The Heart of the Mission: Latino Art and Politics in San Francisco

The Heart of the Mission: Latino Art and Politics in San Francisco

The Heart of the Mission: Latino Art and Politics in San Francisco

The Heart of the Mission: Latino Art and Politics in San Francisco


In The Heart of the Mission, Cary Cordova combines urban, political, and art history to examine how the Mission District, a longtime bohemian enclave in San Francisco, has served as an important place for an influential and largely ignored Latino arts movement from the 1960s to the present. Well before the anointment of the "Mission School" by art-world arbiters at the dawn of the twenty-first century, Latino artists, writers, poets, playwrights, performers, and filmmakers made the Mission their home and their muse.

The Mission, home to Chileans, Cubans, Guatemalans, Mexican Americans, Nicaraguans, Puerto Ricans, and Salvadorans never represented a single Latino identity. In tracing the experiences of a diverse group of Latino artists from the 1940s to the turn of the century, Cordova connects wide-ranging aesthetics to a variety of social movements and activist interventions. The book begins with the history of the Latin Quarter in the 1940s and the subsequent cultivation of the Beat counterculture in the 1950s, demonstrating how these decades laid the groundwork for the artistic and political renaissance that followed. Using oral histories, visual culture, and archival research, she analyzes the Latin jazz scene of the 1940s, Latino involvement in the avant-garde of the 1950s, the Chicano movement and Third World movements of the 1960s, the community mural movement of the 1970s, the transnational liberation movements in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and the AIDS activism of the 1980s. Through these different historical frames, Cordova links the creation of Latino art with a flowering of Latino politics.


In 2002, a San Francisco Bay Guardian reporter coined the term “Mission School” to describe an innovative and lively arts movement in the city. Almost immediately, the term filtered into elite art institutions. the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Biennial, the Commonwealth Club, and a host of galleries and artists used the term to describe a vibrant arts scene in San Francisco’s Mission District. Questions and commentary abounded: Who were these artists? What aesthetics did they share? How were they related intellectually? the newspaper and journal articles, the panel discussions, and even a documentary film sought to classify this diverse group of artists.

The Mission School identified a talented, hip, multiethnic group of artists who came of age in the 1990s, including Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Chris Johanson, Aaron Noble, Rigo 23 (Ricardo Gouveia), and Isis Rodríguez. Some of these artists participated in the 1994 Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP), a spirited effort to revive a disreputable alley through murals, which then became the Mission School’s launching pad (Figs. 0.1, 0.2, and 0.3). Aesthetically, they found inspiration in folk and outsider art, graffiti and street art, cartoon art, music raves, and hip-hop. Thematically, several of the artists were critical of unfettered capitalism. As a whole, they represented a new local aesthetic to place San Francisco in the international vanguard.

While enthusiasm for the Mission School grew, few commentators discussed the complexity of its roots in the Mission, a neighborhood that Latino artists had made their base since the late 1960s. the inspirational environs featured Latino arts organizations, including Galería de la Raza, the Mission Cultural Center, Precita Eyes, Brava Theater, and many more (Fig. 0.4). camp obviously drew inspiration from the neighborhood’s famous Balmy Alley murals and even incorporated the work of local Latino artists, such as Jesús “Chuy” Campusano (Fig. 0.2) and Isis Rodríguez (Fig. 0.3). However, contemporary art critics showed little acknowledgment of the neighborhood’s historic mural movement or its longstanding tradition of Latino arts.

If anything, critics and writers sought to differentiate this “generation” of artists more emphatically. Rebecca Solnit described the avant-garde camp as “a mural project whose styles are entirely different from the Mission’s dominant . . .

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