By Richard Reineccius for the
New Mission News
Picture several hip people sitting around a kitchen table on 22nd Street in the Mission during the late ‘70's… cups of coffee and cigarettes in hand… noticing the days growing shorter…
discussing the history of rituals developed to in response to nature’s unfailing mysteries. Then imagine their growing sense of urgency.
"The more we talked, we came to realize that every year some group of people is chosen to call back the sun," mused mask-maker/costumer Pam Minor, as she recalled the scene that led to the first San Francisco Carnaval a few months later.
"And because we had spontaneously begun to concern ourselves with it, that year it was our responsibility. If we didn't do it, the sun that year might not come back!"
They got a permit to play music outdoors and do a sidewalk parade in the Dolores Park area, reciting poems, dancing, and using homemade instruments and costumes to draw crowds at several "stations of the sun" that had been pre-selected. One storyteller was dressed as a guerrilla. The policemen assigned to the event thought it was so much fun, they allowed the little parade to go around twice. More people joined in to tag along, and the sun came back.
At that first celebration, Minor met dancer Adela Chu who was busy training more than a hundred students in the Bay Area to dance the Samba and was intent on somehow holding a traditional Carnaval parade in San Francisco. Chu had already staged some small outdoor Carnaval-type festivals, including one at Aquatic Park in 1978.
Both groups discovered the similarities between what they were doing and talked about the spirit behind the Carnaval celebrations in other cities, from Rio and New Orleans to Harlem. They collaborated and chose to hold a Carnaval parade on the sidewalk circling Precita Park, during the winter season in early 1979.
A permit was granted after a lot of footwork by Minor, and some neighborhood chats by Verena Mostyn and friends. Carol Deutsch-Wiley and Marcus Gordon, who were running the Precita Neighborhood Center, opened their doors to dancers and musicians. Gordon, a master Afro-Cuban drummer, put together one group of musicians himself, and others who heard about it came running to participate.
The group had decided that everybody in the parade, including all musicians, had to be costumed, so Minor designed a quick-sew outfit they could put together with no help, and the Neighborhood Arts Program's costume bank became ‘wardrobe central’ from that year on. Artist Nancy Hom designed the first of her many Carnaval posters, Sir Lawrence became a self-appointed marshal of the procession, and Lou Dematteis documented the event.
"That first Carnaval," Adela Chu was to comment later, "had triple rainbows surrounding it!" As they circled Precita Park three times, the crowd swelled to well over a thousand and traffic was stopped short.
From the feeling that such an event could work magic in the Mission every year, a planning committee quickly formed to make it bigger. But, while the Precita neighbors wanted it back, the Parks and Recreation Department said the small park couldn't handle a larger crowd. So in 1980, a longer parade down Mission Street led to a full day of music and dance in Dolores Park, drawing many thousands.
Marcus Gordon remembers with a smile: "The permit people gave us only the north-bound lanes of Mission Street, not believing we'd really draw a crowd. But all the cars stopped to watch the parade, so the traffic was a mess." The SFPD had assigned only two cops to the event, so the low riders spontaneously took over traffic and crowd control - and handled it with perfection, according to both Gordon and Minor.
The increasingly popular celebration proved too much even for Dolores Park and the Park and Rec people determined once was enough. "We'd hoped for 5,000 people, and 15,000 showed up," said Gordon. The following year, the parade was moved to a June date and followed Mission Street to the Civic Center, where for the next three years, Carnaval San Francisco brought 50 to 75 thousand people to the City.
Burnout and permit conflicts left the City with no Carnaval in 1984, before the present sponsor, the Mission Economic Cultural Association (MECA), took it over. After one more year of centering the stages in front of City Hall, and two years on 24th Street, they were moved to the present site along Harrison Street from 16th to 22nd. Crowds have ranged from a quarter to half a million since 1987. Carnaval, ever bigger and more colorful, now dances its way through the heart of the Mission – up 24th and down Mission Street.
To Gordon, the one originator still working on Carnaval (and artistic director of MECA for several years), the future is even brighter. He proudly points to the fact that there are now scores of samba schools participating. "But we also bring in other cultures," he says, "and we want more. Anybody who can come up with things that are colorful and big, we want them in the parade."
Editor's Note: Since 2001 the
Carnaval San Francisco Parade and Festival has been produced by
Mission Neighborhood Centers Inc.[MNC] who had previously
licensed MECA since 1985 to produce the parade on their behalf.
Carnaval.com has been on-line since the 1996 Carnaval San Francisco
season and has showcased our at one time unique multicultural
Carnaval to millions in our increasingly smaller world as a way to
put words into action for those who see San Francisco as the capital
of a necessary global mind shift.
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