtures of this city. All these years later, it’s become an international celebration, and it was you who lit that flame.
You were the one who introduced Frida Kahlo’s work to the city with an exhibit at Galeria de la Raza back in 1978. Years later you followed up on that with your infamous “Frida Kahlo Look-Alike Contest.” So padrino, it seems we have you to thank for Fridamania, a trend we are still recovering from.
You brought the famous Mexican photographers Pedro Meyer (1982), Manuel Alvarez Bravo (1978), and Graciela Iturbide (1989) to this city for the very first time in exhibits at the Galeria; three times you featured Mexico’s most influential conceptual artist, Felipe Ehrenberg. And let’s face it, you also invited me, and other members of my generation to this place.
In 1984, you curated my then newborn Border Arts Workshop for an exhibit at Galeria the very same week that Culture Clash was getting jumpstarted as well…also by you. I remember very well the Galeria mural with both of our names signed on it. It’s now an archival photo. Like so many other photos documenting your life and work devoted to this city of oblivion, it’s part of an archive that Stanford is proudly acquiring, but clearly your landlord doesn’t care about these matters.
You were different from other people in your generation. You were never afraid of doing the unpopular thing: You were an intercultural diplomat when everyone else was a nationalist; you were open to the queer when all the other men were either in the closet or militant heteros; you were also open to our black, Asian and Anglo brothers and sisters; you created connections with Mexico and Latin America. You are one of the main reasons why many of us Latino rebel artists came here in the first place and decided to stay, thrived and came of age in this wonderful and dramatic city of contradictions
We remember…how can we possibly forget?
Through the years, I’ve done so many projects with you: Not only did you ask me to be the Grand Marshal of a few Day of the Dead parades, but you also conspired with me to create my infamous “Cruci/fiction” performance at the Marin Headlands Center, and my “Mexterminator” project at SOMArts. Together we created art fashion shows, performance salons & workshops, performance karaoke photo shoots and unorthodox bohemian rampages during the exciting nights when San Francisco was a city of compassion, tolerance, weirdness, diversity, sexual & artistic deviance.
We remember. We all remember…and we continue to live this life here, against all odds now.
It seems that we no longer have a citizenry but rather, a virtual mob. I see them everyday, the hordes of iPad and iPhone texting zombies, oblivious to us and our lives, our inspirations and tribulations. I see them in my building and on the street, invading the city with an attitude of unchecked entitlement, taking over every square inch and squeezing out the last drops of otherness. I see them outside my studio on 24th and Bryant wondering “How much does the weird native guy pay for rent?”; getting ready to make their outrageous bid to our landlord. A 300% increase? No problem. City Hall has their back!
Our city has become a bohemian theme park for consumer fools with the latest gadgets in hand, but what happens when there are no more bohemians left? In the meantime we are all sadly witnessing, day by day, how funky, decades-old Mexican restaurants and immigrant bars full of memories and ghosts get replaced overnight by upscale eateries and theme bars for twenty-somethings; the old billiard halls, specialty stores, beauty parlors and carnicerias become “smart cafes” and “gourmet bakeries” for a new clientele who might as well live in Dallas or San Diego. Thousands of artists have moved to Oakland or further away, sometimes back to their hometowns. I myself have lost at least 30 performance art colleagues in the last 5 years. I cannot stand the thought of losing you as well.
It’s like you once told me, “This city loves to preserve its murals and to evict its muralists.” After all, it’s not only the “criminals,” the homeless and the gangbangers who are being removed from the streets to make them acceptable for the new dot.com cadre. Along with them go the poets, the performance artists, the experimental musicians, the transvestites, the sex workers, the Latino families, the low-riders, the urban primitives, the punks and post-feminist radicals, and the very activists who used to protect us from the greedy landlords and politicians, only to be replaced by people who either look like art students and supermodels (but definitely aren’t) or like they were just dropped by a UFO straight out of an LA or a Houston suburb, complete with their state-of-the-art gym gear, designer dogs and customized baby strollers. It never ends. And soon, they will wake up to an ocean of sameness. What will San Francisco have to offer them then? Absolutamente nada!
But don’t you worry Padrino, all the “creative cities” that have managed to successfully destroy and/or evict their working class have ultimately been condemned to doom. Urban philosophers have written about it with eloquence. It happened to Barcelona and Dublin, and more recently to Berlin and Rio. No city can survive the destruction of its working class! It’s a historical fact. And in a few years it will happen to SF 3.0. The mayor probably knows this already (I hope he has read about it at least,) and doesn’t really care because the collapse will be on the hands of the next administration.
For the moment, we have a mission: Together, we all have the connections and spiritual strength to build a resistance. There is no way we can allow you and your family to be removed from your home and thrown at the mercy of the marketplace. For all of the years you have devoted to the cultural well-being of this city, you deserve not just recognition, but a permanent, secure and affordable place to live and to continue doing your work. We all know you still have much more to contribute.
Shame on this city! Shame on the greedy landlords and politicians! Your sadness is ours. If you are forced to leave, many of us will want to follow suit. A city without Rene Yañez, Cynthia Wallis and Yolanda Lopez, can’t be called San Francisco. And who will be next? Lawrence Ferlinghetti? Ester Hernandez? Lourdes Portillo? Jello Biafra? Jack Hirschman? Sara Shelton-Man? John O’Keefe? Annie Sprinkle? Alejandro Murguía, our poet laureate?
With all my love and admiration
From the eternal road.